Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Extraordinary Form and Concepts of Beauty

I should know better than to tweet about liturgical traditionalism, but I don't. Michael O'Loughlin at Crux wrote a piece about attending a liturgy conference headlined by Cardinal Raymond Burke, and I commented briefly about something that continues to trouble me about liturgical traditionalism. Here's the tweet:

The tweet met with a less than enthusiastic response from traditionalists on Twitter, some of whom chose to interpret me as making a blanket condemnation of liturgical traditionalism and even of wanting to suppress the Latin liturgy. I'm sorry to disappoint, but neither is anywhere close to being true. There have been relatively few moments in my life when the veil between heaven and earth became thin, but at least one of those moments occurred during a celebration of the Extraordinary Form at the Birmingham Oratory (Blessed Newman's Oratory). In a previous blog post, I wrote about this experience, and about what my profound experiences of the Latin mass mean for my understanding of traditionalism:
Three years ago I spent a few days at the Birmingham Oratory founded by Blessed John Henry Newman.  I've long been fascinated by Newman, and the Oratorians were gracious to let me stay with them, to spend time in Newman's library, and to visit the room where he studied and said mass.  One of the highlights for me was the high mass in the Oratorian church, a mass celebrated in the Extraordinary (Latin) Form.  Beautiful liturgy is an essential part of the Oratorian charism, and the Latin mass I attended was stunning. There have been only a few moments in my life when I felt transported by an experience of Divine Beauty, and this was one of them.
I write this to underline that I have a deep love for the Latin mass.  Even though I am not a traditionalist nor do I regularly attend a Latin mass, I like to think that I 'get' at least some of the concerns of my traditionalist sisters and brothers.
Far from suppressing the Latin mass, I long to see Catholics listen more deeply to the concerns of those devoted to the Extraordinary Form, particularly their concerns about the importance of liturgy - beautiful liturgy - for the life of the church.

However, my sympathy for liturgical traditionalism is not without reservation, and it is this reservation that was so off-putting to some traditionalists yesterday. When traditionalists call upon the church to devote itself more fully to beauty and good liturgy, I proclaim a loud and profound 'Amen.' But when traditionalists want to limit the definition of beauty and good liturgy only to the Extraordinary Form, when traditionalists suggest that the only way truly to give credence to the sacredness of the Eucharist and to Divine Beauty is through the Latin mass, and when traditionalists - subtly or not - call for the suppression of the Novus Ordo, I bristle.

Again, I've written my thoughts about this elsewhere on here, so I'll simply quote from a previous blog post:
The beauty of the Latin Mass is very real, but it is a beauty that is entirely European in its history and form.  I get concerned when traditionalists insist on the universality and aesthetic superiority of the Extraordinary Form, for this disregards the reality that the Roman Catholic church is no longer predominantly European.  It also, I think, fails to take seriously the implications of the Incarnation.  Early medieval Irish monks famously painted Jesus Christ with red hair and a red beard, recognizing that the particularity of the Incarnation in first-century Palestine does not prevent us from worshiping and experiencing God in a way that embraces, rather than rejects, our cultural and racial background.  An incarnational God is, I think, a God who is willing to be 'incarnated' or 'particularlized,' and so experienced in a beauty that is culturally specific.  I may not appreciate the "saccharine and theologically insipid" hymns [I'm quoting here from an article by Michael B. Dougherty] so often sung at my parish, but I know that there are those in my parish who are deeply moved by them.  And I can't dismiss that, just as I can't dismiss those moved by hymns sung to blaring synthesizers at a mass I attended in India.
If I'm being honest, I worry that there is a subtle form of imperialism, and even racism, behind the apparent unwillingness to recognize that Divine Beauty is made manifest in culturally particularized liturgical celebrations. I write this with a great deal of trepidation, for this is a very serious claim. But I'm not sure what else to call it when some - by no means all - traditionalists argue that specifically European aesthetic norms must be universal in order to preserve the sacredness and beauty of the mass. An infamous comment by one of the EWTN commentators during Pope Benedict XVI's televised masses when he was in the United States underlines this point. Various multicultural elements were part of the Liturgy of the Word, and as the celebration moved on to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the commentator said: "We have just been subjected to an over-preening display of multicultural chatter. And now, the Holy Father will begin the sacred part of the Mass." One can almost hear the commentator's sigh of relief.

Liturgical traditionalists have a great deal to complain about. The implementation of the Novus Ordo was problematic, and the suppression of the Extraordinary Form even more so. Liturgical traditionalists are also frequently reviled by non-traditionalist Catholics, and I know that traditionalist seminarians have been ridiculed and ostracized during their priestly training.

However, if the church universal is going to take seriously the concerns of traditionalists, traditionalists themselves need to abandon the kind of liturgical exclusivism that refuses to see the truth, goodness, and beauty in liturgical expressions other than the Extraordinary Form.

Last night, I listened to a podcast with Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, and he made a comment about the Eucharist about which I can't stop thinking. After recounting this incredible moment when 7 rival gang members celebrated Christmas by eating a turkey together, Fr. Boyle made a connection between this ordinary meal and the celebration of the Eucharist: "Jesus doesn't lose any sleep that we will forget that the Eucharist is sacred. He is anxious that we might forget that it's ordinary, that it's a meal shared among friends."

I worry that we as Catholics - traditionalist and non-traditionalist - lose sight of the reality that, however we celebrate the Eucharist, it is a meal shared among friends by which we become truly one with each other. It is the most tragic kind of irony that the Eucharist - that which is to bind us together in body and spirit - continues to divide us as Catholics. As Jesus prayed, "May they be one as we are one" (John 17:22).

Before I end, I want to say that I don't want to pretend that I have any of this truly worked out. I am willing to be wrong, and so willing to receive criticism for what I wrote above (or anywhere). If you think I've read the situation incorrectly, or that my argument is bunk, tell me. I ask only that you do so in charity.


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    1. Fr. Bolin:

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful response, much of which I think is spot-on. I will take a look at the link you posted. Thanks again.