Saturday, March 01, 2008

Solemnity: The Crux of the Matter (Part One)

by Peter A. Kwasniewski

[Recessional, Solemn High Mass, St. John Cantius, Chicago]

At a recent conference on the sacramental theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas, I heard a speaker make the following statement:
It seems to me that most of the disagreements about the liturgy since the implementation of the reform initiated by the Second Vatican Council concern solemnity in one way or another.... Whether the arguments assert too much, not enough, or a wholly new understanding of the shape it should take, the question of a certain solemnity in the liturgy has been at the heart of almost all of the controversy.
Now, one might wonder if there could ever be "too much" solemnity, and one might also wonder if most of the committees who autocratically determine the fate of poor parishioners at Mass have given much or any through to the notion of solemnity in the past few decades. Still, the speaker was stating an important truth. The difference between good liturgy and bad liturgy, as far as the mind of the Church is concerned, often does come down to a difference between worship that is solemn, formal, and devout, and worship that is slipshod and superficial, with a decidedly casual air. So, I began to wonder: Why is the contemporary liturgy, as celebrated in churches across the world, generally so lacking in anything that could merit the description "solemn"?

* * * * * * *
The difference between good liturgy and bad liturgy, as far as the mind of the Church is concerned, often does come down to a difference between worship that is solemn, formal, and devout, and worship that is slipshod and superficial, with a decidedly casual air.

* * * * * * *

At first, I asked myself if this might be a fault endemic to the ordinary form of the Roman rite of the Mass, that which follows the Missal of Paul VI. But my happy memories of Oratorian liturgies in which the same Missal was employed with splendor and gravitas compelled me to acknowledge that the problem was not--at least not simply and altogether--a problem with that Missal as such, flawed though it is in many respects.1 It seemed to be more a problem with the people and their shepherds. It was caused by what parents call a "bad attitude."

This attitude might be characterized as embarrassment or (may the good Lord help us) boredom when it comes to the very idea of solemnity, the treating of anything with utmost reverence--the kind of reverence that issues in angelic music or silent contemplation. The result is, alas, more than a mere "lack" of solemnity: it is negligence or contempt of the solemnity demanded by the Eucharistic mystery. Even though it might be done properly, the ordinary form of the Roman rite is but rarely done in a spirit of comprehensive solemnity, whereas solemnity, or at a minimum, sacred dignity, is the very atmosphere in which the extraordinary form of the same rite lives and moves and has its being. The "Solemn High Mass" illustrates this truth with particular forcefulness, although High Mass (or a Sung Mass) and Low Mass are not far behind. Supported by the rich liturgical culture of thirteenth-century Europe, Saint Thomas Aquinas could calmly state: "Because the whole mystery of our salvation is comprised in this Sacrament [of the Eucharist], it is therefore performed with greater solemnity than the other Sacraments."2 Implied is that all Sacraments were (and should be) celebrated solemnly.

The death of solemnity--as witnessed by the schlocky music used at vernacular Masses, the way priests and servers are dressed and their relaxed bearing, the placement of a clunky table to function as a turned-around altar, the sign of peace (please find me a single layman out of a hundred who invests this ceremonial interruption with anything like a sacred meaning), and other such things--comes, ultimately, from a loss of faith, a loss of confidence, a loss of responsibility and spiritual authority. The priest seems no longer confident of his role as teacher, ruler, sanctifier sub et cum Christo. Such a crisis of confidence reflects the more general loss of faith in the ministerial priest's sublime vocation of standing in Christ's place, representing the Eternal High Priest.3 Loss of solemnity is directly traceable to loss of faith in the Real Presence, in the sacrificial nature of the Mass, and in the spiritual authority of the sacerdotal office. It is thus connected with a passive or active advocacy of the vice of insouciance toward divine things that makes them cease to appear divine in our eyes, even though they remain divine in themselves. Weakened, is the earnestness, undermined the solemnity, that comes naturally to a confident priesthood humbly serving the Holy Mysteries of God.4

