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What’s Wrong with the Liturgy? —I am.

In the early 20th century, The Times newspaper of London is said to have asked notable authors, “What’s wrong with the world?” G.K. Chesterton responded simply: “I am.”

If the authenticity of the anecdote is difficult to prove, it is doubly so to determine just what he meant. In his 1910 book, What’s Wrong with the World?, Chesterton looks to those who comprise “the world”—men, women, children, families—and how the larger society’s politics, labor, and laws either advance or obstruct domestic flourishing.

Our understanding of this shared prosperity of the individual and the society, of the family unit and the world family, sheds some light on what Chesterton’s speculative quip might mean. The famously stout apologist is saying that as the individual goes, so goes the world. When there is something wrong with me, invariably there will be something also wrong with the world—and vice versa.

Suppose Adoremus Bulletin, like the The Times, asked today’s liturgical leaders and participants a similar question: “What’s wrong with the liturgy?”

In reality, neither Adoremus Bulletin nor any other publication needs to ask this question to elicit responses. Suffice it to say that there is no lack of volunteers attempting to answer it—as Pope St. John Paul II himself once noted: “The liturgy! Everybody speaks about it, writes about it, and discusses the subject. It has been commented on, it has been praised, and it has been criticized.” The music is often poorly chosen and sung. Art and architecture are frequently mundane at the expense of the heavenly. Preaching and presiding can lack dignity. Participation is regularly associated with liturgical ministry. Liturgical language is deemed inaccessible by many. Opinions abound about “what’s wrong.”

But if I were answer in the spirit of Chesterton, that “I am” what’s wrong with the liturgy, I know that such a response would not be my first answer. Nevertheless, this Q&A exercise is a timely one during this year’s 10th anniversary of Summorum Pontificum.

Anyone genuinely interested in the implementation of Pope Benedict’s 2007 motu proprio will rightly discuss the “mutual enrichment” of the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms, as well as consider the strengths and defects of each. But if the two Missals are all we look toward, we’re only seeing half of the liturgical landscape—like a lackluster look at the world from having one eye closed.

Truly, our ritual execution is imperfect, and such will always be the case as long human beings are involved. Adoremus spends much of its energy working to promote beautiful and substantial celebrations, helping the liturgy’s ministers develop an ars celebrandi and thus become cooperators with the Holy Spirit, the premiere “artisan of ‘God’s masterpieces,’ the sacraments” (CCC, 1091). There is always room for improvement on the ritual side of the liturgical ledger.

But what about the other side of the scorecard—what about me? While the liturgy glorifies God in an objective way—Jesus and his saving work remain its core—the glory of God, as St. Irenaeus famously says, “is man fully alive.” If I want to glorify God, which is the beginning and end of the liturgy, then I too must be sanctified along the way.

The early twentieth century liturgical movement understood this human dimension well. What moves in the liturgy, the change that was desired by those lobbying for the liturgy, was not principally the rites, but the hearts of men and women who celebrate. As a 1929 tract says clearly, the Liturgical Movement is a movement of the baptized “towards the liturgy, a movement towards the Christ-life giving mysteries.” For these early Fathers, it was the human heart that needed to move and change, not the liturgical rites.

Liturgist and theologian Romano Guardini spoke powerfully of the participant’s role in the liturgy on the heels of the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. In a famous 1964 letter to the German Liturgical Congress (Sacrosanctum Concilium was promulgated in December 1963), he advises: “The question is whether the wonderful opportunities now open to the liturgy will achieve their full realization; whether we shall be satisfied with just removing anomalies, taking new situations into account, giving better instruction on the meaning of ceremonies and liturgical vessels, or whether we shall relearn a forgotten way of doing things and recapture lost attitudes.” By this “forgotten way of doing things” and the recovering of “lost attitudes” Guardini means forming participants to open themselves for the divinization made possible in the liturgy—changing what’s wrong with me, in other words. Furthermore, Guardini says, if the participant’s own formation “is not taken in hand, reforms of rites and texts will not help much.”

The liturgical education of individuals is, as it were, the other principal aim of Adoremus’s apostolate, and this dimension finds much food for thought in the present Bulletin. As noted above, July 2017 marks the 10th anniversary of Pope Benedict’s motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum. Even as the letter’s ongoing purpose remains a “mutual enrichment” between the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the one Roman Rite, the so-called “liturgy wars” between respective adherents often remain a regular yet unfortunate element in the contemporary Church. But as Cardinal Sarah has recently remarked: “it is inconceivable to celebrate the liturgy while having in one’s heart feelings of fratricidal struggle and rancor…. I vehemently refuse therefore to waste our time pitting one liturgy against another, or the Missal of Saint Pius V against that of Blessed Paul VI.” Fr. Michael Pawlowicz, in his article “Ten Years Later: Summorum Pontificum Inspires New Generation to Bridge the Liturgical Divide,” sees the 2007 document not as a battle cry, but as an instrument of “interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church” (to quote Pope Benedict) and in the hearts of participants. In other words, Summorum Pontificum addresses not only “what’s wrong” with the two ritual forms of the Mass, but also “what’s wrong” with me.

In the current issue, too, Father Frederick Miller looks at the liturgical heart of the faithful today through the eyes of the Church’s most newly-canonized and youngest saints. The angel which initially appeared to Fatima’s children didn’t speak of ritual reform, but of their own liturgical formation: he “taught the children how to worship the mystery of God; how to offer Jesus to the Father in sacrifice, how to offer themselves and their sacrifices in union with Jesus to the Father.” He sought to change the children by means of the sacraments—which is precisely what happened—until they were saints and no longer “what’s wrong” with the world.

“What’s wrong with the liturgy?” While there may be many true answers, one of the answers is, unfortunately, “I am.”

Christopher Carstens

Christopher Carstens

Christopher Carstens is Director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, instructor at Mundelein’s Liturgical Institute, editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, and a voice on The Liturgy Guys Podcast.