Rorate Caeli

Guest Op-Ed - God at the Center: Reflecting on the Sacred Liturgy

By Veronica A. Arntz

Photo via New Liturgical Movement.
On November 26, 1969, Paul VI gave what many consider the “eulogy” for the Traditional Latin Mass. In essence, he gave the reasons behind why he thought the liturgy ought to be “changed.” In this remarkable address, he recognizes that some individuals will be upset by these changes: “We shall notice that pious persons are disturbed most, because they have their own respectable way of hearing Mass, and they will feel shaken out of their usual thoughts and obliged to follow those of others. Even priests may feel some annoyance in this respect” (4). He furthermore says, after insisting that our “first obedience is to the Council” (5), “the introduction of the vernacular will certainly be a great sacrifice for those who know the beauty, the power, and the expressive sacrality of Latin” (8). He admits that we “will lose a great part of that stupendous and incomparable artistic and spiritual thing, Gregorian chant” (8).

Paul VI then offers a reason for these changes, a reason that has negatively affected the Church, her faithful, her clergy, and especially the liturgy since the reforms were made. He says that “the answer will seem banal, prosaic,” and indeed, it is. He continues: “Understanding of prayer is worth more than the silken garments in which it is royally dressed. Participation by the people is worth more—particularly participation by modern people, so fond of plain language, which is easily understood and converted into everyday speech” (11). In other words, the beauty that has permeated the liturgy for nearly 2000 years—in its language and actions—is useless to the modern people, who cannot “understand” and cannot “participate” in that liturgy. 

The liturgy ought to be modernized, it ought to be brought to the level of the modern people, who need to participate and be part of the action. Even though Paul VI seems to think that the Latin language will “reflourish in splendor” (14) despite these changes, we know that, in the past 50 years, this has not been the case. Furthermore, Paul VI makes the chilling prophecy. He says that there are two requirements to the new Mass: “a profound participation by every single one present, and an outpouring of spirit in community charity” (16). These requirements “will help to make the Mass more than ever a school of spiritual depth and a peaceful but demanding school of Christian sociology” (16). And indeed, we have seen that prophecy come true: the liturgy is more about man than about God, and it is more human than divine, for it is ordered to appeasing man’s emotional needs rather than his spiritual ones.

Over the last 50 years, we have lived through the negative effects of this audience and the changes in the liturgy. Once the liturgy manifested a mutable character, everyone—laity and priests alike—believed that he or she could change some part of it to fit his or her personal feelings and beliefs. Those more “pious” individuals, as Paul VI chooses to call them, have witnessed the devastating effects and continued to long for more than what was given to them. God, in his infinite wisdom and divine providence, did not ignore these longings. Although permission was not strictly necessary, in 1984, Pope John Paul II granted an indult to bishops so that the faithful could celebrate the Tridentine Mass. And then, in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued his motu proprio, in which he allowed for the celebration of the Tridentine Mass without any special permission. We have thus begun to see a real restoration of what was lost to those pious individuals, who were once required to sacrifice what they loved for those “ordinary” individuals who could not understand the sacred liturgy, and thereby needed something more “simple.”

But we are still waiting for a full restoration, and indeed, this restoration will not be complete until we participate in the Eternal Liturgy in Heaven. For now, however, there have been many, Benedict XVI included, who have reminded us of what true liturgy should look like and exhorted us, as laity and as priests, to do all we can to bring about its celebration. In our own times, Cardinal Robert Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, recently gave an interview, published by the French magazine Famille Chreteinne, in which he urged God to be placed back at the center of the liturgy. (For our purposes, we shall use the translation provided by the National Catholic Register). Indeed, a reflection on his words, which echo those of then-Joseph Ratzinger in his own theology, is essential for us if we wish to bring about a restoration of true and beautiful liturgy.

Cardinal Sarah says that he wishes to see “the Sacrament of Sacraments put back in the central place,” meaning the Eucharist. Of this desire, he says:

I have witnessed that, very often, our liturgies have become like theater productions. Often, the priest no longer celebrates the love of Christ through his sacrifice, but just a meeting among friends, a friendly meal, a brotherly moment. In looking to invent creative or festive liturgies, we run the risk of worship that is too human, at the level of our desires and the fashions of the moment.

In these words, we find that the words of Paul VI’s address have come true: the liturgy has become merely a “demanding school of Christian sociology,” a place in which man is at the center, rather than God. The liturgy has become just a communal meal, rather than a representation of the eternal sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Ratzinger has this kind of liturgy in mind when he compares it to the worship of the golden calf in the Old Testament. “Worship becomes a feast that the community gives itself, a festival of self-affirmation…The narrative of the golden calf is a warning about any kind of self-initiated and self-seeking worship” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, Ignatius Press, p. 23). Thus, we see Sarah echoing Ratzinger’s own words. In order for our liturgy to be true worship, it cannot be focused on ourselves. It must be oriented toward the divine, toward the sacrifice of Christ. Liturgy is not so much about the individual priest celebrating, but about the universal sacrifice and the Great High Priest, Jesus Christ (cf. Hebrews 4:14).

