The Liturgy and Its Power of Spiritual Transformation

Conference held at the Sacred Liturgy Conference 2018, Salem (Oregon) June 30, 2018

What is Liturgy, sacred liturgy? The Tradition and the Magisterium of the Holy Church left us admirable words on the essence and the true meaning of the sacred liturgy, as it appears in the following statements of the Second Vatican Council: “In the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members.From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7)

Pope Pius XII taught in his magisterial liturgical Encyclical Mediator Dei: “The majestic ceremonies of the sacrifice of the altar became better known, understood and appreciated. With more widespread and more frequent reception of the sacraments, with the beauty of the liturgical prayers more fully savored, the worship of the Eucharist came to be regarded for what it really is: the fountain-head of genuine Christian devotion.” (Mediator Dei, 5).

“Readily provide the young clerical student with facilities to understand the sacred ceremonies, to appreciate their majesty and beauty and to learn the rubrics with care, just as you do when he is trained in ascetics, in dogma and in a canon law and pastoral theology. This should not be done merely for cultural reasons and to fit the student to perform religious rites in the future, correctly and with due dignity, but especially to lead him into closest union with Christ, the Priest, so that he may become a holy minister of sanctity.” (Mediator Dei, 198).

On the transforming power of the liturgical rites taught already Saint Gregory the Great: “Let us meditate what manner of sacrifice this is, ordained for us, which for our absolution doth always represent the passion of the only Son of God: for what right believing Christian can doubt, that in the very hour of the sacrifice, at the words of the Priest, the heavens be opened, and the quires of Angels are present in that mystery of Jesus Christ; that high things are accompanied with low, and earthly joined to heavenly, and that one thing is made of visible and invisible?But necessary it is that, when we do these things, we should also, by contrition of heart, sacrifice ourselves unto almighty God: for when we celebrate the mystery of our Lord’s passion, we ought to imitate what we then do: for then shall it truly be a sacrifice for us unto God, if we offer ourselves also to him in sacrifice. Careful also must we be, that after we have bestowed some time in prayer, that, as much as we can by God’s grace, we keep our mind fixed in him, so that no vain thoughts make us to fall unto dissolution, nor any foolish mirth enter into our heart: lest the soul, by reason of such transitory thoughts, lose all that which it gained by former contrition.” (Dial., IV, 58-59).

Saint Maximos the Confessor transmits in his work Mystagogia, one of the finest liturgical commentaries of Eastern Church, describing the spiritual meaning and the edifying spiritual effects of each of the ritual details as a spiritual journey of the soul: “The first entrance during the Eucharistic celebration signifies broadly-speaking the first appearance of Christ our God, and especially the conversion of those who are led by him and with him: from unbelief to faith, and from vice to virtue, and from ignorance to knowledge. The readings that take place next signify broadly-speaking the divine wishes and intentions by which everyone should be instructed and which they should implement, especially the following. In regard to believers: their teaching and progress according to faith; The divine melodies of the chants indicate the divine pleasure and delight which comes takes place in the souls of all. By means of these chants they are mystically strengthened: they forget past labors for virtue and are renewed in eager desire for the divine and pure benefits yet to be achieved. The holy Gospel is broadly- speaking a symbol of the fulfillment of this present age. More specifically: In regard to believers it indicates the complete disappearance of the primordial deception and ignorance; The descent of the bishop from the throne and the dismissal of the catechumens signifies broadly-speaking the second coming of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ from heaven, together with the separation of sinners from the saints and the just retribution rendered worthily to each. More specifically: In regard to believers it means the perfect assurance in faith produced by the Word of God which is invisibly present to them; every tempting thought that somehow still staggers in regard to faith is thereby dismissed from them like the catechumens. The ceaseless and consecrating doxology of the holy angels in their “Holy, holy, holy” signifies, broadly-speaking, that equality of lifestyle, conduct and harmony in rendering divine praise that will characterize both heavenly and earthly powers in the age to come Then the human body rendered immortal by resurrection will no longer weigh down the soul by corruption, nor will it be weighed down; instead, through transformation into incorruption it will take on the power and capacity to receive God’s advent. More specifically: for believers it signifies spiritual competition with the angels in regard to faith; The blessed invocation, consecration, of our great God and Father and the proclamation “One is holy …” and the partaking of the holy and life-giving mysteries – these signify that which will come in every way to all the worthy through the goodness of our God: adoption, union, familiarity, likeness to God. By this means God himself will be “all in all”: as a pattern of beauty resplendent as a cause in those who are resplendent along with him in grace by virtue and knowledge.” (chap. 24).

