Some Meditations on my Trip to the Abbey of the Genesee: Quo Vadis?

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I am back from my short retreat/visit to the Abbey of the Genesee where we were able to visit at length with Fr. John Gribowich, now Fr. Philip Neri.  But no matter the name or the title, he will always just be “Grib” to me.  And I see no disrespect in that.  Many of Pope John Paul’s friends from his youth continued to call him by his nickname (“Lolek,” which means “goalkeeper in Polish) long after he became the successor of St. Peter.  And as far as I can tell, Fr. Philip Neri is doing quite well in his year of postulancy and is happier now than I have seen him in years.  I think the cliché term is that he seems “at peace” with himself and his vocational decision.

But that short report is not the reason I am issuing this blog post this morning.  One of the added bonuses of visiting the Abbey this weekend was that the monks were on retreat and the retreat master was Fr. Simeon from the Trappist abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts.  Fr. Simeon’s original name is Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis – – a name that will be familiar to anyone who has read his masterful, multi-volume work on the Gospel of Matthew.  The photograph above is with him (the one in the middle) along with me (the misshapen ugly one) and Fr. Philip.  In the photo there is a light above my head which appears to be coming from the wall lamp.  At least I hope so since I have no desire to be so cranially luminous.  We were blessed with the opportunity to speak with Fr. Simeon for a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon in the sunny lounge area in the lobby of the main Abbey.  What a joy to speak to a man whose life is a wonderful demonstration of how God often writes straight with crooked lines!  Erasmo had joined a Trappist monastery in Georgia in the mid-sixties, but in his youthful naivete could not negotiate that vocational choice in the midst of the craziness of the post-Vatican II tsunami.  So he left, got his doctorate at Emory, got married and had children.  Along the way he developed professional connections with Hans Urs von Balthasar and a dynamic young Jesuit by the name of Fr. Joseph Fessio who was starting up this strange new venture called “Ignatius Press.”  Erasmo became one of the primary early translators of Balthasar’s works into English as anyone who has read Balthasar in English will know. Indeed, at one point he had Balthasar in his home for dinner, at the behest of Fr. Fessio, during one of Balthasar’s rare visits to the United States.  One has to understand what a vicarious joy this engenders in me.  Think for one second what elation would be in the soul of Garrigou Lagrange had he had the opportunity to dine with Aquinas.  Can you imagine the table talk? “So, Thomas, who is correct on the nature and grace issue? Me, or de Lubac?”  The “respondeo” and “sed contra” would resonate in Garigou’s mind for a lifetime and beyond.

Eventually, Erasmo’s marriage dissolved after which he was granted an annulment and he joined the Trappists once again and was ordained a priest in 2013.  I too have been “married” before and went through the annulment process and am now in a much more profound sacramental and vocational reality with my marriage to my wife Carrie, who also has a Ph.D. in theology and who is both my strongest supporter and my deepest and most trenchant critic.  And so, both Erasmo’s life and my own gives vivid testimony to the fact that “second chances” are nothing of the sort, and represent in reality the Christian’s gradual deepening of his or her sense of vocational “mission.”  Nothing that came before is wasted.  Nothing was a “Mulligan” as they say of errant golf shots among friends.  Regrets over poor decisions in our youth are a waste of time and are spiritually destructive.  You are who you are because of the path you took, missteps and all, and all of it is why you are where you are right now, in the place you stand, and in the world you now inhabit.  In other words, in the spiritual life, we are all nomads like Abraham, awaiting God’s call. George Weigel once told me and my colleague Rodney Howsare over a round of good Scotches after he gave a lecture at DeSales, that Pope John Paul never lived his life looking in the rear view mirror.  The Gospel beckons us ever forward and once we put our hand to its plow “looking back” is no longer an option.

