The Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy
by Martin Mosebach
translated from the German by Graham Harrison
San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006
Pp. 210, no index; paperback $16.95
Review-Essay by Reverend Brian Van Hove, S.J.
Posted on Ignatius Insight 21 May 2008
Martin Mosebach writes to convince the reader of the spiritual superiority of the classical rite, the Mass of the missal of 1962. With the talent of an artist and a dedication to Jesus Christ, he tells the story.
The church is torn by a civil war over liturgy. Some hold that the reform did not cut deep enough, that yet more radical adaptation and accommodation are needed. Others think the reform can be reformed, and in this camp we include the pope and the policy of Ignatius Press. There are those who believe that only the old rites, restored fully and integrally, provide the solution to the crisis. And of course a large number of Catholics are apathetic and accept the present situation uncritically (and unthinkingly).
Mosebach chooses the path of restoration, and he does so with quality, intelligence and sophistication. He is a thoughtful religious man of a type hardly found any longer inEurope. His meditation on Mary, chapter eight, is enough to prove that. His essay “Revelation through Veiling in the Old Roman Catholic Liturgy” (pp. 161-173) is a work of religious art.
Louis XIV was crowned in 1654. It was said nobody at court in theRheimscathedral understood the rare liturgy for the coronation of a king. The masters of ceremonies just followed the prescriptions set down from time immemorial. They assigned seven archdeacons to stand here, and seven archpriests to stand there, and so on. The choreography was perfect, and no ingredient was left out of the complicated recipe. The music was excellent. The new king was anointed. Everybody knew he was crowned, and everybody had a sense of the sublimity of the occasion. Even so, later proponents of liturgical reform would criticize such a liturgy on the basis that only a few technician-clerics engaged in any kind of “active participation”.
Mosebach rejects such an analysis as a caricature. Without mentioning it by name, he would insist that this particular liturgy carried the soul aloft, despite any alleged lack of rational grip on the archaic rite. Prayer and rationality are two wings of a bird, two distinct modes of understanding. Only when the holy is concealed is it revealed. A “see-through glass chalice” is a contradiction in terms.
The author makes no reference to Catherine Pickstock, but in After Writing (1998) Pickstock lamented that owing toTrent, and especially to the historical work and interpretation of Josef Jungmann (1889-1975), the Tridentine liturgy became highly rationalized, and this rationalism broke with the medievalMass. Her explanation was complex, but she was not a believing Catholic, and Jungmann definitely was. Jungmann accepted transubstantiation and sacramental realism, whereas it is unknown what Pickstock really believed. While Mosebach disagrees with the post-Reformation Jesuits who introduced dominating vernacular hymns into the liturgy in Catholic Germany (pp. 42-43), he is not inclined toward Pickstock’s philosophical evaluation of the rite so mildly revised afterTrent. As an orthodox, believing Catholic, he is not her ally. Let traditionalists on this side of the ocean know that.
Mosebach opposes the idea that the missal ofTrentwas a break with medieval ritual and symbology. If he follows any contemporary writer on the subject, it is Klaus Gamber (1919-1989) who decades ago exposed the faulty archaeology and weak liturgical history upon which the reform was built. (p. 32) It is the missal of 1969 which is the product of pure rationalism, not the missal of 1962 which the author prefers to call “The Mass of St. Gregory the Great”.
The First Liturgical Movement (1860-1960) called for clarity and simplicity in the rites. In that precise historical setting this was something good and needed, so the argument went. Such a call was not then doctrinal in nature. On the contrary, the movement hoped that doctrine would become better understood through uncluttered liturgy when the ancient beauty of the church could be seen for what it was. Scraping off the accretions was claimed to help the ship sail faster.
A pity the dream of the older generation of scholars, especially Jungmann and a host of Benedictines inEuropeandNorth America, was incrementally hijacked by a dedicated cadre during and after Vatican II. Can anyone say that transubstantiation was understood by the average member of the church in 1980 better than in 1950? Paul VI had to issue an encyclical defending it! (“Mysterium Fidei”, 1965).
