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Restoration in the Catholic Church

By David Warren

It is because we in the West have cultivated -- collectively, if not individually -- an extraordinary insensitivity to religion, that we fail to grasp the seriousness of the radical "Islamist" challenge to our being. I am not going to discuss that today, but begin by mentioning it, to bring home the importance of the subject I will discuss. Ignorance of, or indifference to, religious motivations in much human behaviour, is something that can hurt you. It leaves one blind, uncomprehending, and powerless in an immense field of potential good and evil. It may even leave one blind towards one's own motivations, which are often not as plain as first appears.

And it is from the same insensitivity, even insensibility, that we might overlook the importance of the Pope's Motu Proprio last week, removing some obstacles to the celebration of the old Catholic Mass. I think the writing of that document may prove the most important act in the pontificate of Benedict XVI, and that its consequences may go far beyond the immediately visible ones. Yet it is also part of something larger than any individual, including any Pope: part, I think, of the operation by which the Catholic Church is righting itself, after having been thrown on its beam ends in the 1960s and '70s.

As the Pope was at pains to explain in the letter that accompanied the long-awaited Motu Proprio, its immediate end is modest. ("Motu proprio" means "of his own accord" in Latin, and is a papal decree. The reasons for the decree are always stated openly.) For many years now, Catholic priests have actually required the permission of their bishop, to celebrate the Mass in the traditional way, in which it had been celebrated over many, many centuries. This restriction is cautiously removed.

The alternative, Novus Ordo form of the Mass, which emerged in the heady days after Vatican II, was and remains the new standard. But it is a stripped-down version, translated often unworthily into the various modern languages; and simply by scanning differently from the old, universal Latin, it obviates the Church's magnificently rich musical inheritance, if not much else.

The Novus Ordo is a valid Mass, as Pope Benedict again assured us, but to my mind and that of many faithful Catholics, it is also a concession to the times, to the Zeitgeist. And because the times are out of joint with Catholic faith and practice, we might almost think, a painful concession.

Liturgy is "just words," and sometimes music, in the received post-modern view, which immediately overlooks dress, gesture, censing, intonation, and the spiritual atmosphere. To the contrary Catholic view, we do not go to church of a Sunday only to see and be seen, nor strictly as a "memorial" of the Last Supper, nor as a healthy habit on the analogy of bran muffins. All of these things count, too, but the Mass combines such incidentals into something larger and simpler and therefore harder to express. At its centre is an act of Communion, with the Christ. Which is to say, with God. It is not, in the Catholic view (shared by many other Christians), a looking back to the Gospels through history. It is a participation, a dipping, a step out of current time, into the eternal.

Why am I telling you all this? In the hope that even if my reader is repelled, he may try to understand what is going on in Catholic churches, where far more than a billion of the earth's inhabitants go to pray, if they go anywhere. Likewise, though not myself a Muslim, I have tried to imagine what goes on in a mosque. For I must do that if I am to understand anything at all about Islam.

Practically, I explain this in the hope of making my sceptical reader understand why liturgy might be so important. I do not imply by this that good works are not important, that Christian life is not exhibited in faith, hope, and charity; in prayerful humility, and a bold willingness to suffer with Christ. I am only saying that from the Catholic view, love is not a nothing. It springs from a fount, and in this world we go to the Mass as to that fount. That is what sustains our spirits, just as food sustains our bodies.

The significance of the Motu Proprio, in current affairs, is in where it points. Catholics recovering their heritage will make a huge difference in the world.

© Ottawa Citizen

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