All posts by Sean Connolly

Sean is a teacher of History, Latin, and Choir at the high school level and parish music director. He keeps his domestic church in ordered disarray with an equally beleaguered and altogether lovely lady and his little daughter.

The Three Falls of Christ

Like Christ, we are condemned to suffer and to die because of sin. He suffers willingly and innocently; we suffer, in the beginning at least, unwillingly and guilty.

If we suffer as unwilling criminals to the end, we will die a criminal’s death. If we learn to suffer willingly as Christ did, and take encouragement from His way, we will suffer and die as He did, with merit and victory, a redeeming death that brings life to ourselves and to others.

If the death of Christ is our victory and example, if His moment of ultimate defeat is our supreme triumph, then His falls, the moments of greatest discouragement on His holy way, should be our encouragement in the face of obstacles.

Christ did not have to fall on the way to Golgotha. He willed to fall in order to teach us. Some mystics number the falls of Christ at seven, each one a reparation for the seven capital vices. The traditional fourteen Stations of the Cross number his falls at three, and it is upon these three falls that I wish to devote this brief meditation.

Consider before we begin the parable of the sower. If we confront the place sin still has in many of our lives, it is easy to look at the parable of the sower and become discouraged, or even to despair. For some of us, we see how from the earliest years of our free choice, in spite of the grace of holy Baptism in our infancy, we have chosen against God. Surely we are the path on which the Word falls and is devoured at once.

Others see their pristine fervor diminished, perhaps after a significant life change or trauma, and have fallen into sinful habits. Are these not the rocky ground?

Still others see how they were led from the path by sinful companions, and have had the grace of God choked out of their souls by bad companions. How can these friends be anything but the thorns that choke the Word?

Few indeed are those souls who can look honestly at their own lives in Christ and find no reason to doubt that they are the good soil.

But the Way of the Cross is our way, as well, and the falls of Christ, if we let them image for us our spiritual stumblings and failures, illuminate this parable and impart unquenchable hope amidst the darkest moments of self-doubt and despair.

Christ falls the first time immediately after He has taken up His Cross. He has barely touched the wood or begun the long walk up the hill when He collapses under its weight. Many of us fall so soon after we commit to taking up our own crosses. Perhaps we fall into the same sin we have just confessed, or fail to persevere in a regimen of prayer just a week or two after we have begun. It is perhaps for us, when we are surprised by the weight of our new crosses, that Christ fell this first time. Christ, on His way to rise from the dead, rises from this initial fall. We, too, are invited to rise with Him once more and follow Him more earnestly, and more cannily, to our resurrection.

It is after this fall that Christ is afforded three comforts on the way to the Cross. First, He meets His Mother. While she is herself immediately our help and our refuge, she also depicts for us those whom we love that God has placed in our lives to help us bear our sufferings. And since Christ could not help Himself carry His Cross, Simon was compelled to carry the Cross with Jesus, so that we might know that crosses were not meant to be carried alone, and so that we would always seek the help of Christ Himself, who is to us as Simon was to Him.

Then, as he walks, Veronica removes her own veil and wipes the sweat and blood from His face. She unveiled a heart overflowing with love and compassion for Christ, and willing to give whatever she could to assist Him.

And yet, immediately after these three comforts and helps, Christ falls once more. How often do we set off eagerly and over-confidently after some moment of great consolation and religious enthusiasm, the seed apparently springing up at once, only to find ourselves so soon in perhaps a worse place than before, its roots not penetrating very deep? How often do we ask for and trust in the help of Christ, only to fall again? Lest we doubt that He does help us, or let our moments of encouragement become occasions for despair, Christ allowed Himself to fall at this point, so that He, rising once more from this fall, might invite all of those who have fallen in their moment of greatest consolation to rise with Him and once more to follow His way.

Finally, Christ meets the weeping women, who do not perceive that He carries this Cross for them. Seeing them, Jesus is saddened. Immediately He falls. But His resolve was not choked off by this pitiful sight. He rises again amidst the thorns and carries on. We too, though we are discouraged by those around us, who cannot understand our sufferings or lend us any aid, are invited to rise.

In the face of these consoling falls of Christ, who, then, is condemned in the parable?

No one but those who refuse to rise again with him, who let themselves become the barren path, the rocky ground, or surrounded by choking weeds.

Any sin can be forgiven except the sin against the Spirit; the sin that denies the power of God to forgive, to quicken, and to restore what has been lost. Christ rises from His falls, just as He rises from death, that we might have hope and faith enough to rise from ours.

Choral Music in the Churches: Part I, Inculturation

When I imagine liturgists, this is what comes to mind:

Dalek Meme

Inculturation, the adaptation of liturgical texts, languages, rites, and, most especially, of music, to respect or reflect the sensibilities of various peoples, while certainly a watchword in the postconciliar Church, has been a reality from the very beginning of Christian history.

At some point in the earliest years of the Church, we witnessed the divergence (whenever it was) of Aramaic, Greek, and Latin liturgy, alongside the emergence of the very unique Ethiopian tradition, amongst many others. Later on, history records the translation by Sts. Cyril and Methodius of the Greek liturgy into Old Church Slavonic, the fusion of the Frankish and Roman traditions of ecclesiastical singing into the Franco-Roman body of sacred song that would come to be known to the ages as Gregorian Chant, just to name a few representative examples.

In each case, these adaptations have come about by the conspiracy of legal fiat and organic growth, growth often born in response to the legal change. When Pope St. Gregory the Great in the 6th Century declared that, on weekdays, the petitions would be left out of the litany in order to draw attention to the meaning of the prayer contained in the formulaic response “Lord, have mercy” alone, he set in motion the process that would eventually express that humble and profound prayer for the Church and world more beautifully than any litany could. This gave birth to a text simple and supple enough to inspire music that moves as freely as a setting of Alleluia, but, unlike that cheery text, uses that freedom to convey the depth of this suffering world’s need for God’s loving help and great mercy:

Or, to take another instance, when Charlemagne insisted that the Church throughout his Empire should sing as the Roman Church, the exchange of master chanters that followed actually led to a mixture of the two traditions, and to their eventual harmonization into the so-called Gregorian chant. While those in authority may have a certain vision in mind when they set about reforming worship, what results often far exceeds it in scope, and lies certainly beyond their control.

While inculturation is often viewed as liturgy’s response to the culture in which it finds itself, history reveals that it is just as much, if not even more, that culture’s response to the liturgy.

It is interesting to see these two perspectives juxtaposed in the Magisterium of the 20th Century. On the one hand, in 1903, we have St. Pius X writing about sacred music in his famous Motu Proprio Inter Sollicitudines, which, in addition to containing the seeds of the liturgical reform and of vocal, congregational participation as a major priority of the Church, also contained the seeds of the modern discussion of inculturation. He writes:

“[W]hile every nation is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them.”

Notice here that St. Pius assigns the agency of inculturation to the nations themselves, acknowledging the historical fact of the matter, especially obvious in sacred music, that cultures will attempt to suit the liturgy to their sensibilities, and to adorn it with their own contributions. The role of the Church’s authority is neither to encourage nor to discourage this, but rather to ensure that this natural process does not weaken the link of any local church’s liturgical prayer to that of the universal Church.

