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The Recovery of the Sacred

Online Edition:
April 2011
Vol. XVII, No. 2

The Recovery of the Sacred

Chapter Eight – The Recovery of the Sacred

by James Hitchcock

“The Recovery of the Sacred” is the eighth and final chapter of James Hitchcock’s book of the same name, which was originally published in 1974, a decade after the Second Vatican Council. The book provided an extraordinarily incisive analysis of post-conciliar liturgical developments that had impeded the authentic reform that the Council — and the pre-1965 “Liturgical Movement” — intended. Twenty years later, The Recovery of the Sacred’s constructive critique was not only still timely, but arguably more urgent, as new scriptural and liturgical translations were then in progress, and their integrity was endangered by the same erroneous views that had prevailed in the intervening years. Thus the book was published again in 1995.

Dr. Hitchcock’s analysis of the unexpected and rapid desacralization of the Liturgy in the years following the Second Vatican Council under the influence of a new class of professional liturgists remains an insightful guide. Other chapters of the book have been published in Adoremus Bulletin (June 2006, Chapter 4; April 1996, Chapter 7); and this chapter appears in AB with the author’s kind permission.

Now, in 2011, the Church is about to receive, for the first time, an authentic English translation of the sacred text of the Roman Missal. Its reception and implementation is crucial to the “recovery of the sacred” in Catholic worship. After four decades — two generations — it will not be easy to overcome errors and abuses that have become deeply entrenched in the minds of many Catholics, clergy and laity alike. This has affected not only translation, but nearly every aspect of Catholic worship — from art and architecture to music and popular devotions. As Father George Rutler wrote about the second publication of Recovery of the Sacred, “what was prophecy when it was first published, now is sober reflection. There is hope here for surviving the most tragic self-mutilation of Catholic culture since the Arian crisis of the fourth century”.

Signs of authentic renewal of the Church’s liturgy, however, are no longer rare, as they were in the 1990s. Though his book is again out of print, Dr. Hitchcock’s often prescient insights concerning the necessary recovery of the sacred in Catholic liturgy are as compelling today as when they were first written — and perhaps even more concretely useful.

— Editor


The decline of the sense of the sacred in worship was not, as some reformers have argued, the inevitable effect of a secular age. If anything, advanced secular culture has shown itself more open to the sacred and the pseudo-sacred than at any time within memory. The spirit of pragmatic, technological rationality is in at least temporary disfavor, and the sacral worship of the Church was, paradoxically, more appealing and effective in the 1950s, when that spirit was more pervasive than it is now.

The decline of the sacred was, rather, something which was willed and planned: its demise was predicted by those who wished it to occur and who took steps to bring it about. To some extent also it occurred through inadvertence, by a process of liturgical change which gave little thought to long-term effects. 

For many people this decline may be irreversible. Although nurtured within Catholicism, they have passed over into that kind of modern secularity which can see no point to religious ritual and which may even regard it with a certain loathing. For many others, however, it is still a genuine possibility. In large measure this is because the traditions of sacredness are still alive in the Church, among people for whom they were once quite strong. To a lesser extent there is a manifest hunger for such things among the supposedly secular younger generation. In any case the attempt to restore and revive sacral worship must occur before long, if it is to be successful, because its most important foundation will be those traditions which are still alive but are becoming progressively weaker.

Until now no definition of the sacred has been offered, in part because it is almost that which cannot be defined, and in part because it seems more useful to approach the phenomenon of liturgy empirically rather than with a priori categories. It may, however, be defined hesitatingly: the sacred in Catholicism is that awareness of God which is transmitted to believers through the media of religious symbols and rituals that are regarded as sharing in a divine character and are therefore worthy of themselves being considered sacred. This perception of God’s reality is in tension between the sense of immanence and the sense of transcendence. God is perceived as present to the worshipers in a special way, but the symbols also point "beyond" or to an "other-world". There is simultaneously the attraction of love and the inhibition of awe. In the sacred symbols the whole life of the believer in the Church is perceived as being mystically incarnated and summed up.

A number of principles pertaining to this symbolic life have been formulated. To these several additional principles may be added:

The tendency to perceive religious faith primarily in interior, "spiritual" terms, with a corresponding indifference to its external expression, is an essentially Protestant attitude, which is at odds with the spirit of Catholicism.  Although Catholicism allows for private prayer and interior spiritual development, it insists that these be rooted in the public liturgy of the Church.