The Fear of Ritual

One of the many errors that poisoned the liturgical reform was the fear of ritual, stemming from the view that ritual keeps people away, prevents the priest from "getting in touch" with the people. The new missal has been deritualized, or at least allows and even encourages the priest to deritualize the Mass by injecting the liturgy with extemporaneous remarks, by moving about in a causal manner, and by inviting into the sanctuary numerous unvested laity, which is totally contrary to the spirit of ritual or divine cultus. In Thomas Day's Why Catholics Can't Sing, there is an hilarious (and appallingly true) description of the schizophrenic liturgies generated by the current rubrics together with poor training and clueless custom: a clearly ritual ceremony performed by people who act as though the ceremony were not a ritual. The priest, wearing ritual vestments, processes down the aisle to the tune of a hymn. He arrives at the altar. He adjusts his microphone. He looks out to the congregation. He smiles, and then descends into utter banality: "Good morning, everyone!" Back to ritual: "In the name of the Father ..." Back to chatter: "Today, we remember that we are trying our best but are still failing, and so we go to the Lord for mercy." Back to ritual: "Lord, have mercy." Back and forth it goes, until he dismisses the congregation with "Have a nice day, everybody!"

* * * * * * *
The new missal has been deritualized, or at least allows and even encourages the priest to deritualize the Mass by injecting the liturgy with extemporaneous remarks, by moving about in a causal manner, and by inviting into the sanctuary numerous unvested laity, which is totally contrary to the spirit of ritual or divine cultus.

* * * * * * *

For a long time it struck me as bizarre that so few should sense the utter discontinuity between ritual and quotidian modes of address and bearing, but as I better sized up the mess of modernity, I saw how markedly anti-ritualistic and indeed anti-spiritual our age has become: anything outside the comfort zone of everyday speech about business or pleasure is alien, dangerous, and threatening, and people avoid that region of dissimilitude as much as possible. The Catholic liturgy, which is all about the sacred, the numinous, the mysterious, is diametrically opposed to the mentality of the Western "marketplace of ideas"; it runs against the grain of the ubiquitous modern lifestyle of indulgent materialism. Any traditional liturgy, whereby eyes and souls are focused on that which is above and beyond, is a serious threat to the triumph of egoism that the government, the school systems, and the private sector are all mightily struggling to bring about in every town and home. Never before have I appreciated so much the slogan: "Save the liturgy, save the world."5

We should be clear about this: There has been a war in modern times against martyrial meaning, that is, absolute truth worth dying for, worth giving up everything for. One of the main objectives of the nihilist Jean-Paul Sartre was to convince his readers that there was no "truth" to serve, worship, and die for, or put differently, that the only reason to live was to serve the "truth" of oneself. Perhaps this is why Sartre was such a notorious womanizer and drug-user, and so callously selfish: he did serve himself, with utmost consistency.

The Sartrean war against ultimate, transcendent meaningfulness has also been at work in the horizontalization and secularization of the liturgy. In many instances, liturgical celebrations are no longer intensely focused on God and spiritual realities--Angels and Saints, grace, sin, Heaven, hell. Adherence to spiritual truth is a martyrdom for the carnal ego: if one truly believes in the transcendent truths of the Faith, one must crucify the "flesh," which in this case means fallen man's tendency to cheapen, neglect, forget, or treat lightly the dogmas and rituals of the faith. Every phrase of the traditional Mass is worth dying for, because every phrase brings to us (and brings us to) Christ the Lord. The moment one looks upon it as a merely human construct to be tinkered with, to be socially engineered, one has abandoned the martyrial stance toward tradition and truth that has marked all the saints of our holy Church. Can you for a moment imagine Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Francis de Sales or Saint Pio of Pietrelcina tinkering with the text of the Mass, or sitting down to a committee meeting that has on its agenda the creation of new Eucharistic prayers? (As the saying goes: "God so loved the world that He did not send a committee.") The saints accepted with grateful hearts what was handed down to them and used it to sanctify their lives. They were ready to explain and defend the prayers and practices of their ancestors, even if it meant enduring torture and death at the hands of infidels or heretics.

I sometimes wonder about the Consilium or the original ICEL team: what were their spiritual credentials--not their academic qualifications, their pseudo-scientific blustering, their convenient curial connections, but, I repeat, their spiritual credentials--to undertake tasks as delicate, demanding, and dreadfully earnest as those of "reforming" and then "translating" the liturgy of the Catholic Church? Was this a question anyone even thought of or bothered to ask? On the contrary, it would not have been amiss to ask Padre Pio (who lived until 1968) to suggest one or two changes to the Missal, but I am almost certain the saintly stigmatist, in his mystical intimacy with Christ, would have respectfully, even vociferously, declined.6

Al his life Jean-Paul Sartre warred against the belief that something can be so good, so true, so worthy, that one should embrace and defend it with utter seriousness and self-sacrifice. Yet if there is any accurate description of what the ancient liturgy does with respect to the divine mysteries, it is precisely this: it embraces and defends them with utter earnestness, solemnity, and self-surrender.

