Liturgy and Culture: Renewal in a Postmodern Age

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By Santiago Pinzon, Texas A&M University

The following is an essay that received the mark of A minus or higher. Its views do not necessarily represent those of Clarifying Catholicism. We invite our readers to respectfully respond in the comments.

Since the 1960s, our culture has seen the decline of Christocentrism and the rise of secularism, materialism, and individualism. Within the same time frame, there has been an evident decline in another respect – the celebration and understanding of the sacred liturgy. These parallel paths may seem coincidental, but there is more to these trends. In fact, liturgy and culture are intimately related to each other. In light of this relationship, though both have experienced decline in some ways since the 1960s, there is hope for renewal. The renewal of modern culture can partially be aided by a reform of liturgy informed by a hermeneutic of continuity from the Church’s rich tradition from its apostolic ages through Vatican II and beyond. The reason liturgy has a bearing on the restoration of a truly Christian culture is based on the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, or that our mission bestowed unto us by Christ is made tangible and evident through the way the liturgy is celebrated. This coincides with the role of the new evangelization and apologetics as the method through which a wayward culture can be Christified, just as the early Christians Christified the pagan empires of the age. In light of this principle, Weigel’s call to action lies in the obedience and adherence to the truth of the Church, while also being open to a natural development in how the Church can be a beacon of light to the world.

The Second Vatican Council marked a new era for the Church in both positive and negative respects. There is no doubt that Vatican II opened the door to Catholicism’s coming to terms with the condition of the culture and its need for reform in order to re-Christify the culture. However, following Vatican II, a sentiment of accommodationism and a tendency to look towards worldly activity rather than eternal life took hold of the Church, especially in the United States. Prior to Vatican II, liturgical reformers sought to “engage with the wisdom of the Christian past.” However, the aftermath of Vatican II saw reformers do away with this form of ressourcement, opting instead for solidification; “only by leaning into secularization and modernity could the Catholic liturgy hope to engage the rising generation”. Prominent theologians and abbots began to forgo the “feeling of infinity or eternity or the world beyond’ in favor of “the communal sensitivity that I am one with my brother next to me and that our song is our common twentieth-century situation.” This extreme ethos that pined for relevancy and for services modeled on “presidential inaugurations, on anti-war protests, on bullfights and skating parties and film festivals” strayed from the logos that is Christ Himself from the get-go (Douthat 98). Thankfully the most extreme experiments never made their way to normal parishes. However, the scenes were bleak even at that level. Ross Douthat describes the era in Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation of Heretics;

 “There, renewal mainly meant a kind of unpredictable Protestantization, in which the rhythms of Latin gave way to a theoretically more accessible vernacular, and local leaders often took it upon themselves to strip away the material culture of postconciliar Catholicism…in the name of renewal and modernization” (99). 

With time, the liturgy underwent an age in which it was losing its identity and was becoming man-oriented. The culture was following a similar path – it was drifting away from the orthodox, Christocentric Christianity that defined the 1950s. Church membership and community life across Mainline Protestant churches dwindled in the 1960s, with Catholic institutional life following suit as Mass attendance dropped 20 percent in just ten years. Religious vocations proved more troubling with the amount of priests leaving the priesthood increasing exponentially. Christianity’s decline in influence gave way to political polarization, the sexual revolution, a disillusioned global perspective of Christianity, and “the religious consequences of America’s ever-growing wealth” (65-78). In many respects, both liturgy and culture found themselves delving into pluralism, relativism, and individualism.

The disorienting turmoil of the 60s subsided for the most part, especially following Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum. Yet, the liturgy still finds itself both lost and in tension; in recent decades, the rhetoric of what some may call the “Liturgy Wars” has taken hold in many Catholic circles and has created two apparent camps. One camp still seeks to accommodate modern ideas and aesthetics to the Mass, desiring to disconnect from a perceived archaicism. On the other hand, there are those who desire to return to a pre-conciliar notion of what liturgical celebration is and who fervently condemn the outcomes of attempted reform to the liturgy. It has become a sort of Cold War between the Ordinary Form versus the Extraordinary Form, Pre-Vatican II versus Post-Vatican II, Traditionalists versus Progressives. This tension is paralleled by the current disarray that is modern American politics. The gap has increasingly widened between parties, with seemingly little hope of reconciliation. Republicans versus Democrats, conservatives versus liberals. The culture has largely moved away from the tenets of religion, with the number of religiously unaffiliated persons increasing by 30 million over the past decade and with the share of adults identifying as Christians decreasing by about 12 percent since 2007. Within the Catholic Church, a similar trend is evident; more Catholics have separated themselves from the truths of the Church and, by extension, the truths of the liturgy. This is especially manifested in a particularly alarming development among Catholics – only about one-third of Catholics believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation, a crucial teaching of the Church (Pew). It appears coincidental that both of these spheres of daily life seem to follow this troubling pattern. However, an explanation of these developments lies in a deeper reality. Liturgy and culture are not separate; they are closely related and must be viewed in conjunction with each other. 

