Sunday, April 15


Brief Book Review: The Mass and Modernity

The Mass and Modernity by Fr. Jonathan Robinson.

Spearheaded by the works of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, the "Reform of the Reform" movement regarding the liturgy has produced a slew of literature, much of it published by Ignatius Press. Presumed and to some degree documented in this literature is a narrative of something being wrong with the liturgy as currently celebrated in most places, and a need for something to be done about it. In this useful book, Fr. Robinson, of the Toronto Oratory, attempts to give a narrative of movements of thought that have influenced current thinking about the liturgy, as well as some helpful and pastoral suggestions for how to improve its celebration.

Robinson comes to the issue at hand with a philosophical pedigree, and thus the historical narrative in the first half of the book is primarily one of philosophy, highlighted by Kant, Hume, Hegel, and Comte as landmark figures in the troubled story of modernity and its aftermath. This narrative is a well-constructed and fair account of these thinkers, though I found myself wishing for a more theological narrative to bridge the connections made by various parties between these philosophical movements and theology, especially in the Liberal Protestant tradition and its Catholic readers, both theologians and more importantly (in my option) pastors (who get this tradition less from any deep theological reading than from a culture that produces popular religious work like The Purpose-Driven Church). In any case, Robinson does convincingly lay out trends that have influenced liturgical life in terms of, especially, functionalizing reality and removing from it any transcendent reference.

The second half of the book turns towards a theology of the liturgy and a practical proposal of solutions for how to "fix" it. Robinson is correct, I think, in his evaluation that a full-scale return to the Tridentine Rite is by no means the solution, since this would merely return us to the problems that initiated the liturgical reform in the first place, as well as fail to pastorally address the situation in the here and now (incidentally, he also raises another criticism of mine, that the "Tridentine" Missal of 1962 needs an updated liturgical calendar). Rather, he proposes, as I have elsewhere proposed, that further use of the Tridentine Rite can serve as a kind of "leaven" to foster an interpretation of the current Missal and its successors that emphasizes continuity with the tradition rather than the kind of discontinuity with which it has often been read on both sides of the spectrum. On the practical end, Robinson proposes several standard "Reform of the Reform" suggestions, such as increased use of Latin and the ad orientem position for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The only point in this respect that I found perplexing was his critique of the current Lectionary and its 3-year cycle, which I don't find particularly problematic, without much constructive proposal for what to put in its place.

All in all, The Mass and Modernity is a good read that provides a helpful survey of the state of the questions that can appeal to those at varying levels of education. Certainly, Robinson's narrative of modernity invites one to explore more deeply in the philosophical tradition and engage the sources, and his discussion of the Mass does the same. On a related note, for those interested and in the area, Fr. Robinson himself and other noted scholars, including noted scholar of early Christianity and Catholic convert Robert Louis Wilken, will be here at the University of Chicago next week in a Lumen Christi Institute symposium on precisely this topic, in the third floor theater of Ida Noyes Hall.

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