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Ideas Have Liturgical Consequences | Reverend Brian Van Hove, S.J. | A Review of The Mass and Modernity: Walking to Heaven Backward (Ignatius Press, 2005), by Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory | Ignatius Insight

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Editor's Note: This review was originally published in Antiphon, vol. 10, no 1 (2006): 117-119.

Readers who enjoyed Jonathan Robinson's Spiritual Combat Revisited in 2003, surely thrilled to The Mass and Modernity in 2005.This treatment of liturgical landscape is what we needed forty years ago, when the implementation of the reform was just beginning. On the other hand, it took us these forty years finally to understand certain factors related to the reform's failure. Not even Father Robinson could have written this book in 1965 when the Council ended. Only now do we have enough data and the pleasure of hindsight.

Robinson explains what he is doing. He is completing the historical work of Aidan Nichols, O.P., especially in Looking at the Liturgy. [1] The two books go together. Both Robinson and Nichols orient us toward a grasp of the crisis in Catholic liturgy, and of the fitful, unfulfilled reform attempted since the Second Vatican Council.

These studies also give notes of hope amidst the bleakness, the chief of which is understanding itself. Nothing like light to cheer us. But on the political, practical, and pastoral levels, there is very little to hope for. Robinson says candidly: "The present state of the liturgy reflects the alienation of modern Catholic thought and practice from the tradition of the Church; but now it also contributes to it." [2]

Robinson gives us a philosophical assessment. Ideas come from somewhere, and all ideas have a history. Ideas born in the eighteenth century Enlightenment, and especially the ideas of German philosophers later in the nineteenth century, influenced our world pervasively. The Old Liturgical Movement before the Council seemed blissfully unaware of the climate created by modernity. [3] The way we think and feel about community comes from these sources to a greater degree than the liturgical reformers, and the ecclesiastical authorities who supported them, were aware of. Once Alexander Schmemann was reported to have said that the Catholic Church, which valiantly held out for so long, succumbed to modernity just as this modernity itself was about to collapse. This is the position Robinson takes in a 377-page explanation. He relies for insights on Iris Murdoch and Charles Taylor, both critics of modernity. He also mentions that some of the secondary followers of Karl Rahner and Bernard Longergan are to blame for part of the current catastrophe.

A search for creativity and community were dominant projects in "reform-minded" Catholic circles in the 1960s and beyond. In itself, this might not have been bad. But Robinson shows that a major reflection on community had already gone on in the century before. It came from a decidedly non-Christian source, namely G.W.F. Hegel, who taught that the community was god, [4] and that "God" was not fully "God" without the community. Robinson calls Hegel "the source of the ideas that have done most damage to the Church." [5] This secular notion of community made its way into the Church, perhaps unconsciously, and today we do not seem able to interpret the consequences. Those lacking the philosophical erudition of Robinson still do not recognize the problem that has been generated. [6] In some cases, they deliberately insert modernity to supplant the inherited Christian tradition.

Writers who exclaim that "we are the Body of Christ" such that they compromise or downgrade transubstantiation and the tradition of sacramental realism, are influenced by Hegel whether they acknowledge it or not. Robinson points to German Martinez as an author in whom the success of the Enlightenment project is complete. [7] He says Martinez's account of the Paschal Mystery has nothing to do with the understanding of the Paschal Mystery found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. [8]

Frequently, contemporary seminarians desire a complete return of the Old Rite--a return to that point "before everything went wrong". Their instincts are laudable, and they speak up because they have been deprived of their rightful heritage. But once again Robinson provides needed wisdom, and he speaks as a parish priest as well as a scholar.

He believes the Old Liturgical Movement had some salutary goals. Robinson would keep the Mass readings in the vernacular, and read them facing the people. In short, with some adjustment, the New Rite (1969) should and can look much like the Old Rite (1962). The Eucharistic Prayers should be in Latin, [9] and both people and priest should face together "Ad Dominum". This is the Mass as it is celebrated today by the pope in his household chapel, and Robinson would merely universalize it. The depth, focus, theology, and transcendence of the Old Rite can be maintained while preserving some of the secondary gains of the New Rite's structure which has enjoyed the approbation of the highest ecclesiastical authorities. This way we can say that newer forms evolve organically (and gently!) from older forms. We could also become proud to say that we are sticking to a stricter and more faithful interpretation of Sacrosanctum concilium. [10]

We need a liturgy to satisfy the soul, to point us beyond the pain of the world, and to unite us more intimately to Christ's sacrifice. This is what the new crop of seminarians is trying to say by advocating a return to the Old Rite. They do not want to be priests who must perform as if on stage, who "get in the way" of the congregation's worship. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is a doctrinal reality in history. It exists in the documents of the Council, in our liturgical books and in our implementing documents, and in the Catechism, if only we rectify our ways of interpreting them. The ambiguities in the law itself can easily be corrected by a critical rethinking of the principles which are at stake in liturgy. This is what the Nichols-Robinson books help us to do.

