Some Comments on a (Liturgical) Tweet

Yesterday, in a moment of mild exacerbation over—yes—something I read on the Internet, I tweeted out the following: “I remain astonished that there are people out there deeply devoted to private revelations and yet don’t pray the Psalms.” (In retrospect, I probably should have just said “private devotions” generally.) Thankfully, no one took my remark as a knock against devotion to Our Lady of Fatima (a devotion I hold and have recently defended). My point (to the extent one can have a “point” in a tweet) was to express a real perplexity over present day devotional priorities, one which I admit likely plays into certain Protestant-based narratives about the Scriptural ignorance of Catholics and the absence of a surefire Biblical foundation to the Catholic Faith. Then again, on that matter, Protestants aren’t entirely wrong. Catholic Biblical literacy is probably as poor as it has ever been since the advent of the printing press; just because people own Bibles doesn’t mean they read them. Further, given the extent to which the ideologically charged “findings” of “objective Biblical science” have penetrated Catholic Scriptural exegesis and preaching (“The words the second-century author of the Gospel we attribute to John placed on the lips of Johannine community’s conception of the Jesus who rose in their hearts…”), I long for the days when the Biblical text had to be copied-out by hand—in Greek or Latin, safe from the raw idiocy of armchair exegetes.

But in many ways that’s a separate matter from the one which caught my attention, namely the sure and steady replacement of the Church’s public prayer (appropriated, I should add, from the public prayer of the pre-Christian Jews) with devotions which often have less than half-a-millennium of history behind them. No doubt the reasons for this phenomenon are complex, particularly in the Latin Church where the Divine Office has all but disappeared from parish life despite the greater “accessibility” of the rather problematic Liturgy of the Hours. Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite do a noticeably better job of things, though restoring Matins or even the small hours (Terce and Sext) to regular usage has been a struggle for many Greco-Catholic parishes in the West. It’s difficult not to sympathize a tad bit with certain liturgical extremists who throw their hands up in the air when they see 30 minutes of para-liturgical devotions before morning Mass but no interest in reciting Prime in common.

It seems that there is a sense among too many Catholics that the Psalms, if not the Bible as a whole, “belong to the Church,” which by that they mean, “Belong to the priests.” It is the duty of the cleric to recite the Miserere, De Profundis, and Laudate Dominum de caelis; it is the reserve of the people to make novenas to the Sacred Heart and pray the Rosary.

Now, before the pitchforks and torches come out, let me make clear that I have nothing against para-liturgical and/or private devotions per se, particularly ones with as long and wonderful history as the Rosary. Moreover, I am not insensitive to the fact that for a significant portion of Christian history, most lay folk were illiterate and therefore depended largely on fairly simple, memorized prayers (Pater, Ave, and Gloria). Even as recently as the 17th and 18th centuries, St. Alphonsus and the members of the Redemptorist order sought to instruct the poor and uneducated faithful in meditative prayer so that they may draw closer to God in their everyday lives. Praise be. However, it should be recalled that before the spread of prayer books and increased literacy, the public recitation of the Divine Office was far, far more prevalent than it is today. It was not absent from the life of the Church—the whole Church—even if, arguably, it may have been kept at some distance from the laity.

Despite likely being in the minority, I am convinced that until the liturgical life of the Church is revived for the people of God (clerical and lay), the Church’s spiritual and physical health will not be restored. This has to mean more than just the Mass (Divine Liturgy), even if it is necessary to begin there. Christianity, particularly in the West, has been reduced to a “Sunday church,” and with regard to Catholicism in particular, liturgical observance is primarily thought of in terms of legal obligation rather than an integral part of a renewed life in Christ. And that must mean more than being present at the Eucharist; it must also mean standing in continuity with all God’s people throughout the millennia, giving praise and worship to God at the dawning of the day and the setting of the sun.