Contrast this attitude with paragraph 40 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which enjoins:

“The competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, must, in this matter, carefully and prudently consider which elements from the traditions and culture of individual peoples might appropriately be admitted into divine worship. Adaptations which are judged to be useful or necessary should when be submitted to the Apostolic See, by whose consent they may be introduced.”

This attitude assigns the agency of inculturation to ecclesiastical authorities, whose responsibility it is to adapt the liturgy to the local cultures by incorporating local customs or traditions into the rites themselves, in an effort to render them more effective and edifying.

In broader context, this is a missionary attitude, echoing the Slavonic liturgical books of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, music sung in Iroquois during Mass in the missions, and the Chinese Rites controversies during the reign of Benedict XIV, which were especially fresh on the mind of the Council Fathers after the recent reversal of that pontiff’s negative judgment under Pius XII. In a preceding paragraph (38), the Council acknowledges this:

“Provisions shall also be made, when revising the liturgical books, for legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions, and peoples, especially in mission lands, provided that the substantial unity of the Roman rite is preserved.” [emphasis mine]

It is also interesting to note in this paragraph the subtle change in expectation for the inculturated liturgical project. Whereas St. Pius X expects that this will exhibit practical unity throughout the Church, such that any Catholic from anywhere in the world can hear another culture’s liturgical music without scandal, and indeed come away with a good impression, the Council expects only that the substantial unity of the rite be preserved.

Reading immediately postconciliar commentators on Sacred Music, such as Joseph Gelineau, Lucien Deiss, and others, one cannot help but suspect that this relaxed expectation flows in part from a certain skepticism about even the possibility of music that truly transcends culture, an attitude that views art as intelligible only within its own cultural context, and incapable of aspiring to universal human values. It is similar to the view that yielded the “dynamic equivalence” model of translation for liturgical texts set forth in the 1969 document Comme le Prevoit, a model which at its worst views languages and cultures not as interactive, living realities, capable of absorbing other syntaxes, constructions, and thought patterns, but rather as frozen, hermetic realities, sealed in their own prison of self-reference, into which no new thought can be introduced unless it is expressed in the way it would have been expressed, had it originated in the target language and culture.

What I am arguing for should not be construed as cultural insensitivity! It is obvious, to take one example, that the Our Father (which, as an aside, 21st-century man is able to recite just fine with all its “thees” and “thous”) is both good English idiom and a literal translation in a way that so very nearly all of the pre-2011 ICEL prayers are neither. And no one can doubt that our language, Germanic though it may be, has been enriched by the liturgical idioms (“Lord, have mercy,” for instance) carried over quite literally from the Latin & Greek, and by all of the Hebrew words carried straight over without concern for translation. We are fortunate that, as of 2002’s Liturgiam Authenticam, the Church now recommends literal translation where possible, and dynamic equivalence only where absolutely necessary, and then discreetly and, as the document puts it, “soberly”. This represents a matured understanding of the way that languages respond to ritual texts, and are more enriched by a faithfulness to the content of the prayers than by any attempt to reproduce their “impact” on worshippers in the target language (supposing we have any native speakers of Latin on hand to experience and describe that “impact” in the original language). It also represents a renewed aspiration for that universality in worship called for by St. Pius X, in which local usages of the Roman rite are experienced harmoniously enough to engage and edify the faithful of whatever nationality.

With the 2011 translation of the Roman Missal, the American Church is once again able to experience a Gloria, responses, prayers, prefaces, and Eucharistic Prayers that are the genuine equivalents of those prescribed by the universal Church. Like tuck-pointing a building, this kind of restoration is not glamorous business, and its benefits are invisible to most; the inconvenience and expense of the work are what are most obvious to many. Possibly most of the response to it will consist of complaints. But the good it is accomplishing, though invisible, is real.

But how can this practical, experiential unity, the kind envisioned by St. Pius X, that is now being recovered in the language of the liturgy be recovered in the music of the liturgy? Dare we yet assert that musical expression might not be entirely culturally relative? That the people of one culture are not only not hermetically excluded from appreciating the music of other cultural expressions, but that they may adopt these modes of expression, take ownership of them and, perhaps by the addition of some local color, actually contribute to them?


Certainly this has been the case with popular music, and there’s a strong argument to be made that the same has been true for sacred music, which I hope to tackle in my next post.


Enviably, I recently canvassed a room full of young people, my students, about church attendance.

The occasion was an all-school Mass earlier that day. A non-Catholic student broached the question of worship style, repeating the decades-old platitudes about young people abandoning the faith because of boring music and dull liturgy (for the record, the singing at this Mass was supported by electric guitar and bass). It took the 21 high-school students in the room about five minutes to demolish these assumptions utterly. At best, they concluded, popular music would make the Mass more tolerable if they were forced to go. It would not, however, make them into churchgoers.

This jives with my own experience. I know many faithful Catholics who are sincerely attached to contemporary or charismatic worship, for a variety of reasons.

Sometimes that music and style were for them a new lens through which they could see through to the Gospel past negative experiences in the past that were associated with other styles of worship.

Sometimes it was simply the environment in which they had first worshipped God in spirit and in truth after their conversion, their “earliest love songs,” as Michele Chronister so ably put it in her recent post, “The Grace of Those 1980s Hymns”.

But in all my conversations, including this one, I have not met any Catholic attached to contemporary worship whose attendance at Mass depends upon the presence of a drum set; rather, they are present faithfully at Mass because Our Lord is also present. Musical style is a preference or, at most, a sentimental attachment with deep personal meaning to them, but never a sine qua non.

Rather, what emerged in our conversation as a class was a much deeper crisis among young people, a crisis that is much more difficult to address than worship style; it is a crisis of faith. In some ways, it is attractive to think that the reason the Church is hemorrhaging millennials is because millennials do not like sacred music, vestments, and incense, and can only stand rock concerts and raves [demonstrably false in a significant number of cases, but that is beyond the scope of this article].  Music and worship style are something we can easily control and adjust; if that were the problem, we could solve it instantaneously by papal fiat. What we cannot control, and can only dispel with great difficulty, is the climate of unbelief to which young people are exposed and subjected by forces beyond our control.

The picture of the unbelieving high-schooler that my students imparted to me was that of a creature overwhelmed by data. A single Google search will yield more “refutations” of Catholic truth than you could consider and refute in a single lifetime. The orthodoxies of ten thousand world religions, and all of their sacred texts, and all of the finest works of their greatest mystics, sages, and theologians, may be summoned with a few keystrokes. Again, more than anyone could undertake to read, let alone consider, in a lifetime. And what of their heresies and schisms, equally well-articulated?

So, sanely, young people defer their judgment in particular matters to experts: scientists and their parents.

From the scientists, and from the technology on which they read and listen to what they have to say, they learn that a materialist, reductionist methodology has domesticated the laws of nature and made them into man’s servants. They learn that supernatural explanations for many natural phenomena have been overturned, and they are told to expect more of the same in the near future. They are used to unbelieving scientists speaking with bold confidence in the public sphere about the death of religion and the triumph of rationality, and they are conditioned to believe that the system of thought these scientists espouse provides them with as many motives of credibility as there are pieces of technology that they use every day.

