Thursday, March 16, 2006

Musings on the October Synod

by Peter A. Kwasniewski

There is no question that the 11th Ordinance Synod of Bishops that took place in Oct. 2005, dedicated to the theme of "The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church" -- a synod already announced by John Paul II but carried into effect by his successor, a theologian noted especially for his liturgical and Eucharistic focus -- was in many ways a fruitful ecclesial event, making allowances for the limitations of any such enormous gatherings of prelates.[1] Pope Benedict XVI was unusually present and accessible in the sense that he came to all the plenary sessions, listened with great care to the discussions, and participated from time to time spontaneously, as a brother bishop. He is clearly at home in discussions of this sort, the give-and-take of theological debate and pastoral deliberations. For their part, the bishops spoke freely, at times movingly, but without saying anything that could be described as a real surprise. The 700 or so media agents approved for the event had to leave somewhat disappointed that no items of a liberal agenda (such as married clergy in the Latin rite, or communion for divorced and remarried Catholics) were taken seriously, much less proclaimed to a world waiting for more validation of its habitual permissiveness.

What surprised me the most, however, was the astonishing lack of discussion or even the awareness of the most fundamental point of all in any attempt to come to grips with the Church of today and her Eucharistic life -- namely, the extent to which the so-called reform of the liturgy has been a disastrous failure. Here was a golden opportunity for some honest soul-searching, for the admission of collective guilt in allowing the riches of the Western liturgical heritage to be pitilessly scattered and buried, for the proposal of radical cures to confront a disease already far advanced. Here was a chance, dare we say it, for humble acknowledgement that what the majority of the Fathers of Vatican II had expected and desired in a liturgical reform was far, far different from what actually transpired at the hands of Bugnini's band, that the de facto abolition of the unbroken custom of ad orientem worship[2] and the associated destruction of sanctuaries and tabernacles across the world was a wretched mistake.[3] Indeed, though one cannot expect the pope of today to declare that the helmsman of the barque of Peter in the 1970s was asleep on the job and did not wake up until he sent Bugnini off to a foretaste of purgatory in Tehran, one could have expected the pope, or at any rate some of the bishops, to confront directly the key question: What has happened to the Roman liturgy of the Mass? Could it be that there was some connection between unprecedented liturgical experimentation and church redesign on the one hand, and the massive drop in devotional life on the other? In short, did something go drastically wrong, and can we take steps to undo the damage?

But my hopes that this would happen were repeatedly dashed. The first indication that the synod would be dealing with worthy but, in a way, second-level questions (as compared with the burning heart of the matter, the Mass) was when the ZENIT news service reported on some comments made by the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Cardinal Francis Arinze, at a press conference on October 13.[4] According to Cardinal Arinze, up until that point no bishop had mentioned the "Tridentine rite" at the synod -- which means no one had directly raised the painful question of the faulty reform and the inheritance it so grievously distorted, not only by wretched translations into the vernacular but also by the rationalist presuppositions and execution of the reform as such, which constitute nothing less than a break with Tradition, as Cardinal Ratzinger himself had observed in more than one publication.[5] Cardinal Arinze went on to say: "If there are groups that desire the Tridentine Mass, this is already provided for. Bishops may allow it for groups. It is not a priority for the synod, as no one has spoken about it." If you imagine a group of hundreds of bishops and even more assistants, and not one of them brings up a matter that is, for many reasons, at the heart of all that the synod is supposed to be about, does this not sound a bit like a conspiracy of silence?

As I contended above, the burning heart of the matter is the Mass in concreto, not he Eucharist in abstracto. One of the most common mistakes today is when people think that since the Eucharist is the greatest mystery of the faith, we should focus our attention only on it, and not bother so much about he liturgy, which is a secondary affair, (rather like the shell of a hard-boiled egg: when it comes time for eating, you break the shell and eat the egg). But it is not like that. The only way in which our Lord gives himself to us is through the liturgy that His Spirit has lovingly created inside the heart of His Bride, who is our Mother. The Eucharist is not a free-floating entity but a distinctively sacramental, liturgical reality. We cannot be transformed eucharistically apart from being habituated to a life of meditation and contemplation by the sacred rites of the Church. The attempt to cut off the sacraments and view them as independent wholes, almost like Platonic Ideas, forgets altogether the way in which sacramental life is always and essentially a liturgical life, inculturated in forms of a given age and place.