Music and Vessels Worthy of the House of God

Consider two case studies: Gregorian chant and beautiful vessels.

The main reason Gregorian chant was thrown out of the churches is not that it was in Latin (for the music could have been patiently adapted for English texts7) but that it is not "happy" music, it is not "stirring" in the Hollywood sense. Plainchant is not for happy cats but for God-thirsting monastic souls--the kind of monastic soul that is demanded of every Christian according to his mode of life. Chant presupposes a fundamental seriousness of soul, and fosters this condition more and more until it becomes what the mystics call "sober inebriation," sobria inebrietas. A person steeped in chant actually comes to perceive the world around him differently--with the eyes of faith, with a contemplative readiness, penetration, and serenity. Chant is a powerful agent of spiritual change and maturity: it suffuses the soul with an earnest spiritual longing for God, a longing embodied and expressed in every curving melody, reflecting the nameless nuances, the subtle currents, of the human soul.8 How mature the anonymous composers must have been, how strong and soaring were their aspirations toward God, compressed into these wonderfully diverse and gracious melodies!

One morning when singing the chants for the Common of Doctors I was especially filled with a sense of awe at their beauty, their sweetness, their melancholy edge, as if to express in music what the Salve Regina captures in words: the blending of love, trust, joy, with longing, sorrow, tears. Yes, this is music that can, over time, make those who sing it or hear it grow mature in their faith, which means: grow into contemplatives who know how to suffer and how to rejoice in the Lord. With quite different means, Byzantine chant accomplishes the same goal. In stark contrast, contemporary liturgical music, with its second-rate sentimental lyrics, schmaltzy melodies, superficial emotions, and strident accompaniments, is not only incapable of producing spiritual maturity, but harms the Christian soul by muddying clarity of intellect, diminishing the sense of beauty, drawing the will into the grip of feelings, and creating dispositions contrary to the love of solitude and silence.9 In short, it could neither engender nor sustain a monastic community dedicated to a fervent life of meditation and contemplation. That alone is reason enough to "banish it from the sanctuary of the temple," as the Popes poetically say.10 If it's not healthy for people who dedicate their lives to God, it's not healthy for any of us, since we're all supposed to be a priestly people.

This was brought home to me powerfully one morning in Austria by a bizarre experience. In the baroquified Gothic church there was an upper chapel built atop a lower chapel, in such a way that occasionally two liturgies or services were taking place simultaneously. On that day, a group of us were worshiping in the upstairs chapel at a Tridentine Mass, singing the ancient melodies of Gregorian chant, when suddenly from the downstairs chapel there began to emanate the cacophonous caterwauling of youngsters singing the horrible ditties of the past few decades. It was a vivid study in contrasts: a traditional manner of worship that is noble, restrained, full of awe, focused on mystery, lovingly conveying in lilting Latin lines, and a modern way of worship, hyperactive, monotonous and raucous, without measure, beauty, dignity. The fanciful idea occurred to me that upstairs we were fortunate to be caught up in a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy, while taking place downstairs, unbeknownst to its participants, was an image of the ceremonies (for some such there must surely be) of the underworld.

[The Transfiguration by Fra Angelico]

As for sacred vessels, I will never forget a homily by a Swiss priest, preaching on the gift of gold brought by one of the Magi, in which he remarked: "If we do not give the very best we have to God, we do not really believe in God at all. If we have gold, which is precious and costly and beautiful, we must use it for His glorification; if we make sacred vessels out of wood or glass or clay, we are in effect saying that we do not think of Him as all-excelling, beyond everything we can give, so that we must give Him the best we can possibly manage to give, even (or especially) when it pinches our pockets. We have cut God down to our size and placed Him in a tidy budget, just as we would do when stocking our kitchen at home; we believe in Him weakly, or maybe not at all."