On the other hand, from their parents, who are (and rightly so, according to the Church’s mind) viewed by their children as the expert teachers of religion and morality, too many of my students appeared to have learned complete indifferentism. I was actually shocked at how often my students claimed that their parents had encouraged them to “make their own decision” in matters of faith, teaching them about religions, but making no particularly strong case for any one of them. This, when contrasted with the confidence of the materialist Gospel’s zealous evangelists, has presented them with a fairly obvious choice: one of these people really thinks there are reasons to accept his religious beliefs, and one does not. Who is to be believed? And what of the apparently sincere parents of deep faith who are unable to articulate not merely apologetics, but the kerygma of the Gospel?

In Genesis, God does not grant Abraham a son by Sarah until he has attained faith and demonstrated complete trust in God, for He wishes to raise up spiritual descendants to Abraham, not just sons of the flesh. Any spiritual children that we are to beget must also inherit from us faith, not simple enthusiasm.

Faith is more than attraction, than entertainment, although nothing is more desirable to the one who possesses faith than worship.

Faith is more than apologetics can ever demonstrate, since it does not merely imply that the claims of Christ are credible, but that belief in Christ is compelling.

Faith, we are told, comes by hearing.

In a religiously pluralistic climate, it is easy for unbelief to articulate itself in singular contrast to every other viewpoint, just as it was once for monotheism. The materialists provide a way out of the whole confusing mess, a confusing mess inhabited largely by the half-convinced, and very many millennials find that quite attractive.

If we cannot articulate the foundations of faith, the singular uniqueness of the Gospel in contrast so many other claims and religious traditions, how can we ever hope to be heard?

If I claimed that I knew how, I would obviously be selling snake oil.

The Worship of Relevance

To study any subject at depth is, in a certain way, to lose one’s innocence.

Before the Copernican revolution, it was easy, indeed natural, to perceive that the sun, the moon, and nature itself all contribute to a delicate balance that permits human life to go on. After the revolution, although nothing changed about the interrelationship between these elements and human existence, that intuition became increasingly inaccessible to us. At first, we were thrown off by the re-centering of the cosmos; then, the sheer scope of the Universe began to overwhelm us, and we were incredulous that such a vast Creation could have any particular care for us. Of course, we are a very important piece of Creation, and scale is no impediment to the focus of a limitless divine mind. In fact, we can appreciate this truth more deeply we understand the scale of the Universe. But our naivete, our innocent, intuitive grasp of the essence of the subject has been lost in the process of sounding these depths, and is only recovered with difficulty.

The twentieth century saw the first serious attempts at an historico-critical study of liturgical worship in the Catholic Church, although something of the kind was of course attempted during the Reformation as the Protestant Reformers tried to repristinate their liturgies. It seems apparent that, in the course of this study, we lost in a significant way our innocence before worship.

Before this research was done, somewhat lacking in historical perspective, we had been prone to perceive in liturgical worship a received set of rites, from Christ, more or less directly, by which we were to worship God and gain sacramental graces for salvation. This intuition, free of the baggage of historical and critical research, spoke primarily to the why of worship.


Increasingly, however, a more historically-informed Church has become bogged down in questions of the how of worship, in large part because she has come to understand more or less scientifically the distinctions between the essential and non-essential elements of the rites. We perceived first very clearly that the liturgy was anything but a static, that it has been subject to great change and variety across lands and centuries, and we then began to seek a criterion by which such variety and change was to be accounted for, judged, and, at last, proactively employed for the improvement of liturgical worship in our own day. Thus, the pastoral judgment emerged naturally out of the discussion of the history of liturgy, at least in those circles where liturgical worship was still a practical, living reality.

Now, the pastoral judgment is related at its deepest level to the why of liturgy, but it is primarily expressed in terms of the how of liturgy, and its practical effect has been to reincarnate the very rubricism, an obsession with externals to the point of forgetting the essentials, that so many of its proponents had hoped it would help to overcome. I would argue that this neo-rubricism is best felt in a tendency to view worship that is not pastorally perfect as essentially inaccessible to worshippers. No scholar since the Reformation would hold that position strictly, I think, but it is an attitude I have come across time and time again amongst the faithful. It is probably born of a radical change of approach: rather than convincing the worshipper to understand the eternal relevance of worship, placing the problem at the level of catechesis, we instead view the ritual itself as problematic, and attempt to render the worship relevant to the faithful by means of relaxing rubrics and increasing expectations for inculturation.

What we blame, we change, sometimes radically, sometimes radially, occasionally  both.

Attempting to render worship relevant to the faithful: anyone who works in liturgical music, as I do, understands how daunting this proposed task truly is. It is difficult today to imagine a time when a significant portion of liturgical musicians firmly believed that the reintroduction of properly interpreted Gregorian Chant, which was supposed to have to the utmost the quality of “universality” that St. Pius X stipulated be present in all sacred music, would render any liturgy pastorally ideal, but I’m not certain that our present goals are less of a pie in the sky. Now, instead of restoring a universal, timeless ideal, a daunting goal, but concrete, we are called upon to have worship that is contemporary, inculturated, that does not aim too high nor undershoot the faithful, and that facilitates the easy musical participation of the entire assembly, while, according at least to the letter of the law, preserving the “treasure of inestimable value” that is the musical tradition of the Catholic Church, according to the Second Vatican Council.

This implies a positively uncanny ability to read the gathered assembly like a book, to make choices that will speak to, engage, and make the worship relevant to all (or nearly all) present. It comes as perhaps no surprise, then, that some of the most successful liturgical musicians in this new environment, Marty Haugen and Michel Guimont (NPM’s Pastoral Musician of the Year for 2015), have significant background in Psychology as well as in music!

I have been the odd man out in too many choirs and assemblies to believe for a second that it is possible to make the magic choices that will reach everybody. Extend our idea of the worshipping assembly from the weekly, predictable collection of locals to any Catholic whosoever that wanders into our parish for Mass, and we are entirely defeated. Indeed, in most parishes that emphasize this approach, the congregation ends up age-, race-, and preference-segregated:


or perhaps even in age-segregated age-segregated groups:

A young-people’s edition of a youth hymnal. What does this say about our mindset?

It has been my experience that over-emphasis on the importance of these choices (which are important to a point) often obscures the purpose of worship, and even highly active, involved, and committed members of the faithful can miss the point of liturgy and worship to an astonishing degree.

As an example, someone I know who is very involved in their parish and who has been entirely formed in this environment of assembly-tailored pastoral liturgy, once told me that they went overseas, and, after a single Mass in that country, quit attending altogether, because they “got nothing out of it,” as it was not in English.

Compare this experience to that of my in-laws, regular attendees of the usus antiquior, who on a recent trip found Mass at a Vietnamese Catholic parish a very edifying experience, despite literally none of the pastoral effort at that Mass having been directed towards them. They were able to see past the externals to the real act of worship in which they were able to take part.

If the rubricism of the past prevented the priest from seeing past the legal requirements for the chemical composition of altar candles to the act of worship he was celebrating, this new rubricism has so obsessed us with the externals of worship that we forget that, as members of the Body of Christ, we are not only entitled, but actually empowered, to participate in any act of the Church’s public worship whatever in the deepest way possible: by joining our prayers to that of Christ who acts in the Liturgy, and by our worthy sacramental participation in the Holy Eucharist, that makes us one in Christ, even if those around us are singing His praise in Vietnamese.