We can begin to examine this relationship etymologically; the words worship and culture have the same roots. Culture as we understand it today is derived from its mid-15th century use: the tilling of land and the act of preparing the earth for crops. Regressing further, the term is also derived from cultura (Latin: a cultivating, agriculture; an honoring), which ultimately finds its way back to cultus, a Latin word for cultivating, nurturing, and guarding. The word worship also finds a derivation in the Latin word colere, the figurative use of cultus. Both terms find their root in a sort of nurturing and cultivation. From this association, one can think of a source of nourishment common to all beings: food. Food plays a crucial role in how we live, grow, socialize, celebrate, and indulge. And it is evident that people are hungry not just physically, but spiritually as well. This idea is expounded upon in Mary Kay Oosdyke, O.P.’s Liturgy and Culture: Overcoming the Tensions; “we see it in the popularity of the New Age phenomenon, in the rise of religious publications, Christian rock groups, broadcasting and media, in the number of people making retreats and seeking spiritual direction.” Culture ultimately finds its hunger satisfied in the liturgy. It is rather fitting that in the liturgy, God sets the table for a feast, since “here the people are fed, here they can recognize their hunger, [and] here they can encounter God and know religious experience as a part of life.” Culture is not separate from and does not “supersede” liturgy. Rather, culture “points to the truth of the liturgy as inherently fruitful, spilling over naturally into the life of man, ordering the culture precisely through its ordering of time and space” (Communio). The most important caveat of this relationship is that liturgy informs us of how to live in the culture. Prosper of Aquitaine coined the phrase lex orandi, lex credendi – the law of praying is the law of believing – in the 15th century. In many ways, this phrase emphasizes the significance of the liturgy in the lives of people. This was especially true in the early catechumenate; for catechumens, liturgy had an intrinsic link to “formation, education, and sanctification.” God “sends us to the neighbors with food from the table…our work is to remind everyone of their hunger in a culture which attempts to forget it” (Oosdyke). 

However, many in today’s culture do not seem to be hungry. This is especially true of many Catholics; many do not see the great nourishment and satisfaction that is offered in the liturgy and, therefore, are not inclined to join in the participation of the Holy Feast and Sacrifice. In fact, most Catholics do not recognize the importance of the liturgy, seeing it only as a “service” of one Christian community among many, a footnote to their other, more important activities in their Sunday. Some of this lack of fervor can be traced to a dearth of catechesis, but most of it boils down to the lamentable fact that the importance of the liturgy is not expressed or made evident to the faithful. The Church teaches that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life, yet many of the faithful find difficulty in being able to recognize the liturgy as a rendezvous of heaven and earth. A matter of this gravity points to a deeper need – a need for renewal. The term “renewal” has gained a negative connotation since Vatican II, but this is a different sort of renewal. A reform of this kind calls for continuity, of natural development. To begin our examination of this renewal, we must return to the basics. 

We must ask: what is liturgy? What is it for? Why is it? To begin to answer these questions, we must return to the Scriptures. The flight of the Israelites from Egypt recounted in the book of Exodus and the events following establish the meaning and essence of worship for God’s chosen people. The goal of the Exodus from Egypt was not to gain territory in the Promised Land; rather, the goal was a place to freely worship God. The journey of the Israelites depicts God revealing the way they should live, giving them rules of worship, law, and ethics. These three principles are inseparable; the law is not just without a foundation in morality, and these two principles find themselves built on a foundation of sand when separated from man’s gaze towards God in worship. “Cult” goes beyond the action of the liturgy; “man becomes glory for God, puts God, so to speak, into the light (and that is what worship is)” (Ratzinger 34). With this, and with the help of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, we come to the crux of what liturgy and worship is:

“Worship, that is, the right kind of cult, of relationship with God, is essential for the right kind of human existence in the world. It is so precisely because it reaches beyond everyday life. Worship gives us a share in heaven’s mode of existence, in the world of God, and allows light to fall from that divine world into ours. In this sense, worship…has the character of anticipation” (35). 

What stands at the heart of worship is both this aforementioned anticipation and sacrifice. This kind of sacrifice, however, does not imply destruction or giving up something particularly valuable to man. Rather, it consists of, to use the language of St. Gregory of Nazianzus, an intimate “blending” of man and creation with the Lord. True sacrifice is “love-transformed mankind, the divinization of creation and the surrender of all things to God: God all in all” (35).

