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Ever Old and Ever New | A Review of Martin Mosebach's
The Heresy of Formlessness: The
Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy | Rev. Brian Van Hove, S.J.
Martin Mosebach writes to convince the reader of the
spiritual superiority of the classical rite, the Mass of the missal of 1962.
With the talent of an artist and a dedication to Jesus Christ, he tells the
The church is torn by a civil war over liturgy. Some hold
that the reform did not cut deep enough, that yet more radical adaptation and
accommodation are needed. Others think the reform can be reformed, and in this
camp we include the pope and the policy of Ignatius Press. There are those who
believe that only the old rites, restored fully and integrally, provide the
solution to the crisis. And of course a large number of Catholics are apathetic
and accept the present situation uncritically (and unthinkingly).
Mosebach chooses the path of restoration, and he does so
with quality, intelligence and sophistication. He is a thoughtful religious man
of a type hardly found any longer in Europe. His meditation on Mary, chapter
eight, is enough to prove that. His essay "Revelation through Veiling in the
Old Roman Catholic Liturgy" (pp. 161-173) is a work of religious art.
Louis XIV was crowned in 1654. It was said nobody at court
in the Rheims cathedral understood the rare liturgy for the coronation of a
king. The masters of ceremonies just followed the prescriptions set down from
time immemorial. They assigned seven archdeacons to stand here, and seven
archpriests to stand there, and so on. The choreography was perfect, and no
ingredient was left out of the complicated recipe. The music was excellent. The
new king was anointed. Everybody knew he was crowned, and everybody had a sense
of the sublimity of the occasion. Even so, later proponents of liturgical
reform would criticize such a liturgy on the basis that only a few
technician-clerics engaged in any kind of "active participation".
Mosebach rejects such an analysis as a caricature. Without
mentioning it by name, he would insist that this particular liturgy carried the
soul aloft, despite any alleged lack of rational grip on the archaic rite.
Prayer and rationality are two wings of a bird, two distinct modes of
understanding. Only when the holy is concealed is it revealed. A "see-through
glass chalice" is a contradiction in terms.
The author makes no reference to Catherine Pickstock, but in
After Writing (1998) Pickstock lamented
that owing to Trent, and especially to the historical work and interpretation
of Josef Jungmann (1889-1975), the Tridentine liturgy became highly
rationalized, and this rationalism broke with the medieval Mass. Her
explanation was complex, but she is not a believing Catholic, and Jungmann
definitely was. Jungmann accepted transubstantiation and sacramental realism,
whereas it is unknown what Pickstock really believes. While Mosebach disagrees
with the post-Reformation Jesuits who introduced dominating vernacular hymns
into the liturgy in Catholic Germany (pp. 42-43), he is not inclined toward
Pickstock's philosophical evaluation of the rite so mildly revised after Trent.
As an orthodox, believing Catholic, he is not her ally. Let traditionalists on
this side of the ocean know that.
Mosebach opposes the idea that the missal of Trent was a
break with medieval ritual and symbology. If he follows any contemporary writer
on the subject, it is Klaus Gamber (1919-1989) who decades ago exposed the
faulty archaeology and weak liturgical history upon which the reform was built.
(p. 32) It is the missal of 1969 which is the product of pure rationalism, not
the missal of 1962 which the author prefers to call "The Mass of St. Gregory
The First Liturgical Movement (1860-1960) called for clarity
and simplicity in the rites. In that precise historical setting this was
something good and needed, so the argument went. Such a call was not then
doctrinal in nature. On the contrary, the movement hoped that doctrine would
become better understood through uncluttered liturgy when the ancient beauty of
the church could be seen for what it was. Scraping off the accretions was
claimed to help the ship sail faster.
A pity the dream of the older generation of scholars,
especially Jungmann and a host of Benedictines in Europe and North America, was
incrementally hijacked by a dedicated cadre during and after Vatican II. Can
anyone say that transubstantiation was understood by the average member of the
church in 1980 better than in 1950? Paul VI had to issue an encyclical
defending it! ("Mysterium Fidei", 1965).
Mosebach's list of German-speaking culprits in this saga of
liturgical reform differs from our list, but for us here in North America we
count McManus, Dieckmann, Funk, Mitchell, Empereur, Hovda and Huck among the
best known "modern liturgy" and "celebrational style" practitioners. The
historic break between Rembert Weakland and Richard Schuler shows that at least
a few, like Schuler of St. Agnes in Minneapolis, offered resistance in the
worst decades since the council. Like Michael Davies in the English-speaking
world, Mosebach blames the dark side of the reform on Pope Paul VI (pp. 24, 91,
115); unlike Davies, Mosebach does not focus on the role of Annibale Bugnini.