It is possible, as it has been in cosmology, to recover our old innocence before worship, in spite of our knowledge. It is true, Christ may not have worn a maniple or said the Roman Canon. But the rites we have received are indeed from Christ, for worship, and confer grace.

If we refuse to worship because we find the rites irrelevant to us, are we worshipping Christ, or relevance?

The Relevance of Worship

This coming Sunday is the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, and it was with a quote from the Secret Prayer of this Mass that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council began their discussion of the Sacred Liturgy. They wrote that it is the liturgy of the Church through which, as the prayer says, “the work of our redemption is performed.

If we took this teaching seriously, we would never allow ourselves to be convinced that discussions of the liturgy are in any way secondary to the works of mercy, peripheral to the Christian life, needless bickering over mere externals, or a waste of time. The passion of those who take part in these discussions on all sides is, when charitable, appropriate. An indifferent apathy is inexcusable.

The liturgy is the work of Christ for our redemption in and through His Body, and all our works, however mighty, must pale in significance before His work. As the Council says, “[E]very liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree.”

What we can do of ourselves is nothing; what we can do through Christ who strengthens us is limitless; but what Christ wills to do through us in the sacred liturgy is more than we can possibly imagine.

Indeed, it is from and towards the sacred liturgy that all of the other activity of the Church flows. Again in the words of the Council, “[T]he liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord’s supper.”

Worship is the end, not the means, of our apostolate, our works of mercy. If the word “Mass” carries with it the note of sending forth, it is that we are sent forth in order to return again, bringing with us yet more souls to join in Christ’s prayer of praise and sacrifice to the Father as members of His Mystical Body. It is in corporate worship that we are given a foretaste of the heavenly Jerusalem, and in the heavenly Jerusalem we will be forever engaged in an act of corporate worship.

Indeed, worship, especially liturgical worship, must always be a paramount concern of Christians, even in the face of what appear to be more urgent difficulties, for no problem is more pressing than a soul that does not hunger to sing the praise of God.

Hagiography is replete with examples of this attitude among even the martyrs. For instance, the heroic Jesuits who, in spite of real danger of death, returned to Elizabethan England to minister to recusant households were consumed with zeal for the house of the Lord, however humble they found it.

The journal of one of these men, I think it was of Fr. Robert Persons, S.J., recalls his careful attention to the worthy appointment of the home chapels of the nobles who harbored them, which had often been cared for negligently by half-hearted chaplains, and to procuring vestments of suitable quality for the sacrifice. As he saw it, the celebration of the sacred liturgy as worthily as possible, even in such trying times, was of paramount importance to putting the spiritual life of the recusant nobles back in order.

Or think of Bl. Titus Brandsma, who, imprisoned by the Nazis, recited the prayers of the Mass and much of the Divine Office each day, fashioning for himself a kind of religious life even under such difficult circumstances. Perhaps more telling, as his captivity wore on, it was this life of prayer and praise, rather than the political concerns of the outside world, that consumed ever more of his energy and attention.

As he writes in his letter of January 28, 1942, in which he details his rigorous daily routine, “At ten o’clock I start writing. During the first days I was occupied in writing an answer to the question Why do the Dutch people, especially the Catholics, resist the National Socialist Movement? I tried to give an answer in eight pages like this one. Now I am trying during my hours of writing, to fix my impressions of the time spent here; furthermore, I am writing the life of Saint Teresa. . .”

I find it fascinating that a man imprisoned for speaking out loudly against a political ideology could, so quickly it seems, lose all interest in writing and thinking about politics, becoming totally immersed in a hidden life with our Lord.

Strengthened by such an inward life, even the greatest suffering can be made sweet. As he wrote the previous day, “Blessed solitude! I am already quite at home in this small cell. I have not yet got bored here, just the contrary. I am alone, certainly, but never was Our Lord so near to me. I could shout for joy because he made me find him again entirely, without me being able to go to see people, nor people me. Now he is my only refuge, and I feel secure and happy. I would stay here for ever, if he so disposed. Seldom have I been so happy and content.”

And these lines, I think, throw the whole question into very sharp relief. If a hungry, sick, poor captive could write such things, if the love of God can make even imprisonment in Nazi Germany sweet, what becomes of the works of mercy? Even though we understand and emphasize the importance of the works of mercy, we do not, I think, often have a clear sense of their goal. If we are to be servant Church to the world in need, why?

One answer to that is perhaps that the whole world is not Bl. Titus Brandsma, but it should be.

In light of Sacrosanctum Concilium’s teaching on the apostolate and its relationship to liturgy, I think that all of the world’s problems could be summed up quite concisely thus: Souls do not burn to praise their Maker. And it is in response to this problem that the Christian is to act in the world:

Wherever burning hunger and thrist burn more strongly than the fire of divine Love, we are to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty.

Wherever the biting cold puts out that fire, we are to clothe the naked.

Wherever souls feel alone and unloved by God and by others, we are to harbor the harborless.

Wherever suffering and pain cause souls to forget the goodness of God, we are to visit the sick.

Wherever souls are despairing in chains, wherever by force or intimidation their faith is threatened, we are to ransom the captive.

And when a soul departs this life, we are to bury the body and pray that she may join with the angels and saints in praising God without end.

In short, wherever the trials of this life present a stumbling block for souls, an obstacle to their praising God, the Christian must be there to relieve, refresh, and invite that soul to renewed love of God.

Our goal as Christians can never be a full tummy, a wet whistle, new threads, nice digs, health, freedom, or earthly life itself, not for ourselves, and not for others. We will each lose all of these, in the end, no less than did Bl. Titus, one by one. Rather, our goal is gratitude, love, worship – communion with one another and with Our Lord, both here and hereafter. When we take our place in liturgical prayer, we have one foot in heaven already, and we should take that opportunity to keep our eye on the prize.

An old Folk Mass favorite puts this thought remarkably well,

…and unless there is, we should pray
that soon there may be one true brotherhood,
and we’ll all join in and sing:

Here we are, all together as we sing our song joyfully,
Here we are, joined together as we pray we’ll always be.

The Other Side of Pilgrimage

Many of us have been pilgrims, walking the paths saints have trod before us. How many of us have been saints, treading paths worthy of pilgrims yet to come?

We can fly over land and sea, at great discomfort, and greater expense, to see the places sanctified by Brother Francis’ simple life of poor service. We can walk the streets of Assisi, we can visit the place of his imprisonment, we can pray within the Portiuncula. But how many of us sanctify the halls of our homes by living lives as St. Francis did? Would anyone be moved to pray in the places that we lived, 800 years after our death?

If not, do we cling to pious excuses to justify ourselves? St. Philip Neri, after all, no mean model of holiness, used to declare, “Say not what great things the saints of God do; say rather what great things God accomplishes through his saints.”

How many of us think of this saying not as an indictment of ourselves, but as an excuse for half-heartedness? Have you ever caught yourself saying, “If God wanted me to go the extra mile, He would give me special graces; I can’t do it on my own”? Is it not rather a mark against us that God is not now working wonders in our lives? I do not pretend to know the hidden designs of the Almighty; rather, the Church teaches us that the call to holiness is universal, given to every man, woman, and child on earth who ever was and who ever will be. And what but sanctity is the distinguishing mark of the saint?