This homily was memorable not only because I had never heard a priest say anything like it--expounding venerable traditions of the Catholic Church is not, alas, to be counted among the more common homiletic strategies nowadays--but also because it helped me to understand why Christians have always tried to give God the best. An honest effort in this direction produced the sublime art and architecture of the Middle Ages, next to which their modern equivalents look, on the whole, shallow and rude. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance, for the entire ethos of the liturgy, of the sacred vessels appearing worthy (as much as it is possible for us to make them so) of the Mysteries they are honored to contain. The elevation of the consecrated Victim at Mass is the pinnacle of the many-versed hymn that mankind and all of creation raises to God; that is the time when the supernatural inward reality of the gifts ought to be most evidently symbolized in the external beauty of the chalice and other vessels on the altar. Of the holy Curé of Ars, Saint John Vianney, who wore tattered clothes, slept on the floor, and subsisted on potatoes, we read:
When it was a question of the objects destined for divine worship, he could not find anything beautiful enough.... His joy was unspeakable when he received from the Vicomte d'Ars a magnificent canopy, superb chasubles, banners, a large monstrance in silver gilt, a tabernacle of gilded copper, some beautiful candlesticks, and six reliquaries.11
Jesus was born in a humble stable and placed in a manger, true; but the Wise Men did not bring him straw, dirt, and dung, they brought him costly royal gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The way in which our Lord was born revealed His humility, which disdains earthly pomp; the way in which the three kings adored Him revealed their humility, which looked for the best they could offer, knowing in their wisdom that it was far beneath what He deserved. It is not for us to behave as if we were Jesus come into the world and thus to create churches that look like barns or stables or caves to receive us. It is rather our business to join the Magi and shepherds in heeding the divine call that beckons us beyond our limits. Responding in faith, we must give our utmost to the Word-made-flesh. The same thing can be said of sacred music. Modern man is no different in essence from man of any age, and therefore has no valid excuse for producing or perpetuating eyesores and earaches. Such unworthy stuff is not what most of our contemporaries would want, had they any chance to choose; it is certainly not what any of them need.

* * * * * *
The Mass is a living image or efficacious likeness of the perfect worship offered by Jesus Christ as Head of the Church--the sinless Lamb slain on Calvary, now reigning in the heavenly Jerusalem--and so it makes present in our midst the glorified Savior whose second coming will not be in quiet poverty but in earth-shattering splendor.

* * * * * * *

As was said, it is true that Our Lord first appeared on earth in a humble manger, hidden and poor. The sacred liturgy, however, is not time-travel to Bethlehem circa 6-4 B.C. The Mass is a living image or efficacious likeness of the perfect worship offered by Jesus Christ as Head of the Church--the sinless Lamb slain on Calvary, now reigning in the heavenly Jerusalem--and so it makes present in our midst the glorified Savior whose second coming will not be in quiet poverty but in earth-shattering splendor. For this reason the instinct of our faith has always been to maximize the beauty of the liturgy and its diverse furnishings and surroundings, yearning for what is to come rather than indulging in backward glances. From that point of view, the liturgists who clamor for a return to evangelical or apostolic "simplicity" are the ones guilty of nostalgia, not the faithful who desire the traditional Roman rite. They want to go back, we want to press forward. It is the difference between archaeology and eschatology. The irony, in fact, is greater: one of the most ancient liturgical customs of all, and one that survived all ages and cultures until it met its match in the hubris of the modern West, is that of facing eastwards when we pray to Christ, the True Light that enlightens every many (cf. Jn 1:9). In having the priest turn his back on the Sun of Justice and "face the people" in a closed circle, as if he were the coming light, advocates of the new liturgical style disdain universal symbolism and banish one of the few customs we can be certain the church of the early centuries practiced. Once again, those who defend Tradition find that they are more capable than their adversaries of preserving what the latter claim to value most--in this instance, antiquity.

To be continued in the next issue.


  1. I say "not simply and altogether," because on the one hand it is possible to bring the celebration of the ordinary rite into manifest visible continuity with the extraordinary rite (as some Oratorians do), but on the other hand, there are many ways in which the Missal of Paul VI neither encourages nor demands solemnity whereas the traditional Missal does this, indeed methodically. This is a key reason why some preists today are unwilling to learn the old Mass: it is too demanding in its regularions of speech, posture, gesture. But it is also a key reason why a good many young seminarians and priests are eager to learn it: what person in good physical shape could hear about a nearby steep mountain with a beautiful view from the top, and not feel the urge to climb it? [back]

  2. Summa theologiae III, q. 83, a. 4. [back]

  3. All of these comments could be applied also to the death of homiletics in our age. There is hardly a priest left in the world who can preach as the Fathers of the Medievals did. Where is a Saint Gregory, a Saint Augustine, a Saint Bernard, a Saint Bonaventure! They are gone; there is hardly such a thing as preaching anymore. We hear stories, jokes, platitudes, generic newspaper advice, but little in the way of sustained and robust exegesis of Scripture, little in the way of provocative challenges against popular culture, little in the way of urging asceticism for penance and reparation. The clergy have by and large grown soft and their message is softness. The need for clergy who can effectively preach the Word in season and out of season, stirring up the people to conversion of heart, is as great now as it was at the time of Saint Dominic and the Albigensian crisis. [back]

