The Recovery of the Sacred
Dec 31, 2007

The Recovery of the Sacred

The Recovery of the Sacred

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Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy

The Recovery of the Sacred

Reforming the Reformed Liturgy

Chapter Two – The Chimera of Relevance

by James Hitchcock

Prior to the 1960s the Liturgical Movement, insofar as it went beyond a preoccupation with liturgy in the narrowest sense, grounded itself not only in the depths of orthodox Catholic theology but also in the work of certain scholarly students of religious phenomena whose position was essentially humanistic but who pointed to the "religious sense" in man as an ineradicable and central part of human life.

The seminal study was The Idea of the Holy by the German historian of religion Rudolf Otto, who analyzed man’s recurring fascination with "the wholly other" — some reality or power beyond all human categories, capable of inspiring both dread and attraction, a reality toward which only attitudes of reverence, awe, wonder, and even fear are appropriate. In Christianity, however, Otto saw a crucial metamorphosis in this religious sense — the Wholly Other is perceived as the God of three Persons, and the Son inspires love and free human response. The Christian religion is thus necessarily built on a tension between the Son of God become man and the continuing awareness of a divine reality far above all human experience.

The Romanian anthropologist Mircea Eliade dichotomized the sacred and the profane, which he saw as opposed categories in almost all human cultures. The sacred, deliberately fenced off from the merely worldly, represents the fullness of being, the basic ordering of the universe, the bulwark against chaos. Paradoxically, it alone makes human life possible, since in a wholly profane world man lives in constant danger of slipping back into a formless, chaotic existence. Insofar as modern man has lost his awareness of the sacred, Eliade viewed this as an impoverishment of human life, to be deplored and if possible reversed.1

The thrust of liturgical reform was, prior to the Second Vatican Council, primarily toward a powerful restatement of the importance of the sacred. The principal criticism which liturgists made of the Mass as actually celebrated was that, in too many parishes, it was "said" quickly, sloppily, irreverently, as a duty to be performed rather than a divine mystery to be entered into. Popular nonliturgical devotions were disapproved because they tended to detract from the central importance of the Eucharist and because they so often stalled on the superficial level of petition and thanksgiving for favors rather than leading the participants to a full knowledge of the mystery of redemption. Not all liturgists favored the vernacular, but those who did expected that a deep reverence and sense of awe could be preserved even in translation.

The liturgical revolution of the later 1960s rejected, sometimes sharply and even stridently, the traditional belief that worship points to a world "beyond", that it focuses man’s attention on a transcendent God, that it is the act whereby man elevates himself "above" the mundane world in order to glimpse the source from which he came and the goal toward which he moves. The "theology of Incarnation" began to assert that God is found in the world itself, and only there, and that aspirations toward transcendence, as understood traditionally in the Church, are in fact heretical and antihuman. A French Dominican theologian urged the deliberate "desacralization" of worship, since it had been found that sacred beliefs are difficult to adjust to cultural change.2 A German Jesuit liturgist hailed man’s losing his "childish enthusiasms". With vehemence he asserted that "Radical desacralization is necessary … and that includes the casting down of idols and sanctuaries… " Liturgical reform aimed to free man from "sacral hocus pocus". (The term "hocus pocus" is thought to derive from a puritan jibe at the Latin words of Consecration, Hoc est enim Corpus Meum. The ready acceptance of this deliberate blasphemy by a modern liturgist indicates how deeply the puritan spirit has taken root, even if unrecognized.) The same priest scorned all warnings against secularization, since the fruit of that process was likely to be a wholly benign purification of religious beliefs and practices. The new liturgy would require no special vestments, rubrics, or other trappings of the sacred. An Anglican priest pronounced the language of the Book of Common Prayer inappropriate to modern worship because it reflects too "other-worldly" a religion, is too majestic and "poetic" in its tones. A Spanish priest-liturgist welcomed secularization as a means of countering the "magic" and "arrogance" of traditional worship. There is, he thought, "enormous gain for the purity of the liturgy" in attacks from skeptics and secularists, because liturgy will no longer be able to distract man from the world and "will have something to say for men of today".3

General consensus about the need for a worldly mode of worship could not, however, translate itself immediately into "relevant" liturgy, especially since even the reformed rite of the Second Vatican Council is fundamentally traditional and obviously based on the classic conception of the function of worship. The prayers are addressed to the Father directly, through Christ, and there is little which has any direct bearing on contemporary human problems. The "experimental liturgies" which first began to attract attention at the Liturgical Week of 1966 now became bolder and far more common; soon no city of any size and scarcely any Catholic college were without experimental groups. An ironically well-publicized "underground church" began to surface, and numerous Church members, dissatisfied with the irrelevance of regular Sunday worship, left the parishes to join these new groups. Soon it was clear that the crisis of relevance, and the crisis of worship which was an aspect of it, was not confined to one denomination; disaffected "modern Christians" began to have ecumenical encounters amid liturgies in each other’s living rooms.