We have been through many phases in the history of Western liturgy, and there have been peaks and valleys. Yet never have we been through a collective desacralization and ideological rewriting of the rites such as the past forty years have witnessed. This is the true crisis that stands behind the more attention-getting crises in the Church; this is the deepest reason for the Church's amnesia of identity, her loss of political nerve, slackened missionary impulse, abandonment of pure contemplation, and whatever other evils we are suffering from (and there are truly very many evils, as Amerio, Ferrara, and Woods, among others have documented all too well).[6] When she -- when we -- knew that we had, at our heart, the ultimate and supreme mystery of the universe to which all glory, laud, and honor was to be given, from sunrise to sunset, the mystery in which man would find his strength and comfort, the healing of his wounds and the salvation of his entire being, in which the very meaning of life begins to be disclosed and the secrets of divine intimacy are make ours to taste, as we yearn in hope for eternal consummation -- when this was our daily bread we knew we had to celebrate it with all reverence and beauty, we had to preach it and teach it to the ends of the earth, we had to fight against every power that would dare to stand in the way of Christ the King of glory, Redeemer of the world. This summarizes the message of Leo XIII in one of his last encyclicals, Mirae Caritatis (1902), on the Eucharist as the life of the world and the only hope for modern civilization.

Far be it from me to suggest that the Fathers of the recent synod do not, in fact, believe that the Eucharist is mankind's only hope. The very title of their final document shows the contrary: "The Eucharist: Living Bread for the Peace of the World." Many things they say are perfect echoes of what Leo XIII said. Similarly the lineamenta prepared before the synod as well as the 50 Propositions that the Pope unexpectedly released afterwards contain much that is beautiful and valuable. But what is fundamentally lacking is an acknowledgement of the properly liturgical causes of the Church-wide post-conciliar crisis, and the corresponding acknowledgement of the liturgical remedy to the same. Until this is done, no matter how numerous or "pastoral" the documents, we will not be liberated from the prison of our own design. We will continue to be like captives who spend their time longing with sighs and groans for better days (or more terribly, who are hallucinating that better days are already her to enjoy), when all along the door of their cell remains unlocked if only they would try to get out. The one solution that is ours to begin implementing even now is the one thing that none of the bishops, according to Cardinal Arinze, ever mentioned. One wonders: are they afraid of mentioning it? Or are they really unaware that the Catholic investment house called Tradition is open seven days a week, especially on Sundays, ready to pay out massive dividends to its customers?

But the best is what Cardinal Arinze said last, surely unaware of the irony of his words: "The problem we have discussed [so far in our synod] is that many people don't go to Mass, and those that come don't understand -- they go to Communion but not to confession, as if they were immaculate." Could one hope for a better confirmation of the point we are making? "Many people don't go to Mass." Does the reformed liturgy not speak to them after all? Why did their parents go to a Mass they could not understand? And those who do go -- exquisite irony here, given that the main point of the reform was maximal intelligibility -- "don't understand" what it's really about or what's required of them in return for the Lord's precious gift of Himself. (The bishops in general worried about the loss of a sense of the sacred, the loss of knowledge that the Mass is a true sacrifice, the loss of belief in the Real Presence. A person who cannot see the connection between these problems and the botched reform -- which intentionally emphasized a common brotherly meal, downplayed the sacrificial and took away dozens of poignant ritual testimonies to the Real Presence -- has a lot of waking up to do.) Finally, "they go to Communion but not to confession, as if they were immaculate."[7] Is there a form of the Roman rite that duly accentuates man's unworthiness and sinfulness, his need of divine help and healing, pardon and peace? And is there a form that does not? Experientia locuta, causa finita may not be a catchy phrase, but it is the truth.

There was once a "liturgical culture" in which the sacrament of penance, the sacrament of the Eucharist, and the ritual of divine worship were all of a piece, proclaiming a consistent message, calling to conversion of heart and promising eternal life to the faithful -- a life that one could almost taste in the "tranquility of order," the sublime adoration, manifested in the very manner in which the mysteries were handled. No one here was tempted to think himself immaculate; the only immaculate one was the Virgin Mother of God, and it was precisely her omnipresent cultus that helped us to see how far we had fallen and yet how high we could rise again by imitating her faith and humility, taking hold of the Lord's strong right arm. There can be such a liturgical culture once more. But it takes time, patience, and prayer, and most of all it takes priests and bishops who are awake enough and courageous enough to size up the problem form its roots.