But what a joy it was to speak with Fr. Simeon at such length about theological figures that he and I both have revered and oriented our theological moorings around:  Balthasar, de Lubac, Bouyer, Congar, Guardini, Ratzinger, Chenu, Gilson, Pieper, among many, many others.  It was truly a reinvigorating conversation for me to realize that these theological and philosophical giants are still alive and well in the hearts and minds of many academics.  Because in many ways the ressourcement project stalled after the Council and was replaced with the silly season progressivism of the time.  Both the ressourcement and neo-scholastic thinkers, so dominant before the Council, saw their influence disappear after the Council.  A good analogy would be two armies facing off in a fierce battle to determine who will control the terrain going forward, only to discover after the carnage was over that both armies had been outflanked by a third which had been quietly observing the war from a safe vantage, and waiting for its moment to pounce.  What both the neo-scholastics and ressourcement thinkers discovered was that in the post conciliar Church their moment had been eclipsed and their efforts bypassed and ignored. What became clear in my conversation with Fr. Simeon was that this situation is not tenable in the long term and that for the good of the Church those of us who still care about the Tradition need to make common cause with one another, despite our differences, since the crisis we face needs every devout hand on deck. 

And that brings me to my final observation. The recent wars over the liturgy, made worse by the ill-advised motu proprio by Pope Francis (Traditionis Custodes) is a debate over ecclesial penultimate realities that have distracted us from the deeper, and more ultimate, issue at hand: quo vadis? And like Peter we must turn back in the face of that question and set aside our liturgical sniping for the sake of making common cause in helping the Church retrieve her central mission to sing the song of holiness and sanctity in a christological register.  The Eucharist is indeed the “source and summit” of the Christian spiritual vocation, but it is, nevertheless, a means to an end and not an end in itself.  It is He who the Eucharist makes present who is the end and no single liturgical formulation has a monopoly on that presence.  Yes, there is such a thing as “good liturgy” and “bad liturgy” and so the conversation over the TLM and the Novus Ordo should continue. It is a debate worth having.  But lately it has sucked all of the air out of the ecclesial room and in my view we need to take a step back in order to recover our priorities. 

I support the TLM and I loved Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum.  But this past weekend I was reminded once again that the Novus Ordo, flaws and all, is also capable of transmitting, not just Christ, but beauty. It can inspire and often does.  Father Simeon said Mass for the community on Sunday morning in the quiet darkness of the Abbey’s main chapel.  The chanting was beautiful, the cadences of the liturgy, as befits one of the Novus Ordo’s main strengths, were simple, spartan, and profound.  I wept silently and with some slight embarrassment, but was filled with joy since I am rarely gifted with the charism of tears over holy things.  And to see my dear friend, Father Philip Neri, standing around the majestic stone altar concelebrating, I was taken back about 20 years to my memories of “Grib” as a young student flush with the excitement of his “prayer and praise” musical group – – something I railed against often to his face – – and felt deep shame over my lack of appreciation for the faith that animated him then. Because it was that same faith that was animating him now, in monk’s garb, and chanting the ancient prayers of the Church, however attenuated in their modern form.  Father Simeon said Mass with a deep, infectious, reverence and with manifest devotion. It was the Novus Ordo in English. There was nothing “fancy” about it. And yet it shook the heavens. 

And so I have a simple request for all of my traditionalist friends – – and I have many such friends since as a ressourcement guy I too am a kind of traditionalist as any Catholic must be – – and that request is to keep on promoting and pursuing the TLM. Keep on with your desire to see it celebrated with more frequency in the Church.  Keep on with your thoroughly laudable goal of promoting good liturgy in the Church.  But please stop speaking as if the Novus Ordo is not capable of doing great things as well.  I know this is not all traditionalists, maybe not even a majority.  But many do speak this way and with some frequency.  And I find this unfortunate since it only divides us at a moment when we should be uniting.  And to those who say that the Novus Ordo is rarely done “properly” and is usually a banal affair I can only say that I agree. Which is, at least in part, why I attend an Anglican Ordinariate liturgy.  But even the TLM and the Ordinariate liturgy are capable of being done poorly. The unfortunate plasticity of the Novus Ordo does lend itself to greater abuses and when it is done poorly it is worse than a TLM done poorly.  But that does not change the fact that the Novus Ordo is capable of transmitting and provoking holiness when done with beauty and reverence.  I know it can be since I have seen it.  I saw it at Genesee.