Underground liturgies, or more precisely liturgies devised with no particular regard for the official liturgies of the Church, remain a feature of contemporary religious life. But from the beginning the search for a truly modern form of worship was plagued by certain internal contradictions which are probably inescapable. Of these the most fundamental is the fact that Christian worship has always been structured for the most part "vertically"– man calling upon God, glorifying him, thanking him, asking his blessing, with only a rather formal and generalized attention to human needs, the relation of the worshipers to one another treated as an adjunct to their preoccupation with God. In liturgies of the classic pattern, even those of quite recent vintage like the reformed rites of the Roman Church or the 1974 Prayerbook of the Episcopal Church, the celebrant addresses the worshipers only sparingly and the worshipers address each other scarcely at all. The search for a liturgy which is primarily "horizontal"– focused on the community itself and on God within other people — is necessarily a profound break with the whole worshiping tradition of the Church and cans into question the very idea of worship, not simply the specific forms of it currently in official use.

Classically, worship has been conceived as relating to a special "divine life" accessible to man, either through the sacramental action itself (as in Catholicism) or through a special divine action which the sacraments symbolize and proclaim (as in Protestantism). In the new theology, however, man is conceived as having no "grace" which is distinct from "nature", and the purpose of worship and sacraments is to illumine all of natural human life and to celebrate human victories over all that is destructive and tyrannical.4 In such an economy, the very need for and possibility of worship become problematical, since life itself manifests God fully and special religious acts tend to express a traditional misunderstanding about the nature of salvation. The notion that a "successful" Mass is like a successful cocktail party, or that exuberant skaters and dedicated bull fighters are creating more authentic liturgies than the Church, may seem like the unavoidable absurdities of a fringe of enthusiasts. Yet a certain logic attaches to such positions. If, in worshiping, man is primarily celebrating the goodness of God’s creation and the discovery of him in other men, then the natural human moments of insight, exhilaration, and celebration — parties, games, intimate conversations — are in fact truer liturgies than anything consciously devised, no matter how "radical". There appears to be no need for organized liturgies when true human celebrations occur more or less spontaneously all the time. The failure to recognize this ultimate implication of the theology of secularity was a trap which doomed the search for relevant liturgy almost from the beginning.

It was an insight which slowly dawned on a number of people. A former secretary of the Liturgical Conference recalls that

since "liturgy is the school of Christian formation" … , what better place to start the reformation of the world than in the rites of Catholic worship? … I was enrolled for seven or eight years.

My later doubts were born of impatience and frustration. I began to think that maybe the theory is right but it sure as hell is a slow way to deliver aid to the world. Maybe it would be better to work directly on the problems of the day than to go by way of Rome. Of such thoughts are dropouts made.5

A New Jersey priest who became the leader of an underground church reported that his community found that simple living room Eucharists with guitars, baker’s bread, and drugstore wine quickly lost their meaning. Social action alone seemed important.6 There are no statistics, but in all probability very few of the underground liturgical groups begun with such hopes and enthusiasms in the later 1960s survived for any length of time. There were many reasons for this, but perhaps most important was ultimate realization by so many participants that the logic of their belief dictated an essentially secular existence. The regular celebration of liturgies came to seem like an arbitrary concession to tradition, a bit of "churchiness" anomalously held onto amid general emancipation from the ecclesiastical establishment.

The Harvey Cox syndrome was also at the heart of the search for relevance, since it proved to be extraordinarily difficult to judge with any degree of accuracy what was or was not truly relevant to "the world". Experimentation with the liturgy began in the era when "social problems", primarily economic and political, still held the center of attention, and the proper stance of a committed human being seemed to be one of clear-eyed, determined, informed, and pragmatic idealism. The mood was puritanical, as the activist began systematically shedding excess baggage, material and spiritual luxuries (was not prayer a distraction from worldly tasks?), and preparing for battles to be fought on the campaign trail, on picket lines, and in a multitude of public and private social agencies. In such a context, meaningful liturgy seemed to require ordinary secular dress, a minimum of ritual and ceremony, readings from the daily newspapers or current books on social injustice, and "dialogue homilies" about how to cope with problems in the surrounding community.

Progressive clergy shed their vestments on the sacristy floor, threw their incense in the trash, and sold their golden vessels to antique dealers, only to discover that somehow the puritanical young men and women who had marched with them on the picket lines had got hold of all these discards and more besides tarot cards, Ouija boards, Tibetan prayer wheels, and temple gongs. The Latin had been eliminated from the Mass so the young could comprehend it, but they preferred instead to chant in Sanskrit. Campus chaplains had ceased trying to sell prayer and were selling social action instead, but their former constituents were hunting up Hindu gurus and undertaking systematic regimens of meditation and fasting. Some clergy lectured the Church severely about the evil of sacral liturgies which are "escapes from life", but the young increasingly preferred drug-induced euphoria and hallucinations.