As I have mentioned before, it is not uncommon for me to have recourse to the extensive archive of sermons by Fr. Patrick Reardon (Antiochian Orthodox) housed over at Ancient Faith Radio. While I wish I could say I keep up on them from week to week, the truth is that I often “binge” three or four, especially on long car rides. In a sermon entitled “The Danger is not an Armed Guard,” Reardon reflects on the Gospel of St. Mark in both its historical context and deeper theological meaning with respect to the Cross, Baptism, and the Eucharist. As those who follow the Byzantine Rite perhaps know, St. Mark’s Gospel is read throughout the Lenten season due to its emphasis on Christ’s Passion. It is a Gospel which was produced during a time of intense persecution in Rome and therefore places starkly before the reader (or listener) the cost of following Christ. To be baptized in the Lord, Reardon emphasizes, is to be baptized into his death; to accept the Chalice is to accept all that comes with it, including the pains of martyrdom. What should be obvious to all Christians is today obscured by the world, particularly our desire to be a part of it, to compromise, to find a “middle way” between the demands of secularism and liberalism and the law of God.

Reardon concludes his sermon by admonishing those who are ashamed to make the Sign of the Cross in public to not come up for Holy Communion. And if a person is embarrassed to stand firm for the Faith, particularly in the face of those who would denigrate it, then do not approach to kiss the Cross at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy—for it is the kiss of Judas.

In hearing this, I wondered to myself how many priests and bishops of any Apostolic confession would ever say such a thing, especially in the United States where it is “commonly understood” that one ought to check their “private religious convictions” when walking out the front door. It is not uncommon to find even conservative Catholic priests (and, no doubt, a very traditional ones) adhering to certain liberal doctrines which demand that Christians only express openly those beliefs which can be “squared with reason” or to only preach a Gospel evacuated of all eschatological import. American Christians, particularly Catholics, are so desperate for public recognition, for being “good Americans,” that they do not think twice about implicitly denying Christ when engaged in “discourse” or “dialogue” with non-Christians, including atheists, Jews, and Muslims. Catholics have been told for the past 50 years that they must see the “good fruits” and “laudable aspects” of these other pathways through life; mutual understanding, not conversion, is now the order of the day.

Aside from a handful of holy souls that walk among us, no one is left from the temptation to compromise, to turn away from our Lord publicly (“just a bit”) and be overtly pious behind closed church doors (“for all to see”). And how pathetic it all is. At this juncture, we do not fear prison, torture, and death. Rather, we are paralyzed by the thought of losing social recognition, a career advancement, or the companionship of a worldly friend.

As I write this, I find it fitting that tomorrow is the Sunday of the Paralytic according to the Byzantine Rite. This poor man waited to be placed into the Pool of Bethesda after the troubling of the waters before Christ cured him of his paralysis of 38 years (mine has lasted only 37). And what did this man do upon finding out it was Jesus who cured him? He proclaimed it to the Jews. He did not remain silent about the unmerited gift of physical healing our Lord bestowed upon him. But what do we say about the far greater gift of Baptism that has been given to us? What words do we speak about the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ? If the Paralytic was admonished by Christ after his physical curing to “sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you,” what awaits those of us who sin mightily after the curing of our souls? Do we fall down on our knees in Confession, seeking God’s infinite mercy, or do we continue denying Him by our public words and deeds while thinking that “popping in” for Sunday liturgy and partaking in its attendant rituals will lead us to a better end than the Iscariot?

Hodie Christus Natus Est

When Augustus reigned alone upon earth, the many kingdoms of men came to end: and when Thou wast made man of the pure Virgin, the many gods of idolatry were destroyed. The cities of the world passed under one single rule; and the nations came to believe in one sovereign Godhead. The peoples were enrolled by the decree of Caesar; and we, the faithful, were enrolled in the Name of the Godhead, when Thou, our God, wast made man. Great is Thy mercy: glory to Thee.

– Doxasticon of St. Cassia for Nativity Vespers (Byzantine Rite)

A Note on “Unia” and Latinizations and Myths

It seems to me that it seems to be a commonplace tale around the (online?) Eastern Catholic water cooler which goes something like this. Up until the late 16th Century, Eastern Orthodox living in the area of what is now Ukraine and Belarus were living fine and happy with their perfect Byzantine liturgy, apophatic theology, and mystical spirituality before the big, bad Jesuits stormed in; duped bishops and laity alike; and inaugurated one of the greatest ecclesiastical heists in history, the Union of Brest (followed 50 years later by the Union of Uzhhorod). The inevitable fruits of the “Unia” — so the story goes — was a loss of the “pure Byzantine tradition” coupled with the onset of forced Latinizations. Without getting into the messy history surrounding Brest (which, I should add, was not orchestrated by the Jesuits nor aimed at destroying the Byzantine Rite), I wish so many of these contemporary naysayers of the “Unia” who love to spend their free-time disparaging Latin devotions which they seem to know very little about would spend a few minutes with Fr. Peter Galadza’s excellent study, “Seventeenth-Century Liturgicons of the Kievan Metropolia and Several Lessons for Today,” 56 St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 73 (2012).

