The Universal Call to Holiness: The Eucharistic Liturgy and the Unity of Sanctity and Sacrifice

January 9, 2021
Communio Theology
“The profession ‘There is only one God’ is, precisely because it has itself no political aims, a program of decisive political importance: through the absoluteness that it lends the individual from his God, and through the relativization to which it relegates all political communities in comparison with the unity of the God who embraces them all, it forms the only definitive protection against the power of the collective and at the same time implies the complete abolition of any idea of exclusiveness in humanity as a whole.”
Joseph Ratzinger. “Introduction to Christianity”. (Ignatius Press, 1990, p. 113)

It often comes as a shock to many people when they find out that Dorothy Day was very traditional in her approach to Liturgy and did not care at all for the casual nonchalance with which many in her movement approached the Mass in those crazy years that followed in the wake of the Council.  There is the famous story where Mass was said in one of her Catholic Worker houses using a coffee cup from the cupboard as a chalice (without her approval).  After Mass she was seen burying that cup in the ground.  When asked why she was doing this she responded by saying that the cup was no longer suitable to be “just a coffee cup” since it had been consecrated by the blood of Christ.  So it needed to be buried lest it be mistakenly pressed into service as a coffee cup once again.  There is another famous story where a well-known activist priest showed up to say Mass at the main Worker house in Manhattan and was not going to wear vestments but who soon learned from Dorothy that he most certainly was.

For Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin it is precisely the Christological sacredness of the Mass that is the central weapon against the bourgeois spirit of the age insofar as it is, among many other things, irreducible to capitalist commodification.  The Mass is non fungible and transcends the political domain as it re-presents in a non-bloody manner the sacrifice of Christ at the hands of a worldly Imperium, thereby and therein establishing a new Kingdom that relativizes all worldly Imperia.  Thus, the trivialization of the Eucharistic liturgy as a mere meal for fostering some kind of worldly social conviviality robs it of its eschatological power to challenge the unjust structures of the age.  In short, for Dorothy and Peter there is nothing as socially subversive of worldly power than the Eucharistic liturgy and the most “political” thing a person can do is to go to Mass and to assist in the liturgy with deep devotion.  This is precisely why the bourgeois spirit of the modern world constantly threatens to domesticate the Mass into a pliant tool for inculcating “civic virtues” that are necessary for the maintenance of the dominant social ordo.  The “real presence of Christ” is fine so long as the Christ so present is not the Christ whose death and resurrection has broken the stranglehold of the Archons of worldly power.  Mammon and Moloch both detest and resist all rival eschatologies, but they reserve a special venomous hatred for the crucified ordo of Christ which delegitimates at its roots the cult of well-being that is at the heart of the bourgeois project.

Therefore, I find a deep consonance between ressourcement theology, Vatican II, the vision of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, and a high view of the Eucharistic Liturgy in a traditionalist register.  In the struggle for social justice, and in the never-ending battle to defend the “least among us” from the perennial, predatory savageries of the rich and powerful, there is nothing more liberating than the rolled-away stone of the empty tomb which signaled the end of the eschatology of torture and the advent of the transformative Kingdom of the crucified and risen Christ.  The Eucharistic Christ is the very presence of that subversive, rival Kingdom and therefore any attempt to turn the Eucharist into a “horizonatalist” celebration of “agape fellowship” where Jesus is “only” present in our social conviviality is actually a nod in the direction of oppression insofar as it returns us to the worldly dominion of our slave masters.

The liturgy is not, therefore, a mere adjunct to the fight for social justice, but is its very heart and soul.  It is one of the chief reasons Dorothy left the world of Marxist political agitation with its purely materialistic account of existence and opted instead for the power of the living Christ who alone can liberate us from the cult of blood and soil.  A daily Mass goer, Dorothy grounded her entire ministry in the eucharistic eschatology of broken bondage and sought to bind herself to that same Christ in the sacrament of her brothers and sisters in need.  No “worldly project”, no bureaucracy, no form of electoral politics, no technocratic tweaking of “the structure”, and certainly no ecclesiastical compromise with the tyranny of the “present moment”, can do what Christ does since they all remain within the kingdom of entropy and can never reach beyond the horizon of death. No matter our best intentions, everything bears the “smudge” (as Hopkins put it) of our grimy fingerprints.  