Thus for the most part Catholicism does not hold out the possibility of apprehending God directly, except in relatively rare cases, but rather, indirectly through symbols. Sacred ritual gives hints and intimations of the divine, but does not purport to offer a direct experience of God.

In sacred ritual the divine is deliberately hedged about by ancillary symbols which serve in part to "protect" it from too direct an attempt at apprehension.

Where these ancillary symbols are systematically removed, the divine Center of the ritual tends to elude participants.

Therefore, in sacred ritual small things can be of great importance and an attitude of compulsive puritanism tends to the destruction of the meaning of the entire ritual.

A sense of the sacred depends in part on a sense of awe or reverence which is capable of being violated. Hence a deliberate iconoclasm or a deliberate casualness in liturgy, insofar as these come to be accepted, signal the death of the sacred.

It is easier and less potentially destructive to add new levels of symbolism to the rite than to eliminate older ones.

The sense of the sacred depends in part on the liturgy’s being conducted in an appropriately dramatic manner, which implies a special architecture, special vestments, and recognizably religious symbolism.

This sense adheres at least as much in the use of physical objects — the sacred species of Communion, holy water, candles, rosary beads, etc. — as in words or thoughts.

Sacred ritual is a tight network of meanings in which nothing is entirely meaningless and the various elements are related to each other in ways not always immediately perceptible. Thus, alterations in this network can have the effect of unraveling the whole, even if apparently trivial changes are made.

Sacred liturgy is heavily based on certain temporal rhythms which become part of the psychic makeup of the believer, thus helping to internalize beliefs and keep them alive outside the times of formal worship. These cycles are primarily those of the Church year but also, for example, the distinction between Sunday and weekdays or, formerly, the special significance of Friday for Roman Catholics. The drastic abrogation of these cycles tends to weaken drastically the meaning which underlies them.

That the decline of the sacred was primarily willed and planned and did not simply occur is evident from the remarks of numerous liturgists in the postconciliar period (see Chapter I). Since this willed desacralization went contrary to the desires of many people in the Church, and has been for many the most profoundly disturbing aspect of renewal, it is not irreversible. Unlike certain other facets of discarded tradition, it could be restored not by papal or episcopal fiat but by the joyful cooperation of many lay people. The details of this restoration will inevitably require thought and occasion some disagreement.  Its need, however, seems undeniable if the Catholic Church is to preserve its unique traditions of spirituality and even its primary reason for existing.  For as Louis Bouyer had said even before liturgical reform began:

The Incarnation therefore does not efface or render useless or outmoded the primitive notion of the sacred — of a domain “set apart”, as the word indicates, in the life of man to belong wholly to God and God alone. How could it do this without abolishing even man’s sense of God as of a being distinct from man, independent of him, but sovereign alike over him and all things?1

. . . there is all the more reason that our adaptations of the liturgy should not attempt to rationalize it, to empty it not only of its mystery bur also of all its expressions that are not strictly rational. They should, on the contrary, seize again upon the chords in the heart of man which respond to these eternal expressions in order to restore to them their maximum efficacy. At the same time, we must do everything in our power to revive man’s atrophied faculties. It will be necessary to restore to the essential liturgical symbols their living richness which has been sadly weakened by our own rationalism. But it will be equally necessary to strive to bring back to our contemporaries a religious culture that will be human to the extent that it is also biblical. . . . 2

Based on the principles formulated above, some suggestions can now be made as to how a sense of the sacred might be rekindled:

  • Liturgy should assume that the worshiper is Homo religiosus.  Despite the claims of those who invoke the name of [Dietrich] Bonhoeffer, man’s religious sense has not dried up, nor is it likely to. In the Catholic Church especially there is much evidence of hunger for a truly sacral worship which is not being filled and which is driving Catholics to seek for religious experience in movements like Pentecostalism. To the degree that liturgy tries to appeal to “secular man” in his own terms, it is self-defeating and it squanders the liturgical riches of the Church.
  • Although contemporary references are naturally appropriate in homilies and petitions, they should, for the most part, be omitted from the eucharistic rite itself. If introduced sparingly they tend to jar in the context of the generally uncontemporary style of the service. If they dominate the rite, its fundamental meaning is undermined. In either ease they tend to subvert the rite to immediate practical ends it was not meant to serve, and they produce confusion and tension in the symbolism. (For example, a newly ordained priest celebrates in a chasuble decorated with the eagle of the United Farm Workers.3  However just the cause, such immediacy tends to distract from the eternal dimension which is supposed to be at the heart of the ritual. An American flag would be equally inappropriate, even if celebrant and congregation were intensely patriotic.)
  • Noneucharistic forms of spontaneous devotion should be encouraged, whether through the revival of older cults or the development of new forms like prayer groups.
  • As a corollary to this, there should be renewed emphasis on the Eucharist as a great, public, objective act which transcends, although it also subsumes, the private concerns of particular peoples and individuals. Elements of casualness and spontaneity are for the most part inappropriate in this kind of rite. Above all, worshipers should not be taught to expect a necessary correspondence between their immediate subjective feelings and the words and themes of the rite. A habitual acceptance of the major thrust of the liturgy is, rather, what is required, and it is self-defeating to attempt to “reform” liturgy for the sake of those who arc unsympathetic to its basic purpose and character.
  • There is need for general liturgical uniformity and officially prescribed rites, although a degree of variety has always existed and can exist provided it is not extreme. The notion of a continually changing liturgy subject to local experimental variations is subversive of public liturgy and hence subversive of the public existence of the Church. Liturgical experimentation cannot in the nature of things be successfully inhibited, but it is important that the Church distinguish clearly and forcefully between what is official liturgy and what is not.
  • Steps should be taken to reestablish as much as possible a sense of continuity with the Church’s historical past which, because of the doctrine of the Communion of Saints, can never be merely a dead past. This includes the restoration of discarded symbols, the reintroduction of the saints into the Canon of the Mass (preferably not just the obscure early ones of the old liturgy), and a renewed attention to the calendar of the saints in homilies and prayers. The bias of liturgical thought needs to shift from desiring to be as innovative as possible while maintaining tenuous contact with tradition to conserving as many traditions as still have validity.
  • In this connection Catholic liturgy should be accepted as a historical development through time, periodically in need of revision and purification. The ideal of returning to the “pure” liturgy of the early Church, which in any case is unattainable, should be discarded.
  • A liturgy which is truly biblical in spirit will generally prove more compatible with the traditional liturgy of the Church, albeit reformed, than with extreme purifications which tend to adopt the spirit of contemporary secular culture.
  • Participation in liturgy should be regarded as primarily the joining in a timeless and eternal rite, made possible through symbols.  Jarring incongruities should be avoided, such as the suggestion that in the penitential rite worshipers ask pardon for failing to say, “Come in. You’re welcome. Forget it”, for “the days we ‘clam up’”.4  An entire Mass in contemporary speech is a barely conceivable possibility; snippets of contemporaneity are merely distracting.
  • The sense of the liturgy as a timeless ritual act depends on an attitude of deliberate reverence, care, and solemnity on the part of the celebrant, joined in by the congregation.  Gestures should be stylized and deliberate, vestments and images chosen carefully, words proclaimed and not rendered conversationally.
  • In Catholicism the sermon or homily has always served as a moratorium in solemn liturgies, partly as a time of didactic instruction different in spirit from most of the liturgy itself, partly as a relaxation from the formal atmosphere of the ritual.  The personal element,  the conversational tone, the particular needs of the worshiping community, and humor have their place here and not elsewhere in the Mass.