In an earlier post, “The Ways of Greek Catholicism in the West – Liturgy,” I discussed Fr. Galadza’s article in some detail, highlighting in particular the messy business of trying to restore certain Eastern liturgical practices after they had fallen out of memory. Another important lesson from this study — one which I didn’t focus on previously — is the fact that it took nearly a century after Brest for what some might call “liturgical deformation” to set in — a deformation inspired in no small part by the limited educational opportunities available to Eastern Catholic clergy coupled with the rise of the Basilian Order which, at the outset at least, was comprised of a significant number of Polish clergy whose knowledge of Church Slavonic was sorely lacking. There then followed some regrettable centuries where the “Uniates” were treated as second-class Catholics by their Latin brethren and subjected to forced conversion at the hands of the Russian Empire (a practice that would be repeated under the Soviets in 1946). By the 19th and 20th centuries, however, the “Uniates” (now properly referred to as Greek Catholics) began a process of self-renewal in Galicia (western Ukraine), including reforming their liturgical practices in order to better reflect the form of the Byzantine Rite their forebears were familiar with. Was this a smooth and steady process? No. Political concerns during the time prompted certain suspicions towards those clergy who favored celebrating “like the Orthodox.” Moreover, many Greek Catholics had, by that point, grown accustomed to their “Latinized” rite; they weren’t interested in liturgical revisions which would make them feel less Catholic.

It is terribly easy to sit back today and scoff at such attitudes, as if the vast majority of Christians who have ever lived had ready-at-hand access to books, articles, and websites detailing the complexities of history and the numerous accidents that have occurred in the life of the Church (including her liturgical development). What is despicable about some of these ongoing discussions over a period of time which few today have any recollection of is their failure to account for the popular piety of the people who spent their whole lives immersed in an environment shaped (albeit haphazardly) by Western and Eastern ecclesiastical sensibilities. All of this has sadly given birth to a triumphalist myth whereby certain Eastern Catholics (or, really, Latin Catholics who stumbled onto Eastern Catholicism) proclaim their obvious superiority over those who have gone before simply because a century ago Greek Catholics prayed the Rosary rather than chased “uncreated light” with prayer ropes purchased off Mt. Athos. Distressingly little attention is paid to the reality that when Brest was consummated, the liturgical ethos of these reunified Catholics well reflected that of their estranged Orthodox brethren and that there is something admirable, indeed beautiful, about the fact that despite numerous obstacles, persecutions, and other hardships, these Eastern Christians found the road to Salvation. Even if we are now at a time when “Latinizations” are no longer taken a sign of Catholicity and our historical horizon has broadened far enough to recognize the Greek no less than the Latin tradition as part of the universal Church’s patrimony, there is no virtue in promoting the myth of a backwards and detestable past for the “Unia.” How much better we would all be if instead of sitting in judgment of past missteps, we find inspiration from the perseverance of our Greek-Catholic ancestors and the spirit of unity they fought so hard to preserve.

A (Minor) Followup on St. Joseph the Worker

Unsurprisingly, my comments on the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker generated a bit of disagreement, both on this blog and other social-media outlets. Fine. Reasonable persons can disagree. What continues to baffle me, however, is what I call the Domino-effect Thesis where a moment of legitimate liturgical change — prudent or not — sets off a causal chain “culminating” in the Novus Ordo Missae and its subsequent fallout. The problem with this thesis is that nobody seems to agree when the first domino fell. Was it in 1960/62 with Pope John XXIII’s simplification/abbreviation of the Breviarium Romanum and certain rubrics for Mass? Was it the mid-1950s top-down revision of Holy Week and the reduction of Octaves on the Roman Calendar? Was it the “Bea Psalter”? Or was it Pope St. Pius X’s radical reorganization of the breviary Psalter in 1911? There are even those who posit that the re-codification of the Mass and Divine Office at Trent planted the seeds of today’s liturgical crisis in the Latin Church. That position, as far as I understand it, is rooted in the belief that liturgical development (change) should always be, on some level, “organic” and that the “imposition” of liturgical changes from the papal office onto the Church as a whole represented a revolution which continues on to the present day.

