One of the many good things my friend Dave Smith brings to this place is his vast range of references to good material. The recently asked Rob to look at this piece by Dietrich von Hildebrand on the Latin Mass. Let me offer some reflections.
I like his balance at the start. He does not pretend that everything with the Latin Mass (TLM) was rosy – he writes:
the faithful attended Mass in personal isolation, each worshipper making his private devotions, or at best following the proceedings in his missal
with Latin creating a barrier between the priest and the people. Despite this statement, he asks:
Does the new Mass, more than the old, bestir the human spirit–does it evoke a sense of eternity? Does it help raise our hearts from the concerns of everyday life–from the purely natural aspects of the world–to Christ? Does it increase reverence, an appreciation of the sacred?
And, of course, as will be clear from the rhetorical question that he answers in favour of TLM. It is quite hard, reading the article, to see how the sort of TLM he describes is more reverent than the NO one:
Is it not plain that frequently the community character of the new Mass is purely profane, that, as with other social gatherings, its blend of casual relaxation and bustling activity precludes a reverent, contemplative confrontation with Christ and with the ineffable mystery of the Eucharist?
The answer seems clear to him because of the way he feels; those who do not share his feelings are unlikely to agree with him.
I doubt anyone would argue that reverence is not important, but he assumes that the NO Mass lacks it but did the sort of TLM he began by describing have it either? This seems a false antithesis – a good TLM juxtaposed with a bad NO Mass. That’s the sort of argument which only works when your readers agree with you.
Hildebrand asks an interesting question:
Do we better meet Christ by soaring up to Him, or by dragging Him down into our workaday world?
It is plain, as ever with these rhetorical questions, what answer we are supposed to offer. But let us pause a moment. Christ met us in this workaday world, he sacralised it, and our flesh with his presence, so let us not so easily talk about ‘dragging him down’ – he came, as he comes, willingly through love. Hildebrand is offering a false antithesis – we meet Christ wherever he meets us.
He draws a similar false antithesis between a secular community and a church one:
I submit that the new liturgy must be judged by this test: Does it contribute to the authentic sacred community? Granted that it strives for a community character; but is this the character desired? Is it a communion grounded in recollection, contemplation and reverence? Which of the two–the new Mass, or the Latin Mass with the Gregorian chant evokes these attitudes of soul more effectively, and thus permits the deeper and truer communion
If, as the implication seems to be, an authentic sacred community is grounded in recollection, contemplation and reverence, then it is hard to see how TLM he describes had any of those characteristics. He assumes TLM permits a ‘deeper and truer’ communion, but offers no reason, other than his own feelings, why we should agee. It is unclear how one might measure ‘deeper’ and ‘truer’. As so often in this line of argument, adjectives are used which imply that one’s own preferences are morally superior (or is someone going to tell me that ‘truer’ and ‘deeper’ are morally neutral objectives?) to those of others. I am not sure why it is necessary to introduce such loaded language into these discussions – but can see why doing so causes offence and perpetuates divisions. How these Christians love each other – anyone?
Hildebrand writes this about authentic community:
The actualization of men’s souls who are truly touched by Christ is the basis of a unique community, a sacred communion, one whose quality is incomparably more sublime than that of any natural community
But again, there is a false antithesis at work. If our souls are truly touched by Christ, we do indeed form a unique community – but that is a sacralisation of one sort of natural community (unless, of course, one thinks a church community is not natural?) – and that community is actualized in either form of the Mass – if, of course, the Mass is valid. And there lies, for me, the problem with such articles. Hildebrand offers us good opinions as to why he prefers one form of Mass to another (and ones with which, when I in the RCC, I should sympathise) but in so doing, he writes about one form in a way which provides ammunition for those who go further than he does in calling it invalid.
Where we meet the Lord at the Eucharist, there is reverence, and there is an authentic Christian community. How it is actualized is a matter of taste. To suppose that one’s own preferred form is somehow better than another authorised one, is to elevate one’s own opinion to a level higher than it deserves. Having changed one form for another in my own Church, I can sympathise with those who find an older form more to their taste, but encountering my Lord at both forms, I can only say that what matters is that. Where we meet him, be it in the refugee I meet in the workaday world, or in the silence of the Eucharistic encounter, we are privileged. To suppose one form is somehow more authentic or provides a deeper and truer communion seems a little arrogant to me.