God has called us all to be saints, and instead we find ourselves living lives of little zeal, little constancy, and little fruit. How characteristic, then, that we cling to our comforts and, twisting the words of great saints, somehow manage to blame the whole thing on God. How terrible to realize that we can know for certain that God is calling us, aiding us, pushing us constantly to live in imitation of Christ, and yet, in spite of Almighty assistance, to see how often we fall.

For what, after all, is Assisi but the place in which one man, and one woman, allowed God to work fully in their lives? Do we not all live in our own Assisi, right now? And if we can’t see that, why not?

Perhaps, as Francis once did, we still hope to win glory in war, or to make our fortune as merchants.

And yet St. Francis did win glory in war against his sinful pride, and in selling all he owned, profited himself eternal life; he became his city’s most beloved son. He was the best of knights, fighting for the best of Lords, the most successful of merchants, and, far from ruining his family’s hard-earned good name, found brothers and sisters across the world and down the centuries. Why should empty ambition hold you back?

You could make a pilgrimage this Lent, and it would hopefully be fruitful. Or, this Lent, you could make the place you live a place worthy of pilgrimage, following radically the footsteps of St. Francis and of all the saints before and since.

The Worlds of Difference an “S” Can Make

When it comes to revising old hymn texts, I am typically a curmudgeon.

I find excision as it is usually practiced a patronizing exercise in turning gorgeous old texts into meaningless drivel that avoids supposedly difficult or archaic words. Such excision includes but is not limited to: half-inclusivization of language and the removal of all “thees” and “thous” except those that are significant to the rhymes, both of which often result in a significant loss of immediacy, turning arresting moments of direct address into sterile and colorless statements of fact in inelegant verbosity.

The beautiful text of “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People,” for example, is habitually eviscerated in OCP and GIA resources, that is to say, in about 99% of all Catholic hymnals in regular use in the parishes. Since “Ye” is old-fashioned and not in common use among men on the street, the editors thought it appropriate to mangle the sense of the opening line, changing it to “Comfort, Comfort, O My People.” No longer is it a command from the Lord to the singer to “comfort…my people,” but now it is an address to the people themselves to “comfort,” which I suppose means either to comfort each other or, through some trickery, to “be comforted.” No longer is the listener to open prophetic lips and tell Jerusalem that God has covered “her sins.” Instead, the people themselves are to speak to Jerusalem, to “tell of all the sins” God covers.

A yet worse offense is found in some GIA editions containing “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” In these resources, the first verse is literally reduced to ungrammatical nonsense, the verb “descendeth” having been changed to the participle “descending” to avoid the antiquated “-eth” termination. The problem? “Descending” is not an equivalent form; the sentence (or at least the clause) becomes a fragment and demands resolution, which it never receives:

Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.

Becomes, Christ our God to earth descending, our full homage to demand.

I suppose a true cynic could add, Christ our God to earth‘s descending, our full homage to demand, but that would be, frankly, crass.

And what is the purpose of all this? It is simply to underscore the axiom that is reiterated in a zillion OCP ads for “Spirit and Song” (which I notice has recently reverted to standard capitalization and spacing) that “today’s Church” is unreachable by yesterday’s great hymns of faith, unless these hymns be thoroughly purged of all words not likely to be heard at the local sports bar. This is, of course, nonsense.

Today I taught the choir of my parish school “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” It took me two seconds to explain that “thy” is an antique form of “your,” something of which they already must have had some idea thanks to the Our Father which, unlike the Angelus, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be, to my knowledge nobody has seriously contemplated purging of its archaisms. When I told them this, they replied, “Oh, cool,” and moved on.

Thus have I solved the problem for which some of the mightiest texts ever written have been brought low and made stupid. It is my strong suspicion that nearly every other pastoral musician in the world could do likewise, and that the Church’s sung prayer would be much richer for it, and much more expressive of deep continuity with our past.

There is, nonetheless, one form of revision to which I do not object, an updating of sense when the update reflects the even greater light and profounder depth with which we perceive the awesome mysteries of faith today than in the days in which the text was written.

I’ll give just one example.

My very favorite Christmas hymn, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” is from a text written in the 4th Century by Aurelius Prudentius, a Roman lawyer turned ascetic and Christian hymnographer. The original text, “Corde natus ex parentis,” is a gorgeous reflection on the eternal begetting of Christ and His birth in time. Its finest translation into English was by the Anglican priest John Mason Neale in the 19th Century, as indeed were the finest translations of much of the rich patrimony of Latin hymnody.

But Neale  did not restrict his translation to the literal sense of the Latin words. He allowed himself minor alterations, updates, one of which I find particularly poignant.

The Latin original of the first two lines reads:

Corde natus ex Parentis,
Ante mundi exordium

Which literally translates, using nonetheless the rest of Neale’s renderings:

Of the Father’s love [lit. heart] begotten,
‘Ere the world began to be.

But at this point Neale allows himself to translate “mundi” not as “world,” the singular in which it is written, but rather as “worlds,” reflecting the appreciation that was just dawning in Neale’s time of the vastness of the cosmos beyond our solar system, and whose scope we now know to to be incomprehensibly wide and ancient.

This one little “s” takes the awesome perspective of Prudentius, who conceived the wonder of Christ’s eternity against a finite world which, as he saw it, we would consider quite young and quite small, and reminds us that we Christians who dwell in this century must now attempt to appreciate the same mystery, the same eternity, the same infinity, not against the cosmos as Prudentius saw it, but rather against a universe that seems almost endlessly vast and ancient to us.

This is added depth. This is an “important update.” Not insipid, but inspirational.

It’s a pity we waste so much more of our time on the other kind.


On Holy Saturday night, I met a woman whose son has a disorder on the autism spectrum known as Sensory Processing Disorder. As she explained it to me, this amounts to an inability to tune out any information coming in by the senses, making focused functioning in anything but extremely tranquil environments very difficult.

The interesting corollary of this disorder is that most normal-functioning people, therefore, are able to get along productively only by tuning out most things most of the time. We have the ability, to be sure, to take in whatever sensible is in our immediate environment, but we do not ever do so. We marshal our senses to our goals, and we filter our environment for those data that strike us as relevant to attaining them.

It has been a long time since I have written. I think I’ve been undergoing the intellectual equivalent of SPD. My conceptual life had become nearly completely monochrome, nothing had any pop; I was mired in inputs, each seeming to make an equal demand on my attention, my time, my consideration, and my composition.

On the whole, I found it a profoundly healthy experience. We are, in fact, completely belittled by the sheer potential that we possess by nature. The interrelationship of all knowledge, the integrity of the Universe itself requires that, for the complete satisfaction of our intellectual enterprises, we must attain complete command of all possible data. In fine, mastery of every subject, no matter how obscure or arcane, and a thoroughgoing understanding of its relationship to every other subject. Douglas Adams conceived of a machine that could extrapolate the Universe from a piece of sponge cake. From the other side, it is the whole Universe that yields a piece of sponge cake, and any depth of understanding to which we can come about that sponge cake is, by virtue of our limitations, necessarily incomplete. How, then, can we decide to eat it?

I think it only natural that, having realized how microscopic our intellect is against reality, we should experience a certain paralysis of will. Responsibility demands that we act with knowledge; but if we cannot even know all the possible choices available to us, we cannot hope to act responsibly in any meaningful sense of that term.

