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Why Mass doesn’t need to be “new and improved”

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We must teach the next generation how to tend this sacred fire...

Composer Gustav Mahler said that “Tradition is not to preserve the ashes but to pass on the flame.” As Catholics, we have been entrusted with holy fire; we must hand that on reverently. And we must teach the next generation how to tend the sacred fire, so that they might be good stewards of the gift God has given us. Failure to do so will be to burden the next generation with less than ashes, and obscure the way to Heaven.

With that in mind, let me ask a few rhetorical questions:

  • Question–Who said this? “My love of the Eucharist is rooted in the Children’s Liturgies I attended in the ‘70s.”
  • Question—Who said this? “Father dressed as a clown at the altar moved me to want to be a priest.”
  • Question—Who said this?  “Every priest does Mass differently; you have to learn their preferences and quirks.”

One can never make broad assertions, but if I had to guess, I’d suspect the answers to these questions might be, respectively, “No one, ever.” “No one, ever.” and “All too many sacristans at all too many parishes.”

Let me pause for a moment, as folks might now be inclined to sigh and roll their eyes, thinking: “Oh, no—here we go again! Another Catholic blogger bellyaching about things he doesn’t like! Another cranky Catholic whose solution for everything is ‘Just shut up and do it my way!’”

My intent here isn’t to exercise Catholic anger-management in public. There’s already too much of that. Nor is my intent to add my voice to the chorus pleading for more reverence at Mass. That chorus has already been ignored for too long, and, I now suspect, might have been singing off-key.

Peter Kwasniewski’s latest book, Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness solidifies for me what many have long suspected—namely, that reverence is not enough. Consider his bold words:

My conclusion, then, is that reverence is not enough. Good intentions are not enough. Following the official books is not enough. If we are to be Roman Catholics, if we are to be the heirs and recipients of our faith rather than promethean neo-Pelagians who shape it to ourselves, if we are to be imitators of the apostles and all the saints, then entering into the Church’s traditional lex orandi is no less necessary, and no less important in our times. If anything, rediscovering the rich, multifaceted, profound, undiluted symbolism and doctrinal fullness of the sacred liturgy—the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s gentle brooding over all the centuries of our ecclesiastical life—has acquired a new and special urgency as the dictatorship of relativism clamps down on us with a vengeance.”

As I re-read those words, I recall the admonition spoken by an elderly gentleman to a priest after his first Mass: “Remember, Father—novelty is the lust of the theologian!” Why would we seek novelty in divine worship? Even well-intentioned novelty? I’m reminded of the absurdity of finding a package of potato chips labelled, “NEW AND IMPROVED ORIGINAL FLAVOR!”

Why seek novelty?  Is it a result of lack of confidence in the original? I suspect, rather, it is an attempt to relieve the pain of boredom — a pain which comes from failing to use our gifts.

Our gifts are given to us for our sustenance, that we may live and work constructively, doing the thing we do willingly and with satisfaction because we do it well.

The greatest gift given us is the divine intervention to save us from our sins, an intervention that invites us to dwell in God for eternity. The re-presentation and consummation of that divine intervention is to be found in authentic Catholic worship, culminating in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. A gift of such gravity and grace surely should be remembered as such, and presented as such, too, if we have any sense at all of occasion. If we remembered and believed what has been entrusted to us by Christ himself, and echoed by the saints and martyrs through the ages — we would be as unlikely to serve a Mass at poolside or with puppets than a swimmer (or a puppeteer) would be to crash a coronation.

I will offer my own summary of what Dr. Kwasniewski argues for and documents:  Reverence requires tradition; tradition begets reverence. People who are convinced that they have received a great gift that they must hand on treat that gift with reverence. And the act of handing on a great good is the very meaning of tradition.

The most famous line from the movie Forrest Gump is: “Life is like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re gonna get.” That may be true about life in general. Should it be true of the Mass? Or should we be able to walk into a parish church and have a “reasonable hope” that we might find “the source and summit of our faith,” that is, the readily identifiable public prayer of the Church founded by Christ?

When I write next, I will continue our reflection on reverence, piety and worship.  Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

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