Walking To Heaven Backward | Interview with Father Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory | Carl E. Olson | December 16, 2005
Father Jonathan Robinson is the superior of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Toronto, and rector of St. Philip's Seminary. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh, and a License in Theology from the Gregorian University in Rome. He is former professor and chairman of philosophy at McGill University, and the author of numerous articles and books, including Duty and Hypocrisy in Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind and Spiritual Combat Revisited.
His new book, The Mass and Modernity: Walking to Heaven Backwards, which, he states in the Introduction, "is about the reform of the worship of the Catholic Church undertaken after the Second Vatican Council." While many in the Church have accepted modernity in their effort to speak to the modern world, not enough attention has been given to trying to disentangle the complex of ideas and half-formulated convictions that constitute this mind-set, which is, in fact, contrary to Christianity.
Fr. Robinson's book examines the origins and present day influence of modernity, and then argues that there is nothing in the Christian's concern for the modern world that requires accepting this damaging mind-set in connection with the highest form of worship, the Mass.
Carl E. Olson, editor of IgnatiusInsight.com, recently interviewed Fr. Robinson about The Mass and Modernity and what he thinks about the state of Catholic liturgy today.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Why did you write The Mass and Modernity? What specific experiences and concerns shaped the focus and content of the book?
Fr. Jonathan Robinson: I wrote it to try to make sense of my own varied experience as a priest who was ordained in 1962 (the year the Council opened), and who lived through the liturgical revolution. It seemed to me, as I reflected on this experience, that some of my observations might be of help to others, especially lay people, who are often bewildered, saddened, and not infrequently very angry about Catholic worship in their local parish.
My own experience as a priest is, I know, not typical, but it did help me to understand what I wanted to write about. I have a doctorate in philosophy from a secular university, and I have taught at the Universities of Edinburgh and McGill, and given seminars at Oxford and Fordham. I also have some training in the civil law of Quebec. Then, when I was first ordained I was Cardinal Legers English-speaking secretary in Montreal. After the Cardinal left Montreal I went back to teaching and was for a time Chairman of the Philosophy Department of McGill University. During these years I worked with the Brothers of the Good Shepherd, wrote a book on Hegel and worked towards the founding of an Oratory of St Philip Neri in Canada.
For much of this time I lived in an English-speaking parish in Montreal and learned a good deal about parish life. Then for the last twenty-five years the Oratory has been in charge of two parishes in Toronto, and I have had the over-all direction of the liturgical life in both places. Perhaps this adds up to "jack of all trades and master of none," but it was the matrix for the development of The Mass and Modernity.
IgnatiusInsight.com: There have been many books written about liturgical reform and what has gone wrong with worship within the Catholic Church. How is The Mass and Modernity different from other books addressing these issues?
Fr. Robinson: There are many excellent books written about what has gone wrong. They are, however, "in house" books. By that I mean they discuss the worship of the Church within the framework of Church documents about liturgy show, often conclusively, that there is an enormous gap between what is in the documents and how episcopal conferences and diocesan commissions apply these documents.
What I have tried to do in my book is to step outside this ecclesiastical framework and examine how the Enlightenment and Enlightenment-era philosophers, especially Kant, Hegel and their successors changed how people in the West understand and perceive God, man, society, religion, community, and much more. Then I trace the effect of those changes, noting how the worship of God is often radically skewed, even to the point where God is barely acknowledged.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Some readers might be surprised that the names of philosophers appear more than those of theologians, including men such as Kant, Hume, Hegel, Marx and Comte. Why such an emphasis on philosophy?
Fr. Robinson: To what I have just said, I would add that theology nowadays, at least the theology that seems most influential at the local level, does not seem to be a very creative discipline. It is in fact heavily dependent on themes marked out by the philosophers; and, moreover, these themes are often treated by using principles of rationality that have little to do with Catholic tradition. Perhaps that is a bit too sweeping, but it does seem to me that a good deal of modern Catholic theological writing is really philosophy of religion. It certainly does not appear to me as patient meditation on the revealed Word of God. It follows that we must go to the philosophers to come to grips with the currents of thought that are really influential.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Your chapter on the Enlightenment contains a quote by Peter Gay that states the Enlightenment can be summed up in two words: criticism and power. How do those two things relate to the Mass and how many Catholics understand worship today?
Fr. Robinson: To put it bluntly: criticism is about the dismantling of tradition, the refusal to accept the past of Catholicism as in anyway normative in either faith or morals. And power is about reorganizing the remnants of Catholic worship in an autocratic way, by means of a rationality that owes precious little to what I call the givens of Catholicism. What do I mean by the givens of Catholicism? I mean those elements in our faith and worship that we dont make up, that we dont create, that are not or should not be at the mercy of liturgical commissions, or under the influence of seminars on how to make the Mass more relevant.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:
Foreword to U.M. Lang's Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer | By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Reflections On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly) | James V. Schall, S. J.
Rite and Liturgy | Denis Crouan, STD
The Mass of Vatican II | Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ
Liturgy, Catechesis, and Conversion | Barbara Morgan
The Liturgy Lived: The Divinization of Man | Jean Corbon, OP
Worshipping at the Feet of the Lord | By Anthony E. Clark
Understanding The Hierarchy of Truths | Douglas Bushman, STL
The Eucharist: Source and Summit of Christian Spirituality | Mark Brumley
Eucharistic Adoration: Reviving An Ancient Tradition | Valerie Schmalz
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