 A crucial element of the liturgy is that it is not only historical but also cosmic, since “in a sense, creation is history.’ A more ancient school of thought maintains that the cosmos exhibits a circular movement with an exitus (departure) and a reditus (return). The exitus refers to God’s free act of creation, of which we are fruits made in imago Dei. Departure in this sense does not entail a departure from God; rather, it must be thought of positively, with God willing all of creation into existence. With this act, especially in the creation of man, we are given not only existence, but telos, or an ultimate end. It is “his positive will that the created order should exist as something good in relation to himself, from which a response of freedom and love can be given back to him.” It is in light of this telos that the reditus comes into play when the creature returns to the telos of his creation. Ultimately, this entails man’s response to their exitus “[accepting] creation from God as his offer of love, and thus ensu[ing] a dialogue of love, that wholly new kind of unity which love alone creates. The being…becomes fully itself” (42-47). This response finds a culmination in the liturgy, in which we order this dialogue of love in the very way that God commissioned man to do so. 

The essence of the liturgy, then, does not simply lie in human action. Rather, it is the full realization of creation, in which beings are united with their brethren in invocation to make a sacrifice to God. This kind of true sacrifice is incongruent with the destructive connotations that it can be mistakenly prescribed; instead, it is the culmination of history and cosmos, a celebration taking place both in time and outside of time, physically and metaphysically. When returning to how the liturgy is often celebrated today, in light of this distinction, one may notice that the celebration of the liturgy does not often communicate or exemplify this reality. This poses issues for many reasons, one of them being that, if the liturgy does not make this truth evident, understanding and participation in it will suffer as a result. If we have any hope in evangelizing the unprecedented culture of today, drawing from the fount of love and the source of law, ethics, and worship simply cannot be ignored, especially if we hope to be sent out to “the neighbors with food from the table.” Renewal of the liturgy cannot occur simply at the level of what is seen or done by the celebrant or the congregation. That approach has been tried before with little avail. No, renewal must occur at a deeper level and requires us to reevaluate how many often view the liturgy.

One of the preliminary changes that must occur applies to the Church as a whole; political language must not entrench itself in the way we discuss the liturgy. Too often do we see divisive discourse among both the faithful and the clergy. Those who hold a “spirit of Vatican II” view of the liturgy are often labeled as “liberal” or “progressive” Catholics, while those who prefer a pre-conciliar celebration are deemed “conservative.” Framing the renewal of the liturgy in this manner misses the point entirely. The liturgy compels us to look to heaven rather than to merely worldly dealings (Eph. 8:38-39). Next, it is important to note that we should not focus on which form is better than the other. A positive thing about having different forms is that it provides different options of worship for the faithful. That being said, the Extraordinary Form is not in particular need of great reform; rather it is the Ordinary Form that requires renewal since the common celebration of it often loses its way in light of the essence of the liturgy. This is especially vital given that the vast majority of Catholics attend the Ordinary Form (Weigel 168). 

The first thing to consider is orientation. Celebrating the Mass ad orientem is not a matter of the priest turning his back on the people. Rather, he is orienting himself, and therefore the congregation, to the Lord. Celebrating ad orientem expresses the fulfillment of the Old Covenant in Christ. In the Old Covenant, the Jews in the synagogue would pray while facing in the direction of the Temple, where the Ark of the Covenant marked the coming of the Lord. Christian worship finds its foundation in that of Jewish worship. However, Christians do not face the Temple anymore; “the destroyed Temple is no longer regarded as the place of God’s earthly presence…its curtain is torn forever” (Ratzinger 82). The true throne of the living God is in Christ, whose coming we anticipate as the rising sun of the East (Psalm 18:6-7). The “self-enclosed circle” has less God in the picture and more man. It cannot be denied that many modern churches are not built facing East like those of old; in that case, parishes should be encouraged to face the crucifix, since it is Christ himself that acts as an internal East in a sense. If we are to restore the recognition of liturgy’s place historically, cosmically, and eschatologically, the reevaluation of orientation is the first logical step. 

Churches no longer have an identity of being separated from the profane and the worldly due to the quasi-iconoclastic developments of postconciliar sacred architecture. If the Church is to remedy this, it must be established that renewed sacred architecture must define a boundary between the sacred and profane (Weigel 157). Additionally, the lack of truly sacred art must be reversed. Without sacred art, we lose a vital element of Christian worship, as they are “images of beauty in which the mystery of the invisible God becomes visible” (Ratzinger 145). Renewed sacred images point to what happens in the liturgy, so it follows that “every image of Christ must contain [the] three essential aspects of the [Paschal Mystery] and, in this sense, must be an image of Easter,” since the central mystery of the liturgy is that of the Paschal mystery. Images of Christ and the saints are also not photographs; the modern tendencies to turn to photorealism do not have a place in sacred art, as the purpose of art such as icons is not to create a portrait. Rather, icons are meant to draw one into contemplation of what and whom is reflected. Finally, sacred art is “not a matter of do-as-you-please.” There is a tendency to emphasize artistic freedom to the point of obscuring the visibility of the invisible God. Instead there should be a sort of artistic freedom that allows the image to unfold from what has been developed through tradition and what has been outlined above. Art cannot be “produced,” but gifted.