The author is obviously critical of the German episcopal conference. (p. 63)
These and other bishops went well beyond the reform introduced by Paul VI. (p.
Thus, we can now speak of "going back" to the reform of Paul
VI! The real reform of the reform may just be the original reform intended by
the council and the pope.
In Europe, both Louis Bouyer and Hubert Jedin in 1968 and
1969 publicly objected to the reform process directed by Annibale Bugnini, but
they were ignored. (Bugnini did not leave Rome until 1975—it should be
remembered by us readers that Frederick R. McManus wrote the lines found on the
dust jacket for the English translation of Bugnini's personal account of his
role in the reform.)
Privately, Jungmann denounced the altar "versus populum" (or
"coram populo") as an aberration. Later, under his own name Gamber took the
In 2003 Lauren Pristas analyzed the Latin of the revised
Mass (and since then of other revised rites). While not using the expression
herself, she concluded that it consists of "junk Latin". ("Theological
Principles that Guided the Redaction of the Roman Missal " in The
Thomist 67 : 157-195). An exception
is Eucharistic Prayer IV which was composed in a much finer Latin. Here
Mosebach rejoins that what matters is that such texts are "received", not
A surprising number of motivated reformers promoted a
conscious, deliberate rupture with our liturgical past. They quietly ignored
the principle of organic development, though this principle was an official
one. A stubborn, misguided and iconoclastic anti-traditionalism created an
unnecessary catastrophe. Contempt for the old rites was mood-driven and
In chapter four Mosebach gives a vivid example of exactly
how the iconoclasm unfolded in 1968 in Neuenheim near Heidelberg. The
cameo-like story is familiar to all of us who lived through that time. It was
the same in Iowa or Ontario. Mosebach shows his knowledge of art history in
order to explain the deeper philosophy behind iconoclasm. The destruction of
the interior of the parish church at Neuenheim is heartbreaking.
The Benedictine monastery of Fontgombault in France is the
living ideal of liturgical spirituality for the author. He does not mention
that a very high percentage of the monks are Americans, and probably he does
not know that the monastery happily celebrated the Novus Ordo Missae in Latin
until the abbot imposed the old rite on the monastic community in the 1980s.
The abbot made the point that it was the rite of his ancestors who died in the
French Revolution. Many say that the abbot was influential in gaining the
indults associated with the Commission "Ecclesia Dei", though Mosebach himself
does not say this. He idealizes the monastery's every detail, which will cause
some readers to be suspicious. No place can be "that" perfect, and one is
reminded of the axiom "the only perfect liturgy is in heaven". But the affairs
of Fontgombault are the exception.
Nearly everywhere, the Mass today fails to unite Latin Rite
Catholics, even juridically. Liturgical law is rejected, ignored or paid mere
lip service by the modernizers (whom Mosebach calls "late Catholic Puritans", p.
135) who always know more than the Church. Some years ago, reformers replaced
the older formalism and legalism with the formlessness decried by Mosebach in
his book's title. Formlessness is the enemy. (For an articulate discussion of
what he means by the contemporary rebellion against "form", see pp. 104-106;
147). A denial of beauty produces formlessness. Formlessness is a heresy when
it refuses certain revealed truths. They are mediated by material, concrete
signs and symbols which are in themselves beautiful. In a word, Mosebach is
preaching sacramentalism. Loss of form means loss of content! (p. 206)
On the other side, most of the antiquarianism Martin
Mosebach so well understands is lost on contemporary Catholics, as it was said
to have been lost on the French court in 1654. People know too little of their
own church history and they have already for too long been deprived of their
liturgical tradition. Those who still go to Mass in the industrialized West are
minimally catechized. Perhaps it was always this way, everywhere. The elite
with Mosebach's level of erudition could be stuffed into a telephone booth, as
a professional liturgiologist once expressed it.
But Mosebach rejects that line of thinking. He tells from
his own experience how today simple South German women instinctively, without
instruction, wash the purificators after an old rite Mass. Seemingly for him,
things would naturally fall back into place when the old rite is restored
universally. (pp. 28-29) However, he is pessimistic that this will happen soon.
In our culture wars, broader than the narrower Catholic
liturgical crisis, a few voices have been raised to promote and defend beauty.
Beginning with Dostoevsky, renewed by Solzhenitsyn, and expressed by Gregory
Wolfe, the tradition is formulated in the phrase, "beauty will save the world".
(Gregory Wolfe, "Beauty Will Save the World" in The Intercollegiate Review 27:1 [Fall 1991]: 27-31). Using different
vocabulary, Mosebach subscribes to this cry. His chapter six is named "Liturgy
is Art". "Christ desired to make his sacrifice ever-present, and so he poured
it into the shape of liturgical art." (p. 111) The liturgy is like a finished
sculpture—all it needs is unveiling.