On one level this confusion over what was truly worldly stemmed from a simple and relatively harmless error: being mostly rather unworldly themselves, liturgical reformers knew no better way to overcome this disadvantage than by following the lead of the youth culture, which appeared to represent whatever was most modern. They failed to notice, until much later, the degree to which that culture was fragmented, unstable, and immensely subject to fad and caprice, so that almost any program which sought to relate to it was doomed to obsolescence by the time it was even properly organized.

On another level, more serious, the Cox syndrome laid bare the profound confusion of so many reformers themselves and their profound uncertainty as to what it meant to be modern, how susceptible they themselves were to fads and to violent swings of the pendulum. The Church was under attack from both sides, but as it turned out the same guerrillas were fighting on both the right and the left. Harvey Cox first castigated the establishment for its refusal to grow up, its penchant for myths and comforting legends, then for its stodgy lack of imagination, its failure to recognize the importance of fantasy and ritual celebration. The Episcopal bishop James A. Pike of California first defiantly said in If This Be Heresy that modern scientific man cannot accept legendary teachings like the Virgin Birth, then came to be an ardent believer in Spiritualism. Modernizers soon revealed their deep uncertainty whether "reality" is that everyday life apprehended by common sense, or something far beyond normal experience. It is impossible, however, to create liturgy which is simultaneously relevant to both.

On the deepest level such uncertainties demonstrated a general failure to consider what relevance actually is or what the world is which liturgy is to be made relevant to. "The world" and "modern man" came to be generalized abstractions applicable at best to specialized segments of reality, which were willfully mistaken for the whole. There was little reflection on the fact that probably the majority of people in the world-the masses of Asia, ‘Africa, and Latin America, for example, as well as many in the more "advanced" cultures — are "religious" people in the pejorative sense of the term used by Bonhoeffer and the secularizing theologians. Paradoxically, the judgment that modern man is inevitably secular is possible only on the assumption that the forms and values of the Western industrial societies are fated to overwhelm the whole world and that they should; few progressive churchmen are prepared to accept that dogma, however. Among the most common "human needs" is the desire for stability, tradition, and order, yet few experimental liturgies seek to fulfill this need, and neglecting to do so they often prove to be dysfunctional.

The necessity of a desacralized, "worldly" form of worship has been generally justified as historical — secularization is occurring, there is no possibility of preventing it, its blessings should be gladly accepted. But if secularization is in fact a historical inevitability, there is little need to work and plan for it; it will occur in good time, and a properly secularized worship will evolve naturally. If it is not inevitable, then Christians have the duty and the power to choose whether to accept or resist it; the attempt to impose secularization as inevitable is a suppression of Christian and human freedom.

The inevitability of secularization, and the necessary irrelevance of stable and sacral worship, has been repeatedly urged on the grounds that contemporary man lives in a constantly changing world in which there is little continuity with the past and much awareness of continuous and disruptive change. To be truly modern, in this view, is to cease looking for stabilities and certainties and to live at ease in an insecure environment. There is truth in this reading of history, mainly to the extent that this is now a cultural condition which many people wish to see come about and have chosen to promote in various ways. To the degree that it appeals to historical forces beyond human control it is greatly exaggerated, however. Sudden and violent change has been the familiar lot of Western man at least since the time of the Black Death more than six hundred years ago, and succeeding ages have lived through fundamental changes like the breakup of the feudal system, the Reformation, the religious wars, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the two world wars. Even the force of technology, which appears to strike the present age particularly hard, was experienced perhaps at least as powerfully by the men of the early nineteenth century who saw the first factories, locomotives, and steamships and the men of the early twentieth who witnessed the advent of airplanes, automobiles, motion pictures, and machine guns. What is least convincing in the argument from historical change is its failure to explain why man should be apparently so much more secular in 1970 than in 1960, 1950, or 1940, when traditional religion seemed to be in as healthy a condition as it had been for a long time.