What ought we to do, so that our liturgy is not focused on ourselves but on God? Sarah reminds us, as does the Second Vatican Council, “The importance is not what we do, but what God does.” He continues: “The liturgy permits us to go out past the walls of this world. To find the sacredness and the beauty of the liturgy requires, therefore, a work of formation for the laity, the priests, and the bishops. It is an interior conversion” (emphasis added). Thus, we see that the liturgy is not meant to meet our modern needs. The liturgy is meant to take us beyond the world, beyond its peripheries, for God is outside of time and cannot be contained by the world. We cannot find the sacredness and beauty due to the liturgy in this world with its methods—we must look beyond, to the heavenly realm. This is why the conversion to proper liturgy is interior, because it comes from within the soul. 

Sarah then offers the following remedy: “To put God at the center of the liturgy, one must have silence: this capacity to silence ourselves [literally: ‘shut up’] to listen to God and his word. I believe that we don’t meet God except in the silence and the deepening of his word in the depths of our heart.” How other-worldly this remedy is. Participation in the liturgy, then, is not restricted to “having something to do” and being physically a part of the celebration. Rather, participation is more importantly about a spiritual participation, which often occurs in silence. 

God speaks in the interior of our hearts. To hear him, we must be silent, and this is of utmost importance in the liturgy. Indeed, this echoes Ratzinger’s words in Feast of Faith: “If there is to be a real participation actuosa, there must be silence” (Ignatius Press, p. 72). Ratzinger adds that he does not believe the entire canon needs to be recited aloud every time (Ibid). Indeed, this is the direct opposite of the way liturgy is often celebrated today.

When asked how to bring about this interior conversion concretely, Sarah responds very simply: we must physically reorient our position of prayer—we must offer the liturgy toward the east. Of praying toward the east with all (including the priest) in the same direction, he says:

By this manner of celebrating, we experience, even in our bodies, the primacy of God and of adoration. We understand that the liturgy is first our participation at the perfect sacrifice of the cross. I have personally had this experience: in celebrating thus, with the priest at its head, the assembly is almost physically drawn up by the mystery of the cross at the moment of elevation.

Thus, because man is both body and soul, his body must mirror what is occurring interiorly. His body must be turned toward the Lord, and as such, he is physically and spiritually anticipating the Second Coming of Christ. If we wish to restore a reverence in the liturgy, then, as Sarah says, it is necessary that our bodies follow what our souls are doing. If our souls are oriented toward Christ, then so must our bodies. It is likely that, if our bodies are not oriented toward Christ, then our spirit will have a more difficult time; we are more likely to fall into distraction and be disconnected from the sacrifice on the altar. Indeed, when the priest “faces” the people, Ratzinger finds that there is an emphasis on the presider, rather than on Christ. 

The priest “becomes the real point of reference for the whole liturgy. Everything depends on him. We have to see him, to respond to him, to be involved in what he is doing. His creativity sustains the whole thing” (Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 80). He continues: “The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle” (Ibid). Thus, we see the relevance of our discussion in the beginning, that the liturgy is more focused on man than it is on God. If we do as Cardinal Sarah has asked, and reorient our position in prayer in the liturgy so that all are facing toward the east, then we will see (in time) that God, not man, is at the center of liturgy.

Contrary to what Paul VI proclaimed in his address, we have indeed seen a rejection of the teachings of Vatican II, as Sarah shows in his interview. Not only did the document Sacrosanctum concilium say that the use of Latin ought to remain (cf. 36, 54, 101) and that Gregorian chant is “especially suited to the Roman liturgy” (116), topics we were unable to address here specifically, but it also never said anything about the priest facing the people. Thus, in the liturgy of Paul VI, we have seen a rejection of the conciliar teachings, not “obedience” to them, as he called for. If we wish to be truly obedient to the conciliar texts, then we ought to follow the wisdom of Ratzinger and Sarah. Indeed, if we do not restore the beauty proper to the liturgy, then we risk apostasy. As Ratzinger says, if liturgy is oriented toward man, “it becomes an apostasy from the living God, an apostasy in sacral disguise” (Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 23). 

In the final analysis, if the Church is the bride of Christ, then Christ must be at the center. As Cardinal Sarah explains, “For us, the light is Jesus Christ. All the Church is oriented, facing East, toward Christ: ad Dominum. A Church closed in on herself in a circle will have lost her reason for being. For to be herself, the Church must live facing the living God” (emphasis added). Thus, a restoration of the liturgy, particularly in its physical orientation, will assist in bringing about a restoration of the life of the Church, for the whole Church, in the sacred liturgy, will be oriented toward Christ and united in prayer with him, awaiting his return and the eternal liturgy in Heaven.