Top-down liturgical reform is nothing new to the Church of Christ, East or West. What is new is the modern capacity to track these changes and critically evaluated them using a deep toolbox of historical, theological, and liturgical learning. This strikes me as a far sturdier approach to addressing contemporary liturgical problems in the Church rather than relying on some meta-narrative of historically inevitable decline which claims to pinpoint accurately the absolute moment when things liturgical started to roll downhill. It also relieves those concerned about liturgy from the psychic-emotional burden of buying into any number of conspiracy theories about the thoughts and intentions behind the various liturgical reforms instituted over the last century. This is not to say that certain reformers didn’t bring highly questionable ideological agendas to the table when they proposed this-or-that change to the Roman Rite. But many of the reforms, imprudent and clumsy as they were, emerged from legitimate pastoral concerns that shouldn’t be passed over lightly. Whether or not those inclined toward hysteria over the “1962 books” will ever bother to take this into account remains to be seen.

Fretting over St. Joseph the Worker

Sometimes I run across things on the Catholic inter-webs so unintentionally strange that I can’t help but share. Case in point: The Benedicamus Domino web-log which, as far as I can tell, is dedicated to hyperbolic nitpicking and liturgical fetishism. The author’s latest target is the Latin feast of St. Joseph the Worker (San Giuseppe Comunista!), a mid-1950s invention which most traditional Catholics today regard as either imprudent or unnecessary. Those who have been exposed to the Gregorian hymns for this occasion know full well that they fall pretty darn short of “the mark” when it comes to the beauty and richness of the Roman Rite and some of the propers are not exactly inspiring. However, to howl on about the feast being a “modernist invention” is a bridge too far, particularly when one understands that the primary intent and purpose behind the feast was to dislodge May Day as an exclusively secularist (and communistic) holiday. Did it work? Well, of course not, but not because the liturgical texts themselves are riddled with theological error or bumped the feast Ss. Phillip and James (a feast many Catholics have all but forgotten about). Let’s not forget, however, that the feast was introduced during a period of time when the great 19th and 20th century popes took it upon themselves to speak forcefully on matters concerning labor, economics, and society, with stern reminders being issued by the likes of Leo XIII, St. Pius X, and Pius XI on the justice due to laborers. In fact, this teaching is captured nicely in the feast’s introit: “Wisdom rendered to the just the wages of their labors, and conducted them in a wonderful way: and she was to them for a covert by day, and for the light of stars by night, allelúja, allelúja “

Now, none of this is to say that St. Joseph the Worker should stay on the (traditional) liturgical calendar. But it is a bit queer that the author of Benedicamus Domino should exhaust so much energy fretting over the loss of the Solemnity of St. Joseph, a feast often cast as “universal” and yet has no analogue in the Christian East. In fact, the only direct liturgical commemoration of St. Joseph in the Byzantine Rite falls on the Sunday after the Nativity and is dedicated to Christ’s forefathers generally rather than St. Joseph specifically. Again, this is not to say that the Latins cannot or should not directly commemorate St. Joseph, but his traditional Latin feast day — March 19 — remains firmly on the books. The Solemnity of St. Joseph, on the other hand, was a 19th C. addition to the Roman Calendar introduced by papal fiat. Its roots run hardly any deeper than those of St. Joseph the Worker.

At the end of the day, how much does any of this matter? The arguably needless addition of the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker pales in comparison to the revolutionary changes introduced into the Roman Rite in 1969. Heck, it even pales in comparison to the wreckovation of Latin Holy Week in the 1950s. Even so, the process of restoring the Roman Rite will be a long and hard one, requiring calm, concerted action by Catholic traditionalists, not wild condemnations of comparatively trivial matters. As anyone with a firm sense of liturgical history (East or West) well knows, feasts come and go through the centuries; ordos are revamped; and calendars shuffled about. Sometimes these changes are organic, though both Western and Eastern Christendom’s respective histories testify to numerous top-down changes which left the faithful wanting. It would come as no surprise to yours truly if, in a century from now, the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker became a thing of memory, clearing the way for the celebration of Francis the Merciful.

Maybe the Liturgical Extremists Have a Point?

