Nov 15, 2001

Breaking out of the self-enclosed circle

Online Edition

– Vol. VII, No. 8: November 2001

Breaking out of the self-enclosed circle

by Father James V. Schall, SJ

I recently read Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press). This present column is not a "review" of this incisive book, except to say that it is not to be missed. The book, I might add, is at times quite amusing: "Moving the Altar Cross aside to give an uninterrupted view of the priest is something I regard as one of the most absurd phenomena of recent decades" (p. 84). Indeed.

A key thesis of the book is that the personality of the priest should decrease so that attention to the Lord and His sacrifice can increase. The priest is not an actor, nor is he a talk-show host, however much we are often hard pressed to tell the difference. A "clericalization", even of the laity, has arisen in much contemporary liturgical practice. "Now the priest — the ‘presider’, as they now prefer to call him — becomes the real point of reference for the whole liturgy", Cardinal Ratzinger writes.

Everything depends on him. We have to see him, to respond to him, to be involved in what he is doing. His creativity sustains the whole thing. Not surprisingly, people try to reduce this newly created role by assigning all kinds of liturgical functions to different individuals and entrusting the "creative" planning of the liturgy to groups of people who like to, and are supposed to, "make their own contributions". Less and less is God in the picture. More and more important is what is done by the human beings who meet here and do not like to subject themselves to a "pre-determined pattern". The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle (p. 80).

That is a pungent phrase, the community as "a self-enclosed circle". The community, however, does not "cause" the Sacrifice, but rather is first caused by it. The Mass does not "close in" but opens out, not to one another nor to the world, but to God the Father. The way we are to worship has been revealed to us. We do not worship one another or the world. Nor, like the classical philosophers, do we speculate about the First Mover.

Chesterton once responded to a newspaper query about "what’s wrong with the world"? His pithy answer, "Dear Sir, I am", evokes the presence of original sin in all of us. No "external" cause can be located for the world’s disorders. Chesterton’s remark remains an acute reminder of where we must start any thinking on the problems of this world. We begin not with "social structures", nor with malformed institutions, but with something disoriented in our own souls. If we do not see that we must begin here, we are dangerous both to ourselves and to the world we claim to "reform".

Yet Ratzinger’s book makes me think that Chesterton’s answer needs an addendum, an addendum that Chesterton would have approved. Our liturgy arises out of Christ’s atonement on the Cross for our sins. "What’s wrong with the world" is paradoxically that it does not worship God as God has established that He is to be worshiped. This proper worship, I think, comes before, not after, we decide to live virtuously, to live as we ought. Worship is the first thing, not the last thing.

The Mass at its core is not a human creation. By ourselves, we are not free either to define what it is or to change it to something other than what was handed down to us. Worshipping God in the way that God indicated to us in revelation is not an indifferent matter. True, the word "religion" refers to our natural or rational response to God. In this sense, many "religions" are possible. This is why Christianity is not, properly speaking, a "religion". It is not just another way of doing what other religions are doing, of making some kind of human response to what God is perceived to be. Men can, moreover, refuse to accept that a positive revelation has in fact taken place, one that obliges those who receive it to state precisely what it is and means. But those who receive this revelation and believe what it tells us to do "Do this in memory of me" are not free, and should not think themselves free, to interfere with the freedom of God in guiding us to what it is we most need, most want.

Aidan Nichols, O.P., writes in his book Chistendom Awake, that the "`re-enchantment’ of the Catholic Liturgy is the single most urgent ecclesial need of our time" (p. 21).

The Spirit of the Liturgy spells out this need, this "re-enchantment", in detail.

Father Schall is professor at Georgetown University. He kindly gave permission to reprint his "Wit and Wonder" column that appeared in Excelcis, June 2001. Excerpts from Cardinal Ratzinger’s Spirit of the Liturgy can be accessed here.



Father James V. Schall, SJ

The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.