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The Enlightenment's Impact on the Mass

2/18/2006 - 6:30 AM PST

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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 ...

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