When I was an undergraduate in a public university, there was a small forum on religion held in the lobby of my dorm. At the time, I found myself disappointed in the Catholic speaker and more sympathetic to the representative of Islam. The Muslim, you see, was offering extensive philosophical argument for his position, and he came off as quite well-considered and reasonable. The Catholic speaker merely dwelt on the Faith as a response to a divine invitation. While I still feel that his presentation was inadequate, I think his approach was much more correct. If we do not benefit from the true perspective that God can offer, we are bound to act either irresponsibly or not at all. Even if my final approach was something like what the Muslim was suggesting, an acceptance of intellectual propositions on the basis of argument, nevertheless it would require some intervention beyond my intellect to put me in the traffic pattern, to put the appropriate questions and arguments before my intellect.

It will be, then, either the light of God or the fires of passion that illuminate our path and give direction to our intellect and will. The more I reflect, the less it seems possible to me that any man should act on impetus of his reason alone. Do not doubt the good faith of those you meet, but remember that all men are led either by God or by their passions; the purely rational man is simply an absurdity, unless he refuses to act altogether.

I suppose this meditation has also impressed upon me the need for constant, serious, listening prayer, as well as serious combat against the passions. If we do not dispose ourselves to follow God at His leading, we will either suffer from SPD of the soul, or we will allow our passions to tune out the graces that God tries to give us.

Remember Newman’s verses:

Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!

Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.

May such be our prayer.

Why Bother to Learn Anything At All, Anyway?

There are way more things to know in this Universe than you have the brain cells to record, and any one field of human study has probably by this point generated more data than a human mind, with a lifetime of study, could internalize.

We should feel small standing up against the ocean of numbers, names, dates, vocabulary words, genealogies, and scientific observations that human minds have recorded and passed down from the beginning of history. And that is just the bare facts. We should feel even smaller standing before the Frankensteinian behemoth of secondary sources, of analyses, theses, syntheses,  hypotheses, of theories and theora, of postulates and conjectures, the half-living, half-dead piecemeal that makes up all of our sciences. Enter the meta-philosophers, the cross-disciplinary geniuses, the historiographers, and the historians of ideas, and we have an even more imposing edifice before which the deflated individual mind may shrink.

But all of the above comprises merely those facts that humans have been able to accumulate over our few thousand years of history and our rational response to them. More than by all of this knowledge, we are dwarfed by our ignorance, by all of the facts that are still beyond our reach, and by all of the theories that would be necessary for us to make sense of them.

If we were supposed to come to know and understand all of reality in our 80 years, if knowledge as such was the purpose for which we were born, we would be utterly doomed to failure. The scientist, the philosopher, the mathematician, the literary critic, the historian, for all of their efforts, can only ever end their inquiries with yet more questions.

It is right, then, to suppose that the man who thinks himself bright has little to offer. There won’t be an intelligentsia in heaven, but the dimmest light in the Kingdom will know more than all the snobs of this age put together. Stephen Hawking knows very little in comparison to the knowledge a baptized, drooling, screaming infant would receive at the moment of death.

If such knowledge is to be ours, then why the search for mere facts here and now? Why the itching, burning desire to discover more and more? It’s a reasonable question for a Christian to ask.

There is, after all, a kind of gnawing doubt that is characteristic of this age, a prurient interest in all things contrary to our position, an addiction to polemic, the never-ending need for the rush of dialectical victory, the sweet sensation of a belief successfully defended, of re-affirmation. Do we claw after knowledge so as to cling to a faith whose substance is constant doubt deferred?

Do we learn merely so as to be of use, to learn new ways to suppress the vices and encourage the virtues, more effective ways to practice charity?

Rather, reality is of a piece, and everything is interesting. Everything we learn, at a minimum, gives us new ways to glorify God in the here and now, more opportunities to respond to His grace with thanksgiving, and so to remain on the path that will take us to full knowledge of and with Him in heaven. As long as we retain the hunger to learn, the yearning to know–and in large part we retain this by continuing to learn–we retain the hunger for the fullness of knowledge, for the Beatific Vision, and this hunger helps bend our recalcitrant wills heavenward.

Beyond this, knowledge is a good in itself, something whose full value we cannot appreciate until we possess it, and perhaps not even for some time after we have come into possession of it. Someday we, like Stargate’s Daniel Jackson, may find such arcane and apparently useless knowledge as fluency in Egyptian hieroglyphics critical to a matter of life and death, of national security. Or, indeed, in our case, critical to the salvation of souls.

Why I Don’t See the New Evangelization Coming to Much Anytime Soon

Flecte quod est rigidum.

I write inspirational quotes on the dry-erase board
in the servers’ sacristy at my parish
in illuminated calligraphy
whenever I have occasion to go in there.
For the Feast of the Nativity, I wrote,
“Venite, adoremus.”

I am told that a lector,
noticing that I had done this,
objected to this text because,
“It would not do anybody any good,”
since, it being in Latin,
they could not understand it.

He asked the deacon what it meant
and wrote a clumsy interlinear translation
beneath the text.

But as Bede observes,
Neque enim possunt carmina,
quamvis optime composita,
ex alia in aliam linguam ad verbum 
sine detrimento sui decoris
ac dignitatis

In our misguided zeal
to vernacularize
absolutely everything
all the time
we have experienced a loss

of sensitivity,
contenting ourselves
with approximations,
losing our desire
to understand the depth
of the original text,
having no appreciation
for the beauty of expression
found in the original language alone.
We have also experienced a loss

of sense,
missing much,
and neither knowing,
nor caring,
since we have long since
lost our senses.

The same prelates
who chant the Veni Creator
from memory
on their way into the conclave
hardly take any care,
so it seems,
to share such treasures
with their own flocks.

How can a New Evangelizer
be sensitive to the culture
of the unevangelized
if he takes offence
at the Christian culture
of centuries past?

How can he find the value,
the usable gleanings,
the baptizable insights,
the teachable moments,
in the secular world,
if he figures
that the texts,
the prayers,
the ceremonies,
that the Church enjoins Him
to pray and to live,
to love and to make his own,
and that centuries of Saints
have prayed and lived,
loved and owned,
hold nothing of value
for him now?

And in this we are shamed
by the culture we wish to evangelize.
For the non-Catholic composer
Morten Lauridsen
has written gorgeous settings
of Latin liturgical texts
long since passed over
in silence
in most of our churches,
reminding us,
from the outside,
of our own treasures.

Listen, if you haven’t heard.
313,000+ people have sought out
on YouTube
what we thought
would drive people away,
as some ossified, insensitive people
still dogmatically assert.

Fove quod est frigidum.

At four of the five Christmas Masses at my parish,
the priest went out of his way to tell the faithful that,
on the Feast of the Nativity,
in order to honor God’s humbling Himself
to become Man,

to be born in a stable,
to bear with the frailty of our state,
to suffer the scorn and contempt of men,
and to die the shameful death of criminal on the Cross,
all out of love for us,
though we had sinned against Him,

that those to whom He had given
the grace of Baptism,
a share in His divine life,
the freedom and opportunity
to worship Him,
and whom He was about to feed
(for all partake)
with His own precious Body
and Blood spilled for us,

should humble themselves
to genuflect at the words,
“And by the Holy Spirit
was incarnate of the Virgin Mary
and became Man.”

