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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You write that modernity cannot be understood without
appreciating the "pervasive influence of Hegel and Marx." How has Hegel's
understandings of religion and community affected modern thought and,
more specifically, the way the Mass is celebrated in many parishes?
Fr. Robinson: I dont try to trace a direct connection between
what Hegel and Marx wrote and what the liturgists actually read. What
I say is that when someone like me is criticized for being "out of
touch", or told that "no one believes that stuff anymore",
or that we must have to have a "man-centered (or "person-centered")
understanding of worship, of the sacraments, of the Christian Community"
we are under the long shadow of the Hegel-Marx syndrome. That is
the dynamic, and the way the ideas will be enforced is all laid out in
the thought of Auguste Comte.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Postmodernism is, as you point out, an elusive concept.
Is the term "postmodernism" very helpful? What distinctions can be made
between modernism and postmodernism?
Whether the term "postmodernism" is helpful or not it has become
so common that we should at least watch out for it and see how it is being
used in particular circumstances. I think the thrust of the attitudes
and concepts that we associate with postmodernism is towards "liberation"
especially liberation from the necessity of making judgments. Postmodernists
are not required to reject or accept anything at all; they are at home
with everything from the Nicene Creed to hard pornography, from kitsch
to high culture. This, they believe, is their escape from the harsh, scientific,
masculine, sort of thinking of Modernism. The postmodernists seem to think
that they are living beyond value, beyond right and wrong, beyond truth
I think this attitude has fearful consequences for freedom, for sanity,
and for any serious version of the Catholic faith. Furthermore, I believe
postmodernism is used by the self-anointed inheritors of the Enlightenment
as one more tool to destroy the authority of tradition, and to wreck the
partnership (of which Edmund Burke spoke) between the dead, the living,
and yet unborn, and which is the only real guarantee of a freedom not
based on the ukases of Sociology Departments and High Court Judges. Whether
this is viable politics, I dont really know; but I believe that
something like Burkes attitude is necessary to Catholicism if the
Church is not going to become a debating society in a rather dusty museum.
Newman said that to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant
and we should add today that to forget about history is to
cease to be a Catholic.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What are the most overt ways that a proper understanding
of worship been undermined and even attacked in recent decades? What are
the biggest failings of how the Mass is often celebrated in a typical
parish in North America?
Fr. Robinson: Saying Mass facing the people is the biggest single
failing in most places today. I think it is more important even than the
questions of language or music vital as those both are. The modern
practice has turned priests into social animators who must continually
improvise, and impress their personalities upon their congregations. It
is no criticism of them to say they are not up to it no one is
on a regular basis. This practice has also emphasized the congregation
in a deadly way, so that the community and its concerns have begun to
take the place of the sober Catholic presentation of the fallen nature
of man, of suffering, of death, and of judgment. This focus on the congregation
has in its turn prevented the splendor of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection
of the Lord from shining through the liturgy.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Although The Mass and Modernity focuses mostly
on the "big picture," you do make several specific suggestions and criticisms.
What concrete steps should or could be made to improve the state of liturgy
and worship in the Catholic Church today? Do you see any of these being
addressed by Pope Benedict
XVI currently or in the near future?
Fr. Robinson: I dont really know what concrete steps can be
taken except to say your prayers, do your best where you are, and show
that what you believe in actually works and meets peoples deepest
spiritual needs. Of course this requires that one is allowed enough space
to actually get on with it. In this I have been blessed.
I would not presume to second guess what the Holy Father might do or not
do. But we have to realize that more violent change even in what
I consider the right direction is the last thing we need. Fr Faber
said that all change is change for the worse even when it is change for
the better, and although that sounds odd when we first hear it, nonetheless,
it contains a profound truth. Given what Cardinal Ratzinger has written
about the Liturgy one can only pray for Benedict XVI. He would seem to
be faced with an impossible situation.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You contend that "the deformation of the liturgy
has to be understood as the result of cultural and intellectual forces
that will have to be recognized before anything very serious can be accomplished
in the way of serious liturgical reform." How can this process of recognition
be encouraged and facilitated?
Fr. Robinson: As Christopher Wren, the architect of St Pauls
Cathedral is reported to have said: Si monumentum requires, circumspicite;
if you are looking for a monument open your eyes and look around.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Does the current state of catechesis and homiletics
within the Church bode well for this sort of understanding? What can ordinary
Catholics do to help bring about lasting and fruitful liturgical reform?
Fr. Robinson: The answer to the first part of the question is no,
and because of this the ordinary Catholic must try to pray, to be faithful,
to study if he can, and not be swept out of the Church by either anger
or indifference; anger will probably lead to joining groups who are not
in communion with the See of Peter, indifference will lead to the laity
leaving the Church. This latter certainly seems to be the preferred option
in Quebec and large parts of Europe.
I can only conclude by saying that I believe the Church has enormous powers
of recuperation. It is Gods Church, not ours, and therein lies our
hope for the future. Humanly speaking, I think that future is a grim one.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:
U.M. Lang's Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer
| By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
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
and Conversion | Barbara Morgan
Lived: The Divinization of Man | Jean Corbon, OP
at the Feet of the Lord | By Anthony E. Clark
The Hierarchy of Truths | Douglas Bushman, STL
Source and Summit of Christian Spirituality | Mark Brumley
Adoration: Reviving An Ancient Tradition | Valerie Schmalz
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