Therefore, I do continue to support Pope Benedict’s desire for a “reform of the reform” of the liturgy.  It is another reason I attend an Anglican Ordinariate parish. Because in many ways I think its liturgical form is the reform that many of the Council fathers had in mind. Mass in the vernacular with the canon prayed out loud, but with all other traditional aspects of the liturgy intact. It can be done and, more importantly, it should be done.  And because it should be done, I refuse to give up on it. 

My prayer at Genesee was a simple one and I repeated it often: that holiness and the beauty it spawns be not a stranger in any of our liturgies. Perhaps we should start there.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

16 comments

  1. The Eucharist is indeed the “source and summit” of the Christian spiritual vocation, but it is, nevertheless, a means to an end and not an end in itself.

    I know of many people who would dispute this. “The Eucharist is Jesus, Jesus is God, and God is not a means to an end” they would say. I think this needs to be fleshed out.

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    1. I think I state quite clearly that He who the liturgy makes present is indeed the proper end of our worship. But the various liturgical forms are not the end. That same end can be found in a myriad of different liturgical forms. The forms are penultimate. It is He who they make present that is ultimate.

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      1. Exactly, Larry. This point needs to be reiterated again and again (as does what unites us is greater than what divides us…).

        On the one hand it is a matter of definitions. Eucharist, i.e., Blessed Sacrament is Jesus and is the goal of our life. Eucharist, i.e., Holy Mass, is not. The Mass is the means by which Jesus effects our redemption, so it is a means to our end. We can get too tied up in the form, just as we can get too tied up in a particular theology, or piety or, or, or.

        On the other hand, we too often miss the most important dimension of the Mass. Within the Mass are means and end. We tend to see the Mass as only sacrifice, yet the sacrifice is only a means to our end. But Communion is a foretaste of the end. The sacrificial dimension of the Mass is a means to Communion, or union with our Beloved in the marital dimension of the Mass.

        Put another way, for God, what is the most important dimension of the Mass? Transubstantiation is a parlor trick for God, and a means to an end. The entire passion, death and resurrection are a means to an end. But Communion, whoa, now there is something more than just a means. It does have that dimension, but it is also a communion (exchange) of persons, as is the Trinity as will be our life in Heaven. God having union with us is the most important part of the Mass, for Him. It should be for us, and that happens in every Mass: TLM, NO, Melkite, Ordinariate, etc.

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  2. I’m a music director at a Novus Ordo parish. One thing that has become apparent to me is how integral the laity are to the process of elevating the liturgy. The priest can only do so much, the laity have to contribute to the reverential environment. Most of what I do as the music director is encourage that environment. But if some are unwilling to ‘ascend the mountain’ then it tells me I have much more to do.

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  3. No arguments here! I’ve had the great privilege of seeing the Novus Ordo celebrated reverently and properly, both at my home parish and a couple others (like the Lower Church at Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown), and if that were the standard across the board – whether in English or in Latin, ad orientem or ‘Benedictine’ – I might never have sought out the T.L.M. or the Anglican Use to begin with. Though I think the latter two have definite advantages even over the best Novus Ordo Mass, if the Reform of the Reform is the best way to give most modern Catholics their first taste of Tradition, I’m all for it.

    Par for the course in this ultimately self-defeating disaster of a pontificate, by claiming that the reformed liturgical books are ‘the UNIQUE expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite’, Pope Francis has basically confirmed the thoughts of many traditionalists: That the classical Roman Rite and the Novus Ordo are NOT in fact two forms of one rite, but rather two DIFFERENT rites – and, since the Pope does NOT in fact have the power to alter reality and invalidate Tradition on a whim, it ultimately means that the T.L.M. REMAINS an expression (if not THE expression) of the Roman Rite, whereas the Novus Ordo is something else entirely.

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  4. I’ve seen it too! Lots of times! Mass is Mass is Mass. And any form of the Mass can be said badly.

    It’s the attitude. I like the TLM because it shuts down folksy improvisation.