The priest went forward to the altar
at this point in the Creed
and knelt.

About half of the congregation
Sort of tried to.
Most of those got up
after “And by.”
The rest
couldn’t be bothered.

At the Mass where Father said nothing,
No one even bowed.

How can we tell the world
what we have found,
and what we believe,
if we do not believe it enough,
if it does not mean enough, for us
to go down on one knee
for five to ten seconds
in church?

People do not prefer
the enthusiasm
and energy
of megachurches
to the deeply reverent,
physical, and symbolic
liturgical worship
of the Catholic Church:

Perhaps they like them both,
but most people only ever
know where to find the one.

Most people only ever
have experienced the one.

But the Catholic Church
has room for both,
each in its proper place.

Veni, Lumen cordium.

I recently failed to live up
to a major commitment I had made
to complete a job in a timely manner.

I allowed myself to become angry
with the man for whom I was working,
because, after all, I was not getting paid,
and who was he to demand work,
when I was not even being compensated?

I was blind, and my pride was hurt,
when he accused me of lacking
the virtue of justice.

I was lacking justice, though,
and prudence,
and maturity,
and humility,
and patience,
and fortitude,
and charity.

I had agreed to do something
I had never done before
on a timetable whose feasibility
I could not even venture to judge,
in the face of many other
commitments and responsibilities,
and I irresponsibly, out of pride,
and without reflection,
continued at every turn
to recommit myself.

Even if I had never acted in that way,
had I never been asked to do the work,
I would still have lacked those virtues.

Had God not sent this holy employer
into my messed up life
and allowed him to make
my diseased soul
feel pain and show symptoms
of its dreadful illness,
I may never have known
my own vices.

Now that I know, it is within my power
to gain those virtues by perseverance,
and by prayer.

Now that I understand that,
I am grateful for,
and reconciled with,
the man who let me see.
He has been a truer friend to me
than many flatterers.

What hand each of us has
in the brittle rigidness
and stone-cold lovelessness
that we see in evidence
in so much of the Church,
we must ask the Light of Hearts,
the Holy Spirit, to show us.

Perhaps behind our veneer of devotion,
we ourselves are cold and hard
to the warm and tender light
of the Gospel of Christ.

Perhaps we are truly devout,
but lack the fortitude
to take the light we have been given
and to preach the Good News
once more to the baptized
in confident humility.

Ox and ass before Him bow,
bathed in the radiant light
of His manger, unembarrassed
to show homage to their God.

We asses too may,
with grace,
grow so bold,

and our bray will be heard
’round the world.

His Burthen is Light

My training is in Classics. That kind of nearly obsessive focus on grammar bears some peculiar fruit in my day to day life. For one, I find it immensely difficult to sit down with a book and read it. Every sentence, no matter how prosaic, fascinates me.

Without meaning to, I find myself immediately engrossed in one problem after another — why did he choose to say it that way? Is that construction accurate? Unwieldy? — so I become engrossed in every problem, that is, but the problem that the author means to address and would have me consider.

The same holds sadly true when I read the Scriptures.

But singing Handel’s Messiah only exacerbates the problem, as small phrases and phraselets pass through my lips and my mind over and over again. Last night at rehearsal, after the fifth iteration of, “His burthen is light,” the part of my brain that puts things in historical and linguistic context shut down (completely) and the part of my brain that, in another life, would have made a fine 9/11 Truther of me kicked into high gear, and suddenly I started connecting things that never should have been connected, and that really couldn’t be connected. But it was beautiful. It was so, so very beautiful.

“His burthen,” I thought to myself, “is light.” I smiled. I grinned. I laughed. I had finally lost it.

But whosoever loses his mind for His sake shall gain it.

I had discovered that the Scriptures made a sense beyond sense. His burthen is light.

That is to say, His light is our burthen. For God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. And those who were wicked wished to hide from Him, for their deeds were darkness, but this is the true light that illumines every man coming into the world. His burthen, or rather, our burthen from Him, is His light. We pretend to have proved our Saviour’s words, in their intended sense, false, and often complain about the weight of our crosses. More often than not, however, it is no suffering that weighs upon us, no innocent pain borne innocently. The weight of our cross is the malice of our sins, tangled up in a web of emotion, psychological disorder, and a mess of pride. Or, at least, mine is.

It is the Light of God that is our heaviest burden, the burgeoning realization that our favorite dark corners will not always be there for us to hide in, that our deepest and most carefully guarded secrets will come out in the end and, in the meantime, that at any moment of any day, each of us may be exposed as a fraud. But the fear is compounded, for more often than not, we are not conscious selves defrauding others. We are sleepwalking selves deceiving ourselves, just barely awaking to our condition, aware that the entire dream is about to end, and the harsh reality of Monday morning will stand starkly before our eyes, a reality which we can no more escape than we can ignore.

Light is our Cross, or more, it is our Purgatory. For we will be purified by the flames of that Light before we cross over into the Light that brings us joy.

Too often we overreact against the Protestant opinion and find ourselves Pelagians, equally erroneous. We don’t save ourselves. The Calvinist, though overblown, is on the money. If we look back on our lives, we will surely find ourselves seeing, at some point, a wretched, miserable, weak, wimpy, spineless, gutless turd admiring his reflection in a toilet bowl, grabbed by the Almighty Hand and dragged heavenwards by the wrist. Unlike the Calvinist, however, we know that we can put up enough of a fight to stay in the bathroom if we want to.

Trusting in Christ is not trusting that Christ will save you (full stop). It is, rather, trusting that Christ will save you, if you let Him, and it is also the very act (or the very acts) of letting Him.

In Heaven our pride will at length pass away,
The Light will expose what we freely admit,
And the burthen, at last, of Light will be light,
The Light from the face of Our Lord, Jesus Christ,
The Savior who saves our selves from ourselves,
Giving us cause after cause without end
To praise Him alone, who alone is our Friend.

And he is meek and humble of heart,
And his yoke is easy, and burden light,
For those as meek and humble as He.

Rubricism, Juridicalism, and the Slavery of Preconciliar Catholicism

I have been nerding out since I discovered that has digitized the 1912 edition of the Decreta Authentica Sacræ Congregationis Rituum, which contains all 4,284 decrees the dicastery had issued since its establishment by Pope Sixtus V in 1588 up to that time, answering countless practical questions about the proper celebration of Mass, the Sacraments, and the Office according to the Roman Rite. It is a very timeless book, if you think about it, a volume added to, but never completed, by successive generations of cardinals, filled with very old statements that held immediate and practical relevance for parish priests and sacristans around the world for nearly 500 years.

Fascinating reading for anyone remotely interested in liturgy (and with a passable knowledge of Latin), and across the centuries you can see the Congregation responding practically to very contemporary concerns. Perhaps my favorite decree is SRC 3859, dated June 4, 1895, in which the question of electric lights is addressed. The Congregation determined that they may be employed to “dispel the darkness and more brightly light the churches,” but that they may not be used to “increase the exterior splendor of the rites,” and that every precaution must be taken “lest their use appear theatrical.”