But practically, what to do? Pastors need a strategy.
Mosebach argues that the liturgy itself is the strategy. Of itself it will
bring light and salvation. The liturgy "is not a human artifact but something
given, something revealed." (p. 71)
So what went wrong with the reform? We know that after the
Second Vatican Council the church lacked pastoral liturgists. Nobody knew what
to do, and nobody knew how to implement the norms found in the revised books.
The mood of the times was unstable and anti-institutional. Liturgy became
highly politicized. What filled the vacuum left by an older certitude was
confusion, fashion, whim, ephemeral enthusiasm, and then a surprising agenda to
abolish the sacrificial nature of the Mass. A prominent theologian said in this
reviewer's hearing: "I am no longer able even to pronounce the word 'sacrifice'." Thus a "protestant-fellowship-meal"
resulted from too much talk about banquets. What ensued was a doctrinal battle.
Just a bit earlier, this state of affairs was unthinkable.
Horror and devastation remain. Ugliness and confusion reign.
With the symbolic language interrupted and its sweet speech broken off, the
mystery is reduced to wordiness and meaningless motion and chatter. Aroma
therapy is more exciting to some than the holiness of the Mass.
Unbelievers or secular art historians, who happen to visit
our churches, remark about the vulgarity and banality. Those from other
liturgical traditions which have not degraded as completely, scoff at the debris
of what once was the Roman Rite. The "New Mass" is unhesitatingly thought to be
something absolutely distinct from the old, even if, in some instances, the new
rite is celebrated with concern for aesthetic detail and perfection. Those
instances may be found more in Europe, of course, than in North America where a
greater tolerance for philistinism is acceptable.
Everyone knows from the 1950s that the old rite was usually
celebrated in a perfunctory, mechanical manner. (pp. 38-39) Mosebach adds that
at least it had potential, whereas the new rite is so deeply flawed that it has
no similar potential. One cannot "invent new forms" and expect them to succeed.
This is not exactly what happened with the Missal of Paul VI, but it is very
close. Those favoring the "reform of the reform" are well advised to make the
new rite look as much as possible like the old rite, or face extinction. The
lefebvrists think they are the true church, and that the "novus ordo" church
will eventually disappear. The Western Rite Orthodox use the most archaic rites
Mosebach's insights are precious and serious, but he gives
no blueprint about how to educate our people in beauty. Yes, one of the first
acts of the new pope after his election was to restore Latin to St. Peter's
Basilica in 2005. But his efforts, including the ideas in his books from the
1990s, have not trickled down to parishes in California or Michigan (or
Bavaria) where the "new rite" is carelessly and sloppily performed.
In fact, Ratzinger's books on the liturgy were received with
outright hostility in places where, of course, nobody ever expected him to
become pope. They shuddered in their boots on the day of his election as it was
no secret he would be "the liturgy pope". In 1992, writing in the preface to
the French edition of a book by Klaus Gamber, Ratzinger took the position
Mosebach takes in judging the missal of 1969, "a liturgy that had grown
organically had been pushed aside in favor of a fabricated liturgy". (p. 192)
In a short time, the situation in most parishes may become
desperately irreformable, so total is the rupture with the heritage of the old
rite(s). The "sit down" masses among aging, graying Religious illustrate the
finality of this rupture and the abject failure of the official reform.
Mosebach says, "A detailed study would be required to show why, for the
Catholic Church, an attack on her rites has almost fatal consequences, but
space forbids." (p. 192)
Mosebach's criticism of the reform employs an underlying
philosophy of liturgy. He rejects the very concept of liturgical reform. (p
.34) "We are constantly being astounded by the reform introduced by Jesus
Christ, the only reform that deserves this name." (p. 70) We do not shape the
liturgy. Rather, the liturgy shapes us. This may be easily understood by his
reference to Pavel Florensky, the Russian priest executed by the Communists in
Eastern churches shun the temporal and locate their worship
in eternity. The Divine Liturgy is not made by human hands, and neither
hierarchs nor scholars may tinker with it, goes their thinking and that of
Mosebach: "academic answers are completely useless in questions of liturgy".
(p. 30; 35) Sacred Tradition formed the Liturgy, and only the Holy Spirit can
change it, not bureaucrats in Rome, much less diocesan dim-lights. Mosebach is
suspicious of bogus scholarship which has been used to promote an agenda. The
Eastern Church provides a model of failure when the reforming Patriarch Nikon
(1605-1681) was responsible for the Old Ritualist schism in Russia.