Robinson also recommends a re-reading of Dionysius [11] the Areopagite for some indications of timeless liturgical principles. [12] Obviously, the spate of books on the liturgy by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the 1990s also help, and they are all available in translation.

The very existence of any notion of "creativity" in liturgy shows a problem. [13] The idea of "creativity" only reinforces the thought that the liturgy is something "we create" rather than something given to us to lift us aloft into a mystery too sublime for words. In his reference to the Old versus the New Rite, Robinson says that "What the Old Rite possessed was a clear lesson in the transcendence of God; while the way the Novus Ordo is often celebrated puts the community in the place of this reference to God." [14]

Jonathan Robinson states that "Modern liturgical practices are defective, and they are in place, and they reinforce people's understanding both of their faith and of how the faith should relate to the modern world. This means that the 'reform of the reform' will be a long, hard business. How it will happen is at best opaque." [15]

One way in which 'the reform of the reform' will happen is if more people read the works of Aidan Nichols and Jonathan Robinson. The new reform will not happen until as many people as possible see the real problems.


[1] Aidan Nichols, Looking at the Liturgy. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996. ISBN 0898705924.
[2] Robinson, The Mass and Modernity, 343. Henceforth MM.
[3] One of the tasks of Nichols's historical research is to uncover the weaknesses and naïveté of some early pioneers of the first liturgical movement which dates from the mid-nineteenth century.
[4] MM, 23 and passim.
[5] Ibid., 119.
[6] For an illustration see Nathan Mitchell, "The Amen Corner, 'Plenty Good Room': The Dignity of the Assembly", Worship 70, no. 1 (January 1996), 65. Also John Foley, Creativity and the Roots of Liturgy, 223, n. 58. Washington, D.C. : The Pastoral Press, 1994. ISBN: 1569290156.
[7] German Martinez, Signs of Freedom: Theology of the Christian Sacraments. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2003. ISBN 0809141604.
[8] MM, 242.
[9] Which he calls "archaic" or "hierarchic" but perhaps he meant to say "hieratic". See MM, 316, 336. Nowhere does Robinson address the derivative question of how liturgical Latin is to be pronounced by a usually half-educated clergy. An Italianate accent is beautiful, but how many American priests can imitate it successfully? Neither does Robinson answer the technical question of why the Old Rite has never been translated into elegant, poetic vernaculars.
[10] MM, 335.
[11] Robinson does not use the orthography of Andrew Louth's "Denys".
[12] MM, 269ff.
[13] See for example Guy-Marie Oury, La Créativité liturgique, chap. IV, 52-68. Trois-Rivières, P.Q., Canada: Éditions du Bien Public, 1977; also Foley, Creativity, passim, and Susan Benofy's commentary on Foley at
[14] MM, 237. Robinson is not the first to say this. See Ralph Keifer, To Give Thanks and Praise: General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 99-100. Washington, D.C.: National Association of Pastoral Musicians, 1980, ISBN 0960237828; quoted in Foley, Creativity, 272, n. 20. The difference is that what for Robinson is a tragedy is for Keifer-Foley an opportunity for creativity or novelty in Catholic worship.
[15] MM, 343.

Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Book Excerpts:

Walking To Heaven Backward | Interview with Father Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory
The Rotten Fruits of a Fashionable, Unserious Liturgist | Rev. Brian Van Hove, S.J.
The Preface to The Old Mass and The New: Explaining the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum of Pope Benedict XVI | Bishop Marc Aillet
Foreword to U.M. Lang's Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Reform of the Liturgy and the Position of the Celebrant at the Altar | Uwe Michael Lang | From Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer (2nd edition)
The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer | Excerpt from The Spirit of the Liturgy | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
How Should We Worship? | Preface to The Organic Development of the Liturgy by Alcuin Reid, O.S.B. | by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Learning the Liturgy From the Saints | An Interview with Fr. Thomas Crean, O.P., author of The Mass and the Saints
The Mass of Vatican II | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
Does Christianity Need A Liturgy? | Martin Mosebach | From The Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy
Music and Liturgy | Excerpt from The Spirit of the Liturgy | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Rite and Liturgy | Denis Crouan, STD
The Liturgy Lived: The Divinization of Man | Jean Corbon, OP
The Latin Mass: Old Rites and New Rites in Today's World | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
Worshipping at the Feet of the Lord: Pope Benedict XVI and the Liturgy | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
Reflections On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly) | Fr. James V. Schall, S. J.
Liturgy, Catechesis, and Conversion | Barbara Morgan

Father Brian Van Hove, S.J., is the Chaplain to the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan.

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