NE OF MY FAVORITE Catholic authors is Frank J. Sheed, a vigorous Catholic apologist and author of many fine books. He was the finest flower of that remarkable preconciliar “golden age” of Catholic apologetics and popular theology to which, even now, we do not have anything exactly comparable. Sheed’s book Theology for Beginners is an accessible, refreshing, and illuminating book that every single Catholic ought to read at some point in his or her life; the larger Theology and Sanity, laid out on similar lines, is a masterpiece by all standards. And I could mention many other books, all worthy of study.
This is why I was so surprised at a little book of his published by Sheed & Ward in 1968, entitled Is It the Same Church? Coming from the pen of this great man, how disappointing it was! Reading between the lines, it sounds like Sheed is feeling plenty disturbed at what’s going on in the Church by 1968, and yet he more or less forces himself to put a good face on it all, rather than following the heroic path of men like Dietrich van Hildebrand who fearlessly identified the errors that were causing the confusion and who responded to them with cogent arguments that still nourish serious Catholics today.
Perhaps the most dismaying chapter is the fifth, “Mass and Eucharist,” which, in response to the serious objections people were making back in the mid-sixties to the increasingly radical and senseless changes in the Church’s liturgy, repeats the comfortless truism that “the Mass is the Mass.” Sheed seems to think that all you have to say is: “Look, the changes don’t affect the essence, so give up your attachment to the accidents!”―which is a superficial position, both devotionally and theologically. A hippy priest wearing love beads could say Mass in the great outdoors with teenagers singing pop songs and roasting marshmallows over a campfire, and it would still be THE mass. But come now, is this the way that our Lord wants His sacrifice to be represented among us and applied to us? Would it be fitting either to the objective reality of the holy, immortal, awesome, and life-giving mysteries of faith or to our subjective grasp of their meaning and our preparation for partaking of them? Has not our Lord offered us guidance in this matter over the course of twenty centuries of tradition, church councils, and the papal magisterium? Is there no such thing as a profound schooling by means of the celebration of the liturgy, and a worship we pay to God through the very forms we use?
The Sheedian answer―which is all too commonly heard in conservative circles―effectively dismisses as inessential everything other than the words of consecration. Yet this position leaves itself wide open to the critique of Schmemann, for whom the corruption of Western liturgy is proportional to the increasing isolation of the act of transubstantiation as the one “moment of divine activity” in the entire liturgy. While Schmemann is incorrect about many aspects of the history and theology of the Latin liturgy, he is correct to posit corruption as the inevitable result of insisting on the inessentiality or accidentality of everything other than the Eucharist qua confected sacrament. This reductionism―traces of which, incidentally, are seen not only in the Cartesian ethos of the Novus Ordo but also, within the context of traditional Catholic worship, in a determined preference for the Low Mass over the High or Solemn Mass―reflects a shallow grasp of the ecclesial meaning, cosmic dimensions, and heavenly archetype of the Eucharistic Sacrifice itself, a lack of attentiveness to the total signification of the rite in and through the rich intertwining of all its parts.
Apropos the same historical period in which Sheed was writing, Robert Fay observed:
[T]he Christian faith, and the Catholic Church in particular, have been in full-cultural retreat since the 1960s…. Yet there was another revolution in the 1960s―an internal Catholic one―that was in many ways as profound as the one taking place in the streets of Paris, New York, and London. It was a liturgical revolution, and it impacted each and every Catholic at that most fundamental unit of faith―Sunday morning Mass.
With typical forthrightness, Fr. Zuhlsdorf explains what happened, and, by implication, what must be done in order to address the catastrophe:
The Church’s identity was dealt a massive blow with the sweeping changes to Holy Mass and other rites during and after the Second Vatican Council. Paul VI permitted the Consilum, the committee set up to execute the changes mandated by the Council Fathers, to go way beyond the Council’s mandates and make a staggering number of changes not actually called for by the Council. The result was the artificially constructed “Novus Ordo.” Making matters worse, the “spirit” of the times so deeply quaffed by liberals short-circuited even the faithful implementation of the artifically created Novus Ordo. The results were wide-spread liturgical abuses and illicit experimentation, a loss of continuity of worship from place to place and with our forebears, and a grave enervation of our Catholic identity. With the weakening of our Catholic identity, we also became weaker in the eyes of the world at large and therefore easier to drive from the public square.
What, then, is the answer to this crisis? It must begin with the peaceful acceptance of the wisdom of Pope Benedict XVI, who said to every one of the world’s bishops in July 2007:
What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.
Once the Mass of the Ages has won the “proper place” that belongs to it, we may then begin to speak with humble truth of a new springtime in the Church.
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