What this means is that for the Christian the only true “politics” is a Eucharistic politics of substitutionary suffering for the sake of the other – – especially the “other” that is our enemy – – which implies the development of a deep, spiritual empathy for the plight of my neighbor, which is in turn grounded in the theological concept of our corporate personhood in Christ.  Therefore, for Dorothy there is a deep and intrinsic link between sanctity and sacrifice – – a link made clear in the unbloody representation of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross in the Eucharist.  But it also means that, for our part, true participation in the liturgy entails an understanding that the Eucharist is not “magic” and its fruits within us are not automatic.  It is indeed a “gift given” but like all gifts it must be received. And reception here means our active engagement with the dynamic of spiritual transformation wherein we bring our entire lives to the altar of the Lord and offer ourselves up without reserve as a living sacrifice to be united to the sacrifice of Christ.

All too often we do not bring our “entire lives” to the Eucharist but only our “pious lives”, i.e. the Eucharist is what we “do” when we are “doing” religion.  All too often do we treat the liturgy as a kind of shamanistic talisman wherein we approach the Mystery as a totem that “protects” us even as it requires nothing from us.  All too often do we view our mere presence at the Eucharistic table as a bet-hedging wager that “merits” us some brownie points with a Santa Claus God without ever stopping to consider that such a posture is in fact an act of sinful, or perhaps even sacrilegious, mendacity.  Dorothy was never a finger-wagging moralist and she certainly had a keen awareness of our fallen sinfulness, but by the same token “to whom much is given, much is expected” and we cannot use our human weakness as a rationale for treating the liturgy as a social party for “nice people”with communion served as an hors d’oeuvre.

A true Eucharistic piety is a totalizing project that vomits out its mouth all of our lukewarm attempts to have our cake and eat it too as we seek to “negotiate” a thousand compromises between the binding address of the Eucharistic Christ and our life of bourgeois commitments.  The spirit of Laodicea is precisely this spirit of compartmentalization where the Eucharist becomes one more lifestyle accessory that has as little purchase on our allegiance as our choice of interior décor in our living rooms.   But such an approach to the Eucharist robs it of its inner essence as something that lays an all-encompassing claim upon us and eventually renders the entire affair drab and boring which soon culminates in our slow drift into the waiting arms of our capitalist Baphomet.  This was the constant theme of Dorothy who understood that the spiritual life has its own laws, its own logic, and that Christ was not playing around when he said you cannot serve two masters:  “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” I am as guilty of this as the next person. We all are.  Ours is not an age of faith and the siren song of secularity lives deeply in all of us whether we want to admit it or not.  The dogma does indeed live loudly within me, but which dogma?

This is also precisely why Vatican II sought to reform the liturgy.  The traditional Latin Mass was indeed a treasure and it was a mistake when, after the Council, it was essentially repressed. Therefore, I applaud Pope Benedict’s decision to allow its use on a wide scale once again.  More on that in a bit.  But it is also true that for many Catholics the liturgy had become a passive experience, something the priest did up on the altar, in silence, and in a language that was not the mother tongue of those gathered.  Mass had become a place of quiet contemplation, of private devotions, and not a place of communal worship in any outward way.  It was indeed a grand spectacle when done well, and we would do well to retrieve many aspects of the solemn trappings of that liturgy.  But a “spectacle”, in and of itself, is not a liturgy, and the Council sought to remedy such tendencies.

