The dignity of the Liturgy is
found in its simplicity
I was struck several years ago by the doyenne of the Katholic Krazies, an author by the name of Solange “Nellie” Hertz, writing about how the American Republic is fundamentally incompatible with our Catholic faith because of its roots in freemasonry and the incongruity of republicanism with authentic Catholicism which is essentially monarchist. Anyone who has ever known Mrs. Hertz knows that she is a whack-job of the first degree, a person who lives in a parallel universe where the reality coordinates are stuck in the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. But her conviction that republican government is fundamentally flawed has won its disciples. A few years ago Michael Voris on his “Church Militant TV” (then “Real Catholic TV) advocated the idea that we need to replace our constitution with a Catholic monarchy in which what suffrage there would be would be limited to practicing Catholics.
Now Voris is crazy, though not as crazy as Hertz, but there are others who pick up their cry. One of the Katholic Krazy blogs, Eponymous Flower (http://eponymousflower.blogspot.com) declares itself: “This is a polemical Catholic Royalist blog.” When I first came across Eponymous Flower I thought that it was perhaps British or Australian, but over the time I have perused it is is clearly an American blog. Why is an American a royalist? I mean I can see it if you are British, or even Australian or Canadian. But why would an American be “royalist?” I thought all the Tories moved to Nova Scotia in 1784.
Now in the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I am a sucker for Royal weddings and funerals. I love watching the Horse Guards go prancing down the Mall, the carriages rolling along, the trumpets, the resonant tones of the Archbishop of Canterbury intoning Cranmer’s sonorous phrases. (Glad I checked that word—originally I had “somnolent phrases.”) And nobody does band music like the Brits—solemn, stately; not the county fair sound of John Philip Sousa. But I realize that at the end of the day, it is all a charade. That old lady with the sparkly thing on her head has to waddle into the bathroom and sit herself down to do her business like the rest of us. God bless her, I hope she as an easier time of it than most people her age—or mine—in the mornings. But the Queen-thing isn’t real. It never really was real, but the dear old thing can’t send a dinner invitation out without consulting with her Prime Minister. It is all an illusion—the robes, the crown, “Rule Britannia” and “God Save the Queen;” the power lies elsewhere. It had its day but there is nothing left to it but the theatre. And the faith in God that Jesus has entrusted to us is real, is more real than anything in existence. And while good liturgy has elements of theatre, it has to be real and can’t be pretend.
When I see Bishop Dewane or Bishop Olmstead or Bishop Slattery getting all gussied up in their antique finery or see the “canons” of the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest hosting some prelate engulfed in fur and dragging nine yards of red silk behind him, I can’t help but think that unintentionally a mockery is being made of the most sacred thing in the world. The ultimate Reality is being reduced to farce, to grown men involved in some archaic ceremony that has lost its roots in an irrecoverable culture that once gave it its meaning. It exists now for itself, without reference to the Mystery of which it once spoke. What is left is artificial: a suspension of the world in which we live in favor of the imaginary world of some idealized past when kings sat on thrones and their subjects scraped and bowed without raising their eyes to look their Master in his face. That world is an escape from the complexities of the world in which we live: a world of ambiguities and struggles; a world where roles are changing; a world where people are suffering and dying from the effects of war and famine and disease; but also a world where there is hope for a very different social order where God’s children will be able to reach the dreams and destinies that their heavenly Father has hoped for them. This is the world where God is truly King: where Christians consecrate themselves to make certain that to the fullness of their abilities aided by Grace that each of God’s children can have the share of this world’s goods that our Father in heaven wants them to have. And we need a liturgy that celebrates that promise—the true Kingdom—rather than parody the ceremonials of some earthly court. It was fine in its day, but that day is over.
Such a liturgy manifests the diversity of gifts within the entire Body of Christ. It is not centered on the priest but the priest stands in the place of Christ at the heart of the community. Such a liturgy invites people to a “full, active, and conscious” participation in the liturgy because they are called to a full, active, and conscious participation in the proclamation of the Kingdom of God—again, that Kingdom in which each of God’s children will be given the fulfillment that his or her Heavenly Father has created them for.
I’m sorry, but the old rite is the glorification of the priest. O sure, apart from the sermon, he doesn’t get to do the insufferable monologue that some priests do at various points of the Mass but in the old rite the whole ritual is designed to focus on him as he whispers “the magic words” that only he can say and for which we depend on him to be our mediator and intercessor. He and he alone represents Christ, stripping the other members of the Body of their baptismal identity. He has his little tri-cornered hat with a pom-pom and his lace petticoat beneath the gorgeously brocaded gown and the spotlight never leaves him. Give me the naked Christ. Let me see Christ in the least of his sisters and brothers. Let me see him in the lonely, in the frightened, in the helpless and the hopeless. And let me see a priest who recognizes Christ not in the splendidly robed caricature of a man but in the least of the brothers and sisters.
I must say that I am spoiled as over the years I have generally been able to attend the conventual Mass of a monastic community where I have seen the Novus Ordo done in a magnificent simplicity. The church is severely plain with no distraction but great beauty in the arrangement of space and light with a great sense of proportion. The vesture is simple and masculine. The music, for the most part contemporary and in English or Spanish, is deeply throated and rich. There is no sense of fuss or hurry and while every rubric is followed, it is done so with an economy and a sense of grace. The liturgy is an experience that is both deeply contemplative and communal. And I am well aware that few parishes achieve this type of liturgical prayer—but it is within their reach. And it avoids the buffoonery of baroque revival in a world that has moved beyond royal courts of a vanished monarchial Europe.
Cardinal Dulles wrote that the first thousand years of the papacy were a time of evangelization; the second were a time of power; the third millennium will be a time of service. I think what he wrote pertains not to the papacy alone but to the entire Church. I think we are reawakening to the mission which Christ has entrusted to his Church. The triumphalism of monarchy does not speak to that mission, and we need a liturgy that does. We need to be a servant Church and we need a liturgy that reflects our mission to be servants, not masters. That is the Church I believe is the Church of Jesus Christ.