Newman Society Delegate Reflects on Sacred Liturgy Following Conference in Milan
[Jon Laird, The Cardinal Newman Society’s delegate to the fourth Sacra Liturgia conference in Milan, Italy will be providing commentary over the next weeks on the conference. He begins with a brief reflection of his own experience as a young altar boy and the meaning of the liturgy during that part of his life.]
As he spoke, Rev. Franklyn McAfee leaned forward and took the host into his hands. He continued: ACCIPITE ET MANDUCATE EX HOC OMNES: His deep voice, resonating in the nasal cavity—focused, that is, in the part of the face singers refer to as the “mask”—spoke slowly now and cut through the church. I shifted my position as I knelt on the marble sanctuary floor and took the bells up in my right hand, my left hand resting on my chest. Silently I mouthed the remaining words to the consecration. HOC EST ENIM CORPUS MEUM, QUOD PRO VOBIS TRADETUR.
The bells were very uncomfortable to hold; they had a small spire on the top which dug into my palm whenever I picked them up. We only used this particular set of bells for the Latin Novus Ordo High Mass. They had a crisp, silvery tone and it took some practice to ring them: if you just shook them, the clappers would only spin around the inside of the bells rather than strike them.
As an elementary school altar server, I had most of the Roman Canon memorized in Latin. The high school altar boys were my idols: I could not wait to be experienced enough to be thurifer; only a select number of the high school boys could do that. My opportunity came when I was in eighth grade on Easter Sunday morning—not because I was particularly advanced; rather, all of the experienced servers had served the entire Easter Triduum and were excused from the Easter Sunday Masses.
I will never forget one particular moment that Easter: preparing to incense the congregation as I stood at the point of the sanctuary that jutted out slightly into the center aisle, lifting the thurible up in front of my face, the sweet-smelling incense rising skyward representing our prayers: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice!” (Ps 141:2) “The smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God” (Rev 8:4).
My experience growing up at St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Franconia, VA, formed my understanding of what it looked and felt like to be Catholic. That is an experience largely lost to the average Catholic child, both then and now. In too many parishes, the liturgy is stripped of almost everything that is uniquely Catholic; it is banalized out of sacrality, emasculated of its dignity and potency, reduced to an inoffensive self-esteem builder, transformed into a platform for social justice warriors. Set aside art that educates, challenges and inspires; replace it with psychologically-friendly formlessness. Forget about “wasting money” on architecture that will last for ages; go for something more expedient. Sing songs better suited for an elevator rising to the dentist’s office than to the one true sacrifice of Jesus Christ being “carried by the hands of your holy angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty” (Roman Canon, ICEL).
The Sacra Liturgia conference defies this trend. This year is the fourth such conference, held in Milan. In the conference opening address, Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, reminded us of the importance of the liturgy emphasized by then-Cardinal Ratzinger:
The Church stands and falls with the liturgy. When the adoration of the divine Trinity declines, when the faith no longer appears in its fullness in the liturgy of the Church, when man’s words, his thoughts, his intentions are suffocating him, the faith will have lost the place where it is expressed and where it dwells. For that reason, the true celebration of the sacred liturgy is the center of any renewal of the Church whatever. (Benedict XVI and the Sacred Liturgy, eds. Neil J. Roy and Janet E. Rutherford. Four Courts Press, 2010.)
As The Cardinal Newman Society’s delegate to the conference, I look forward to describing Cardinal Sarah’s remarks in more detail, in particular his proposals to all of us attending and to the Church at large. I also look forward to expounding on several of the excellent presentations I have been hearing, with an emphasis on the implications regarding the mission of The Society—to protect and defend Catholic education. Please pray for the success of the conference and for the reform, renewal, and restoration of the liturgy everywhere.