In our day and age, of course, in which one cannot write an article about why the sanctuary is a meaningful liturgical symbol without being accused of  “sheer undisguised spiritual pride that rolls off their tongues without a hint of self-awareness,” the mindset that gave rise to decrees of this kind, in such great volume, about such seemingly minute and trivial details, is certainly counter-intuitive, probably unfamiliar, and likely unintelligible to most. Our mindset is more like that of a priest who, as I was preparing the music for Mass once and realized that I had inadvertently violated the rubrics, remarked nonchalantly that God didn’t really care what text I used for the Gospel acclamation.

I feel as if, in denouncing “rubricism,” we have perhaps inculcated in many of the faithful what amounts to a hatred of rubrics. I find this especially odd at this historical moment, when we are nearly obsessive about the subjective, rather than objective, aspects of liturgy.

It puzzles me that, on both sides of the liturgy debate, people behave as if what is aimed at by the rubrics is some objective state-of-affairs that, once realized, will bring tranquility and order to the Church. The progressives dream of a kind of liturgical ressourcement in which an appreciation for the origins of all the ceremonies of the Mass will show clearly their unnecessary character, and that, in consequence, an age of nearly absolute freedom in all but the most essential symbols will reign in the Church. I believe it was Dom Chupungco who even spoke of inculturation to the extent of replacing the Gloria with a completely vernacular composition of a similar character, among other things. This mindset, which may seem on the face like hypersubjectivism, is spun as the only appropriate response to a realization of the culturally-conditioned character of the Roman Rite, and hence proposals that could have been taken as subjectivist dispensations for certain cultural and pastoral circumstances (for example the dispensation for a vernacular and metrical Gloria in preconciliar Germany), but that also recognized the subjective value of unified prayer and the intercultural enrichment the Roman Rite could provide under ordinary circumstances (think of all the cultural notes that Gregorian Chant, a medieval monodic music, or Latin liturgy, still holds in even the most popular expressions of American culture, for example in Hollywood—who doesn’t “get” the baptism scene from The Godfather?), become instead an objectivist mandate to alter a perfectly sound on-the-ground state-of-affairs for esoteric reasons.

For a deeper discussion of this perspective, see Fr. Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered, in which he advances the thesis that the failure of modern missionary activity lies with the mixing of what is essentially a Roman tribal recension of Christianity with the simple and undiluted seed of the Gospel, and that preaching the “core” of the Gospel in a highly inculturated way (he went so far as to alter even the parables, rather than to teach the Masai the significance the characters in the parables would have had for Jews at the time) and allowing the culture itself to supply the rites for the celebration of the Mass and Sacraments, would yield more abundant and lasting fruit.

On the converse, I get the sense from many traditionalists that their pastoral theology is taken from Field of Dreams, and that a pure, streamlined, rubrically and musically full and precise iteration of the Tridentine Mass will simply exert a mystical attraction on the faithful, who will be drawn magnetically into the fold, and that it ought, if possible, immediately and definitively supplant any and all other expressions at least of the Roman Rite, if not of Mass itself, given its objective superiority.

But rubrics, on the whole (and certainly not the detailed ones) aren’t about imposing what is objectively superior or academically accepted. Rather, rubrics are aimed precisely at safeguarding subjective expressions of the faith, and at enabling the faithful to live stable and fruitful spiritual lives in which they are at home. The idea that rubrics are even supposed to aim at something that is “objectively best” is dispelled by the merest glance at the old Rituale Romanum’s rules for distributing communion. Unless compelled by necessity, priests of the Oriental Rite are forbidden from distributing communion under the species of unleavened bread. Unless compelled by necessity, priests of the Latin Rite are commanded to. The rubrics aren’t attempting to adjudicate whether leavened or unleavened bread is more fitting for the Sacrifice; both are acceptable. The sensibilities of the faithful, and the stability of their prayer lives, are so valuable, that Church law prevents ritual intermingling and attempts to preserve the integrity of each rite. Klaus Gamber speaks of the sense of “home” the faithful should be able to have in the celebration of Mass, no matter where it is celebrated. St. Pius X echoes this principle in his Motu Proprio on Sacred Music, in which he commands that, although inculturated music is to be encouraged, it should be of such a character as to strike any Catholic from any part of the world as sacred. This principle he calls the “universality” of sacred music.

I’m not a pastor, of course, but I do have years of experience in pastoral music, and I can’t help but observe that the breakdown in concern for seemingly trivial details and the radical localization of liturgy has all but destroyed this universality, this at-homeness any Catholic should feel in any celebration of his rite. And this isn’t a question of scholars in the pews judging those in the sanctuary on some esoteric principles of organic development or quality of presiding. Rather, these are the gut reactions of the ordinary Catholic with no especial theological training, to which I have been privy in abundance over the course of my career in church music. This is the lady who puzzles to the deacon, “Why is he singing all that stuff in Latin before Mass?” (she was hard of hearing; I was singing in English, but she should be able to feel comfortable with Latin in the Latin Rite, and not be struck with it as something from outer space). This is the man who can’t believe that we still think the same things about the Eucharist we used to, since when he was an altar boy he wasn’t even allowed to touch the ciborium, but now is all but expected to touch the Host itself. These are very practical concerns from very down-to-earth people, concerns that are voiced on both sides of the issue by people who often don’t know what to expect from Sunday to Sunday in their own parishes. Nothing is given anymore, and they are not at home anywhere, unless they are blessed enough to have a very rigorous theological training, and to be able to see the underlying unity of such widely disparate external ceremonies, and to have the presence of mind to completely spiritualize their experience of Mass to an extraordinary extent, ignoring the externals that annoy them or strike them as unfitting, that jar them and disorient them, and focusing completely on the latent spiritual reality.

But Trent reminds us that the ceremonies of the Mass are aids to our entering into the mystery, not difficulties to be overcome in trying to contemplate it. We may argue and implement ad experimentum ad nauseam, trying desparately to find the golden, pristine liturgical Nirvana that most beautifully encapsulates the Gospel, but in the end all this does is breed confusion in the Church, and discord among the faithful.

Like the dog staring at the other steak reflected in the stream, instead of being satisfied with the steak in his mouth, we, seeing the unnecessary and changeable character of so much of our liturgy, have in so many ways been overcome with lust for what could be that we have abandoned the good things we once had.

So what of the Decreta Authentica? They are a remarkable artifact, perhaps quaint to such a cavalier bunch as us, of an age in which pastors were deeply solicitous to iterate the liturgy faithfully and accurately for their flocks (this is not to ignore the many and varied liturgical abuses that prevailed at the time!), to preserve the unity of the Roman Rite, and, in deferring to the judgment of a higher authority on minor matters, to ensure that there was no occasion to offend the sensibilities of the faithful or to arouse discord among them. And that, we may perhaps see by reflection, is no paltry sum, and is certainly not an undesirable state of affairs.

I’ll leave you with a thought from the preface to the Liber Usualis, the book of chants that prevailed before the ritual reform:

“Holy Mother the Church has received from God the charge of training the souls of the faithful in all holiness, and for this noble end has ever made a happy use of the help of the sacred liturgy. Wherein — in order that men’s minds may not be sundered by differences, but that, on the contrary, the unity which gives vigour and beauty to the mystical body of Christ might flourish unimpaired — She has been zealous to keep the traditions of our forefathers, ever trying diligently to discover and boldly to restore any which might have been forgotten in the course of ages.”

I think this is a true account of the “why” of rubrics and of the importance of tradition with a little “t.”