I hasten to add, however, that I am not saying that one cannot participate in communal worship unless one is “doing something” outwardly or that one cannot enter into the liturgy interiorly, uniting ourselves to the Lord and to all those gathered.  That too is a false notion of participation and was one of the primary failures of the post Vatican II implementation of the reforms where Mass veered into the opposite direction of an “activism” that was overly horizonatalist in its understanding of true participation. Nevertheless, I am speaking here of general trends which were the major concern of the Council as it sought to reinvigorate a true spirituality of the laity and our active engagement with the liturgy as a true act of worship rather than a one hour period of contemplation.

This reinvigoration of the laity and the de-clericalization of the Mass was the goal of Sacrosanctum Concilium since the Council fathers understood, as Dorothy had understood decades before, that the challenges posed to the faith by modernity required a robust and active lay presence as a leaven in the world.  Therefore, they opened the door to Mass in the vernacular, with greater dialogical participation from the gathered worshippers.  This led to the creation of the Novus Ordo, (a flawed creation to be sure and much in need of further reform), which is now the ordinary form of the liturgy for the vast majority of Catholics and has been so now for about 50 years.  There is no need for me to rehearse once again the sad litany of liturgical abuses that followed its botched implementation – – abuses that were so widespread that they caused Paul VI to famously remark that the “smoke of Satan” had entered the Church.   Nor do I feel a need to engage the endless narratives that have arrived of late detailing all of the curial shenanigans that led to its creation.  The bottom line is that it is a valid liturgy implemented by a valid Pope and, despite its flaws, it embodies elements of reform that were much needed. And in my view, the most sorely needed reform was the allowance for Mass to be prayed in the vernacular.

That last line will cause many of my friends to clutch their pearls and tut-tut about the “banality” of the Novus Ordo and to wax eloquent about the beauty of Latin.  Latin is indeed beautiful, and it is the historic “language” of the Church, but the notion that the liturgy should be prayed in a dead language since the meanings of its words are now “fixed” and not subject to the vagaries of interpretation is just utter nonsense.  Especially when the proponents of imposed Latin themselves do not expect everyone to learn Latin but instead point to the many fine Missals that have translations in them.  But translations do not have “fixed” meanings so the whole point about the superiority of using a dead language is a red herring.  The advantages to worshippers praying in their mother tongue far outweigh the ideologically driven campaign to impose Latin again on the entire Church.  I highly doubt, for example, that the Church would have seen the explosion of new converts to the faith in places like Africa and Asia had something like the Novus Ordo not been implemented.

The demand that Latin be the only language of the liturgy is a Eurocentric conceit that now makes the Church look like a medieval museum piece rather than the living, worldwide, communion of the Body of Christ.  I know, I know… if the Liturgy is in a single language it adds unity to the Church and thereby creates a “universal language” that also (supposedly) reinforces the catholicity of the Church.  But one has to wonder as to what kind of “unity” a universal language creates, keeping in mind that uniformity is not the same thing as unity and that the true unity of the Church comes from Christ and his Eucharistic presence and not in this or that language of the liturgy.  The organic unity of the body of Christ (the Church) is the fruit of a pluralism of cultures and peoples that coalesce around the Mystery of the crucified and risen Lord, and this will be true even if the liturgy is in Latin. There is an ineradicable pluralism in the Church and this is a good thing, but it often seems as if the proponents of imposed Latin fear this pluralism as the harbinger of a dangerous relativism, which only underscores the fact that what seems to drive this movement is an ideologically driven fear rather than the putative superiority of a Latin liturgy for all.  There is nothing about the Latin language that is more inherently “sacred” than any other language, even if it has been sanctified by millennia of usage in the Church, and the introduction of the vernacular into the liturgy is a monumental step forward rather than the abomination its critics claim.

Furthermore, and not to put too fine a point on it, the claim that the loss of Latin is a “dilution” of the Mass flies in the face of the empirical fact that the Church has always had a multiplicity of rites, many of which have never used Latin and which have mysteriously thrived despite that fact. Indeed, rites such as the Byzantine Catholic liturgy are every bit the equal of the old Latin Mass in their solemnity and sacral dignity.  I am not arguing that the suppression of the old Latin liturgy was a good thing or that we cannot learn from it as we seek to reform the Novus Ordo.  But I am saying that the universal use of Latin is in no way a requirement for good liturgy.