  • The liturgy should be perceived as reflecting and symbolizing a basic Christian sense of order and certitude which underlies all human anxieties and confusions. Real Catholic liturgy is therefore impossible apart from a believing acceptance of this order and this certitude.  Liturgies which reflect the confusions of the participants are self-destructive.
  • Where a strong sense of community exists among worshipers, this will be a significant part of the liturgical celebration. However, it is neither possible nor desirable to develop this sense where it does not already exist, since for Catholics the worshiping community is much broader than simply a particular congregation. The greeting of peace is best seen as a ritual gesture, for example, not as a spontaneous act.
  • Sacred symbols should not be used to convey meanings different from their traditional meanings. Mircea Eliade has said that while the meaning of archaic symbols can be extended or deepened, they cannot be altered or destroyed.5  The attempt to alter them tends to produce psychic disorientation and the disintegration of the rite.
  • Vital liturgy inevitably grows out of the most profound beliefs of the worshipers. Hence it should be recognized that true worship cannot at present be ecumenical in any broad sense but must be the expression of special religious identities. Where ecumenical liturgy does occur this must represent the discovery of profound agreements not previously recognized. Where it rests merely on the spirit of good will it tends to drain the sacred symbols of their power.
  • The traditions of the Church must be conceded genuine authority in liturgy as in other matters. Hence departures from these traditions should be sparing and carefully considered. The sense of the sacred depends heavily on the sense of tradition lying behind it.
  • Genuine Catholic liturgy is not possible without an acceptance of the legitimacy and authority of the Church. The tendency simply to use Catholic ritual for private purposes is corrupting of that liturgy.
  • The validity and effectiveness of the ritual depends heavily on its being seen as public and official. Hence the importance of compulsory Sunday Mass attendance or, when it was in effect, the compulsory Friday abstinence. Insofar, as rites are seen as primarily a matter of personal preference, they lose much of their significance.
  • The Church requires official public rites for its coherence and unity. Thus, on the whole, it is better to celebrate Mass in public buildings like churches than in private places, although the latter practice has a valid but limited use. It is better on the whole to have heterogeneous congregations participating in uniform liturgies.
  • The puritan mentality should be recognized as, on the whole, a destructive feature of contemporary liturgical life. Every effort should be made to restore a worship which is rich, complex, and even occasionally ornate. The use of incense, bells, candles, and traditional gestures should be revived where it has lapsed. Signs of the cross, genuflections, and striking the breast should be reinstated while they still have meaning for many worshipers.
  • Habits of prayer and devotion arc fostered and kept alive not only through verbal or mental prayer but also through what might be called “muscular memories” — familiar ritual gestures which summon up for the actor a range of implicit beliefs. Genuflecting before a tabernacle or making the sign of the cross with holy water on entering a church are examples of this. So also is the fingering of Rosary beads. Such actions can have religious meaning even without conscious reflection, because they operate on a deeper level of the mind.
  • Systematic instruction is necessary in the full meaning of the Mass, particularly its sacrificial nature and its character as a timeless mystical action. By default much of this meaning has been lost since the Second Vatican Council, and in some cases has been deliberately undermined. Without some understanding of this theology, the deepest significance of the rite is missed and its importance greatly reduced, since the idea of the Mass as community meal is neither rich enough nor profound enough to sustain the weight of this most sacred of Catholic acts.
  • To present ritual acts, for example the sacraments, primarily as symbols intended to convey a message is to impoverish them. Religious rituals are also manifestations of divine power in the world, and their deepest significance lies in the worshipers’ sense of this power. This should be emphasized even at the risk that some people will regard the rites as magical.
  • The power of sacred symbols is partly proportionate to their being recognizably strange within the context of every-day life, as having no evident commonsense meaning. (The crucifix, representing the great “scandal” of Christianity, is perhaps the most powerful of these, or the transformation of bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood.)  When the priest’s prostration on Good Friday is dismissed as “melodramatic and altogether foreign to our culture”,6 for example, the main point of sacred symbolism has been lost and the thrust of liturgical reform directed in a way that is bound to weaken the symbolism, not make it more meaningful.
  • Although religious ritual needs to be intelligible to worshipers in at least its fundamental meanings and its major conrours, too great a concern with the intelligibility of the rites tends to be counter-productive. As Louis Bouyer has pointed out:

. . . as soon as one considers religious symbolism, and especially ritualistic symbolism, as an action conceived post-factum to illustrate ideas that were first developed in the abstract, this symbolism will never more be understood.7

The “fallacy of explicitness” has been responsible for much liturgical impoverishment, since some liturgists (and some worshipers) appeared to assume that once the symbols had been “explained” there was no longer any need for them. The goal of some liturgical reform appeared to be that of translating as many symbols as possible into words, with the eventual elimination of symbols altogether.

  • Certain aspects of ritual have validity less in terms of specific, explicable meanings than in serving to create and sustain the proper atmosphere of sacredness. The blessing with holy water upon entering a church, incense and candles, the numerous genuflections and signs of the cross are all symbols which can be “explained” in one or more ways, but which serve primarily this more general purpose. There is a danger here that symbols may become mere “signs”, no longer pointing beyond themselves but seen as merely referring itself.8  However, as Claude Levi-Strauss has noted:

A native thinker makes the penetrating comment that “All sacred things must be in their place” … It could even be said that being in their place is what makes them sacred for if they were taken out of their place, even in thought, the entire order of the universe would be destroyed. Sacred objects therefore contribute to the maintenance of order in the universe by occupying the places allocated to them.9

  • The reformed liturgy is presently too bare and direct, which has led to the decline of a sense of the sacred and of its character as a mystery.  There needs to be a restoration of subordinate ritual acts which serve in a sense to hedge the central mystery about, even if these seem from one point of view arbitrary.
  • The alteration of traditional subordinate rituals has resulted in consequences which, for the most part, were not foreseen. The central act of the Eucharist was, for example, formerly “protected” by a whole series of rites intended to impress on the worshiper a sense of the holiness of the Mass itself — the blessing with holy water at the door of the church, the genuflection before entering the pew, silence before Mass, kneeling during Mass, the Communion rail separating the sanctuary from the body of the church, the eucharistic vessels handled only by the priest, Communion given only from his hands, the paten held to catch crumbs from the Host, etc.  The Eucharist could in theory be celebrated without any of these surrounding rites, as liturgists have often pointed out.  However, having been long established and deeply impressed on worshipers’ minds, it was impossible that these rites could be altered or eliminated without conveying the impression (perhaps unconscious) that the central meaning of the Eucharist was being changed. A Dominican theologian has speculated, for example, that the changes in the Roman Missal were intended to “correct” traditional Catholic belief about the Real Presence,10 and numerous Catholics have reached a similar conclusion, although this was certainly not the intention of the Second Vatican Council. The practice of taking Communion in the hands cannot help but reinforce this same impression among Roman Catholics, where the contrary practice has been deeply ingrained, even though it probably causes no difficulty among Anglo-Catholics because it has been so long established among them. A ritual which is theoretically unobjectionable may take on an unwanted significance when it involves the dramatic alteration of existing customs. For example, the removal of the tabernacle from the high altar in many churches, although usually done with good intentions, cannot help but appear symbolically as the "dethroning" of the sacrament. It has helped diminish eucharistic piety.
  • There is greater need than ever to insist on the official and traditional meaning of liturgical symbols, since both the Church’s unity of belief and the meaning of the central liturgical rites are in danger of fragmenting. For example, the color of vestments does not simply represent the Church’s indulging in “precise ordering of lives”, and the proposal that “Any color, any day should be acceptable, including plaids, dashikis, and ponchos if they reflect the community”11 is merely an admission that liturgy has become a kind of “happening” and does not symbolize some deep religious order. Even when worshipers do not know the explicit symbolism of a particular color (most of the time it is fairly obvious), they do recognize that the variation of colors represents the structure of a sacred year with its seasons and feasts. The alternative is to lose touch with this structure and to reduce the liturgical celebration to a merely private one.
  • The rekindling of a vivid faith requires at the present time a recovery of a sense of the importance of what Blaise Pascal called “custom” in religion — that which leads from the external to the internal, which governs the body, which in turn “persuades the mind without its thinking about the matter”. As Pascal also said, “It is superstition to put one’s hopes in formalities; but it is pride to be unwilling to submit to them”.12  A. R. Radcliffe-Brown pointed out that belief can be the fruit of ritual participation, rather than the other way around,13 and the crisis of belief in the Catholic Church is clearly related to the crisis of liturgy, one reinforcing the other. To an astonishing degree Catholics appear no longer to pray privately or in meetings of their organizations, clerical or lay, although it is a virtual certainty that people who say no private prayers will be unable to pray in the liturgy either.  This decline of prayer is partly due to an unrealistic and un-Catholic tendency to regard prayer as essentially an interior, subjective experience and the corresponding acceptance of the puritan notion that spontaneous prayer is superior to set prayer.  The prayer life of Catholics could begin to revitalize itself if they would once again undertake the simple disciplines formerly associated with it — kneeling, making the sign of the cross, reciting familiar prayers, dropping into church for private devotions, etc.  For many people over the centuries such a regimen has led to a steadily deepening prayer life.  In the words of the lay theologian Baron Friedrich von Hügel:

As a matter of fact, a wholesome sense of the infinite arises and is renewed, within us, not only by recollection but also by contact with the contingent, with matter, time, and space. It is not only that we have a body and (partly physical) fellow-creatures … but that the sense of the infinite and of the finite spring up together and condition each other. Hence we shall never attain a thoroughly wholesome, deeply spiritual religion, unless we take care to give it, and to keep for it, a body.

