About a week ago I wrote a post titled “In Defense of the Novus Ordo“, which was really more an explanation that the things most criticized about the Novus Ordo are optional. Someone in the combox noticed I didn’t really defend the Novus Ordo itself, to which I foolishly responded that I would at some point write a true defense.
Why do I say foolishly? Because I realize that any defense, no matter how well-researched or well-defended, will bring out vicious attacks, including questioning the validity of the Novus Ordo, accusations of heresy in Vatican II and conspiracy theories about Masons, Protestants and Paul VI. Nothing denigrates faster than a Catholic blog discussion on the Mass. It has in many ways become the “third rail” of the Catholic blogosphere.
Why is this? Why is it that any discussion of the liturgy so quickly turns into conflict, and all-too-often a quagmire of attacks, uncharitable accusations, and downright un-Christian behavior? I can think of a few reasons.
The Liturgy is important. In academia, they say that arguments are so heated because the stakes are so small. I would argue that the opposite is true about the liturgy: the arguments are so heated because the stakes are so high. The Mass is the most important thing that we as humans do. We are all created for eternal life in heaven, and what will we be doing in heaven? Well, if you read the book of Revelation, you see that heaven is one big Mass. So it is quite understandable that people take it quite seriously.
How we celebrate the Liturgy is important. How we celebrate the liturgy matters as well. The Old Testament condemns worship to false gods, but it also condemns false worship to the true God. For example, in Leviticus 10:1-2, the sons of Aaron presented “unlawful fire” to the Lord and as a result, they were consumed by that fire. Furthermore, the excruciating detail in which the Old Testament explains how proper liturgy is to be performed shows that it is not only vital that we worship God, but that we do it properly. So liturgical debates are important.
The Liturgy is a human-divine activity. The Mass was instituted by Christ and it’s development has been guided by the Holy Spirit. In it, we worship God in the way He has asked to be worshiped. However, the liturgy is also a human activity which is shaped by human elements, including culture, taste, and ability. While maintaining the core structure of the Mass, we have a great range of details we can adjust. Just look at the difference between the Mass of the Latin Rite and the Divine Liturgies of the Eastern Churches: they are the same underlying liturgy, but are quite different in their execution. Because it is so influenced by human factors, however, there can be strong disagreements about what is appropriate and helpful to proper worship and what is not. It is often difficult to separate in our minds between what is contrary to true worship and what is just not our taste.
The Liturgy is our most common activity. And by “common” I mean both “frequent” and “related to the whole”. All practicing Catholics participate in the Mass at least once a week – we are never more than seven days separated from it. Furthermore, the Mass is what unites the Church universal: whereas there might be diverse spiritual practices from Europe to Africa to Latin America, we all celebrate the same Mass. Because of this, we are constantly reminded if a Mass is celebrated poorly and we know what a great impact this can have on the Church Universal.
Therefore, I am very empathetic with those who lament the direction (both figuratively and literally) liturgical worship has gone in the past 40 years. I have been fortunate to have been a member of three separate parishes (in three separate dioceses) that all celebrated the Mass without any egregious abuses or flippancy that you can see in some American parishes. But I can understand how someone who week-in and week-out experiences such Masses would become discouraged and even angry over such a state of affairs. I think Pope Benedict has made it clear that he too shares these concerns and is working to restore a more reverent atmosphere to the celebration of the Mass.
But (and you knew there would be a “but”, didn’t you?) even if we are angry, this does not justify sinful responses. St. Paul tells us, “In your anger do not sin…do not give the devil a foothold” (Eph. 4:26-27). Note the second part: by letting our anger lead to sin we are giving the devil a foothold to our soul. It doesn’t matter if that anger was justified or not, either way the devil wins. When we lash out at liturgical abuses or even Church-mandated changes which we think are unwise, we lose twice: first, the devil wins a victory over us and second, it is highly unlikely we will convince anyone of our position. Nothing is more self-defeating than someone who argues in anger.
It is unlikely that Satan is going to be able to convince a practicing Catholic to abandon going to Mass. So he won’t try. Instead he will tempt us to make Mass a near occasion of sin. But we don’t have to let that happen. Even if everything around us is loopy, that doesn’t mean that we have to respond in anger. Instead, it is a wonderful opportunity to pray and offer sacrifices (like the sacrifice of enduring the loopiness) for those who are abusing or denigrating the liturgy. We can turn the devil’s temptations into opportunities for grace. And who knows? Maybe our prayers and sacrifices will lead others to a deeper appreciation of the solemnity of the Mass.
Oh, and I haven’t written that defense of the Novus Ordo yet; I’m waiting until the full-body armor I ordered arrives.