All that said, there are elements of the older liturgy that I think should have been retained in the Novus Ordo.  Such elements would include (in my view) worship ad orientem, the reintroduction of chant as the primary musical form, communion received on the tongue, from a priest, while kneeling at an altar rail, and the restoration of much of our liturgical patrimony that has been lost in the form of introits, graduals, anthems, and so on that are majestic and enormously important.  Palestrina and other forms of elevated music are also a much needed corrective to the musical drivel that has been inflicted on us over the past decades.  A more liberal use of incense should also be brought back as well in my view despite the often repeated claim of pastors that people object to it for reasons of respiratory distress.  Funny how that was never an issue before 1970.  I guess people’s lungs are weaker these days.

There are other things as well, but you get the point.  The Novus Ordo is in need of an “upgrade”, so to speak, but there is absolutely nothing in the structure of the Mass that would preclude the reintroduction of all of these elements.  All that is lacking is the will of the bishops to make it so.  And before we all cynically roll our eyes and say “fat chance” we should pay greater attention to the fact that there are people and groups out there who are currently working tirelessly to make these reforms a reality. My wife, Dr. Carmina Magnusen Chapp, is a sacramental theologian who was involved for many years in the Society for Catholic Liturgy and has been constantly reminding me of late of all of the good things that are going on in that movement.  To that end she has contributed the following remarks concerning the movement to reform the reform:

“The Society for Catholic Liturgy is a hub for professionals involved in liturgy, bringing scholars, musicians, and architects together with priests and lay ministers – all seeking to make the celebration of the liturgy beautiful and authentic. The Liturgical Institute at Mundelein has also had a positive impact on American liturgical life. Both of these enterprises were founded by the late Cardinal Francis George. Of course, the University of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life and its Center for Liturgy are doing some of the finest work on liturgy and evangelization today. The New Liturgical Movement website is a great resource for keeping up on the latest liturgical buzz.

On the ground, there are examples of beautiful church renovations and restorations (as with EverGreene Architectural Arts), and efforts by bishops to introduce quality music to parish liturgy (as in the Archdiocese of New York, whose seminary music director runs workshops on teaching children Gregorian Chant). Most recently, the USCCB sent out guidelines regarding the doctrinal soundness of texts of hymns sung in church (long overdue).”

To this list I would also add the recently created Benedict XVI Institute whose aim is to restore beauty to the Church in all of its forms.  From where I sit these various projects to reform the Novus Ordo stand a much, much greater chance of making real positive change than all of the agitations from the Facebook Fiddleback fuss-budgets and their fantasy-camp campaign to get rid of the Novus Ordo entirely and to replace it with the old Liturgy.   Because the Novus Ordo is not going to go away and the traditional Latin Mass is not coming back as the standard and ordinary form for the liturgy.  Therefore, the constant drip-drip-drip of traditionalist criticism of the Novus Ordo is constructive to a point, but quickly gets tiring as a counter productive and fruitless exercise in restorationist fever dreaming.

I would also point to another positive development that was also the creation of Pope Benedict XVI (ad multos annos!).  And that is the creation of the Anglican Ordinariate, of which I am a member (as well as my wife).  In my opinion the Ordinariate Liturgy comes very close to the reformed Liturgy the Council fathers had in mind.  It is a rite that uses the vernacular (but with elevated “formal” language), with prayers recited out loud, and with dialogical responses from the laity, but that also incorporates all of the liturgical elements in my wish list above.  Ordinariate parishes are few in number and widely scattered so I harbor no illusions that millions of Catholics will start to attend their liturgies.  However, as with the reintroduction of the Extraordinary form of the liturgy so too here:  the goal is the gradual reintroduction of lost elements in the hope that there will be a cross-fertilization that will help the reform of the Novus Ordo.