  4. It is important to realize that there are cultural and political reasons for the loss of solemnity that do not exactly correspond to the Novus Ordo's own weaknesses. We might well have witnessed a similar decay of solemnity in the Tridentine rite had it never been supplanted by the Novus Ordo (e.g., attempts at "inculturated" Latin Masses, which were already happening before the Council). Perhaps the Tridentine Mass has retained the power to stand firm against these cultural-political forces because its distinctive cultivation of solemnity has been officially marginalized and is now attractively countercultural. Its solemnity, which would have been secularization's most inviting target, has only been underlined and guaranteed, due to the old rite's wholesale mainstream abandonment. [back]

  5. This is not to say that there could not be a preoccupation with ritualism that would diminish the joy, zeal, and charity characteristic of a healthy Christian spiritual life. Lovers of tradition may also suffer from the compromise of compartmentalization, whereby what happens in church has little or nothing to say to their consumerist lifestyle and neoconservative ideology. However, my purpose here is not to diagnose lapses or distortions of traditionalism, but on the contrary, to point out that its fundamental instinct is sound--the desire to worship God with the very best that our deep and rich tradition has given us. Relativism is not the final word; certain customs, rituals, sacred songs, and so forth are objectively more beautiful and more fitting for divine worship than others. [back]

  6. Lest I be misunderstood: I am aware that there have been comissions appointed by Popes with the view to evaluating, researching, restoring, or augmenting aspects of the liturgy. My point is not to say that there is never a place for such consultations. Rather it is a question of the minimum qualification required of someone who dares to sit on such a commission. I think it would be impossible to refute the claim that the minimum qualification is the most profound respect and reverence for Tradition, such that one would almost rather cut off one's hand than tamper with what has been handed down. As the Notitiae or official notices along with documents like Bugnini's memoirs reveal, however, this spirit of veneration was shockingly absent from the Consilium, the body of theolgians entrusted with revising the liturgical books of the Roman rite. The most disgraceful example, to my mind, is the reply published in Notitiae responding to a query about why the old offertory prayers were removed. The Consilium said, in short: "The Offertory Prayers are redundant and unnecessary, as they anticipate the sacrificial action that is to occur later." With one smug reply, centuries of worship and theology are swept aside, as if nobody had ever understood the offertory before the enlightenmed gurus of the Consilium came along to explain it. Such a union of hubris and idiocy might possibly be unique in the history of Catholic theology. [back]

  7. As Father Samuel Weber, O.S.B. and Jeffrey Ostowski are each doing with considerable success these days. [back]

  8. For further reflections along these lines, see the wonderful little book Reflections on the Spirituality of Gregorian Chant by Dom Jacques Hourlier, trans. Dom Gregory Casprini and Robert Edmonson (Orleans, MA: Paraclete Press, 1995), as well as two classics: Richard R. Terry's Catholic Church Music (1907) and Marie Pierik's The Spirit Of Gregorian Chant (1939), both republished in 2007 by The Church Music Association of America. [back]

  9. For a detailed treatment of the problems mentioned here, see my article "Contemporary Music in Church?" Homiletic & Pastoral Review 107.1 (October 2006): 8-15, available at [back]

  10. For documented summaries of what the Magisterium has taught about sacred music, see my articles "Cantate Domino Canticum Novum: Aspects of the Church's Liturgical Magisterium," The Catholic Faith 6.2 (March-April 2000): 14-23 and "John Paul II on Sacred Music," Sacred Music vol. 133, n. 2 (Summer 2006): 4-22. These are available at and Magisterial interventions of Benedict XVI have only underlined the conclusions made in these articles. [back]

  11. Abbé H. Convert, Eucharistic Meditations: Extracts from the Writings and Instructions of Saint John Vianney, trans. Sister Mary Benevenuta, O.P. (Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire: Anthony Clarke Books, 1964), 100. [back]

Dr. Peter A. Kwasniewski is Associate Professor of Theology at Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming. The present article, "Solemnity: The Crux of the Matter," was originally published in Latin Mass: A Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition (Winter 2008), pp. 8-12, and is reprinted here by permission of Latin Mass Magazine, 391 E. Virginia Terrace, Santa Paula, CA 93060.