The Orthodox Church is rooted in Christian Platonism. The
Orthodox Liturgy is described as an ontology, something true in itself, seen in
this imperfect world imperfectly, but faithfully representing and accessing our
goal in the Heavenly Liturgy. Mosebach favors something like this view for the
Roman Liturgy—"We can say that, like Jesus, it is 'begotten, not
created'." (p. 35) Or again, "Since Holy Mass had no author, since a precise
date could be allotted to practically none of its parts—as to when it
originated and when it was finally and universally incorporated into the Mass ...
it was something eternal, not made by human hands." (p. 35) In the chapter on
the physical structure of the liturgical books themselves, there is a touching
passage explaining the celebrant's submission to the traditional order of
prayer as something not made by him, as something given or received. (pp.
200-201) The Book of Seven Seals is the missal, the church's revealed worship!
In our church few have written from this point of view, not
even Klaus Gamber who was no friend of the official reform. Mosebach appeals to
him for aid to build his case. The Roman Rite, and liturgy in the West more
generally, have traditionally been regulated by pontifical legislation, not
one-sided organic evolution. Attila Miklósházy wrote about the "theological
foundations" for liturgical renewal and this assumed both the orthodoxy and the
need for prayer reform.
We all knew the role of conciliar and pontifical legislation
when a post-Tridentine pope suppressed local liturgies in Europe. Very few
survived the reform of Pius V—the Mozarabic and Ambrosian Rites are still
living, but barely. The old Celtic liturgies vanished. The Old Sarum Usage
disappeared from the life of the church. It is known only to scholarly specialists.
If a liturgy is an "ontology", no pope could abolish it. But
rites were indeed suppressed by ecclesiastical authority. Mosebach minimizes
this history, though he claims to have done his homework. (pp. 25; 32). He
knows about the "two-track" history of parts of the old Mass, and this shows a
higher degree of historical knowledge than most amateurs. (pp. 42; 52)
He does not mention that the missal of 1962 already shows
sign of pontifical reform because, for the first time in the history of the
Roman Missal, the rubrics were minutely codified and systematized. This
codification by the Congregation of Rites undoubtedly was an effect of the
First Liturgical Movement and Pius XII's "Mediator Dei".
Yet, Mosebach presents an airtight case for restoration.
Once you enter through his door, it will shut behind you, and you are inside
his liturgical world. He writes this meditation for the young, for priests and
seminarians of the next generation seeking relief from the conflict of our
vexing civil war. He writes for those who find the liturgy a difficult burden.
He writes for the whole church, though he is forced to say the prospects for a
liturgical Christianity are poor. (p. 72)
Our hunger and thirst for beauty will never leave us. There
is hope for the future because of the way we are made. We are made for beauty.
Superficiality and ugliness are a choice, not an inevitability. Some of
Mosebach's deepest insights, what might be called his spirituality, must be
part of that future in the church. Perhaps there is more reason to hope than
Mosebach is willing to admit. Only "perhaps".
In the Second Book of Kings, Chapter 22, we read that the
book of the law was lost in the rubble of the temple. When later it was found,
it was presented to King Josiah who rent his garments out of grief.
If Mosebach is correct, something analogous to this
exaltation can happen when our youth discover the enduring Mass which is "ever
old and ever new". "I take up the old Missal as if I had found it on some
deserted beach. I open it and enter into its rich and ordered life, full of
meaning. Here is the standard." (p. 49)
On Saturday, 7 July 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued an
Apostolic Letter, "Summorum Pontificum", on the celebration of the Roman Rite
according to the Missal of 1962. Martin Mosebach might reply that this is only
Read an excerpt from The Heresy of Formlessness: "Does
Christianity Need A Liturgy?
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles, Interviews, and Book Excerpts:
Author Page for Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
The Spirit of the Liturgy page
For "Many" or For "All"? | From God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart
of Life | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
U.M. Lang's Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer
| Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Music and Liturgy | From The Spirit of the Liturgy
| Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer | From The Spirit of the Liturgy
| Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Mass of Vatican II | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
To Heaven Backward | Interview with Father Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory
Reform or Return? |
An Interview with Rev. Thomas M. Kocik, author of The Reform of the Reform?
Rite and Liturgy | Denis Crouan, STD
The Liturgy Lived: The Divinization of Man | Jean Corbon, OP
Worshipping at the Feet of the Lord: Pope Benedict XVI and
the Liturgy | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
The Latin Mass: Old Rites and New Rites in
Today's World | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
and Conversion | Barbara Morgan
Father Van Hove, S.J., is on staff at the White House Retreat in
South St. Louis County, Missouri.
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