It is also paradoxical that some of those individuals who were among the earliest and most acute diagnosticians of what it means to be modern, who helped articulate the ideas which now flow so easily from theologians’ pens, responded to "modernity" precisely by recognizing the continued, indeed intensified, importance of traditional religion. T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden not only joined the Church of England but opposed most of the modernizing tendencies within it. Of the composer Igor Stravinsky, a Russian Orthodox, his closest associate has said:

He believed in the Devil Incarnate, and in a literal, Dantesque Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. And he was deeply superstitious, forever crossing himself and those around him, wearing sacred medals [a footnote indicates a special devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help], and performing compulsive acts without which the auguries for the day were certain to be unfavorable. Furthermore, he believed in miracles, both large and of the Houdini sort, and never questioned the provenance of any sacred relic. Dogmatism was another part of his religion …. 7

Such men belonged to an earlier generation of Western seers but, except for the fact that it was not primarily Christian, there was a similar religious revival occurring among avant-garde young people by the end of the 1960s. What most of these converts appear to have seen in Catholicism, and what many other intellectuals have sought for and found in other places besides the Church, is precisely some reality or vision which is not modern. They have made the judgment that modern culture, in its secularity, is radically truncated, lacking in some awareness of reality which most societies of the past possessed and many in the present still possess. No secular man celebrates secularity with the enthusiasm of progressive theologians. Insofar as the Church chooses to show its essentially worldly side to the world, whether this be simple love of power and wealth or a principled hankering after modernity, it loses all claim to attention, since it is reduced simply to telling the world what the world already knows, and for the most part telling it badly.

The search for relevance suffered in part because there was never any clear idea what motivated it. If the primary motivation was to impress secular men with the need to take the Church seriously, it has been a dismal failure. Irving Howe probably speaks for many in the intellectual world when he says:

Consider the new wave of social consciousness among Catholics and Protestants alike: whatever its political value, isn’t it clear that many of its adherents are people who have lost the religious substance yet retain a core of religious yearning? Isn’t it clear, as well, that for many of these people, good and sincere as they may be, the religious symbols and vocabularies have become little more than enabling cues for the secular passions which are their real concern?8

If the search was primarily motivated by a desire to keep in the Church people who might otherwise leave, it has been at best a partial success, since changes in traditional structure have proved to be somewhat like giving a thirsty man salt water to drink — they merely induce a craving for more.

T. S. Eliot once wrote that although Christianity always modifies itself so as to remain believable in each age, conscious attempts to achieve this, like Modernism, "always have the opposite effect".9 The explanation of the paradox is not difficult-deliberate and well-publicized "reforms" can easily come to seem like desperate acts by people who have at last come to realize that they occupy uninhabitable territory and are making one final effort to improve the property before abandoning it. If the Church was so badly wrong on so many questions for so many centuries, there is little reason to take it seriously now, admirable though its honest professions of error may be.

This pseudo-relevance crept into liturgy as priests readily allowed the sacred rites to be stretched, bent, and broken to accommodate the momentary tastes of particular groups, whether serious or whimsical. The most notorious cases were the coffeeand-doughnut or beer-and-pretzel Eucharists, the gatherings where agape moved aside to admit eros, and the groups who used marijuana to stimulate "religious experiences". Perhaps almost as deadly, however, were the many cases in which the established structure of the Mass all but disappeared under the hand of eager experimenters or where the Eucharist became so relevant to worldly problems as to lose almost all sacral character. Whatever value such gatherings may have had for their participants, they sought to make liturgy relevant by in effect killing it. Many participants appear to have been purged by such experiences; they emerged to discover that they no longer had any need to join in a religious rite. Others discovered a simple truth: it is easier to become inspired for social action by attending a political rally, reading a graphic account of injustice, or visiting the scenes of need than by attempting to secularize an essentially sacred rite. In making the liturgy relevant many clergy unwittingly demonstrated merely its ultimate poverty in any framework of belief they or their special congregations could accept. Curiously, avant-garde liturgies seem for the most part to attract mainly those from within the Church who are experiencing some kind of faith crisis, many of whom finally leave; there is little indication that they have attracted any large number of seekers from the outside.

The Anglican dean Ralph Inge once commented that "He who marries the spirit of the age is soon left a widower", and perhaps the greatest irony of the search for relevance is the fact that nothing so quickly becomes irrelevant as that which seemed intensely relevant only a short time before. It is the clothes, films, and fond illusions of the generation just prior to the present which usually seem most ludicrous; the modernists of the I960s judged the I950s as one of the dreariest of decades, and many of the passions of the 1960s soon seemed ridiculous. The proposal to model liturgy after the presidential inauguration ceremony may have seemed promising in 1967, but by early 1969 the avant-garde was holding "counter-inaugurals" which sought to discredit the official ceremony by ridicule. The modernists of 1970 hardly had much respect for the bland, businesslike character of official American ceremonial. (The monk who so admired the ceremony of inauguration did not perhaps attend to its roots in a puritan distrust of all ritual, which is scarcely compatible with Catholic liturgy.)

At the Liturgical Week in Seattle in 1962 a priest-liturgist narrated a demonstration of a promising new way of making ritual relevant: at the Offertory selected members of the congregation would come forward not merely with bread and wine but also with appropriate symbols of their worldly occupations. It was a rite which would be tried in a number of places in the years to come, but without engendering much enthusiasm. (Among other problems was the anomaly by which the donors would reclaim, after the Mass, the gifts they had "given" at the Offertory.) As each donor came forward the priest commented:

Women are not only cooks, they are housewives …. Along with the dustcloth she has a skirt, a man’s shirt, neatly pressed and ironed …. I’m sure it often seems an undramatic and weary way to heaven. But what does it matter as long as it is a way to heaven, a way to serve each other in the name of Christ?

