Friday, July 17, 2015

Reason 1 For Why the "New Mass" Is Superior to the Old Rite

Ok--off and running on our ten reasons to attend the Mass in the Ordinary Form (as differentiated from the Extraordinary Form, the "Traditional Latin Mass.")  Reason One:  

saints are formed by prayer that draws them into deep participation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

One of the curious elements in the history of our Catholic Church and the development of its varied traditions of spirituality—Ignatian, Carmelite, Salesian, Redemptorist, Montforian,—is the “great divorce” between mental prayer and liturgical prayer. The Benedictine/Cistercian spiritual tradition alone has preserved the rooting of one’s personal spiritual exercises in the corporate celebration of the Liturgy.   The Eucharist is, of course, central to all Catholic Spirituality—but it is a truncated appreciation of the Eucharist as the Reserved Sacrament/Holy Communion that has been the focus for the last eight or nine centuries, whereas in the ancient teachings of the Fathers of the Church it was always the entire Eucharistic action—and that action extended from the Mass through the celebration of the Divine Offices—that was the fountain from which all prayer flowed.  There is a markedly different emphasis on Eucharistic Spirituality in Ambrose and Augustine, for example, than for Teresa of Avila or Jeanne Chezard de Matel or John Eudes.  Only in the monastic heritage of the Benedictine/Cistercian movement—and not always there—was the integral connection preserved between Liturgical Prayer and one’s private devotional life.  Only there—and again not for all—did the Liturgy provide the source for one’s entire spiritual life. 
One of the reasons for this dis-integration of spirituality was the failure of the liturgy to develop with the culture in which the mystics—and the rest of us—lived (and live).  The Liturgy became more and more a separate world into which the Christian would retreat for prayer but then would have to leave—and leave behind—for daily life.  The major factor of this was, of course, the failure of liturgical prayer to keep abreast with the linguistic breakdown of Latin into what would become the modern languages of the Western World.  When the worshipper could no longer access the sacred texts of what was becoming an arcane language, he or she had to turn to other sources for spiritual nourishment.  A second factor was the tendency in the medieval period to separate the world of the sacred from the everyday.  As the Image of Christ was more and more modified to a sort of Monophysitism in which his Humanity was swallowed into and overwhelmed by his Divinity, the Liturgy came to reflect this higher sacral world within the church as different from the everyday world in the streets outside. This liturgical monophysitism became the new orthodoxy as the laity were more and more blocked out from direct participation in the Liturgy. Rails and curtains and screens and even walls were erected between altar and people—blockades which incidentally the Council of Trent ordered taken down but without the mentality of separation being reversed.  The laity were no longer permitted to handle the Eucharist or even the sacred vessels.  The role of the laity in the liturgical dialogue was taken over by and restricted to the acolytes and the choirs.  The reception of Holy Communion for the faithful was removed from the Mass with only the priest receiving at the altar, and the few faithful who were to receive being required to receive either before or after the Mass and only allowed access to the Sacrament on a bi-weekly or monthly basis.  More and more emphasis was placed on the Reserved Sacrament rather than the received Sacrament with the Eucharist becoming a static reality of Christ’s Presence rather than participation in his Death and Resurrection.  This was a serious distortion of the Divine Gift passed on from Christ to the Apostles and the Apostles to the first generations of the Church.
The Mass is meant to be the source of all sanctity in our lives in as that it is our mystical participation in theosis, that is to say in our coming to share in the Divine Nature.  In Baptism we were baptized into death with Christ so that being buried with Christ in baptism we might be raised with Christ into the New Life in him.  This baptismal regeneration by which we can say that “I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live but Christ Jesus who lives in me” is renewed and reinforced every time we participate in the Eucharist.  The bread and wine which are presented to the priest for consecration are symbols of our lives.  They are placed upon the altar and the Holy Spirit is called down to consecrate them, making them Christ’s own Body and Blood.  That same Spirit is called down upon us—if you listen carefully to the Eucharistic Prayer—to make us into Christ’s Body, the Church.  Then nourished by that Body and Blood “we become what we eat”—Christ lives in us, transforming us into himself and giving us a participatory share in his Divine Nature.  One of the problems with the pre-conciliar rite is how much this transformative process of the Eucharist is obscured.  There is no procession from the people culminating in the presentation of the gifts and so the connection between the unconsecrated bread and wine and the people whom they symbolize is lost.  They are simply carried from the credence table in the presbyterium by an altar server and handed to the priest at the altar.  Eucharistic Prayer I, the so-called Roman Canon, lacks a proper epiclesis (the invocation of the Holy Spirit) to transform the gifts of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ and it also fails to ask that the Holy Spirit draw us from our individualism into the unity of the Body of Christ, the Church.  Indeed the corporate worship of the revised Rite stands in distinct contrast to the emphasized individualism into which the pre-conciliar rite had devolved.
