Can Liturgy Heal a Secular Age?

Can Liturgy Heal a Secular Age?

POSTED BY FR SIMON HENRY ON WEDNESDAY, 8 MARCH 2017

Via the New Liturgical Movement I came across an article by Timothy O’Malley in Church Life Journal: Can Liturgy Heal a Secular Age? It’s an interesting read, starting from the premise of Fr. Lambert Beauduin, often regarded as the founder of the liturgical movement, that:

renewed attention to liturgical formation would re-awaken Christian vigour in society. That Liturgical prayer would be the key to avoiding secularization, to forming men and women, in a public religiosity that could transfigure cultural and social life with the Eucharistic love of Christ.

In the intervening years, it’s fair to say that the hopes of the liturgical movement have been unmet. Participation in the sacramental life of the Church has not flourished since the Second Vatican Council.

He goes on to put into academic terms one of my constantly recurring themes in my own preaching: that we have lost the connection with our Tradition and replaced it with secular markers and means of assessing efficacy:

Religion provides a privileged culture whereby we can connect our narrative to those in the past. We see ourselves in a broader story, one that is ultimately connected to God. With the loss of religious memory, the human person is no longer able to see one’s identity as linked to the communion of saints, to the Scriptures, to the Tradition: all those markers we employ in assessing Catholic identity. Thus, all that is left is the naked individual who can assess the “efficacy” of a religious tradition by the way that said tradition moves him. If it doesn’t move the person, then it has no value, because it is an isolated fact rather than part of a coherent narrative.

He continues by reminding us that the Liturgical Movement’s account presumed that understanding alone would be able to bring about this renewal. But then notes that in recent times this classical understanding has been critiqued. That what really makes ritual “work” is not merely understanding it from an academic or intellectual viewpoint (the world “as is”, as he puts it) but rather by it giving us something to experience that connects us with a larger whole on a more emotional, aesthetic and intuitive level, (creating a world as it might be “as if”, as he puts it):

In this sense, one could argue that liturgical catechesis and reform about the Second Vatican Council was inadequate relative to how ritual action actually works. It sought to explain. It assumed that if more was taught, then more would be caught. Yet, explanation is not the function of liturgy. Ritual does something before it communicates something.

This restoration of a broken world through ritual action is essential to understanding how liturgical might “heal” in a secular age. Liturgical prayer isn’t about communication of information. It is about creating a world “as if,” one that Catholics understand as a sacramental world not yet visible to the naked eye. Authentic participation in the rite can thus take place even when someone does not entirely understand what is unfolding in the Eucharistic assembly. One can understand, through ritual bracketing, that this action is about the restoration of communion between heaven and earth, between God and humanity, between neighbor and neighbor.

The more that our liturgical practice seems drawn from the present world, from that which emphasizes comprehension and sincerity of belief, the less the contemporary human person will see ritual as necessary.

It struck me that the same understanding is very much on show in the political sphere of recent times. Disillusioned people who voted for Mr Trump or for Brexit have not necessarily done so having understood all the intricacies and consequences but because the overall narrative (the “liturgy” of the campaigns) moved their hearts to what they would like the world to be: not the “as is” they have been experiencing but the “as if” they connect to and hope for as something better, greater and more cohesive.

What is good about the article is that in the final part he gives some direction answering the questions instead of just posing them, which we don’t often hear!

Liturgical prayer should be understood as part of the chain of memory. We should admit to ourselves that some of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, not intentionally, cut us off from dimensions of this memory that linked us to our forebears. The suppression of certain liturgical feasts, the disappearance of much liturgical art, the decline of devotional dimensions from Catholic life—all of these have created a gap in the chain of memory that linked the Church to the past. We cannot go back and restore this chain of memory as some traditionalists seem to argue. Liturgical prayer will always take place in a post-conciliar Church even if it is the Extraordinary Form. But we can acknowledge that the story of salvation commemorated in liturgical prayer was present in every age, connecting us to those who have gone before… What is needed in Catholicism is a form of liturgical study and research that draws upon all the practices of the Church through the ages. The next liturgical reform should not privilege one era because it was viewed as an authentic way for communicating Christian identity (versus another era in which all was wrong). Instead, the whole scope of Christian identity as a story through the ages should enter into the picture of liturgical renewal and reform. And where it is appropriate in the present rite, it would be acceptable to introduce aspects of the past in today’s liturgy. The possibility, for example, of ad orientem worship, should not be dismissed as some bygone, retrograde, conservative conspiracy. It is simply a restoring of a posture of prayer that has been performed in the past and could be again, connecting us to Christians who have come before. It has theological validity. And it could be attractive precisely because it provides a missing link in a chain of memory.

Restoring a Culture: Lastly, Romano Guardini himself noted that the renewal of the liturgy required a restoration of civilization… Perhaps, the most important dimension of counteracting secularity through liturgy today is not related to the liturgy. It’s related to alternative forms of education that teach children to contemplate, to appreciate, to love, and thus to find themselves worshiping. It is about restoring the capacity to perceive the world “as if,” in art and literature, music and science. It is about wonder. If this capacity for wonder is not restored in homes and in schools, it will never appear in Church. And secularity will continue to be a highly effective catechetical program, more than anything that we can offer…

In other words,what is most important is not the understanding of the liturgy but the “falling in love with it” and connecting to the memory of salvation in beauty, art, wonder experienced through ritual.

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