The nun has another book in her hand, the book of her holy rule. And it isn’t the book but all the acts of holy obedience that she leaves upon the altar. Obedience is a difficult virtue, especially for the young. (But we might think of Christ and Mary: Your redemption depended on their obedience. And the redemption of so many more might depend on yours.)

… the jets that have made the world ever more one community, and the bombers which brave men are using right now to keep vigil, so we can meet and talk and pray ….

. . . there are a good many lessons of discipline and obedience, bitter disappointments, and clean, hard sportsmanship that you can offer to God — if you accept them first — acts of humility, too, when the [football] coach tells you off.10

The unfortunate creator of this rite could not have foretold that in less than five years’ time his carefully thought-out ceremony would come to seem to many people not, perhaps, irrelevant but actually pernicious. He could not have foreseen Women’s Liberation, the revolution in the religious life, the antiwar movement, or a widespread rejection among young people of the ethos of football and the dictatorial authority of the coach. Catholic cardinals have sometimes been criticized for blessing bombers; being liturgical traditionalists, however, they never thought of putting model bombers on the altar. A liturgy which appears strikingly relevant at one moment is likely for that very reason to be monumentally irrelevant much sooner than a liturgy which has retained its appeal across the years. A truly contemporary liturgy is one which demands to be completely redrawn at least every five years, to catch shifts in national mood, changing political issues, new forms of speech replacing older ones (slang, for example, tends to have a short life), and oscillating taste in art. (Artists and architects who insisted on a severe functional style in the early 1960s, for example, did not foresee the revived love of extravagant decoration which would be inspired by the counter-culture.) If liturgy is wholly spontaneous and created by each congregation for its own use, this might be possible, although it is likely to exceed the creative powers of most groups. As a liturgical strategy for the whole Church it is patently impossible. The modern experience of worship seems also to confirm that the most objectionable aspects of liturgy are precisely those things which were introduced as concessions to the secular spirit of a particular age, for example, the etiquette of baroque monarchy or the sentimentalities of romantic piety.

The struggle to achieve a truly relevant liturgy, and the notion that worship does not relate specifically to divine life in man but is, rather, a celebration of all human life, leads inexorably to the secularization of liturgy, to a situation in which the ritual of the Church ceases in fact to be Christian except in the vaguest sense. Relevance is achieved by systematically eliminating, or allowing to be obscured, the distinctively religious aspects of worship in favor of a merely human activity.

Thus the priest who devised so relevant an Offertory in 1962 was, a decade later, discovering that "making the Eucharist" is simply "to make the ordinary suddenly extraordinary, and to give thanks with bread and wine and people where you find them …. " The term "Sacrifice of the Mass" is deemed no longer useful because worship is now recognized as "an important human act". (Sacrifice is a concept retaining limited value because of "people like Jesus and Gandhi who freely choose a course involving risk". The essence of worship is defined in this way: "If you can speak of a relationship between infinite force and fragile men in which our person and potential are so highly valued that force can be described as Father and man as God’s son, this is good news indeed. And it deserves an unambiguous shout to declare it, not a lot of talk about a propitiatory sacrifice to bring it about." Christ’s discourse about eating his body and drinking his blood is compared to a mother’s saying to her child: "I could eat you up!" and the Communion is described as "sharing one bread we call his body …. " A proposal is endorsed to transform churches into centers for "the arts in celebration", and the continued importance of the Mass is argued on the grounds that it is "a symbol of ultimacy, that which endures when the sounds are silent …. there is nothing else in Western culture, and certainly not in our own religious tradition, which expresses more enduringly the victory oflife and the hope of man than does the mass."11 Whether intended or not, this is an approach to liturgy which easily reduces it to a metaphor for various human experiences, and in which religious faith is not a necessary ingredient.