To return to where I started, the point to all of these liturgical musings is to underscore my conviction that the liturgy, as my friend Father John Gribowich points out, is not an end in itself but a means to an end.  And that end is our incorporation into the Body of the crucified and risen Christ.  Therefore, as Dorothy emphasized again and again, the inner link between sanctity and sacrifice must be our guide in all that we do.  Whatever liturgical reforms that transpire in our future must also, therefore, be guided by that principle and not by extra-liturgical ideological commitments to this or that ecclesiastical regime, be they of either the Right or the Left.  Immediately after the Council the liturgical reforms were degraded because the liturgy was used as a tool for pushing a broader liberal agenda that sought accommodation with secular modernity. That threat still remains, but there has also now emerged a strong restorationist ideological current from the Right, a current that has become exponentially radicalized by their strong reaction against the Francis papacy, with Archbishop Vigano as their hero, the traditional Latin Mass as their Logo, YouTube as their pulpit, and Vatican II and the Novus Ordo as their bete noire.  Oh… and they hate Bishop Robert Barron, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and think John Paul and Benedict were both closeted modernist softies.

Seen in that light it has to be said that the reintroduction of the wider use of the Extraordinary form, which I support, has not come without a strong downside.  I want to be clear that I have no issue with true liturgical scholars who have written beautifully about the EF and who desire to see it more widely used.  However, there is no denying that there is a growing element in the traditionalist movement which has weaponized the EF and used it as a bludgeon against the Novus Ordo, Vatican II, and almost all of modern theology.  My contention is, therefore, that theirs is not a true love for the liturgy in its old form so much as it is an entire package of restorationist commitments that include a tacit rejection of many of the central themes of Vatican II which would include a rejection of the teaching of the Council on religious freedom, ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, and liturgical reform, among other things.  And this is more than just a “suspicion” since many of the clickbait internet grifters on the Catholic far Right state such things openly, especially when they are pushing their champion, Archbishop Vigano.  The standard line that is emerging is that Vatican II and the Novus Ordo were both products of a Freemason conspiracy that had “infiltrated” the Church.  Their various conspiracy theories along those lines lack any real substantive evidence and rest on arguments grounded in a kind of “guilt by association” logic that is so tenuous it would make Dan Brown blush.

Furthermore, it is painful to watch some of them “theologize” since it becomes painfully obvious very quickly that they do not have the faintest idea of what they are talking about.  Their spittle-flecked rantings against theological giants like Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar (universalist demon!), and even, yes, Joseph Ratzinger (authors I am sure none of them have actually read), are so ignorant, and so lacking in charity that it truly takes your breath away.

These are not serious people but, sadly, they must be taken seriously since their influence is growing.  They are not, it seems to me, true lovers of the liturgy but are instead advocates for a long-gone ecclesiastical regime that they have idealized and romanticized, with the EF as a kind of emblem of the whole.  And they are quite nasty about it which is, as the poker players say, a “tell” that they really want nothing to do with the Church as it is, but only the Church they imagine once was, but wasn’t.  Thus, their approach to the EF is that of an inauthentic role- playing where their self-identities are defined through a set of performative acts that have more in common with the modern bourgeois construction of the “self” than with the kenotic anthropology implied by the Eucharistic liturgy.  In short, they are the true modernists – – a fact which is confirmed by their bizarre love affair with Trumpism.

Vatican II teaches us that the Eucharist is the source and the font of our entire spiritual life (LG 11).  Therefore, the liturgy cannot and must not be sucked into the vortex of the ideological idolatries and superstitions of either the Left or the Right. What this also means is that true liturgical reform, which is needed, can only move forward when that reform is linked to the broader reform of our spiritual lives. In that vein what is called for is a raw, bracing, and brutal honesty about who we truly are vis-à-vis Christ. I know that I do not fare well in such an unblinkered assessment and I agonize every day over my manifest hypocrisies.  And, I suspect, most of us fail in that regard since we are all the children of our septic times.  For myself, I turn to the saints for hope that the link between sanctity and sacrifice is possible for me, and for our world.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

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