Dec 15, 2005

Re-Enchanting the Mass How beauty affects belief

Online Edition: December 2005-January 2006
Vol. XI, No. 9

Re-Enchanting the Mass
How beauty affects belief

by Alvin F. Kimel, Jr.

“The ‘re-enchantment’ of the Catholic Liturgy”, declares Father Aidan Nichols, “is the single most urgent ecclesial need of our time”. I like the use of the word enchant to describe the Divine Liturgy of the Church.

I still vividly remember my first visit in June 1975 to St. Paul’s Church, K Street, in Washington, DC. I had just finished college. Earlier that year I had become a believing Christian. Upon returning to Washington, an old high school friend invited me to join him one Sunday at St. Paul’s. Solemn High Mass, with a visiting African bishop to administer Confirmation; solemn procession, with two thurifers; chanting, crossings, bowings, genuflections, incense — all of this was completely new for me.

My only prior experience with the Lord’s Supper was as an addendum to the Methodist preaching service, with cubes of bread and shot-glasses of grape juice. Here was something utterly different. I was taken up into a sacred world. On that day I discovered the Eucharistic Christ. I was enchanted.

I found it possible to believe the Eucharistic promises of Christ because of the enchanting beauty and power of the Divine Liturgy that I experienced that first summer at St. Paul’s. I was enchanted into faith. I experienced the glories of heaven and thus came to know the truth of the Eucharist. I will always believe that the consecrated elements are truly the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. And it is the liturgy that has sustained and generated my faith for the past thirty years.

Surely the Holy Eucharist should enchant us. The Divine Liturgy is nothing less than the presence of the coming Kingdom of God. By the Spirit we are lifted into the heavens in union with our Great High Priest. By the Spirit we are brought before the Throne of God and behold the glory of salvation. Whether we imagine the liturgy as our ascent into heaven or as the descent of heaven into our midst, what truly matters is the gracious presence of the Holy God in glory, love and beauty. Thus the psalmist sings: “Give unto the LORD the glory due unto His name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness”.

In a recent interview, Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, notes the decline of Eucharistic faith in the Catholic Church. Apparently this was a matter of some discussion at the synod at Rome in October. The bishops are concerned that many Catholics no longer believe that Christ Jesus is really and truly present under the sacramental species.

A growing number of Catholics appear to be embracing “a more Protestant concept of the Eucharist, seeing it mainly as a symbol”. A proposed solution is to encourage parish priests to teach the Eucharist from the pulpit. I’m sure this would be a good thing, but I wonder if the decline in Eucharistic faith is not tied into the massive disenchantment of the liturgy that has occurred since Vatican II.

Surely it is much more difficult to believe the mystery of transubstantiation when the liturgy, as presently enacted in most congregations, appears to say just the opposite! Does the liturgy truly witness to the Eucharistic miracle when the banality, informality, irreverence, and sometimes just plain ugliness of the liturgical celebration tells us that this is just a communal meal with a religious intent?

Do not mistake me. I am not romanticizing pre-Vatican II liturgy, nor am I pleading for a return to the Latin Mass. But looking at American Catholic liturgy as it has developed over the past forty years, one simply has to wonder, What in the world were people thinking?!

How could anyone think that colloquial liturgical language is to be preferred to a formal, hieratic language? How could anyone think that drastic reduction of ritual gestures would strengthen the mystery of the Mass? How could anyone think that the adoption of sentimental pop music would not destroy the sense of holiness and awe that is proper to the Eucharist? How could anyone think that the radical mutilation of the rite would not undermine the conviction that the Church has received a holy tradition and is not free to make it all up as she goes along? How could anyone think that by turning the celebrant around to face the people the Mass would be magically transformed into an intimate experience of community? How could anyone think that buildings constructed in the functional architectural style of the twentieth century could ever be appropriate to house the Holy Mysteries? Hindsight, of course, is 20/20; but the liturgical delusion that took hold of the Church in the ‘60s and ‘70s is truly breathtaking.

If the bishops of the Church wish to restore vital faith in the Real Presence of our Lord in the Eucharist, then they must fully embrace the re-enchantment of the Divine Liturgy. The American bishops recently evaluated the latest version of the new translation of the Roman Missal. The bishops are legitimately concerned about the disruptive consequences of the new translation.

The bishops were reportedly divided about two proposed changes: the substitution of the congregational response “And with your spirit” for “And also with you” and the substitution of “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof …” for “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you …”

Though the bishops are not asking for my opinion, if asked I would urge them to put aside their reservations. These two proposed changes are good examples of re-enchantment. The “And also with you” and “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you” were both products of the disenchantment program that incomprehensibly dominated liturgical revision forty years ago. They are the liturgical expressions of the Good News Bible. In the name of dynamic equivalence, metaphor, elegance, and accuracy are sacrificed for simplistic comprehensibility.

It is a basic literary rule that a paraphrase of a poem does not say the same thing as the poem itself. It is also true that a poem cannot really be translated into another language, which is why the best translators of poetry are always poets in their own right. Yet a faithful translation of the Latin Mass into English must be attempted.

Does “Also with you” actually mean the same thing as Et cum spiritu tuo? The answer is a clear negative, especially when one considers the history of the congregational response. The phrase is as mysterious in the original Greek and Latin as the literal English translation is today. Dom Gregory Dix, for example, suggests that the phrase acknowledges the special grace of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon the celebrant at his ordination. Be that as it may, “with your spirit” expresses the mystery of the other in a way that “also with you” does not. We are spirit for we have been regenerated by water and Holy Spirit. The phrase thus intimates both the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church and the depth and freedom of the believer’s inner being in Christ. It is not ordinary speech; its strangeness announces the sacredness and mystery of our gathering.

Does “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you” mean the same thing as Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum? Perhaps one way to answer this question is simply to ask, How many translations of the New Testament translate Matthew 8:8 in this way? I’m not aware of any. The King James Version translates the verse as “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof”. New American Bible: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof”. Even the horrendous Contemporary English Version translates the text as “Lord, I’m not good enough for you to come into my house”.

By eliminating the reference to “my roof”, the ICEL translators divorced the liturgy from the story of Jesus and the centurion and eliminated the depths of meaning conveyed by the metaphor “self-as-house”. Moreover, as the respected translator of Dante, Anthony Esolen, has noted, the “I am not worthy to receive you” obscures the action of Christ, directing attention to the speaker, the implied subject of the infinitive to receive.

The new translation restores the original significance of the text — the miraculous coming of the risen Christ into our personal homes, into our bodies, hearts and souls, in mercy and grace. With the Centurion we declare our faith: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof”.

The people of God will not be spiritually and theologically transformed by impoverished language. As author Madeleine L’Engle avers, “Where language is weak, theology is weakened”. I would also add, when we enervate the language of faith, flat-souled believers are the result.

If we would encourage the people of God to believe fully in the presence of the risen and glorified Christ in the Eucharist, then our celebration of the liturgy must witness to this presence with grace, beauty, loveliness, and mystery.

May the Holy Mass once again enchant the world.


Alvin Kimel, Jr. is the Catholic chaplain at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. He served twenty-five years as an Episcopal priest and was received into the Catholic Church in June 2005.



Alvin F. Kimel, Jr.