So also a monastic press can produce a poster, suitable for use on chapel walls, which proclaims a frankly profane slogan like "Nothing is worth more than this day." A priest can suggest that family vacations be considered true sacraments insofar as they refresh people and make them more open to one another and to God.12 The last stage of trying to save liturgy from obsolescence is inevitably to humanize it to the point where it is not substantially different from any number of human actions. Paradoxically, at this point the validity of worship becomes more problematical, not less, since the use of Christian formulas comes to seem arbitrary and provincial if they are intended to express universal human experiences. Why, for example, should the Eucharist be conceded such central importance? Left to himself, modern man would not be likely to designate a meal of bread and wine as his central symbol of unity. If the sacraments celebrate life, there are more authentic ways of celebrating than in ecclesiastical rituals-at parties, dances, sporting events, concerts, or dinners with friends. (A sympathetic observer of the Dutch Church notes that in Eucharists devised by students, the Service of the Word, heavily political and contemporary in focus, strongly overshadows the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which is added almost as a compulsory afterthought.13)

The more the Eucharist is secularized to make it relevant, the more it is robbed of its meaning and the less likely it is to endure, except as a residual tie with tradition for persons who are reluctant to make themselves completely post-Christian. At youth Masses of the underground church, for example, the Gloria is omitted because "it is alien to an American way of speaking." The same is true of the Creed, although somewhat less so. An unofficial Canon is used which, consciously or otherwise, reflects an Arian viewpoint; Jesus is referred to simply as "our brother". Suggested readings are from Camus, Sartre, and other modern masters, as well as a clearly unitarian passage from Emerson.14 An Anglican All Saints’ liturgy at a Canadian university commemorates "all the great persons of the past who have enriched the lives of men through their gifts of imagination and insight".15

At a pre-Christmas "Mass" celebrated under vaguely Roman Catholic auspices, a woman begins the service by denouncing a print of a Raphael Madonna and Child on the wall, because of its "coldness" and "separatism". Christmas, she says, means "getting out of the womb". The first reading is from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn recounting that the narrator had been born a half-hour after Christmas ended and suggesting that he would have been better off if his mother had broken her neck on Christmas Day. The congregation laughs uneasily, and the celebrant says, "Whew!" The creator of the rite replies, "Don’t fuss, Dick. We have a light touch from The Village Voice." The second reading concerns a pseudo-womb created by a New York artist, which can be purchased for six hundred dollars. During this reading the celebrant absentmindedly nibbles crumbs from the eucharistic bread, having earlier lighted a small cigar. A young man asks angrily what it means to go home for Christmas. "Usually it means just crawling back into the same old womb. With parents who don’t understand us, who make a big commercial fuss over Christmas." An official Advent Collect is recited, and afterward the group partakes of the Eucharist proper. When it is over a girl says to a neighboring young man, "I guess this is about as modern as liturgy gets." "Mercy, no," he replies, "I’ve seen equally advanced ones in Holland, Germany, even France." 16

When the search for a truly modern liturgy was at its height, the theologian Charles Davis, a former Roman Catholic priest, suggested that it was in fact doomed to fruitlessness, since "there is no modern form of worship, because worship itself is outmoded in the modern world and Christian faith is in a state of deviancy from contemporary culture." Further, he warned that radical attempts at modernization are likely to lead to "pastiche" and added that "creative power is lacking, and the danger is that the outcome of ambitious efforts will be the disintegration, not the renewal, of traditional liturgies." Professor Davis posed a necessary choice between "the ghetto and the desert" – the former a self-consciously alien and in certain ways "pre-modern" religious community, the latter a stoical acceptance of modern secularism with all its religious dryness. He himself opted for the latter, but he saw the former as a viable choice and pointed out that no true liturgy is possible without a unified community from which it emanates.17 The prophetic character of his words by now seems almost undeniable.

At the same time, however, the liturgical reformers’ conception of "modern man" has been as much at the root of their problems as their lack of regard for tradition. Besides overemphasizing the secular character of contemporary society, ardent Christian modernizers have tended to define modern man as a faceless abstraction in contrast to the equally faceless abstraction of the church member. Numerous theologians, preachers, and liturgists exhort Christians to get out of their ghettos, become part of "the world", stop looking inward, and cease engaging in "escapist" religious activity. Yet in simple truth there is no "world" to which all men belong, except in the most generalized sense. Modern man, like all the men before him, belongs, either by choice or by birth, to numerous ghettosfamily, nation, city, neighborhood, social class, occupation, recreational club, political party, ad infinitum. The world is not a monolithic and unified reality in the shadow of which the Church huddles off to one side; it is a collection of overlapping and interlocking "ghettos", and to the degree that the Church overlooks this fact and seeks to make itself relevant to a generalized "humanity" it loses power, character, and identity and begins to speak in exceedingly hollow-sounding tones.

The radicalization of liturgy has in fact accompanied a general sharpening of Christian awareness of social injustice; many of those who have sought to make liturgy relevant have been equally concerned to help those in need. There is, however, no necessary connection between the two attitudes, and no convincing evidence that a radicalized liturgy creates a social conscience. More commonly it has been the same restlessness and disaffection with traditional institutions which has stimulated both social activism and liturgical radicalism in the same people.