Pope Benedict XVI explains the relationship between the truth and the beauty of the liturgy, saying: “Like the rest of Christian Revelation, the liturgy is inherently linked to beauty: it is ‘veritatis splendor.’ The liturgy is a radiant expression of the paschal mystery, in which Christ draws us to himself and calls us to communion. […]The beauty of the liturgy is part of this mystery; it is a sublime expression of God’s glory and, in a certain sense, a glimpse of heaven on earth. […] Beauty, then, is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation. These considerations should make us realize the care which is needed, if the liturgical action is to reflect its innate splendor” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 35).

Pope Pius XII teaches on the power of spiritual transformation of the celebration of the sacred liturgy: “This we are also taught by those exhortations which the Bishop, in the Church’s name, addresses to priests on the day of their ordination, “Understand what you do, imitate what you handle, and since you celebrate the mystery of the Lord’s death, take good care to mortify your members with their vices and concupiscences.”[In almost the same manner the sacred books of the liturgy advise Christians who come to Mass to participate in the sacrifice: “At this . . . altar let innocence be in honor, let pride be sacrificed, anger slain, impurity and every evil desire laid low, let the sacrifice of chastity be offered in place of doves and instead of the young pigeons the sacrifice of innocence.”[While we stand before the altar, then, it is our duty so to transform our hearts, that every trace of sin may be completely blotted out, while whatever promotes supernatural life through Christ may be zealously fostered and strengthened even to the extent that, in union with the immaculate Victim, we become a victim acceptable to the eternal Father.

All the elements of the liturgy, then, would have us reproduce in our hearts the likeness of the divine Redeemer through the mystery of the cross, according to the words of the Apostle of the Gentiles, “With Christ I am nailed to the cross. I live, now not I, but Christ liveth in me.”Thus we become a victim, as it were, along with Christ to increase the glory of the eternal Father.” (Mediator Dei, 89-95).

“Many of the faithful are unable to use the Roman missal even though it is written in the vernacular; nor are all capable of understanding correctly the liturgical rites and formulas. So varied and diverse are men’s talents and characters that it is impossible for all to be moved and attracted to the same extent by community prayers, hymns and liturgical services. Moreover, the needs and inclinations of all are not the same, nor are they always constant in the same individual. Who, then, would say, on account of such a prejudice, that all these Christians cannot participate in the Mass nor share its fruits? On the contrary, they can adopt some other method which proves easier for certain people; for instance, they can lovingly meditate on the mysteries of Jesus Christ or perform other exercises of piety or recite prayers which, though they differ from the sacred rites, are still essentially in harmony with them” (Mediator Dei, 108).

What are the surest criteria and signs, if a doctrine or a liturgical practice corresponds to the authentic spirit of the Tradition and reflecting hereby the true spirit of the Catholic Church, the “sentire cum ecclesia”? Saint Vincent of Lerins, a holy theologian from the 5th century, gave us one of the most apt explanations on this topic, he stated: “If I wish, or indeed if anyone wishes, to detect the deceits of heretics that arise and to avoid their snares and to keep healthy and sound in a robust faith, we ought, with the Lord’s help, to fortify our faith in a twofold manner, first, that is, by the authority of God’s Law, then, by the tradition of the Catholic Church. Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that, which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. That is truly and properly ‘Catholic,’ as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally. We shall hold to this rule if we follow universality, antiquity, and consent. […] What then will the Catholic Christian do, if a small part of the Church has cut itself off from the communion of the universal Faith? The answer is sure. He will prefer the healthiness of the whole body to the morbid and corrupt limb. But what if some novel contagions try to infect the whole Church, and not merely a tiny part of it? Then he will take care to cleave to antiquity, which cannot now be led astray by any deceit of novelty. What if in antiquity itself two or three men, or it may be a city, or even a whole province be detected in error? Then he will take the greatest care to prefer the decrees of the ancient General Councils, if there are such, to the irresponsible ignorance of a few men. But what if some error arises regarding which nothing of this sort is to be found? Then he must do his best to compare the opinions of the Fathers and inquire their meaning, provided always that, though they belonged to diverse times and places, they yet continued in the faith and communion of the one Catholic Church; and let them be teachers approved and outstanding. And whatever he shall find to have been held, approved and taught, not by one or two only but by all equally and with one consent, openly, frequently, and persistently, let him take this as to be held by him without the slightest hesitation.” (Commonitorium, IV).