The state of sacred music must also be addressed. Popular music for worship “is aimed at the phenomenon of the masses, is industrially produced, and ultimately has to be described as a cult of the banal.” It seems to emphasize emotional catharsis as the means to worship and encounter God, embodying a form of worship “in opposition to Christian worship.” Church music contains an “inebriation” that transcends any mere rationality; yet, there is also a sobriety that is found in the Logos, the foundation of all reason. This is why, ultimately, sacred music must find its source in the Word. This is also why “singing in the liturgy has priority over instrumental music, though it does not in any way exclude it.” Nonetheless, all things considered, the focus of sacred music is Christ himself, not our outward signs of cathartic piety. “Words are superseded, but not the Word” (162-163).

There are many other elements to consider, such as the personality of the priest and how the liturgical calendar must make chronological and biblical sense (Weigel 158-159). However, this exceeds the scope of this essay and is best covered by George Weigel and Cardinal Ratzinger. What can be said, however, is that renewal of the liturgy must be based on biblical, Christological, and eschatological truth to most effectively communicate the essence of the liturgy.

George Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism, explores the organic renewal of the Church in many aspects ranging from the laity all the way up to the papacy. His analysis is extensive, but all of it is based on what he calls the criterion of truth and the criterion of mission. We must be able to know and accept the symphony of truth communicated by the Church all while proclaiming this truth just as the apostles were commissioned to do at the Ascension of Our Lord. Additionally, Pope St. John Paul II was clear in teaching that the new evangelization must be new in ardor, methods, and expression. In other words, the only way to re-Christify the culture is with unwavering faith and an openness to grace. However, the source of the grace to confront the culture is ultimately in the Most Holy Eucharist. In the days of the early Church, Christians faced horrible persecution amidst a world and culture deep in the coils of hedonism and violence. Many were tortured and martyred for their faith and it seemed as if there were great reasons to hide themselves from the danger out of fear. However, the Eucharist was an immutable source of spiritual strength and fervor. This fearlessness and faith nourished by the Eucharist is beautifully expressed in the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch: 

I am the wheat of God and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.

We find ourselves in an arguably similar situation. Though Catholics in the West thankfully are not violently persecuted, they face what seems like the new Roman Empire, a culture that embraces the dictatorship of relativism, indifference, anti-religiosity, and individualism. Yet, as there was throughout the ages, there is still hope which can be found in the Eucharist. This is why renewal of the liturgy is so crucial. The Christian life is often rife with trials, challenges, and suffering. Yet, despite this, the Church finds unity in the liturgy. At least once a week, every parish throughout the world joins together in worship and invocation in the company of the heavens. In this moment, as one universal Church, the ultimate Sacrifice is collectively made to God the Father through the Paschal Mystery of His only begotten Son, the Word, the Logos. In this moment, the Church finds itself suspended in time, witnessing the One who bore all suffering upon himself so that they may bear their own suffering in His name. In this moment, every member of the Mystical Body of Christ finds themselves at the blending of heaven and earth, the culmination of all of history and of all the cosmos. This event finds its dramatic climax in the Eucharist, the spiritual food that unites us to God Himself in His infinite love and mercy. If one truly recognized this, one would not be able to resist proclaiming the euangélion. In truth, this is the heart of evangelization – proclaiming the Good News of Christ’s Resurrection and his continuous power and grace that sustains us. If the Church wants Her faithful to recognize and participate in this euangélion, these truths must be expressed and made evident in the celebration of the liturgy.

Works Cited

Benedict, et al. The Spirit of the Liturgy. Ignatius Press, 2018.

The Didache Bible: with Commentaries Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Ignatius Press, 2014.

Douthat, Ross Gregory. Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Free Press, 2013.

“In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, 31 Dec. 2019, www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/.

“Introduction: Liturgy and Culture: Articles.” Communio, www.communio-icr.com/articles/view/introduction-liturgy-and-culture.

Smith, Gregory A. “Just One-Third of U.S. Catholics Agree with Their Church That Eucharist Is Body, Blood of Christ.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 5 Aug. 2019, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/05/transubstantiation-eucharist-u-s-catholics/.

Oosdyke, Mary Kay. “Liturgy and Culture: Overcoming the Tensions.” https://scholar.valpo.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1041&context=ils_papers

Weigel, George. Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church. Basic Books, a Member of the Perseus Books Group, 2014.

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