There were those medieval and early modern saints who did, of course, find the Liturgy to be the source of their spirituality.  Saint Thomas Aquinas was deeply shaped in his holiness by the Sacred Liturgy—his magnificent Office composed for the newly instituted Feast of Corpus Christi shows us how the profound depths of his mysticism were forged by his participation in the Sacred Rites and especially the Mass.  But he is a rare exception to the spirituality of the saints in the post-Patristic period.  We see historically that as the world around them changed at a far different pace than did the Mass, that the saints had to look elsewhere for a path to holiness.  Yes, the Eucharist would be an important—though not always central—aspect to their journey into the Mystery of Christ, it would almost always be the Eucharist divorced from the Mass with the Mass reduced from the Sacred Mystery of our Salvation to the mere act of confecting the Saving Presence of Christ.  Indeed for most of these centuries—from perhaps the eighth until the twentieth—access to receiving Christ in the Eucharist was highly restricted with even deeply holy persons such as Thomas More or Teresa of Avila able to receive only one or two times a month.  The connection had been broken between the Eucharistic Sacrifice and receiving Christ in the Holy Communion.  A theology stressing the ex opere operato function of the rite had to be developed because the ex opere operantis had become obsolete.  The Mysterium Fidei remained accessible to priest-saints (and priests who were not saints) such as Thomas Aquinas and Francis de Sales and they passed it on second-hand to the devout, but for the average Catholic Christian the Mass remained a mystery so ineffable that its invitation to the faithful to offer himself or herself with Christ in obedience to the Father, to be mystically conformed to Christ in his death so as to be transformed into Christ in his Resurrection as we participate in the offering of bread and wine, in the transformative showering of the Holy Spirit, and in the incorporation into Christ by being devoured by him whom we devour, was lost.  I dare say that even today most Catholics have yet to move beyond seeing the point of the Mass being to consecrate the bread and wine so that they become the Body and Blood of Christ for our consumption. 
It is too early for the revised rites to bear the fruits of canonized saints.  We can see that it certainly supplied nourishment for Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Pope John Paul II, and the handful of other contemporaries beatified or canonized these past few years.  But I look around me at Mass and I see the fruits of the revised liturgy with our shut-ins receiving communion weekly or even daily from our Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist; I see the immense pile of gifts around the altar all through Advent that are destined for the poor in our twinned-parish; I see the squads of youth and adults going on mission to build housing for people in Appalachia;  I see the volunteer “lay chaplains” at our local hospital,  I see the outreach to immigrants with clothing and school supplies; and I see how people are being nourished with hearing the Word of God at Mass and translating into discipleship through the week.  I see people making the connection between the Mass and living a Christ-formed life through their week. 
I am old enough to remember the Mass before the Council.  My Dad went to Mass every morning, my mother every Sunday and Holy Day.  They were good people.  Dad belonged to the Holy Name Society; Mom to the Altar and Rosary Society.  And yes, they worked in the local soup-kitchen.  And my mother drove Meals on Wheels.  And they stood up for open-housing legislation in an era where a lot of our neighbors were afraid an African-American family would move onto our street.  But their faith was not shaped by the Liturgy.  Their faith was shaped by the Christian Family Movement to which they belonged.  Their faith was shaped by the many priest friends who haunted our house (and drank their liquor and ate their steaks—to which they were most welcome, by the way.)  Their faith was shaped by reading Thomas Merton and Bishop Sheen.   The Mass provided them some peace and quiet; some solitary prayer while Father did at the altar whatever he did.  I am not saying that there were no saints before Vatican II but only that the power of the Liturgy to make saints had been diluted and I believe that the holiness that was there could have been even greater, much greater, had the Liturgy been a true and actual prayer that drew them into its depths and not only a pious devotion.  

1 comment:

  1. I think you have a point about how the Mass was not the primary force shaping previous generations of Catholics. Until fairly recently, the laity did not even have Missals in English.

    As a related anecdote, I remember a woman who was complaining about the dearth of religious devotions in parishes, such as the rosary, novenas, litanies, and other devotions. She complained "All we ever get is Mass, Mass, and more Mass!"