    It is no doubt certain that at the time of such attention to particular. institutional acts — the kneeling for, and the recitation of, formal vocal prayers, the attending of church services, even the reception of Holy Communion — we often feel as though contracted, as though these things were dry and petty; and as though God, Spirit and Infinite, must be right outside all such temptations and materialities.

     Yet life shows us everywhere how necessary. for our fuller expansion and true deepening, arc such seemingly narrowing, humblingly obscure contacts with the visible — such contractions of our attention and feeling to things, to matter, to the little Here and Now … religion requires some apparently unnecessary, emotionally more or less irksome contractions and attentions to visible and audibly institutional and social acts and rites. Without some such, we cannot fully capture and maintain a deep wholesome recollection and spirituality.14

  • Liturgists need to respect much more than in the past the spirit and forms of popular piety in the Church, to accommodate these as much as possible, and to integrate them with official worship. Few things have been more destructive both of prayer and of the peace of the Church than the war waged on popular piety by some of the clergy.
  • A certain theological and liturgical diversity is unavoidable in the present age of the Church, although it should not be multiplied deliberately and unnecessarily.  However, it is important that Church authorities officially disavow that which appears simply to use Catholic liturgy as a starting point for celebrations of a different character.  Tolerance for broad liturgical experimentation inevitably robs the official liturgy of much of its significance and produces an atmosphere of confusion and incoherence.
  • The Latin liturgy must regain a place in the living worship of the Church, to which all Catholics have regular access.  Pope Paul VI suggested that it might be retained in the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.15  An alternative might be for every reasonably large parish to provide one Latin Mass each Sunday at a convenient time.  It would be particularly effective if this were a High Mass sung by congregation and choir together.  Parishioners might then be encouraged to familiarize thcmselves with both Latin and vernacular worship on a regular basis and not identify themselves exclusively with either. 
  • The Roman Catholic Church in America badly needs a new English text for the Mass, prepared with greater regard for linguistic dignity and power.  Pointlessly truncated prayers like the Confiteor should be restored to their full versions.
  • There is also, however, a great need in America for liturgical stability, which is in obvious conflict with the previous need.  The preparation of a new translation would in any case take some years. The need for liturgical stability ought also to give pause to those traditionalists who would like simply to return to the Mass of Pius V and abolish the post-conciliar changes.  Such a move would precipitate crises and disorientations comparable to those previously caused by the move to the vernacular. 
  • Historically, Catholic churches have often been used for profane purposes as well as sacred ones. Paradoxically, however, this was more easily tolerable in ages when people believed in the sacred implicitly and deeply, when religion permeated every aspect of culture and society.  At the present time a sharp symbolic separation of sacred and profane is necessary if the sacred is not simply to be absorbed into an amorphous atmosphere of humanistic good feeling.  Thus the symbolism of the church building as a place set apart is of great importance, and churches should be used for functions other than worship only sparingly.  This corresponds to the sense which many modern Catholics have that the spaces where they can pray and carry on their worship are hard won amid pervasive secularity and religious indifference, and must be protected.
  • Rituals can be made more symbolically meaningful by the introduction of certain new elements which are nonetheless in harmony with the basic beliefs and traditions of the Church. These include, for example, Communion under both species by the laity and baptism by immersion. The use of a more substantial Communion bread than wafers is in the same spirit, although ordinary table bread seems inappropriate. The Church can now afford to err on the side of too much drama and symbolism in its rites, because of the excessive pruning of the previous decades.
  • Strong efforts should be made to reemphasize the cycles of the sacred calendar and particularly to rescue many formerly familiar saints who are now in danger of falling into obscurity. The Friday abstinence, which was a burden to practically no one and which was abolished for no apparent good reason, should be restored while it is still meaningful to many people. It was one of the most important symbols of folk Catholicism. The Lenten fast, which is now confused in most people’s minds, should be clarified and reemphasized.
  • Although a surfeit of technical ecclesiastical and liturgical language has a deadening effect on religious life, the existence of the sacred implies a special sacral language whose terms are largely unintelligible to outsiders. The sudden disappearance of so much liturgical and devotional language in the past decade — words like "novena", "indulgence", "fast day", even "Mass" — has had the effect of weakening the sense of community in the Church and the special significance of its rites.
  • A sense of the sacred requires correspondingly a sense of the possibility of sacrilege, a concept which strangely has been kept alive in recent years not so much by Catholics as by infidels — there have been reports of tabernacles being robbed more frequently and of black Masses being celebrated.  Such incidents are, from one standpoint, merely faddish and melodramatic.  However, in the act of sacrilege, what is important is not so much what happens to the sacred objects as how believers regard such actions.  It is true that God cannot be harmed by sacrilege.  It is equally true that Catholics who refuse to be moved by such acts testify to their own diminished faith in the reality of the sacred.  If religious belief is worthy of certain external manifestations, these manifestations are also worthy of being cherished and protected.
  • The use of the Mass by Leonard Bernstein and others as a “symbol of ultimacy” testifies to its continued power in modern culture. For that very reason Catholics should resist and dissociate themselves from all such efforts to appropriate its power for essentially secular purposes. In the usual practice of fashionable modernism, it will be used so long as it appears to have vitality, then will be discarded when the vitality has been siphoned off.
  • A related danger is a revived interest in “high”, solemn liturgy for reasons which are primarily aesthetic and are divorced from the traditional beliefs that alone make such liturgy meaningful. Such a revival is a strong probability in the near future, in reaction to the often shallow contemporaneity of the past decade.  Such aestheticism also renders the ritual ultimately meaningless; it is merely another form of liturgy as “happening”.

