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The Enlightenment's Impact on the Mass

Father Jonathan Robinson on Recovering the Liturgy

TORONTO, FEB. 18, 2006 (Zenit) - Cardinal John Henry Newman said that bad practice is based on confused and false principles, and it is by an often bitter experience that we finally see the truth.

Oratorian Father Jonathan Robinson concurs -- especially in the case of the contemporary Mass.

In his book "The Mass and Modernity: Walking to Heaven Backward", the superior of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Toronto and rector of St. Philip's Seminary asserts that confused and false principles have seriously damaged the liturgy.

Father Robinson shared with us how the Enlightenment and its philosophers influenced Westerners' understanding of God, man, society, religion and community -- and how Catholics have come to worship God today.

Q: How is your book different from the plethora of books that are being published regularly about the Mass?

Father Robinson: There are many excellent books that are, as you say, being published regularly about the Mass. They are, however, "in house" books.

By that I mean they discuss the worship of the Church within the framework of the Church's documents about liturgy and show, often conclusively, that there is an enormous gap between what is in the documents and how they are applied.

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 effects of these changes on the way Catholics have come to worship God. I maintain that the effect of these changes has been to deform the liturgy, even to the point where God is often barely acknowledged.

The present liturgical situation matters. It matters not only for the internal of domestic health of the Church, but also for the effectiveness of her mission in the modern world.

Q: The subtitle of the book is "Walking to Heaven Backward." Can you explain its meaning?

Father Robinson: The phrase is from a sermon of Newman's where he writes:

"We advance to the truth by experience of error; we succeed through failures. We know not how to do right except by having done wrong ... we grope about by touch, not by sight, and so by a miserable experience exhaust the possible modes of acting till nought is left, but truth, remaining. Such is the process by which we succeed; we walk to heaven backward; we drive our arrows at a mark, and think him most successful, whose shortcomings are the least."

Newman was not preaching the modern idiocy that we have to sin in order to be virtuous, but he was reminding us that bad practice is based on confused and false principles, and it is by an often bitter experience that we finally see the truth a bit more clearly.

I think that confused and false principles have seriously damaged the liturgy. That means that any reform, or renewal, of the liturgy will cause us to walk to heaven backward.

We will have to walk to heaven backward without any sign posts and without any certainty except for the promises of Christ to his Church; but if we believe in the Church we know that out of disorder and wrong turns God's truth will ultimately prevail.

Q: What is "modernity"? What is "postmodernity"? How have these phenomena specifically affected Catholic liturgy?

Father Robinson: By "modernity" I mean the set of principles and beliefs that have created our modern secularized society.

We live in a world for which the language of traditional Christianity is a dead letter. The intellectual frame work, the images, and the moral teaching of the faith no longer color the ordinary consciousness as they once did.

There are many different strands in the history of thought that have contributed to this condition. The difficulty for the Christian is that many of these strands contain valuable elements.

There is the Enlightenment with its concern for justice, human rights and due process; or again "the rise of modern science" with its applications to health and technology; or the Romantic movement, with its historical, communitarian and imaginative preoccupations.

All these in different ways have persuasive and desirable elements. Nonetheless the overall thrust that characterizes them is hostile to the Christian revelation. The efforts of various sorts of Christians to accommodate the Gospel in order to make it acceptable to the world had proved, not surprisingly, destructive of the Christian message.

I think the attitudes and concepts that we associate with "postmodernism" is toward "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 what they regard as 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 and falsehood.

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 wrote so eloquently -- between the dead, the living and yet unborn, and is the only real guarantee of a freedom not based on the whims of sociology departments and high court judges.

Whether this is viable politics I do not really know; but I believe that something like Burke's attitude is necessary to Catholicism if the Church is to recover its liturgical worship.

Q: Shouldn't the Church's desire to speak to the modern world be reflected in the liturgy?

Father Robinson: The answer is "no" if you mean that the liturgy is supposed to adapt to what we are told are the aspirations of modernity and the promptings of postmodernity. The Church is supposed to bring something to the world, not accommodate its message to what it thinks Tom, Dick or Harry will swallow.

Pope Benedict XVI gives us a lesson in what I mean in his first encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est." The document is a vibrant affirmation of the uniqueness of the Christian teaching about love, and this uniqueness is based on God's self-disclosure of himself -- what we call revelation.

The liturgy must return to reflecting this God-centered approach.

Q: How can he Church attract the multitude of religious "seekers" so prevalent today?

Father Robinson: Liturgy should be the living expression of the Paschal Mystery; that is, the worship of God is not merely a teaching, it is also the re-enactment of the saving passion, death, resurrection and ascension of our Savior.

What we have to do is take our minds off counting heads and direct them to the Mass that the Second Vatican Council called the "summit and source" of the Church's life. If we began to do this in a serious way the needs of the seekers would be met.

Q: What are the ways in which authentic liturgical renewal can overcome the handicaps of modernity?

Father Robinson: If by authentic liturgical renewal you mean a liturgy based on God's revelation -- and not on our aspirations -- as well as serious preaching based on this same revelation, and finally on an attempt to live holy lives, then nothing more is required.

The only effective way of overcoming false views about human nature and the meaning of life is by an effort to present to our times the mysterious reality of the Paschal Mystery in a more vivid and unsentimental way.

Q: How can the Mass be reinvigorated and renewed without bringing constant change and upheaval to the spiritual lives of the faithful?

Father Robinson: In principle, as the French say, the answer is that the Mass can indeed be reinvigorated and renewed without constant upheaval and change. For a variety of reasons, many of them detailed in my book, I am not optimistic that this will in fact happen.

Q: An appreciation of the transcendent dimension to the liturgy has always appeared to be important to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI. How do you believe the Pope will foster a renewed appreciation of the liturgy?

Father Robinson: I would not presume to second guess what the Holy Father might do or not do.

On the other hand, everything we know from Cardinal Ratzinger's writings about liturgy shows that they are firmly grounded on a theological foundation, and so we can assume that he will try to ensure that this teaching about the nature of God is reflected in the worship of the Church.

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