Alas, it seems the time for this sizing-up is still in the future. Among the bishops' own propositions, the second proposition, deliberately in a place of prominence, refers to the "beneficial influence that the liturgical reform implemented since the second Vatican Council has had for the life of the Church." As readers of these pages are aware, this is a stock phrase that is repeated in all official documents (e.g. John Paul II's commemorative documents on Sacrosanctum Concilium: Vicesimus Quintus Annus of 1988 and Spiritus et Sponsa of 2003), apparently without regard to mountains of evidence to the contrary; Michael Davies has often spoken of the "obligatory optimism" of the Vatican. There is, of course, no room for an obligatory pessimism. It would seem that realism ought to be the default position.

Cardinal Arinze was not the only one who bore witness to this profound lack of analysis, this baffling disconnect between cause and effect. Cardinal Marc Ouellet, archbishop of Quebec, admitted frankly in an interview with Inside the Vatican that testimony of the Greek Catholic bishops at the synod was immensely important because they had a much deeper sense of the sacred.[8] "Something very enriching was the experience of the Eastern Churches. They have different liturgies and they have a different sense of the liturgy and so to hear them speak about the holy Eucharist was very defining for us.... They have a deep sense of the sacredness, and so to hear them speak about the holy Eucharist was very edifying for me. In the West, we need to recover the sacredness of the liturgy." Again these true but vague wards point to the much more precise analysis that many traditional Catholics have already given, though it seems to fall on deaf ears: we in the West had that sense of the sacred, we had (and still have) the liturgy that preserves the original undivided sensus liturgicus of the whole of Christendom before the Great Schism. In terms of ethos, atmosphere, density of prayer and symbolism, High Mass in the ancient Roman rite has for more in common with the Byzantine rite than it has with the Novus Ordo.[9] The lesson Cardinal Ouellet and the other bishops should have taken away is that we in the West need to recover the birthright that Catholics in the East have never been foolish enough to sell away for the pottage of modernity. The Eastern churches give us a model, an inspiration, and a warning: the model of traditional worship in spirit and in truth; the inspiration to return to our glorious and much-maligned heritage; the warning that we shall never reform our church life until we make the worthy glorification of God our absolute priority.

Cardinal Ouellet rightly pointed out that "adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is awakening and developing all over the world and this will help to restore the sacredness of the liturgical celebration of the Mass." Nevertheless, as I said above, this is simply not enough. Even in a Western world where everyone venerated the Body and Blood of Jesus, as they ought to do -- a tall order for any century, not just for the present one -- such uniform behavior would not, in and of itself, automatically produce a liturgy worthy of the sacra mysteria. We would still be eating the divine banquet with plastic knives and forks. While in a state of emergency there is no reason to complain if the cutlery is substandard, in "ordinary time" the service, when God and His gifts are in question, should be extraordinarily good.

There is still a glimmer of hope, as always. The Fathers of the October Synod did not, as it were, carry off an October Liturgical Revolution. It may well be too soon, humanly speaking, for the radical response that is required. We may need a hierarchy of bishops impregnated with traditional liturgical piety who, at a Synod in (say) 2055, by an unforeseen and overwhelming inspiration of the Holy Spirit, arrive together at the realization that it is time to dig up that treasure buried in a field, the full liturgical treasure of the Roman Church, and to spread its riches far and wide. Perhaps someday the cry will go up and resound in the heavens: "Burn the polyester jazzubles![10] Re-consecrate the high alters! Bring back the tabernacle, the relics, the fiddlebacks, the schola contorum!"

Meanwhile, in these duller times of ours, we are only at the beginning of a long, long journey, and we cannot assume that things will get better and better; that is the obligatory optimism machine, not faith in a divine Providence that embraces both the bitter Passion and the glorious Resurrection. It is up to us to pray and to work -- ora et labora, as the pope's patron saint instructs his monks to do in the Rule -- so as to make ourselves the intelligent instruments of that same provident God, who with his Son is ever at work,[11] in open and hidden ways, for the authentic renewal of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

Te rogamus, audi nos!