The crisis of worship currently affecting the Church is perhaps the most serious of its many crises, since the ultimate life and unity of the Church is expressed first of all in the liturgy, which comprises the Church’s great and central acts.  Although men of good will might prefer that it be otherwise, this crisis will not be successfully weathered without making hard choices and without much care and thought.  A general condition of liturgical drift, if it continues, will end by rendering much of the Church’s worship ineffective and incomprehensible even to believers. To an unfortunate extent the authentic spirit of the Liturgical Movement was dissipated in the frenzied atmosphere that followed the Second Vatican Council. It needs now to be recovered if the Council’s hope is to be realized that through the liturgy “the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, which we seek”.16


1  "Two Temptations", Worship, XXXVII, 1 (December, 1962), p. 18.

2   Louis Bouyer, Rite And Man:  Natural Sacredness And Christian Liturgy (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963) p. 220.

3  See picture in Maryknoll, October, 1973, p. 39.

Celebration, July, I973.

5  Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York, 1959). p.137.

6  R. Avery, "Holy Week Reexamined", Worship, XLI, 3 (March, 1967), p.177.

Rite and Man, p. 63.

8   Joseph Fernandez, "Symbolic Consensus", American Anthropologist, LXVII, 4 (August, 1965), pp. 917-18.

9  Claude Lévi Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago, 1966), p. 10.

10  Brian Rice McCarthy, OP, in Commonweal, November 17, 1972, p. 167.

11  Joseph T. Nolan, in The National Catholic Reporter, March 16, 1973, p. 9, and February 25. ‘972, p. 6.

12  Blaise Pascal, Pensées (with The Provincial Letters), (Modern Library ed., 1941), pp. 88-89.

13  A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Structure and Function in Primitive Society (Glencoe, IL, 1952), p. 155.

14  Quoted in Joseph P. Whelan, SJ, The Spirituality of Friedrich Von Hügel (New York, 1971), pp. 230-31. ltalics in original.

15  Quoted in St. Louis Review, August 31, 1973, p. 5. [Note: In April, 1974, Pope Paul VI sent Jubilate Deo, a basic collection of traditional Latin chants and hymns, to every bishop in the world, with the intention of helping retain some Latin in Catholic liturgy. The pope’s effort failed. — Ed.]

16  Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, §2. The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Abbott (New York, 1966), p. 138.


Copyright © James Hitchcock. All rights reserved.
Online edition published with permission.

Preface — 1995 Edition

Preface to the First Edition – 1974 Edition

Chapter 1 – The Liturgical Revolution — Published in the Adoremus Bulletin, November 2009

Chapter 2 The Chimera of Relevance

Chapter 3 – The Cult of Spontaneity

Chapter 4 – The Loss of History — Published in the Adoremus Bulletin, June 2006

Chapter 5 – The Death of Community

Chapter 6 – Folk Religion

Chapter 7 – The Reformed Liturgy — Published in the Adoremus Bulletin, April 1996

Chapter 8 – The Recovery of the Sacred



James F. Hitchcock