Is modern man capable of the liturgical act?

That’s the question Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., asked (and answered) at the Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Illinois, where he delivered the Hildebrand Distinguished Lecture. His talk was entitled “Glorify God by your life: evangelization and the renewal of the liturgy.” A couple excerpts…

From early in the lecture, introducing his subject and defining the “liturgical act”:

I want to start our conversation in an unlikely place. The scene is Mainz, Germany, April 1964. Just a few months earlier, in December 1963, Vatican II had published its groundbreaking document on the liturgy. Sacrosanctum Concilium was rightly hailed as the distillation of the practical and theological genius of the liturgical movement.

These were heady days, and the group gathering in Mainz for the Third German Liturgical Conference was understandably in a self-congratulatory mood. One of their friends, a pioneering theologian in the continental liturgical movement, could not join them. That friend was Father Romano Guardini, author of the now classic work, The Spirit of the Liturgy.

Though he couldn’t be there, Guardini sent a long open letter that was read to the conference. In it, he praised the work of Vatican II as a testimony that the Holy Spirit was alive and guiding the Church. He saw Sacrosanctum Concilium opening a new phase in the liturgical movement.

But the bulk of his letter was a complex meditation on the meaning of worship. And in his final lines he offered an opinion that left people stunned. He wrote:

“Is not the liturgical act, and with it all that goes under the name ‘liturgy,’ so bound up with the historical background—antique or medieval or baroque—that it would be more honest to give it up altogether? Would it not be better to admit that man in this industrial and scientific age, with its new sociological structure, is no longer capable of the liturgical act?”i

Guardini’s remark caused quite a stir. But there’s no evidence that theologians or liturgists ever took his concerns seriously. Let me say that I do. I think he put his finger on one of the key questions of mission in his time, and also in ours.

What Guardini meant by the liturgical act was the transformation of personal prayer and piety into genuine corporate worship, the leitourgia, the public service that the Church offers to God. He recognized that the Church’s corporate prayer was very different from the private prayer of individual believers.

The liturgical act requires a new kind of consciousness, a “readiness toward God,” an inward awareness of the unity of the whole person, body and soul, with the spiritual body of the Church, present in heaven and on earth. It also requires an appreciation that the sacred signs and actions of the Mass — standing, kneeling, singing and so forth — are themselves “prayer.”

Guardini believed that the spirit of the modern world was undermining the beliefs that made this liturgical consciousness possible. His insight here is that our faith and worship don’t take place in a vacuum. We’re always to some extent products of our culture. Our frameworks of meaning, our perceptions of reality, are shaped by the culture in which we live – whether we like it or not.

And later, from his final point (“The liturgy is a school of sacrificial love.“)

We make our sacrifice of praise first and foremost in the Eucharist. This is the meaning behind the council’s call for the “active participation” of the laity in the liturgy.xv  This expression unfortunately has been taken as a license for all sorts of external activity, commotion and busy-ness in our worship. That’s not at all what Vatican II had in mind.

“Active participation” refers to the inner movement of our souls, our interior participation in Christ’s action of offering of his Body and Blood. This requires silent spaces and “pauses” in our worship, in which we can collect our emotions and thoughts, and make a conscious act of self-dedication. We are to “lift up our hearts,” and in contrition and humility place them on the altar along with the bread and wine.

But our work does not stop in the Mass.

Everything in our days — our work, our sufferings, our prayer, our ministries — everything we do and experience is meant to be offered to God as a spiritual sacrifice.  All of our work for the unborn child, the poor and the disabled; all of our work for immigration justice and the dignity of marriage and the family: All of it should be offered for the praise and glory of God’s name and for the salvation of our brothers and sisters.

This is another great teaching of the council that we have yet to integrate into ordinary Catholic spirituality. In Lumen Gentium, the council taught that all our works “together with the offering of the Lord’s Body … are most fittingly offered in the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, as those everywhere who adore in holy activity, the laity consecrate the world itself to God.”xvi

All that we do — in the liturgy and in our life in the world — is meant to be in the service of consecrating this world to God.

Do give the whole talk a good read.

One response

  1. Thanks for this reference!
    It is a grand read.
    I think modern man is capable of the liturgical act. But only with God’s grace. Same, then, as it ever was.
    What it calls to mind for me are some other familiar words : “Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” I think the Son of Man can save modern man. Modern man just has to want to be saved.

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