  1. The important documents surrounding this synod are available at the Vatican website (; these include the instrumentum laboris of July 7, 2005 and the Message of the General Assembly at the Conclusion of the Synod, October 22, 2005. A number of Pope Benedict's homilies and messages in connection with the event are certainly worth reading.

  2. See the definitive study by U. M. Lang, Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004). It is no longer possible to call into question that the ad orientem stance goes back to the apostolic age and is, with great probability, fro the Apostles themselves, as St. Basil the Great (329-379 AD) placidly states in his treatise On the Holy Spirit, as if saying something obvious to all at that time.

  3. Michael Davies, no great friend of the Bugnini reform, nevertheless saw the need to demonstrate that there was nothing in the Council documents and even in the postconciliar legislation that mandated or even recommended reordering the sanctuaries and decentering the tabernacles (see his The Catholic Sanctuary and the Second Vatican Council [Rockford, Ill.: TAN Books and Publishers, 1997]). It is never required that the "president's" chair be in front and center stage; it is never required that Mass be celebrated "towards the people"; and, for a time at least, it was taken for granted that the ordinary of the Mass would remain in Latin, as it had always been. Yes the ambiguities and loopholes of Sacrosanctum Conciluim have been pointed out, but the fact remains that most of what is most distinctive in people's minds about the "reform" has nothing to do with the Council per se, and everything to do with the Consilium, Bugnini, Paul VI, slumbering and scheming bishops, parish councils, etc. In other words, let the blame be placed where the blame is due.

  4. See ZE05101305.

  5. A few good sources may be mentioned here. On translated texts, see Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, "The Catechetical Role of the Liturgy and the Quality of Liturgical Texts: The Current ICEL Translation," Comminio 20.1 (1993): 63-83; Eamon Duffy, "Rewriting the Liturgy: The Theological Implications of Translation," in S. Caldecott, Beyond the Prosaic: Renewing the Liturgical Movement (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), pp. 97-126. For well-researched critiques of the reform by orthodox Catholic theologians, see Klaus Gamber, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background, trans. Klaus D. Grimm (San Juan Capistrano, CA: Una Voce Press, 1993); Aiden Nichols, OP, Looking at the Liturgy: A Critical View of Its Contemporary Form (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996); Alcuin Reid, OSB, The Organic Development Of The Liturgy (Farnborough: Saint Michael's Abbey Press, 2004). For Ratzinger's views, see, among other works, The Feast of Faith: Approaches to a Theology of the Liturgy, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986); The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000); God is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life, trans. Henry Taylor (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003).

  6. See Romano Amerio, Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the 20th Century, trans. Fr. John Parsons (Kansas City, MO: Sarto House); Christopher A Ferrara and Thomas E. Woods, Jr., The Great Facade: Vatican II and the Regime of Novelty in the Roman Catholic Church (Wyoming, Minn.: The Remnant Press, 2002).

  7. Why is it that people now do not think themselves sinners? Why does Communion seem such a simple, lighthearted affair, almost like taking a potato chip? Could ever-multiplying lay "ministers of communion" or the giggling girls at the altar have something to do with this?

  8. See ZE05102107.

  9. Except when the Oratorians in England do it, but then they are the exception that proves the rule: the Novus Ordo has never been implemented in a way that makes it continuous with what came before, and the Holy See has not really lifted a finger to ensure that this should happen. The repeated warnings or regulations are no more than the feeble protest of a weak-willed parent against the tantrums of an unruly child. True liturgical reform would require the realistic measures of a St. Pius X who, to stamp out modernism, sent Vatican representatives throughout the world to make sure the heretics were identified and snuffed out.

  10. [Note from the Editor of the forthcoming Archaeological Dictionary of Catholic Worship: " 'Jazzubles' is a late 20th-century corruption of the original term 'chasubles,' which were the dignified, ornately decorated sacred vestments that priests used to wear in order to offer the holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It is possible that the proper name Jezebel had some influence on the corruption into 'jazzuble,' but etymological specialists are divided in their opinion on this matter."]

  11. Gospel of St. John, 5:17.
[Dr. Peter A Kwasniewski teaches philosophy at the International Theological Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, in Gaming, Austria. His article, "Musings on the October Synod," was first published in Latin Mass: A Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition (Winter 2006), pp. 16-20, and is reprinted here by permission of Latin Mass Magazine, 391 E. Virginia Terrace, Santa Paula, CA 93060.]