Update 4/6/16: It appears that Rorate Caeli has taken down the post linked below. A cached version can be found here.

Rorate Caeli has a fresh post up detailing the small, but growing, number of Latin Mass communities which celebrate Holy Week according to the pre-Pius XII rite. Numerous other parishes could probably be added to that list, and it is generally well-known that an increasing number of communities freely incorporate at least some elements of the older Holy Week ritual. In calling attention to this reality, Rorate felt compelled to write the following:

The liturgical reforms that were implemented in the Roman Rite from 1951 to the end of 1962 remain a subject of much contention among Catholic Traditionalists and their friends, and for this reason this blog has tended to strike a “middle way” in discussing these reforms. It should be acknowledged that the vast majority of Catholic Traditionalist communities — whether with the SSPX or under Diocesan / “Ecclesia Dei” authority — continue to faithfully celebrate the Mass, Office and Sacraments according to the liturgical books and regulations in force as of the end of the year 1962. Furthermore this blog’s record in promoting liturgical celebrations according to the 1962 Missal speaks for itself. In its official stance (as distinct from individual contributors’ opinions) this blog has never had any problem with the liturgical reforms of Pius XII and John XXIII.

That’s a troubling position to take since there are many problems with the reforms of both Pius XII and John XXIII. So why not just come out and say so? (That doesn’t mean, however, that the “1962 books” are the summum malum as the sedevacantists and liturgical extremists opine.) It seems that blind fealty to “the authorities” has clouded some traditionalists’ better judgment when it comes to things liturgical, or perhaps the climate of fear in the Church is so strong that not even the more vocal traditionalists want to “rock the boat” lest they lose access to the old Mass altogether.

If this sort of complacent attitude were present among the Greek Catholics of the last century, we’d still be celebrating the Divine Liturgy with eviscerated service books and a calendar bereft of Slavic saints. It was only through the tireless — and critical — efforts of churchmen such as Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, Blessed Leonid Feodorov, and the members of both the Recensio Ruthena and Recensio Vulgata commissions that the Eastern Catholicism’s Byzantine liturgical heritage was restored (even if only on the level of theory). It would be a shame if Latin Catholics failed to take a more proactive approach to reestablishing their authentic patrimony out of either misplaced obedience to ill-conceived liturgical changes or useless fear. There should be little doubt by now that the Holy Week reforms of 1955 lack either firm historical or theological footing and that continued celebration of the 1962 rite will only serve to normalize an inferior liturgy in the hearts and minds of the faithful. What a shame that would be.

Leithart Looks East

I am not sure what inspired Peter J. Leithart to take an interest in Catholic liturgical reform, but over at First Things he has an post up on it entitled “Liturgical Orientalism.” For the most part, Leithart leans on an earlier academic presentation, “Eastern Presuppositions and Western Liturgical Reform,” by Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. For those familiar with Taft’s previous work, much of what he says (and what Leithart summarizes) is old news: “everyone” agreed that liturgical reform was needed at Vatican II; Latin liturgists took a shine (perhaps too much of a shine) to Eastern liturgy; the post-Vatican II reforms are a mixed bag (at least as far as the Liturgiae Horarum is concerned); and so forth. Unfortunately, Leithart doesn’t have much to add to the conversation, preferring instead to defer to Taft whose conclusions are, at points, contestable.

There can be little doubt now that Latin liturgical reformers “looked East” for inspiration (or perhaps just ex post facto justification) during the tumultuous decades of the 1950s and 60s, though subsequent scholarship has poured cold water on the idea that all of the reforms undertaken were truly “Eastern” and/or “ancient.” And while neither Taft nor Leithart make mention of it, some of the Latin liturgical reforms undertaken during the last century actually had the effect of driving contemporary Roman Rite praxis further away from widespread Eastern praxis as exemplified by the Byzantine Rite. For instance, the Latin reform of Holy Week, which ushered out the possibility of anticipating services like Tenebrae and the Easter Vigil, stands in contrast Eastern Christians anticipating the services (e.g., Holy Friday Matins on Thursday evening, Holy Saturday Vigil Liturgy in the morning, etc.). Other, more noticeable, reforms, such as the three-year lectionary, priests commonly serving Mass versus populum, “Extraordinary Ministers,” and such find no legitimate basis in the Christian East.