Dietrich von Hildebrand explains the salutary influence of the liturgy upon the personality: “When we examine the spirit embodied in the Liturgy, which informs itself upon the person who participates in the Liturgy, it appears that this spirit is revealed in three ways. First of all, the spirit of the Liturgy is expressed in the liturgical act as such, in the holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the eternal loving sacrifice of Christ; in the sacraments, the communicating love of Christ; and in the Divine Office, the loving adoration and eternal praise which Christ offers to His heavenly Father. In the second place, the spirit of the Liturgy expresses itself in the meaning and atmosphere conveyed by single prayers, antiphons, hymns, and the like, in all that the Liturgy expressly says, in the thought and spiritual climate which pervade its forms and words. In the third place, the spirit of the Liturgy is expressed in its structure and construction; in the architecture of the Mass, of the rites, of the different sacraments, of the Divine Office, in the successive accentuation of praise, thanksgiving, and prayer, in the structure of the liturgical year, in the rules according to which, for example, one feast takes precedence over another.” (Liturgy and Personality, London 1943, p. 23).

Dom Prosper Guerangerleft us admirable explanations about the supernatural power of transformation of the sacred liturgy: “Happy is he who prays with the Church. Prayer said in union with the Church is the light of the understanding, the fire of divine love in the heart. Let not the soul that is possessed with a love of prayer be afraid that her thirst cannot be quenched by these rich streams of the liturgy, which now flow calmly as a stream let, now roll with the loud impetuosity of a torrent, and now swell with the mighty heavings of the sea. The liturgy is suitable for all souls, being milk for children and solid food for the strong, thus resembling the miraculous bread of the desert. … The mysteries remain mysteries, but their splendour becomes so vivid that the heart and mind are enraptured by it, and we come to the point at which we can get an idea of the joys which we will receive from the beauty of those divine things, when the glimpse of them through the clouds is already such a delight to us.” (The Liturgical Year, extracts from the preface).

Dom Gueranger continues saying: “The prayer of the Church is the most pleasing to the ear and heart of God, and therefore the most efficacious of all prayers. Happy, then, is he who prays with the Church, and unites his own petitions with those of this bride, who is so dear to her Lord that He gives her all she asks. It is for this reason that our blessed Saviour taught us to say our Father, and not my Father; give us, forgive us, deliver us, and not give me, forgive me, deliver me. Hence we find that, for upwards of a thousand years, the Church, who prays in her temples seven times in the day and once again during the night, did not pray alone. The people kept her company, and fed themselves with delight on the manna which is hidden under the words and mysteries of the divine liturgy. Thus initiated into the sacred cycle of the mysteries of the Christian year, the faithful, attentive to the teachings of the Spirit, came to know the secrets of eternal life; and, without any further preparation, a Christian was not unfrequently chosen by the bishops to he a priest, or even a bishop, that he might go and pour out on the people the treasures of wisdom and love, which he had drunk in at the very fountain-head.

For many ages past, Christians have grown too solicitous about earthly things to frequent the holy vigils, and the mystical Hours of the day. Long before the rationalism of the sixteenth century had become the auxiliary of the heresies of that period by curtailing the solemnity of the divine service, the people had ceased to unite themselves exteriorly with the prayer of the Church, except on Sundays and festivals. During the rest of the year, the solemn and imposing grandeur of the liturgy was gone through, and the people took no share in it. Each new generation increased in indifference for that which their forefathers in the faith had loved as their best and strongest food. Social prayer was made to give way to individual devotion. Chanting, which is the natural expression of the prayers and even of the sorrows of the Church, became limited to the solemn feasts. That was the first sad revolution in the Christian world.

