N MY LIFE, I have often encountered people who say something like the following to Catholics who love the traditional liturgy—or, for that matter, who wish to see the modern liturgy celebrated in a manner manifestly in continuity with its predecessor:
“You’re making too much of incidental things. No matter what form or style, it’s the Eucharist, isn’t it? Whether Latin or vernacular, Tridentine or Novus Ordo, sung or spoken, in an American auditorium or a European cathedral, the Eucharist is still present, and we are still nourished by it. Compared to this, nothing else really matters, does it? The rest is accidental, external, debatable, changeable. In fact, someone who gets caught up in ceremonies, rubrics, music, and so on, just shows that he’s been distracted from what is essential. After all, the Mass is the Mass.”
The problem I have with this all-too-common line is that it radically underestimates how the way we worship influences what exactly it is that we believe (lex orandi, lex credendi) as well as how prepared we will be to receive our Lord in the right spirit of adoration and humility when He does come to us. It reflects a modern materialist anthropology where nothing matters except “getting the job done”; whether the job is done nobly or poorly seems to matter a great deal less. It displays a breathtaking naivete about the subtle intersection of the sacramental economy with human psychology. It represents a break with twenty centuries of Catholic thought and practice.
Yes, the Holy Eucharist is always the Holy Eucharist; but are we ourselves approaching this august Mystery with the hushed reverence, lively fear of God, concentrated solemnity, and generous outpouring of beauty that we owe to the Sanctissimum? If not, why not? What does this say about the purity of our faith, the ardor of our charity? Have the sacred mysteries ceased to impress us, fill us with wonder, send us to our knees, summon the best of culture? Whom are we kidding—God or ourselves? The Mass is “just” the Mass as regards the confection of the Eucharist, but a Mass that is reverent and solemn in character is very different as regards us and our relationship to God than a Mass that is rapid and vapid, or one that is long and yet wrong. In fact, if we damage the so-called externals too much, we will end up undermining faith in the Real Presence.
THE MOST HOLY EUCHARIST is the Church’s greatest treasure, gift beyond price, mystery, source of wonder, privileged secret. It is the pulsing heart of all her apostolic and contemplative life. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the exclusive means by which this gift comes down to us, renewed for each generation of disciples. Dishonor or abuse the Mass, make it appear to be less awesome and mysterious than it is, and you dishonor or abuse the One who comes to us through it alone. You deform the faith and the faithful.
Sacred music is the clothing of the naked word—and what beautiful clothing it must be, to be worthy of that divine utterance! The Church building is the home in which our Eucharistic Lord dwells: Emmanuel, God with us. It, too, must look unmistakably what it truly is. Vesture, furnishings, ritual actions—in short, everything that pertains to the carrying out of the liturgical action—should be like the Precious Body and Blood: holy, sacred, set apart. All that is not the Lord ought to be His visible throne, His consecrated dominion, beautiful, solemn, and awesome, that we may know that we are welcoming our King when He comes into His kingdom.
So, the next time someone says “the Mass is the Mass, after all,” you might consider replying: “Jesus is not just Jesus, He is the Son of God, the Ruler of All, Judge of the Living and the Dead; and the Mass is not ‘just’ the Mass, it is the Holy Sacrifice of Calvary made present again in our midst. And as any sane person would fall down on his knees before Jesus * and give Him the very best he could, we should all do the same with the Sacrifice of the Mass, since, in truth, we are falling on our knees before the Lord of heaven and earth—and one can rightly demand this of every single Catholic priest and layman who dares to set foot in a church.”
[ * Note: While Byzantine Catholics do not often kneel in their liturgy, they show their profound reverence and adoration in a hundred other ways that would put to shame lukewarm Roman Catholics. My point is not about kneeling as such but about making sure the realities of our faith are reflected and embodied in our actions and in the objects we build or use.]