    I like the NO because it allows more interaction when that’s pastorally needed – like when I used to go to lunchtime Mass at the psychiatric hospital where I used to work. I was the only staff member present apart from the chaplain. Patients would ask questions during Mass sometimes, and the chaplain was the soul of kindness and courtesy, both to them and to God.

    But my favourite bit is this: “And so, both Erasmo’s life and my own gives vivid testimony to the fact that “second chances” are nothing of the sort, and represent in reality the Christian’s gradual deepening of his or her sense of vocational “mission.” Nothing that came before is wasted. … Regrets over poor decisions in our youth are a waste of time and are spiritually destructive. You are who you are because of the path you took, missteps and all, and all of it is why you are where you are right now, in the place you stand, and in the world you now inhabit. In other words, in the spiritual life, we are all nomads like Abraham, awaiting God’s call.”

    I’ve got something I call the Theology of Leftovers that encompasses this attitude. Also, when one is smart and choleric, God often disciplines with failures. I’ve found this to be very true of my own life.

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    1. I like to think I am smart. But perhaps I am not. But I am definitely choleric. And my life is littered with divinely sent failures. And I agree with your comments on the Mass. One of the things I do like about the Novus Ordo is its simplicity, which is often quite beautiful in its austerity and a form I prefer in smaller, more intimate Masses, as you point out.

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  5. Thank you for this post. Viscerally, I agree with you that the “bare bones,” austere nature of the Novus Ordo is a great strength. But then I hear the voice in the back of my head of Traditionalists whom I respect (Timothy Flanders from Meaning of Catholic, for example), reminding me that something like 13% of the prayers of the ancient Roman Rite survived the Liturgical reform unchanged. And if I recall correctly, many of them were outright removed. I could be factually incorrect here and more context/ definition is probably required, but assuming this or something like this is true, does that not in some way violate the due respect that is to be paid to the Tradition by those who are charge with being its guardian? I’m certainly not presuming to know what you think on the matter. I’m genuinely interested in hearing your thoughts. Thank you again.

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    1. The traditional Roman Rite pre-1970 is about as austere and quiet (and short I think) as it gets compared to the Eastern-Oriental rites. Combine that with the prevalence of the low mass, which isn’t as much of a thing outside the West, and you get a liturgical life that is already very austere.

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  6. An interesting observation: I have found that the COVID-19 restrictions for in-person Mass in my area have actually helped trim some of the banality from the celebration. (I am not speaking of when in-person liturgy was shut down, but of the rest of the time, still mostly in force, when Mass proceeded with certain health protocols in place).

    First of all, it meant we could not take the liturgy for granted. It was a great joy to return and able to receive communion while protecting each other from disease. It felt as though we (and the Lord) were doing an end-run around the virus, not allowing it to stop us.

    Secondly, the COVID-19 protocols instilled a greater sense of reverence and carefulness. People were spaced. It wasn’t chatty and informal. There was more silence. For a while, we also had Zoom groups where we could reflect on the scripture readings in advance. I was more aware of the readings – and the richness and breadth of scripture included in the liturgy is one of the strongest points of the NO.

    Thirdly, the music improved in some ways. There was no choir, but a cantor recited the antiphons, etc. in Gregorian or similar chant.

    This all came home to me vividly when we reintroduced a bit of congregational song a couple of weeks ago… and it was a hymnal laden with dumbed-down, psychologized revisions to the lyrics. I missed the chanted antiphons!

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  7. Good piece as always Dr Chapp. Ive found that you can add in a number of prayers from the EF into the OF silently. I like the 3xLord I am Not Worthy, and a confetior during the priests communion and the holy shenanigans while acolytes and special ministers organise themselves. And the last Gospel can be a surreptitious read during the sacred silence or the hymn, notes and messages before final dismissal or after the final hymn. The leonine(?) Prayers after Mass can still be said … I like the Anglican rite too, especially that thay are ad orientem and I agree that Benedict was visionary in establishing ordinariates. But they have some different feast day dates and are quite a distance from me. I’m blessed to be surrounded by parish churches that are very respectable.

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