My dear friends,
Few things are more important to me than the proper celebration of the Mass. One of the most commonly-heard phrases about the Eucharist from the Church’s last Council, which points to how important the Blessed Sacrament is and how highly it should be regarded, is that this Sacrament is the “peak and the font” (culmen et fons) of the entire Christian life (Lumen Gentium, ch. II, 11). In similar words, now-Saint John Paul II wrote in his 2003 letter of the same name that “Ecclesia de Eucharistia vivit”—”the Church lives from the Eucharist.” In one well-known statement, the former pope, when Cardinal Ratzinger, blamed the “crisis” in the Church today on the “collapse of the liturgy.” Indeed, those who have read Ratzinger know the importance he places on the liturgy done properly, and they might be familiar with his comparison of “badly done” liturgical celebrations with the life of Israel (that is, whenever Israel worshipped God improperly, things went south). Such a view might appear pharisaical to some. A response to that objection is the topic of another posting, but suffice it to say, I very much agree with the former pope’s line of thought, and I want to make it clear that what you’re about to read is in no way going to be a dismissal of liturgical problems as something that “people shouldn’t be focused on since Jesus is present and that’s all they should really ask for.”
With that said, however, I’ve been struck more and more recently by one interesting fact with regard to liturgical abuses, whether great or small. Before I take you there, think for a moment: what if God treated man like man treats man? One would think, with all the abuses, many times quite terrible, that the Holy Eucharist has been shown, or even just because of the general irreverence, casualness, and disbelief with which so many approach the Blessed Sacrament today, that the Holy Trinity would have long ago “pulled the plug” and stopped performing the miracle of transubstantiation for those of us here below. Is this Sacrament not, after all, the true, real, substantial, and personal presence of the Divine Son, one with the Father and the Holy Spirit? Is this Sacrament not, much as it might come across as too pious or too obsessive to say it, the abiding and real presence of God? Are we, who participate in the Mass, not present to, and in as much contact with Christ as were His disciples, His immaculate Mother, and all those crowds who pressed constantly about Him? And this being the case, did not God, in the Old Testament, perform many harsh punishments for those who treated mere objects which were sacred with irreverence? How much more would we expect Him to deal still worse punishments to those who treat badly, not just some sacred thing, but His very own self? Was Christ our Lord not mocked, blasphemed, and treated with irreverence enough already in His earthly life? Why should He put up with the abominations man comes up with in the name of creativity, inclusiveness, ignorance, or disbelief?
Indeed, these are the types of questions which people who love God might reasonably ask themselves, and if God treated man on man’s own terms, these questions might have some weight. But the more I’ve considered liturgical abuses, the more deeply I’ve come to realize that even though He would be justified in “pulling the plug,” the Good Lord does not treat man like man treats man. He treats man better. He treats man selflessly. Just as He forgave the denial of Peter which He knew would occur, just as He forgave the ardent disbelief of Thomas, just as He forgave His disciples who, all except John, fled from Him during the Passion, and just as He asked the Father to forgive His executioners as nails were hammered through His already-wounded members, so His love for mankind is such that, in the words of an excellent priest who was once my theology teacher, “He set the bar so low” for the Mass to occur validly.
There’s the slightly cheesy statement that “nails did not keep Christ on the Cross: love did.” Well, such a statement could be equally applied to the Sacrifice of the Mass and the abiding presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist: it is not our own worthy treatment of this mystery which makes Jesus Christ present on the altar, or in the Tabernacle outside of Mass. It is His own love, His own fidelity to His assurance that “I will not leave you orphans. I will come to you . . . And behold, I am with you always, even until the consummation of the world” (Jn. 14:18, Mt. 28:20).
Now, as an important little side note, there is a limit to this: if a priest does not use lawful matter (bread and wine meeting the bare minimum of requirements), use the correct form (at the very least generally considered, by most theologians, to be the words “This is My Body” over the bread and “This is My Blood” over the wine), and/or have the correct intention (to consecrate the elements), then the Mass is not valid and transubstantiation does not take place. However, barring some debates as to whether or not some priests have adequate knowledge of what they’re doing (thus calling the validity of the Mass into question), I would guess that upwards of 95% of the time, the three elements are present.
To be sure, liturgical abuses are an affliction upon the Church. To be sure, liturgical abuses should not be simply ignored on the grounds that the Real Presence is the ultimate thing, and that anything else, even the most troubling acts of disregard for Our Lord in the Eucharist, are a matter of mere window dressing. But the fact that Our Blessed Lord makes Himself present with conditions as they are, and the fact that He has “set the bar so low,” should give everyone pause, and should move each person with love when he considers that the Lord lets Himself be put through so much, out of a desire to be present to His beloved.
Further, with things being as they are, it is important to remember that no amount of complaining, or even rational and well-thought-out denouncing, of the various abuses (or even just the general liturgical casualness) prevalent today will fix them. I know firsthand that those are the tempting routes to take, but believe me when I tell you that they, at least by themselves, will not fix the Church’s liturgical problems. Prayer will fix them, constant, unwavering prayer, even when it’s tough as a well-done steak, even when things don’t seem to improve, even when things seem to be getting even worse. Reasonable arguments against abusive liturgical practices, while necessary, will not be effective, no matter how logical, if they do not rely upon prayer. Those of us who want to see an end to liturgical abuse must pray, and keep praying, and never allow ourselves to waver. As I hope to be of service to you, my dear reader, I would request that you do the following: look for novenas that seem applicable to the problems you’re dealing with. Attach yourself to a patron saint, and pray to former (deceased) priests and parishioners from your parish who might be in Heaven. But most of all, I would suggest two practices: offer every Mass you can, those you go to and those you don’t, even the most abusive ones, for an end to said abuses, and pray the Rosary as often as you can for them. If the Rosary doesn’t move you, I would very strongly encourage that you get a copy of (or find online) a very short book by St. Louis de Montfort called The Secret of the Rosary. It’s short, it’s simple, it’s easy to read, and whether you’re attached to the Rosary right now or not, it will light a new fire within you.
But, as with responding to critics of Cardinal Ratzinger’s liturgical views, I think discussing the merits of the Rosary is a topic for another post.