Nearly two decades ago, in another country, and on the eve of a prominent and much-watched episcopal appointment, I wrote a lengthy wish-list (for a small upstart Catholic journal that seems to have disappeared) outlining what type of bishop I thought should be appointed. It is just as well I can find no record of what I wrote as that context now seems so far from our own. Moreover, I undoubtedly wrote with a youthful and perhaps immoderate zeal.
Why revisit such a list today? Though there are several diocesan openings, I am thinking especially of Madison, Wisconsin, which needs a bishop to continue the extraordinary work of its recently deceased ordinary. Madison’s burgeoning liturgical culture both interests and concerns me because my first friends, when I entered the Church in 1997, included some of the pioneers of St. Clement’s Parish in Ottawa, the Canadian flagship of Latin liturgical tradition whose fortunes rose and fell with each episcopal appointment. Bernard and Jean Pothier graced my life in many ways (giving me my first Catholic job, my first Catholic girlfriend—one of their two resplendent daughters—and my first Catholic pilgrimage to Italy which they anonymously paid for at the time), and from Bernard in particular I learned to “say not the struggle naught availeth” when it came to keeping Latin tradition alive after Vatican II.
That struggle has also not been for naught in Madison thanks to the labors of the late Bishop Robert Morlino. Whoever his successor is, he must give steady and continued attention to the vital project of restoring liturgical worship. As CWR’s esteemed editor recently and rightly wrote, “to put it simply, that if we don’t get liturgy and worship right, most or all of our other efforts aren’t going to be worth much.”
If there is to be a sensible replacement in Madison (or anywhere else), what should that man look like? In venturing these thoughts, I may be seen as impertinent—I am not Roman Catholic (I am an Eastern Catholic) and I do not live in Madison—but what follows, with minor tweaks, could easily be the basis of a template for bishops anywhere in North America at least. For our context is broadly the same inside and outside the Church.
How are we to understand that context? In an essay published in 1979, which I have often quoted, the great Catholic moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre noted there are two huge cultural ditches facing Christianity today, and almost all churchmen and theologians fall into one or the other: “an anxious accommodation to the culture or … an equally adaptive reaction against it.” Hard though it is, bishops need to be neither accomodationists nor reactionaries, for both are self-defeating and anti-evangelical stratagems. The former condemns the Church to be indistinguishable from the world; the latter condemns the Church to be a shrilly sectarian redoubt from the world. Both end up irrelevant; neither can interest, let alone convert, most people.
And people are there for the converting, too. Ours remains a God-haunted world. As Benjamin Fong has recently put it in his book Death and Mastery: Psychoanalytic Drive Theory and the Subject of Late Capitalism (Columbia UP, 2018), “there is perhaps no more confused assertion…than that capitalist society is becoming increasingly ‘secular’.”
The best theological analysis of the confused problem of the ‘secular’ that I have read comes from Alexander Schmemann, the late Orthodox liturgical theologian. In For the Life of the World, written several decades ago, Schmemann notes that
secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship. I stress: not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshiping being, as a homo adorans: the one for whom worship is an essential act which both ‘posits’ his humanity and fulfills it.
For Schmemann—as for Fong and others—it is a falsehood propagated by theorists of “secularism” that we have no need of such worship, ritual, and above all sacrifice. The problem with such a denial—as we should have learned from Freud by now—is that it merely drives our need into often unconscious and perverted practices of pseudo-worship, which our idol-filled capitalist economy (and its politics) is happy to supply endlessly. As Schmemann puts it, “paradoxical as it may sound, the secularist is, in a way, truly obsessed with worship…. Whatever the degree of his secularism or even atheism, man remains essentially a ‘worshiping being,’ forever nostalgic for rites and rituals.”
This is a claim which has striking parallels to what is found in The Feast of Faith, perhaps my favorite of Joseph Ratzinger’s books. It also has certain parallels with Paul Evdokimov and Romano Guardini. For all these theologians, writing in the second half of the last century, it was clear that if Christians were to have an impact on a secular man or woman, it was by showing them not just the importance and centrality of worship, but of its right ordering, too.
What does worship’s right ordering look like? Here I will not repeat the many suggestions I made previously here at CWR. Madison’s new bishop could do worse than to implement as much of that list as one man can possibly do.
But I will go beyond that to add the following: the restoration of proper worship in the Latin Church today must involve an active borrowing from the pre-conciliar tradition to repristinate the ordinary form of the Roman Rite to the farthest degree possible. This is something Aidan Nichols argued back in 1996 in Looking at the Liturgy, published by Ignatius Press. But it is now something that today’s young people are increasingly seeking with great seriousness.
At a minimum, as I argued more than two years ago, such repristination requires overcoming the ordinary form’s orientophobia. Clearly Bishop Morlino had overcome that phobia for his funeral was celebrated ad orientem with the main ministers in properly purple vestments. The choir also worked in some Latin chant. All these things must be continued, deepened, strengthened by his successor, both for the good of Madison but also pour encourager les autres bishops to do likewise.
Any bishop, new or old, bamboozled into thinking that such liturgical reforms are “divisive” can take comfort from the following: young people today will be overwhelmingly on your side, helping you and cheering you along. As I noted last summer with my iconography students, and as I have been seeing in my regular students for over a decade: they desperately want the priest facing the right direction—towards Christ. They want beauty in worship, art, and architecture alike; they want reverence and silence; they want chant and all the fruits of the Latin tradition hitherto unjustly denied them.
Put ecumenically, they look East and see what we Byzantines do, and can scarcely contain their envy and admiration for our singing, our iconography, and our churches that look and smell like churches and not living rooms in the latest 1970’s cinder block style. Returning their gaze in an occidental direction, they ask with real pain: Why does the Latin Church not have these things? When told the Latin tradition did and does have them, their pain becomes bewilderment: Why are they lost to us? Why have we been deprived of them?
Such deprivations must end. Any bishop today who wants to reach secularized people while also deepening the Catholic life of those already in the Church can do so by recovering the fullness of Latin liturgical tradition. Any bishop, new or old, must be not primarily a stingy and remote CEO but a “steward of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1), ensuring that all the churches under his charge are places where worshippers leave a bit dazed, not knowing “whether we were in heaven or on earth” but only that God dwells there. If he is able to allow worship once more to be a theophany (rather than a community meal for emotional uplift) then his other important priorities will necessarily follow from it.
Those who have beheld the glory of God in right worship have the filth burned out of them (cf. Isaiah 6). After this, they are sent out by God to purge filth—whether in the diocesan presbyterate, in seminaries, or in the episcopate itself. Those who have beheld the beauty of the crucified one cannot bear to look on the suffering of sex abuse victims, prisoners, the sick, the homeless, and the poor without wanting to bind up their wounds. Right worship drives everything and directs everything. As Ratzinger said in The Feast of Faith, “concern for the proper form of worship…is not peripheral but central to our concern for man himself.”
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