Mosebach’s list of German-speaking culprits in this saga of liturgical reform differs from our list, but for us here inNorth Americawe count McManus, Dieckmann, Funk, Mitchell, Empereur, Hovda and Huck among the best known “modern liturgy” and “celebrational style” practitioners. The historic break between Rembert Weakland and Richard Schuler shows that at least a few, like Schuler of St. Agnes inMinneapolis, offered resistance in the worst decades since the council. Like Michael Davies in the English-speaking world, Mosebach blames the dark side of the reform on Pope Paul VI (pp. 24, 91, 115); unlike Davies, Mosebach does not focus on the role of Annibale Bugnini. The author is obviously critical of the German episcopal conference. (p. 63) These and other bishops went well beyond the reform introduced by Paul VI. (p. 172)
Thus, we can now speak of “going back” to the reform of Paul VI! The real reform of the reform may just be the original reform intended by the council and the pope.
In Europe, both Louis Bouyer and Hubert Jedin in 1968 and 1969 publicly objected to the reform process directed by Annibale Bugnini, but they were ignored. (Bugnini did not leave Rome until 1975—it should be remembered by us readers that Frederick R. McManus wrote the lines found on the dust jacket for the English translation of Bugnini’s personal account of his role in the reform.)
Privately, Jungmann denounced the altar “versus populum” (or “coram populo”) as an aberration. Later, under his own name Gamber took the same position.
In 2003 Lauren Pristas analyzed the Latin of the revised Mass (and since then of other revised rites). While not using the expression herself, she concluded that it consists of “junk Latin”. (“Theological Principles that Guided the Redaction of the Roman Missal ” in The Thomist 67 : 157-195). An exception is Eucharistic Prayer IV which was composed in a much finer Latin. Here Mosebach rejoins that what matters is that such texts are “received”, not “composed”.
A surprising number of motivated reformers promoted a conscious, deliberate rupture with our liturgical past. They quietly ignored the principle of organic development, though this principle was an official one. A stubborn, misguided and iconoclastic anti-traditionalism created an unnecessary catastrophe. Contempt for the old rites was mood-driven and self-conscious.
In chapter four Mosebach gives a vivid example of exactly how the iconoclasm unfolded in 1968 in Neuenheim nearHeidelberg. The cameo-like story is familiar to all of us who lived through that time. It was the same inIowaorOntario. Mosebach shows his knowledge of art history in order to explain the deeper philosophy behind iconoclasm. The destruction of the interior of the parish church at Neuenheim is heartbreaking.
The Benedictine monastery of Fontgombault in France is the living ideal of liturgical spirituality for the author. He does not mention that a very high percentage of the monks are Americans, and probably he does not know that the monastery happily celebrated the Novus Ordo Missae in Latin until the abbot imposed the old rite on the monastic community in the 1980s. The abbot made the point that it was the rite of his ancestors who died in the French Revolution. Many say that the abbot was influential in gaining the indults associated with the Commission “Ecclesia Dei”, though Mosebach himself does not say this. He idealizes the monastery’s every detail, which will cause some readers to be suspicious. No place can be “that” perfect, and one is reminded of the axiom “the only perfect liturgy is in heaven”. But the affairs of Fontgombault are the exception.
Nearly everywhere, the Mass today fails to unite Latin Rite Catholics, even juridically. Liturgical law is rejected, ignored or paid mere lip service by the modernizers (whom Mosebach calls “late Catholic Puritans”―p. 135) who always know more than the Church. Some years ago, reformers replaced the older formalism and legalism with the formlessness decried by Mosebach in his book’s title. Formlessness is the enemy. (For an articulate discussion of what he means by the contemporary rebellion against “form”, see pp. 104-106; 147). A denial of beauty produces formlessness. Formlessness is a heresy when it refuses certain revealed truths. They are mediated by material, concrete signs and symbols which are in themselves beautiful. In a word, Mosebach is preaching sacramentalism. Loss of form means loss of content! (p. 206)
On the other side, most of the antiquarianism Martin Mosebach so well understands is lost on contemporary Catholics, as it was said to have been lost on the French court in 1654. People know too little of their own church history and they have already for too long been deprived of their liturgical tradition. Those who still go to Mass in the industrialized West are minimally catechized. Perhaps it was always this way, everywhere. The elite with Mosebach’s level of erudition could be stuffed into a telephone booth, as a professional liturgiologist once expressed it.
But Mosebach rejects that line of thinking. He tells from his own experience how today simple South German women instinctively, without instruction, wash the purificators after an old rite Mass. Seemingly for him, things would naturally fall back into place when the old rite is restored universally. (pp. 28-29) However, he is pessimistic that this will happen soon. (p. 73)
In our culture wars―broader than the narrower Catholic liturgical crisis―a few voices have been raised to promote and defend beauty. Beginning with Dostoevsky, renewed by Solzhenitsyn, and expressed by Gregory Wolfe, the tradition is formulated in the phrase, “beauty will save the world”. (Gregory Wolfe, “Beauty Will Save the World” in The Intercollegiate Review 27:1 [Fall 1991]: 27-31). Using different vocabulary, Mosebach subscribes to this cry. His chapter six is named “Liturgy is Art”. “Christ desired to make his sacrifice ever-present, and so he poured it into the shape of liturgical art.” (p. 111) The liturgy is like a finished sculpture―all it needs is unveiling.
But practically, what to do? Pastors need a strategy. Mosebach argues that the liturgy itself is the strategy. Of itself it will bring light and salvation. The liturgy “is not a human artifact but something given, something revealed.” (p. 71)
So what went wrong with the reform? We know that after the Second Vatican Council the church lacked pastoral liturgists. Nobody knew what to do, and nobody knew how to implement the norms found in the revised books. The mood of the times was unstable and anti-institutional. Liturgy became highly politicized. What filled the vacuum left by an older certitude was confusion, fashion, whim, ephemeral enthusiasm, and then a surprising agenda to abolish the sacrificial nature of the Mass.A prominent theologian said in this reviewer’s hearing: “I am no longer able even to pronounce the word ‘sacrifice’.” Thus a “protestant-fellowship-meal” resulted from too much talk about banquets. What ensued was a doctrinal battle. Just a bit earlier, this state of affairs was unthinkable.
Horror and devastation remain. Ugliness and confusion reign. With the symbolic language interrupted and its sweet speech broken off, the mystery is reduced to wordiness and meaningless motion and chatter. Aroma therapy is more exciting to some than the holiness of the Mass.
Unbelievers or secular art historians, who happen to visit our churches, remark about the vulgarity and banality. Those from other liturgical traditions which have not degraded as completely, scoff at the debris of what once was the Roman Rite. The “New Mass” is unhesitatingly thought to be something absolutely distinct from the old, even if, in some instances, the new rite is celebrated with concern for aesthetic detail and perfection. Those instances may be found more inEurope, of course, than inNorth Americawhere a greater tolerance for philistinism is acceptable.
Everyone knows from the 1950s that the old rite was usually celebrated in a perfunctory, mechanical manner. (pp. 38-39) Mosebach adds that at least it had potential, whereas the new rite is so deeply flawed that it has no similar potential. One cannot “invent new forms” and expect them to succeed. This is not exactly what happened with the Missal of Paul VI, but it is very close. Those favoring the “reform of the reform” are well advised to make the new rite look as much as possible like the old rite, or face extinction. The lefebvrists think they are the true church, and that the “novus ordo” church will eventually disappear. The Western Rite Orthodox use the most archaic rites possible.
Mosebach’s insights are precious and serious, but he gives no blueprint about how to educate our people in beauty. Yes, one of the first acts of the new pope after his election was to restore Latin to St. Peter’s Basilica in 2005. But his efforts, including the ideas in his books from the 1990s, have not trickled down to parishes in California or Michigan (or Bavaria) where the “new rite” is carelessly and sloppily performed.
In fact, Ratzinger’s books on the liturgy were received with outright hostility in places where, of course, nobody ever expected him to become pope. They shuddered in their boots on the day of his election as it was no secret he would be “the liturgy pope”. In 1992, writing in the preface to the French edition of a book by Klaus Gamber, Ratzinger took the position Mosebach takes in judging the missal of 1969― “a liturgy that had grown organically had been pushed aside in favor of a fabricated liturgy”. (p. 192)
In a short time, the situation in most parishes may become desperately irreformable, so total is the rupture with the heritage of the old rite(s). The “sit down” masses among aging, graying Religious illustrate the finality of this rupture and the abject failure of the official reform. Mosebach says, “A detailed study would be required to show why, for the Catholic Church, an attack on her rites has almost fatal consequences―but space forbids.” (p. 192)
Mosebach’s criticism of the reform employs an underlying philosophy of liturgy. He rejects the very concept of liturgical reform. (p .34) “We are constantly being astounded by the reform introduced by Jesus Christ―the only reform that deserves this name.” (p. 70) We do not shape the liturgy. Rather, the liturgy shapes us. This may be easily understood by his reference to Pavel Florensky, the Russian priest executed by the Communists in 1937.
Eastern churches shun the temporal and locate their worship in eternity. The Divine Liturgy is not made by human hands, and neither hierarchs nor scholars may tinker with it―goes their thinking and that of Mosebach― “academic answers are completely useless in questions of liturgy”. (p. 30; 35) Sacred Tradition formed the Liturgy, and only the Holy Spirit can change it, not bureaucrats inRome, much less diocesan dim-lights. Mosebach is suspicious of bogus scholarship which has been used to promote an agenda. The Eastern Church provides a model of failure when the reforming Patriarch Nikon (1605-1681) was responsible for the Old Ritualist schism in Russia.
The Orthodox Church is rooted in Christian Platonism. The Orthodox Liturgy is described as an ontology, something true in itself, seen in this imperfect world imperfectly, but faithfully representing and accessing our goal in the Heavenly Liturgy. Mosebach favors something like this view for the Roman Liturgy―“We can say that, like Jesus, it is ‘begotten, not created’.” (p. 35) Or again, “Since Holy Mass had no author, since a precise date could be allotted to practically none of its parts―as to when it originated and when it was finally and universally incorporated into the Mass―… it was something eternal, not made by human hands.” (p. 35) In the chapter on the physical structure of the liturgical books themselves, there is a touching passage explaining the celebrant’s submission to the traditional order of prayer as something not made by him, as something given or received. (pp. 200-201) The Book of Seven Seals is the missal, the church’s revealed worship! (p. 209)
In our church few have written from this point of view, not even Klaus Gamber who was no friend of the official reform. Mosebach appeals to him for aid to build his case. The Roman Rite, and liturgy in the West more generally, have traditionally been regulated by pontifical legislation, not one-sided organic evolution. Attila Miklósházy wrote about the “theological foundations” for liturgical renewal and this assumed both the orthodoxy and the need for prayer reform.
We all knew the role of conciliar and pontifical legislation when a post-Tridentine pope suppressed local liturgies inEurope. Very few survived the reform of Pius V—the Mozarabic and Ambrosian Rites are still living, but barely. The old Celtic liturgies vanished. The Old Sarum Usage disappeared from the life of the church. It is known only to scholarly specialists.
If a liturgy is an “ontology”, no pope could abolish it. But rites were indeed suppressed by ecclesiastical authority. Mosebach minimizes this history, though he claims to have done his homework. (pp. 25; 32). He knows about the “two-track” history of parts of the old Mass, and this shows a higher degree of historical knowledge than most amateurs. (pp. 42; 52)
He does not mention that the missal of 1962 already shows sign of pontifical reform because, for the first time in the history of the Roman Missal, the rubrics were minutely codified and systematized. This codification by the Congregation of Rites undoubtedly was an effect of the First Liturgical Movement and Pius XII’s “Mediator Dei”.
Yet, Mosebach presents an airtight case for restoration. Once you enter through his door, it will shut behind you, and you are inside his liturgical world. He writes this meditation for the young, for priests and seminarians of the next generation seeking relief from the conflict of our vexing civil war. He writes for those who find the liturgy a difficult burden. He writes for the whole church, though he is forced to say the prospects for a liturgical Christianity are poor. (p. 72)
Our hunger and thirst for beauty will never leave us. There is hope for the future because of the way we are made. We are made for beauty. Superficiality and ugliness are a choice, not an inevitability. Some of Mosebach’s deepest insights, what might be called his spirituality, must be part of that future in the church. Perhaps there is more reason to hope than Mosebach is willing to admit. Only “perhaps”.
In the Second Book of Kings, Chapter 22, we read that the book of the law was lost in the rubble of the temple. When later it was found, it was presented to King Josiah who rent his garments out of grief.
If Mosebach is correct, something analogous to this exaltation can happen when our youth discover the enduring Mass which is “ever old and ever new”. “I take up the old Missal as if I had found it on some deserted beach. I open it and enter into its rich and ordered life, full of meaning. Here is the standard.” (p. 49)
On Saturday, 7 July 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued an Apostolic Letter, “Summorum Pontificum”, on the celebration of the Roman Rite according to the Missal of 1962. Martin Mosebach might reply that this is only the beginning.
Posted on Ignatius Insight 21 May 2008