May 12, 2018

It Never Gets Old: Fruitful Repetition versus Redundant Reductionism

The March 27th Chrism Mass homily by Bishop Michael Olson was an impassioned plea to the priests of the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, to maintain and strengthen a heartfelt faithfulness to the received liturgy of the Church. Bishop Olson said, the “importance of Christ-centered and shared repetition in our collaborative mission as the Church requires that we avoid the addition of words or gestures that are alien to the rites and liturgical texts provided us by the Church.”

In this request, Bishop Olson echoes Pope St. John Paul II, who in his 2003 encyclical “On the Eucharist and its Relationship to the Church,” Ecclesia de Eucharistia, wrote of the liturgical abuses that have resulted from “a misguided sense of creativity and adaptation…which have been a source of suffering for many” (52). As Pope Benedict XVI wrote, such experimentation “frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear.”[1]

In his encouragement to priests, Bishop Olson distinguished between mere redundancy, which “has to do with vicious circularity (doing the same thing again and again without making progress or accomplishing anything except narcissistic absorption),” and repetition, which “has to do with the spiral: there is always forward growth and momentum in a spiral even as it circles again and again over similar words, patterns, ideas, and themes.”

Seeing repeated actions as redundant, English theologian David Torevell has said, reflects “the ceaseless modern search for an authentic self, devoid of all restraint or discipline from tradition and history. Consequently, subjectivism assumes a far greater prominence in worship. As [Benedictine Aidan] Kavanagh puts it, ‘Creativity of the Spontaneous Me variety condemns rite and symbol to lingering deaths by trivialization, bemusing those who would communicate by rite and symbol to a point where they finally wander away in search of something which appears to be more stable and power-laden.’”[2] While a “narrow rubricism” may have affected preconciliar Catholicism, Kavanagh bemoans that this reduction of repetition to redundancy “produces little prayers, rambling homilies on current events, sappy hymns, and eucharists hardly distinguishable from the coffee and doughnut social that follows in the church hall.”[3]

Contrary to such reductionism, Bishop Olson draws out the value of repetition in the spiritual lives of both clergy and the faithful, reminding us all that unless it is properly understood, spiritual repetition can be reduced to redundancy. St. Ignatius Loyola knew well that such repetition in prayer was vital to discovering the depths of God’s designs in our lives and to hearing his words in our hearts.

Rather than “empty phrases” (Mt 6:7) or “useless repetitions” (SC 34), Bishop Olson rightly sees the power of the liturgy to form us according to the pattern of the Paschal Mystery. Similarly, philosopher James K.A. Smith writes, such liturgical repetition is “the lived performance of the…faith that draws us into the story of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” Indeed, this spiraling liturgical repetition “is an enactment of solidarity with the body of Christ across time and around the globe, a performative way to anchor our faith outside the vagaries of the contemporary.” Thus, such repetition in the Church’s liturgy “is ultimately and fundamentally a theocentric act…by the King”[4] who commanded us to “do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19). In this way, the Liturgy “is nothing less than the way a redeemed world is performed through actions.”[5]

[1] Benedict XVI, “Letter on the Occasion of the Publication of the Apostolic Letter ‘Motu Proprio Data’ Summorum Pontificum on the Use of the Roman Liturgy Prior to the Reform of 1970,” in Letters of Pope Benedict XVI (English) (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013).

[2] David Torevell, Losing the Sacred: Ritual, Modernity, and Liturgical Reform (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 165.

[3] Aidan Kavanaugh, Elements of Rite (Collegeville: Pueblo Books, 1990), vi, 89.

[4] James K. A. Smith, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, vol. 3, Cultural Liturgies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic: A Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2017), 207.

[5] David Torevell, Losing the Sacred: Ritual, Modernity, and Liturgical Reform (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 165.

Jeremy J. Priest

Jeremy J. Priest is the Director of the Office of Worship for the Catholic Diocese of Lansing, MI, as well as Content Editor for Adoremus. He holds a Licentiate in Sacred Theology (STL) from the Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL. He and his wife Genevieve have three children and live in Lansing, Michigan.