Thursday, June 28


Motu Proprio as Ressourcement

In the 1930's and into the 1940's, a handful of Jesuits and Dominicans began a movement to ground Catholic theology and liturgy in what they saw as forgotten aspects of the Church's history - that is, the theology of the Church Fathers and the organic development of the liturgy thorugh time. They felt, correctly, that the regnant neo-Thomism at the time with its emphasis on the Aristotelian philosophia perennis, and corresponding tendencies in liturgy to view the Mass as unchangeable in its Tridentine form (later brought out it with a vengeance in traditionalist claims to a "Mass of the Ages"), were unhealthy for the Church and needed to be informed by a better historical sense which could in turn influence the present. This was not a kind of antiquarianism, and indeed Balthasar helped remind the patristic wing of the Ressourcement of the dangers of such a tendency in his brilliant essay "The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves," as Pius XII correspondingly did in his liturgical encylical Mediator Dei. The success of the Ressourcement, however, helped to influence the works of de Lubac, Balthasar, Bouyer, Gilson and others, whose work laid the groundwork for the necessary reforms of Vatican II, and who deeply influenced Wojtyla and Ratzinger in their early years.

This influence on Ratzinger, I think, helps to explain what he is about to do with the liturgical motu proprio. Few of informed mind would accuse Benedict XVI of being a "traditionalist" in the usual implications of this term, and indeed he would reject such intra-Church labels as unnecessary and indeed highly problematic ideological intrusions on the unity of the Catholic faith. This would then suggest that he is precisely, and in some ways ironically, offering a broader use of the Tridentine Mass, and a more positive image thereof, not as so much of a return to past use for its own sake but precisely in order to bring about a healing in the tradition, to separate tradition in its proper sense from its distortion at the the hands of ideologies, both in traditionalist and progressivist forms.

To illustrate my point, I refer to Fr. Mark Massa's penetrating historical and sociological study Catholics and American in Culture, in which the Jesuit analyzes, among other things, the First Sunday of Advent, 1964, that is, the first day that "the changes" in the liturgy began to take their sweeping effect. This is, in some sense, precisely when "traditionalist" and "progressivist" camps started to stake out their territories in the Church, to wage the "liturgy wars" in earnest, and we have been with them ever since, less so in some places than others. This is what gave us the clown Masses on one end and unnecessarily austere and recidivist Tridentine celebrations on the other. It is to this point, then, that we must in a sense return and seek healing, seek the organic development that for various reasons did not occur at that particular point in time. There are places, indeed, that can help us, like Corpus Christi in New York, places that implemented "the changes" but indeed continue to be homes to highly traditional and beautiful worship without the baggage attached to traditionalism.

The "Tridentine" Mass confronts us, then, with tradition - tradition in need of revitalization in many ways, but a great tradition nonetheless. It confronts us also in a tradition in which we are not defined by being particular sorts of Catholics but by being Catholic, and invites us to learn how to do this again without grinding our ideological axe. It invites us to return to the moment when it began to be violently abolished rather than gently modified, and to bury the pain and fear that have resulted on all sides since then, rather than to take it out on others. To forgive absolutely and free of charge, despite temptations to hold grudges and to speak bitter words. Such actions would only confirm and deepen the notion that tradition is equal to traditionalism, something that comes off as negative and ideological, unwelcoming and with an axe to grind.

We ought, then, to return to the moment symbolized by that First Sunday of Advent, with a mixture of gratitude and trepidation - gratitude for the second chances the Lord offers us, trepidation about repeating the mistakes of the past and letting the wounds of time open again instead of healing. We ought to place ourselves in this time precisely to seek what Vatican II offered us - a true sense of lay empowerment, not the forced "People of God" rhetoric of the 1960's but the notion that if we don't like the way the liturgy is celebrated, to do something about, to help bring about an organic development. We see the fruits of this already in things like this past weekends CMAA conference. As laypeople, we should seek neither to ensconce ourselves in an old-fashioned "Father knows best" clericalism nor in a newfangled but essentially similar clericalism of the lay where priestly functions are arrogated to others. Rather, we can take our proper place as people with something to say and indeed to offer for the sake of good liturgy, for the glory of God.

This means, then, forsaking agendas, forsaking demagoguery and triumphalism. We should neither cling to every iota of past forms nor seek to create ever new and more insipid forms. Rather, what the liturgy invites us to do is to live in illo tempore, in the time of our encounter with Christ in which he speaks to us, and in this time learn to worship him in spirit and in truth. In so doing, we must in a sense return to 1964, not on our way to 1570 or 1970 but on the way to an encounter with Christ and a Ressourcement of our liturgical tradition that is ever ancient but ever new.

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