But even then Christendom was still rich in churches and monasteries; and there, day and night, was still heard the sound of the same venerable prayers which the Church had used through all the past ages. So many hands lifted up to God drew down upon the earth the dew of heaven, averted storms, and won victory for those who were in battle. These servants of God, who thus kept up an untiring choir that sang the divine praises, were considered as solemnly deputed by the people, which was still Catholic, to pay the full tribute of homage and thanks giving due to God, His blessed Mother, and the saints. These prayers formed a treasury which belonged to all. The faithful gladly united themselves in spirit to what was done. When any affliction, or the desire to obtain a special favour, led them to the house of God, they were sure to hear, no matter at what hour they went, that untiring voice of prayer which was for ever ascending to heaven for the salvation of mankind. At times they would give up their worldly business, and cares, and take part in the Office of the Church, and all still understood, at least in a general way, the mysteries of the liturgy.

For, when the so-called Reformation had abated the violence of its persecution, it had other weapons wherewith to attack the Church. By these several countries which continued to be Catholic were infected with that spirit of pride which is the enemy of prayer. The modern spirit would have it that prayer is not action; as though every good action done by man were not a gift of God: a gift which implies two prayers, one of petition that it may be granted, and another of thanksgiving because it is granted. There were found men who said: ‘Let us abolish all the festival days of God from the earth’ [Ps. lxxiii. 8]; and then came upon us that calamity which brings all others with it, and which the good Mardochai besought God to avert from his nation, when he said: ‘Shut not, O Lord, the mouths of them that sing to Thee!’ [2 Esther xiii. 17].

But by the mercy of God we have not been consumed [Is. x. 20-22]; there have been left remnants of Israel [ Acts v. 14]; and the number of believers in the Lord has increased [Lam. iii. 22]. What is it that has moved the heart of our God to bring about this merciful conversion? Prayer, which had been interrupted, has been resumed. Numerous choirs of virgins consecrated to God, and, though far less in number, of men who have left the world to spend themselves in the divine praises, make the voice of the turtle-dove heard in our land [Cant. ii. 12]. This voice is every day gaining more power: may it find acceptance from our Lord, and move Him to show the sign of His covenant with us, the rainbow of reconciliation! May our venerable cathedrals again re-echo those solemn formulae of prayer, which heresy has so long suppressed! May the faith and munificence of the faithful reproduce the prodigies of those past ages, which owed their greatness to the acknowledgement paid by all, even the very civic authorities, to the all-powerfulness of prayer! But this liturgical prayer would soon become powerless were the faithful not to take a real share in it, or at least not to associate themselves to it in heart. It can heal and save the world, but only on the condition that it be understood. Be wise, then, ye children of the Catholic Church, and obtain that largeness of heart which will make you pray the prayer of your mother. Come, and by your share in it fill up that harmony which is so sweet to the ear of God. Where would you obtain the spirit of prayer if not at its natural source?” (The Liturgical Year, Preface).

In the Liturgical Institutions Dom Gueranger summarized what he calls the anti-liturgical heresy, a summary of the doctrine and liturgical practice of the Protestant sect. As it can easily be seen, many of these principles have a striking similitude with some of the post-Conciliar liturgical reform. He stated:“In taking away from the Liturgy the mystery which humbles reason, Protestantism took care not to forget the practical consequence, that is to say, liberation from the fatigue and the burden of the body imposed by the rules of the Liturgy. First of all, no more fasting, no more abstinence, no more genuflections in prayer.  For the ministers of the temple, no more daily functions to carry out, no more canonical prayers to recite in the name of the Church.The anti-liturgical heresy needed, in order to establish its reign for good, the destruction in fact and in principle of all priesthood in Christianity.  For it felt that where there is a Pontiff, there is an Altar, and where there is an Altar there is a sacrifice and the carrying on of a mysterious ceremonial. Luther’s and Calvin’s reforms only know of ministers of God, or of men, as you prefer.  But this is not enough.  Chosen and established by laymen, bringing into the temple the robe of a certain bastard ministry, the minister is nothing but a layman clothed with accidental functions.  In Protestantism there exit only laymen, and this necessarily so, since there is no longer a Liturgy.” (Dom Prosper Gueranger,Liturgical Institutions, chap. XIV:“The Anti-Liturgical Heresy”).

The most sublime act of God’s glorification is the worship of adoration (latria), which man has to perform according to his nature, that is, both in a spiritual, interior way and in a bodily, exterior way, as explained lucidly by Saint Thomas Aquinas: “Certain sensible works are performed by man, not to stimulate God by such things, but to awaken man himself to divine matters by these actions, such as prostrations, genuflections, vocal prayers, and hymns. These things are done not because God needs them, for He knows all things, and His will is immutable, and the disposition of His mind does not admit of movement from a body for His own sake; rather, we do these things for our sakes, so that our attention may be directed to God by these sensible deeds and that our love may be aroused. At the same time, then, we confess by these actions that God is the author of soul and body, to Whom we offer both spiritual and bodily acts of homage. (Summa Contra Gentiles, III, 119, 4).

The liturgy of the Church is the more true and God-pleasing, the more all of its elements—words, gestures, music, architecture, liturgical objects and paraments, and, of course, the state of mind and soul of the celebrant and of the assisting faithful—correspond to the spirit of Christ the High Priest, to His filial fear and to His loving reverence towards God. He alone is the “universal priest of God the Father,” the “catholicussacerdos Patris,” according to an affirmation of Tertullian (Adv. Marc., IV, 9; IV, 35). The entire life of Jesus Christ was a glorification, an adoration, of God the Father: “I glorified you on earth” (John 17:4). Therefore, the life and work of Christ constitutes a reminder to fallen humanity of the first duty and of the very first commandment: “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve” (Mt 4:10).

Blessed Cardinal Ildephons Schuster pointed out that changes and novelties in liturgy have a destructive effect upon the spiritual life of the faithful. He stated: “It is above all in the field of the Liturgy, which must be for the faithful instruction and light, that the spirit of the Church shrinks from innovations, no matter how much the world enjoys new things. Any form of innovation confuses simple souls and shakes their faith, which is edified upon the foundation if the doctrine of the Fathers. To pray to God with the same words as did the Fathers, to sing the same hymns, which strengthened them in their sufferings and battles for the Church: this means to enter truly into the spirit of their prayer, to be one with their hope and their ideals” (Liber Sacramentorum, III).

To the traditional Roman liturgy one may apply an affirmation of Saint Irenaeus, paraphrasing it in the following manner: “This liturgy, which, having been received from the Church, we do preserve, and which always, by the Spirit of God, renewing its youth as if it were some precious deposit in an excellent vessel, causes the vessel itself containing it to renew its youth.” (cf. AdversusHaereses, III, 24, 1).The traditional Roman liturgy in the objective aspect of its content and ritual is the most apt manner to renew souls spiritually and thereby the Church herself.

What is most striking and moving in our days are the voices of young people, whom the traditional Roman liturgy spontaneously attracts, as truth and beauty always attract sincere hearts and souls. Such witnesses will by time cause the edifice of anti-traditional ideas of today’s liturgical nomenklatura to collapse. The traditional Roman rite is the rite of all ages and is therefore the true Youth Mass. May the especially witness of the young lovers of the traditional liturgy reach those in the Church who have the crucial responsibility for the liturgy. May bishops and most of all the Supreme Pastor of the Church listen to the voices of many young people who bear witness to the up-to-date character and the perennial youth of the traditional Roman rite. May God grant that not only the “little ones” in the Church (the young people and the laity) be lovers, defenders, and witnesses of the traditional Roman liturgy, the liturgy of all ages, but also—and indeed in the first place, as their office requires—the Shepherds of the Church, and especially her Supreme Pastor, so that the liturgical life of the Church may keep its perennial beauty and youth. May all those who do not yet know the traditional Roman rite of the Mass, or who reject it due to ignorance or other reasons, come to experience this form of the Church’s worship and discover in it the beauty of God’s house and the dwelling-place of His glory (cf. Ps 25:8).

+ Athanasius Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Mary in Astana