Even in its classic phase the Liturgical Movement probably embodied a higher degree of social conscience than was to be found in the Church (or secular society) at large; its leaders were always at pains to insist that liturgy has social dimensions and cannot be an end in itself. In the Church of England some of the earliest "ritualists", in Victorian times, were slum priests, and that honorable tradition has continued to the present time. Perhaps the most renowned Christian of recent years with respect to dedication to the poor, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, espouses a quite sacral and intense devotion to the Mass. Once when given a sum of money she surprised the donor by using it to buy sacred vessels for her convent chapel and told him that thereby "you will be daily on the altar close to the Body of Christ."18

Sacred ritual has sometimes been an escapist activity for certain devout people, although it is worth inquiring what their lives would be like if this form of escape were not available to them. However, there is virtually no human activity which cannot be used for escapist purposes if the individual is primarily bent on escape. Radical liturgists demonstrated their own worldly naivete in not seeing that the activities in the "real world" toward which they urged Christians-election campaigns, picketing, volunteer social work, encounter groups, the study of the social sciences-are of ten just as "irrelevant" and "escapist" as the Latin Mass. Some of the priests who left the sanctuary for the social-welfare bureaucracies or the universities during the euphoric days of the Great Society have perhaps by now begun to wonder if their new roles are truly more meaningful than the old.

Radical liturgical communities have often sought to model themselves on the style of the early Church, which is assumed to have been simple and relatively unstructured. What they have failed to realize is that to a great extent the ethos of these modern groups is, if anything, the precise opposite of the ethos of the early Church. For the pre-Constantinian Church was nothing if it was not a sect. The unbaptized were rigidly excluded from the services. Its members had a strong sense of their uniqueness and, ultimately, their superiority over the surrounding pagan society. If ever that awareness should dull, the threat of martyrdom was present to reawaken it. The notion that the Eucharist was the means whereby they celebrated their unity with the whole world, or that their own rites were in some sense equivalent to the rites of the pagans, would have been incomprehensible to them. The temptation of the early Christians was perhaps to excessive sectarianism. The temptation of the modern underground, while in one sense sectarian, is in another sense the opposite — toward indiscriminate syncretism and a blurring of the meaning of what it is to be a Christian. Periodically it becomes necessary to restate the obvious, as the Episcopal bishop Robert Terwilliger did when he remarked:

The current jargon has it that the Eucharist is the "celebration of life." The Eucharist is not "the celebration oflife" unless it is the celebration of the life of Christ …. This life is not the same old life of the human community as it is celebrated in ordinary or festive common meals of the family of man …. Strangely, this seems to be all it means now to many Christians, even those who speak knowingly of the Liturgical Movement, even those who make Eucharist in the Roman Church …. 19

It is worth noting that, even as a "celebration of life", the new Eucharists can sometimes take odd forms; liturgy held when the radical priest Philip Berrigan was released from prison included a reading from the work of George Jackson, an apostle of violent revolution. (Relating the incident, a participant remarked, "Some of the career pacifists really winced at the last."20) One of the inestimable advantages of a stable, official liturgy is that it cannot be perverted, in its very text and rite, to partisan usage or to usages which participants may later come to regret.

Mircea Eliade observed that, although modern man conceives himself as taking responsibility for the world in a way his more religious ancestors did not, in fact his responsibility is more limited – he is content with a generally political or technological responsibility rather than a cosmic responsibility. He no longer perceives the universe as a cosmos, a living and articulated unity. Instead, it is the sum of its material parts.21 Religion and religious ritual thus perform their greatest service for man when they seek to awaken him to this larger dimension of existence, when they persuade him to see beyond (and, most important, to wish to see beyond) the limited horizons of technological society.

Although the cult of relevance proclaims above all its desire to "serve man", there is surely no service involved in conniving with a complacent secularism and a narrow humanism. If there is an eternal dimension of reality, religion does man a priceless service in making him aware of it. Insofar as the priest, like the scientist or the politician, expresses his lack of concern for eternity, he is basically false to his calling, and he prepares the way directly for the flourishing of all those pseudo-religions which sprang up in such abundance amid the ruins of the humanist dreams of the 1960s.

Paradoxically, therefore, the most relevant liturgy is often that which is least relevant in worldly eyes. The rite of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, for example, was introduced in part to counter denials of Christ’s Real Presence, and the disuse into which it has fallen is obviously related to a renewed skepticism about the same doctrine. As John Macquarrie has said:

… the importance of eucharistic worship was never greater than it is today, when the whole fabric of the Christian faith is threatened. Those who work to ensure that the holy eucharist shall be the main occasion of Christian worship, those who teach due reverence in the preparing and receiving of the sacrament, those who seek to have the blessed sacrament reserved as a focus of devotion in every church … are not only following in the age-old tradition of Christian devotion but are witnessing and responding to the needs of today, affirming in our world the reality of God, the one source of faith, hope, and love.22

The anthropologist Victor Turner has argued that sacred rituals serve man and society not as reflections or expressions of the established structure of "reality" but as events outside the texture of the ordinary. Sacred time and sacred space provide occasions when man is stripped of his normal attributes and leveled before the transcendental. Sacred rites thus make man aware of powers which are antithetical to those that maintain the normal structures of the world. Professor Turner believes that much liturgical reform has been fundamentally misconceived, in that it seeks to make ritual more comformable to contemporary social structure rather than alien to it.23 (This is true not only of liturgies which might celebrate "bourgeois" or "establishment" values but also of "radical" liturgies which share the same underlying materialistic and naturalistic assumptions.) "Relevant" liturgies tend continuously to blend with life itself and thus become pointless; the radical disjunction of liturgy and ordinary existence is not sufficiently recognized.

Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist, has summarized the function of liturgy:

Having ritually "leaped" … into the framework of meaning which religious conceptions define and, the ritual ended, returned again to the commonsense world, a man is-unless, as sometimes happens, the experience fails to registerchanged. And, as he is changed, so also is the commonsense world, for it is now seen as but the partial form of a wider reality which corrects and completes it.24

In the search to rediscover the roots of the sacred, the first two principles have perhaps now emerged:

Religious ritual which seeks consciously to become humanly relevant will in time suffer the opposite fate, while the most truly relevant ritual is that which does not relate to man’s most immediate concern but, instead, to less accessible realities which are of greater ultimate significance.

Liturgy to a great degree seeks to take the worshiper outside the normal secular world.



1 Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York, 1961).

2 Jean-Paul Audet, O.P., "The Future of the Liturgy", Worship, XLIIl, 8 (October, 1969), pp. 449-64.

3 Herman Schmidt, SJ., John Tinsley, Juan Llopis, in Liturgy in Transition, ed. Schmidt (Concilium, LXII [1971]), pp. 14-29, 70-77, 121-30.

4 See, for example, Donald P. Gray, "Sacramental Consciousness-Raising", Worship, XLVI, 3 (March, 1972), pp. 130-40.

5 Mannion. "The Making of a Dissident". Commonweal, January 19. 1973. p. 346.

6 Reported by Michael Novak in The Saturday Evening Post, December 28. 1968. p. 67.

7 Reported by Robert Craft in The New York Review of Books, August 9. 1973. p. 18.

8 Commentary, October. 1971. p. 114.

9 Quoted in The Times Literary Supplement, November 13. 1970. p. 1313.

10 Joseph T. Nolan, "New Life from the Mass", Christian Hope in the Modern World (The Liturgical Conference, 1963), pp. 51-53.

11 Nolan, "Celebrating at Home", The National Catholic Reporter, March 16, 1973, p. 9; "Sacrifice: a Word Problem", ibid., February 16, 1973, p. 16; "A Proposal to Put Arts in Celebration", ibid., July 6, 1973, p. 9.

12 Rolland L. Stair, C.S.c., quoted in The National Catholic Reporter, August 17, 1973, p. 2.

13 Evert de Jong, "Liturgical Developmeats in Holland", Liturgy in Transition, p. 144.

14 Stephen W. McNierney (ed.), The Underground Mass Book (Baltimore, 1968), pp. 17, 24, 65.

15 Quoted by Daniel B. Stevick, Language in Worship: Reflections on a Crisis (New York, 1970), p. 8.

16 Emmaus House, New York City. Described by Francine du Plessix Gray, Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism (New York, 1970), pp.4-10.

17 "Ghetto or Desert: Liturgy in a Cultural Dilemma", Worship and Secularization, ed. Wiebe Vos (Bussum, Holland, 1970), pp. 10-27.

18 See Malcolm Muggeridge, Something Beautiful for God: Mother Teresa of Calcutta (New York, 1971), especially p. 36.

19 "Eucharistic Preaching", Towards a Living Liturgy, ed. Donald Garfield (New York. 1969). p. 27.

20 Reported by Richard H. Miller. Commonweal, January 19. 1973. p. 343.

21 The Sacred and the Profane, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York. 1959). pp.93-94.

22 "Subjectivity and Objectivity in Theology and Worship", Worship, XLI, 3 (March, 1967), p. 160.

23 "Passages, Margins, and Poverty: Religious Symbols of Community", Worship, XLVI, 7 (September, 1972), pp. 390-412; 8 (October, 1972), pp. 482-94.

24 "Religion as a Cultural System", The Religious Situation: 1968, ed. Donald R. Cut

James F. Hitchcock

James F. Hitchcock, emeritus professor of history at St. Louis University, which he attended as an undergraduate, received his masters and doctorate degrees from Princeton University. An archive of various articles of his can be read here. Dr. Hitchcock has authored several books, including The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life; The Recovery of the Sacred; What Is Secular Humanism; Catholicism and Modernity: Confrontation or Capitulation?; and History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium