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The perils of our present liturgical context

A deadly separation has occurred between liturgy, theology, and piety.

(Photo: Marc Salvatore | marcsalvatore.smugmug.com)

The Pew Research study revealing the rather drastic absence of belief in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist has garnered significant commentary. In general, the commentary has rightly alluded to the undermining of a robust Eucharistic theology in the post-conciliar church in the West. And while these insights have been instructive with respect to the content of theology, I would contend that more nuance is helpful, even necessary.

If we could echo an idea from Marshall McLuhan, contexts are those frameworks that form and shape the content within them. In other words, theological content is received in and through a context, and the particular context which needs to be more fully considered here is that of the sacred liturgy.

In his book Of Water and Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism (1974), Alexander Schmemann alludes to one of the great, yet often neglected, perils of our present liturgical context. For Schmemann, a great wound has been inflicted upon the Church, where a deadly separation has occurred between liturgy, theology, and piety. Schmemann astutely describes the nature of such an effect:

It deprived liturgy of its proper understanding by the people, who began to see in it beautiful and mysterious ceremonies in which, while attending them, they take no real part. It deprived theology of its living source and made it into an intellectual exercise for intellectuals. It deprived piety of its living content and term of reference. … To understand liturgy from inside, to discover and experience that “epiphany” of God, world and life which the liturgy contains and communicates, to relate this vision and this power to our own existence, to all our problems: such is the purpose of liturgical theology.

To say this does not simply mean that liturgy is not in any way distinct from theology. Rather, according to Schmemann, to say that the liturgy is the locus of theology means that our theology is first formed in and through our embeddedness in the Church’s liturgical activity and belief.

Much of our worldview is intimately and subconsciously developed through our regular participation in the liturgy. If we believe that the liturgy is an opportunity to have certain feelings or emotions, then this can develop certain habits and attitudes with respect to what we want the liturgy to be. If we conceive of the liturgy as the locus where Heaven and earth come together, where silence is pervasive and tangible, and a profound sense of the Holy is truly experienced, a different type of internal dispositions comes to the fore.

Remember, however, that none of this is explicitly taught. This liturgical vision naturally develops through our frequenting the sacred liturgy. As mentioned above, we could rightly say that the sacred liturgy is a practice. As such, this practice forms and shapes a theological, moral, and spiritual vision.

We should ask ourselves: what is the purpose of the liturgy? It is the glorification of God, in the most beautiful manner possible. Along with this, we should ponder whether our worship, expressed in the highest prayer that is the sacred liturgy, is in accord with what the Church is calling us to. This is not an attempt to make liturgy appealing to groups of people. Nor is this an opportunity to create a liturgy that is more traditional or contemporary. These categories of thought tend to miss what is at stake with respect to seeing liturgy as the lived expression of the Church’s totality of faith.

We certainly do not want to attribute an absence of belief in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist to the fallacy of a singular cause. Coupled with this, at the same time, is that much of the liturgical context in the Western church has opened a kind of worldview that has aided in undermining the liturgy itself. In this respect, we would do well to end with the following wisdom articulated by Cardinal Robert Sarah:

The liturgy is not about you and I; it is not where we celebrate our own identity or achievements or exalt or promote our own culture and local religious customs. The liturgy is first and foremost about God and what He has done for us. In His Divine Providence Almighty God founded the Church and instituted the Sacred Liturgy by means of which we are able to offer Him true worship in accordance with the New Covenant established by Christ. In doing this, in entering the demands of the sacred rites developed in the tradition of the Church, we are given our true identity and meaning as sons and daughters of the Father.


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About Brian Jones 21 Articles
Brian Jones is the Coordinator of Liturgy at St. Anthony of Padua in the Woodlands, Texas. He is also a philosophy PhD student in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His works have been published in New Blackfriars, Crisis, Catholic World Report, HPR, and Catholic Social Science Review.

18 Comments

  1. YES, EXACTLY! THANK YOU – I’VE BEEN THINKING AND SAYING THIS FOR YEARS!

    Liturgy is worship, it’s all of the above AND the very entry into, participation in and experience of JESUS CHRIST HIMSELF!

    It is the very gate of time and eternity, and we are privileged to have that access daily!!!

  2. Hi there, I seen a post/thead/Columb on the state of men, churches and people in general by Cardinal Sarah on your website.
    In it she addresses the state of men and people who are trying to build new churches and how we are letting the weightier matters of the law like, love your neighbours as your self and love and pray for your enimes and the state of the western Christian church.

    I come from a broken family and I have then also gone onto have a broken family, I have been trying for years now to understand why we are in this state and also once being freed from drugs, I go along to churches and I see that the people in the church are just as confused as me, telling me to go get sorted by the government services and social services then come back.
    So I end up becoming bitter, hateful,blashemer and calling what’s good evil and evil good!? 🤔
    So I end up going around churches being tossed too and froe with all winds and doctrines and then become an enemy of God.
    So I have been doing a lot of praying and meditating on the word and now I’m starting to see that instead of tearing congratulations down and looking for the bad, I should be holding onto what’s good and letting go of bad.

    Such as one teaches witnessing, another baptism with the holy ghost /spirit before water and healing, another get rid of sin before being baptised by the holy spirit.
    And one thing in common I believe that is happening in all churches is you must live upto “our standards” before you can be taken in by us.!? 🤔
    Then read the Bible and it says “all are sinners fall short of the glory of God”!

    So then I wonder if all churches, men and people are deceived just like me? 🤔
    Like the word of God says, and if the light of God is in all men and stronger is he that’s in you!
    I wonder is that perhaps why God is letting churches fall apart? 🤔
    Because perhaps they are teaching wrong and just trying to hold on to positions, status and basically the pride of men?

    And me being a sinner can see these things but get confused by all the broadening of the sqripture end up getting bitter, hateful blasphémer.
    Instead of trying to build the congregations up which I believe that God is trying to tell me by his holy spirit when I ask? 🤔

    For instance I went back to the gospel hall as they said they were always there so I did and same thing again, get rid of this and that while there are people who have been baptised by water still smoking and taking medicine for their illness.
    And then Jehova witnesses who seem to be doing well and bringing up their children in faith even though they might have things wrong they are still concerned about me but same again, go to the bad government to get help..

    Then the pentecostal church, they are at least trying everything but it’s be baptised by the holy spirit first before water.

    Then I went to the catholic church and told him that I was a sinner seeking the kingdom of God, he noted that I was a self harmer and I was not to throw myself into religion, so then I said, have I to go to the government services and get help as perhaps they could be angels in disguse and perhaps God put them here for our help? He said yeah that could be it!? 🤔
    And so he then went on to say that it’s “not about faith” “!!? 🙄🤔
    So then I wonder if it is not about faith and its not about healing and you have to do as we say but not as we do sort of thing.

    What’s it all about! 🤔

    I came down the road crying 😢
    And then I believe that is God that’s telling me, that it is about faith and let no man deceive you but return to our first love, the Father and his only begotten son Emanuel /God with us, Jesus Christ.
    And be like him! 💕
    Loving, caring, merciful
    The God of the meek, poor, orphan, widow, etc?

    And then if I work out my own salvation don’t believe men for all men are liars including me!

    So if one won’t baptise I will go to one that does and if one says you must be perfect I will go to one that doesn’t.
    And if one says stop sinning and they are still doing it point it out and let your petition be known to God.

    So if in the beginning the word was with God and it was made flesh.
    And if the light of God is in all men as written, then read it as a child would and believe that is what he says.

    Then God is in all men apart from the serpent’s seed and I believe that we can all have that part of us to overcome as in the flesh.
    Carbon /dust of the earth /666 the number of the beast.
    The animal nature.
    The skins of the beast of the field that Adam and eve had to be dressed with.

    666
    6 protons
    6 neutrons
    6 electrons
    And here is the number of the beast and if any man has knowledge let him count the number of the beast.

    So there it is my petition and thoughts from a sinner seeking the kingdom of God.

    I respectfully ask you for your thoughts and opinions and understanding on what I have said? 🤔

    Peace and love and mercy

    • John the Baptist called Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and two disciples followed him. Jesus said: What are you looking for? They said: Where are you staying? and He said: come and see! Jesus says, search and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you. Jesus Christ is present in the Catholic Churches. You can pray to him there. Ask for conversion, ask to find him; ask for his mercy, ask and he will answer, if you find him you will have everything.

    • I can’t really reply to your post because I find it confusing. I would suggest reading a catechism – if not the complete Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is very long, then a shorter one, like the Catechism of Pope St. Pius X: http://www.cin.org/users/james/ebooks/master/pius/pindex.htm

      or the Penny Catechism: http://www.catholictreasury.info/catechism/index.php

      “by Cardinal Sarah on your website.
      In it she addresses the state of men and people who are trying to build new churches”

      The Cardinal’s name is Robert Sarah; he is a man.

  3. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council and barely twenty years into the liturgical meltdown (etc.!), Cardinal Ratzinger had this to say about the false project-Church (now the supposed “new-Church”) phenomenon:

    “Thus, without a view of the mystery of the Church that is also SUPERNATURAL and not only SOCIOLOGICAL, Christology itself loses its reference to the divine in favor of a purely human project: the Gospel becomes the JESUS PROJECT, the social-liberation projects of other merely historical, immanent projects that can still seem religious in appearance, but which are atheistic in substance [….]

    “Many people have felt and said that liturgy must be ‘made’ by the whole community if it is really to belong to them. Such an attitude has led to the ‘success’ of the liturgy being measured by its effect at the level of spectacle and entertainment [….] In the liturgy there is a power, an energy at work which not even the Church as a whole can generate: what it manifests is the Wholly Other [….] Many liturgies now lack all trace of this silence” (The Ratzinger Report, 1985).

  4. A Pew Research pole wasn’t needed to make this point. All one must do is attend mass and watch the people take communion or look around at the way they are dressed. It becomes immediately apparent that there are few believers in attendance.

  5. “The purpose of the liturgy . . . is the glorification of God.” But it is also the sanctification of the people. I have always contended that the most effective sanctification of the people is achieved when they are incorporated in acts of glorification of God. “Active participation,” or better, actual participation means joining with Christ in offering his perfect sacrifice to the Father, The purposes of all other elements of the liturgy should be subordinate to this one.
    I have also contended that the loss of faith in the real presence must have been encouraged by the priest facing the people. We were told that this would allow us to “see what is going on.” But when you see the priest consecrate the Sacrament, you don’t see what is going on with merely human eyes; one might say “is that all there is?” One must see with the eyes of faith, and the priest’s facing the people may not encourage that, since it de-emphasizes the element of mystery and the transcendent. When the priest faces the people, there is an ambiguity: is he addressing God or the congregation? But when priest and people both face the altar, the ambiguity of who is being addressed is eliminated. Facing the people creates a closed circle including priest and people; facing ad orientem creates an open directionality; everyone’s facing the same direction is open to a transcendent direction—facing God.
    Thus one must speak of the liturgy as being theocentric, rather than anthropocentric, and all the elements of the liturgy should support that, The most perfectly “anthropocentric” conduct of the liturgy is “theocentric.”

  6. I’ve not read Schmemann’s study and should do. In the meantime, can anyone answer the question of what he identifies as the cause of the “deadly separation [that] has occurred between liturgy, theology, and piety” and when he says this deadly separation came about? This is interesting to me because I think the roots of it pre-date Vatican II and its liturgical changes/reforms by centuries. Not that these developments were deceptive or wrong. But, as shifts in cultural, theological, and spiritual understanding occurred, there were tendencies to forget that Catholicism is about both/and, which means we should keep more of our spiritual treasury in a creative tension instead of consigning earlier spiritual emphases to metaphorical attics and storerooms. Mystical theology in the early Church was more focused on liturgy, generally speaking, than is the case even now, when Vatican II is supposed to have brought widespread liturgical understanding back into common use.

    • John Bede-Pauley, OSB, suggests that the “roots of it [the separation between liturgy, theology, and piety] pre-date Vatican II and its liturgical changes/reforms by centuries.”

      Perhaps the much broader and permanent tension is between our material/ scientific COSMOLOGY and a neglected SACRAL UNIVERSE—-within which the totally-gifted (non-amorphous and non-monistic) Real Presence can then be recognized and once again humbly celebrated…

      And globally, is this DICHOTOMY part of the communication chasm between post-Christianity and even the less-dangerous “followers of Islam”? Under classical Islam there are no scientific “laws of nature” as are taken for granted in the West. Our scientific/utilitarian cosmology introduces a second “autonomy” in addition to the one-and-only and absolutely sovereign autonomy of Allah—and, therefore, is blasphemy! Instead of the Periodic Table, every discrete event is still a direct and miraculous intervention.

      But, Western culture DISTINGUISHES between a Creator-God and a (still sacred?) creation that in some sense participates in His permanence—-as evidenced in independent “laws” (like gravity, or chemistry). Likewise, “human beings” individually incarnate a universal “HUMAN NATURE” as such, distinct from the otherwise willfulness/fatalism of a totally transcendent/arbitrary divine power called Allah (and therefore also distinct from the fused mosque-state divinely “dictated” in the Koran).

      So, today’s flat-earth Catholic liturgy…

      …reveals and conceals the depth of the confrontation today between (a) the sacral and SACRAMENTAL LIFE (centered in the Eucharist) and (b) both a post-Christian mindset and Islam: historically-conditioned, Incarnation-denying, and then pre-Renaissance/Enlightenment.

      What does the FAITH of liturgically-amnesiac Catholicism—-with its uncertain trumpet—-have to offer, if anything, to the eclectic, very sectarian (polyhedron?) RELIGION of Islam? The possibly-middling “INTERCULTURAL” path can either:

      (a) Serve concrete needs while also LEAVENING deeper and richer truths about God AND Man into Muslim piety, OR
      (b) FADE into the mosque calligraphy and the mosque-state!(Just as it might into the euphemisms and word games of Secular Humanism, China, Germania, and Amazonia.)

      So, yes, affecting the Liturgy is a pervasive separation of the “centuries,” and with ever-new global implications.

    • Most likely Schmemann follows the historical claims of someone like Louis Bouyer and admitted partially by even Dominicans – the rise of scholastic theology during the medieval period, followed by the fossilization of liturgy following Trent.

      • Just to clarify, Dominican theologians acknowledge that there has been a split between moral theology and ascetical theology since Trent, and they also recognize that there has been a split between theology and piety, though it is not clear to me that they have a solutioni to the latter.

  7. Brian Jones student of St Thomas Aquinas correctly identifies practice with belief in the Real Presence. Belief in the Real Presence the very heart of the Roman Catholic Faith necessarily corresponds to Faith and Reason. Why? Because God gave us Intellect to understand. Much of current controversy among theologians modernist as well as traditional centers on the efficacy of the medieval term Transubstantiation. The Fathers at Trent rationally defined a mystery insofar as it can be correctly understood. The rest is Faith placed in the irrefutable words of Christ. The original etymology of the Greek word Οὐσία means to be, to exist, essence as well as substance. The Church to insure faith in the Real Presence reasoned a way of expressing this with certitude, that the bread itself becomes the Body of Christ the wine itself the Blood of Christ. Bread and wine have their own act of being called form. Over and above the act of the form is the Act of Existence given by God. As are all things that exist. The Church confirms that God who gives all things existence is present to us by his actual existence in the form of bread and the form of wine in the very act of existence. Thus there can be no mistake or question whether the bread itself and the wine itself actually become Christ himself, when the priest says this is My Body, this is the Chalice of my Blood. This the mysterious gift of divine love given us as our true food for salvation. When this is denied if as foretold in Daniel that the true sacrifice were abolished either by heresy or mandate the End is at hand. That is reason that we must strongly hold fast and defend this central article of faith and reality.

  8. Interesting that Fr Schmemann, (eternal memory) good Orthodox priest that he was pins down in the RCC what is her major problem. Seek the truth not in reason and logic but in faith, personal prayer, and most especially the Liturgy

    • I’ve found Schmemann to have amazing insight, and his explanations of the sacraments to really open the Church up to me. It seems, at least to me, that theology from the Eastern lung speaks to my heart and brain, where the Western lung speaks to my brain, and sometimes lacks the heart. Though what Cardinal Sarah says above is awesome!

  9. “The liturgy is not about you and I: …exalt or promote our own culture and local customs” Traditionalists condemning Vat II, the new mass, the whole church; while we are dealing with the great apostasy and the Truth of Christ attacked from inside the Church. We all have to return to the CORE, the Eucharist, thanksgiving, and is it not an exchange of hearts? Do we not feed on the Heart of God? To return love for love, heart to heart, life for the life sacrificed for us. More generosity and imaginativeness toward God and brothers; “it is in the silence of the heart that we shall hear that whisper, THIS IS MY BODY, and Christ is born. But if our Lord’s Presence in the Holy Eucharist means a birth, it also means a marriage; the moment in which we receive the Blessed Sacrament is the moment at which He plights His love to us in a supreme manner, making us one with himself.” (Monsignor Ronald A Knox “The window in the wall”) “Never did you (O God) turn away from us, and, though time and again we have broken your covenant, you have bound the human family to yourself through Jesus your Son, our Redeemer, with a new bond of love so tight that it can never be undone.” (Eucharistic prayer I for Reconciliation).

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