How often have we heard it on social media? “As long as Jesus is present, nothing else really matters in the Mass, does it? We all have our preferences, but let’s stop fighting about things that are infinitely less important than He is.”
I find it interesting that we never reason this way in any other area of life.
“The only thing that matters is that you’re alive; the condition of your life is unimportant.” “The only thing that matters is that the food is edible and not poisonous.” “The only thing that matters in a marriage is that children come from it.” “The only thing that matters in architecture is that a building stands up and doesn’t collapse.” “The only thing that matters is that a man has a paying job—the work itself is irrelevant.” “The only thing that matters is that a country has a government; anything’s better than anarchy.”
By such logic, slow torture in a gulag or a Nazi experiment will be better than dying, and a wicked life better than the death of the saints. All the marvelous cuisines of the world will disappear. The primary end of marriage will become the only end, and the objection to in vitro fertilization will evaporate. Hideous modern structures, eyesores marring the skyline, will be vindicated. An abusive work situation in a life-threatening environment will now be another option for college grads. The worst forms of government will be slapped on the back: at least they’re not anarchy.
The reductive statements do have a kernel of truth. It obviously matters that one is alive, that food is edible, that marriage is fruitful, that buildings stand, that a man has work, and that a country has a government: these are basic goods without which the things themselves would not exist or function. But the goods identified fall short of the complete good, the fullness of the good in question. Life is for the sake of living well; food should be well-prepared, nourishing, and tasty; marriage should be an intimate friendship; buildings should be noble and beautiful; a man’s work should be suited to him and not in violation of human dignity; a country’s government should be ordered to good laws and a virtuous citizenry.
Relating the Divine and the Human in Worship
Our interlocutor may object: “These examples are all beside the point. In the Eucharist we have God almighty, who is infinitely good. Next to Him, nothing else could make a difference.”
What is wrong with this line of argument? For starters, it would obliterate any distinction between reverent and irreverent, worthy and unworthy, licit and illicit—even “white Mass” and “black Mass.” It is precisely because Jesus is present in our midst that liturgy must be taken so seriously.
More profoundly, the objector discloses what we might dub the “heresy of liturgical Nestorianism.” Brief recap: Nestorius (says Pope Pius XI) “asserted that the only-begotten Word of God was not made man but was in human flesh, by indwelling, by good pleasure and by the power of operation. Wherefore he was to be called Theophoros, or God-bearer, in much the same way as prophets and other holy men can be called God-bearers by reason of the divine grace imparted to them.” In the realm of liturgy, the equivalent would be thinking the divine aspect of the liturgy is totally other and separate from the human aspect—from our participation, our involvement, our contribution. God and the human are not truly at one, but remain compartmentalized. The part God does and the part man does are disconnected: we can no longer call the Mass “the holy sacrifice” or “the divine liturgy,” because God is doing His thing, and we are doing ours, and the two do not form a unity or totality. As Christ would not be the God-man but God who works with a man, so the liturgy would not be our insertion into divine mystery but an intervention from above that pops into an otherwise merely human show.
Alternatively, this line of argument could collapse into a kind of Monophysitism: the divine swallows up and obliterates the human. Since God is pure being and power, and the creature is nothing in and of itself, the divine reality overwhelms and, for all intents and purposes, renders irrelevant the human reality. Christ would not be God and man, but simply God. Likewise in the liturgy, the divine reality would swallow up and obliterate the human.
(I should note that I am not making the claim that ancient Nestorians or Monophysites would have had simplistic or irreverence-ridden liturgical rites; on the contrary, their historical rites were extremely elaborate, because no one would have dared to worship God in any other way: the instinct for religious mystery was too deep in ancient times. Rather, I am claiming that something like the Novus Ordo could only have been the product of an implicitly Nestorian or Monophysite mentality as described above; orthodox Christianity would be incapable of evolving such a form.)
Synergy Between the Divine and the Human
Needless to say, neither Nestorianism nor Monophysitism is orthodox Christology; and neither of their liturgical analogues is orthodox sacramental theology. Fr. Daniel Gordon Dozier, a Byzantine Catholic priest, wrote on Facebook:
I would never reduce the value of the liturgy to questions of validity. The goal of the liturgy is not just to receive “grace” but also to participate in God’s glory. Glory reveals and radiates the grace of the life and love of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation communicated in the liturgy. Without glory, or when that glory is needlessly muted, the liturgy is defective no matter how valid it is.
Thank you, Father, for stating this profound truth so beautifully. The reductionistic sentiment “Well, if Jesus is there, nothing else matters” writes off the entire witness of Catholic history. And, come to think of it, such a view also writes off Jesus, since, if He really comes into our midst, we ought to welcome Him like the woman who poured the precious ointment on His feet, as wasteful as it was—she had to give Him the costliest and the best, even as God formed for Himself the best humanity in the womb of the Virgin, and adorned His own soul with inexhaustible grace. The Son of God deserves the perfect human mother and the perfect human nature. If we know Him to be our God and Savior, and we give Him sorry scraps, we are guilty of wrongdoing.
In fact, if we think about it closely, the daily offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass makes sense only on the basis of a high esteem for the synergy between divine and human in worship. From a divine point of view, the one-time historical sacrifice on Calvary would have sufficed—and indeed it does!—but as the Council of Trent teaches, this one same sacrifice must be made present to us, or rather, we must be made present to it. The Church is given the privilege of offering Christ and herself with Him. As a priest wrote at Rorate Caeli:
It is not sufficient to say “the Mass is the Mass”, or “Christ is present whatever the rite.” Christ is really present in the Blessed Sacrament, and so the faithful receive sacramental grace in proportion to their dispositions when they receive Holy Communion, no matter what the rite. But the Mass as a sacrifice is not only the act of Christ, but also the act of the Church. As the act of the Church, this sacrifice will be more or less pleasing to God in function of the holiness of the rite, and in this way it will bring down more or less grace and mercy upon each local church.
Gnosticism and Pseudo-Sanjuanism
This “only Jesus matters in the Mass” perspective is also a form of gnosticism: the exoteric, the external, the sensible, the words and gestures and bodily things we say, sing, do—these are (with the exception of the magical sacramental formula!) unimportant, even contemptible, compared to the esoteric, the essentially spiritual content. What would matter is not being a “liturgical Catholic,” the old mantra of the Liturgical Movement, but being a spiritual Catholic—reminiscent of the groanworthy throwaway line: “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” For a Catholic—indeed, for anyone who attempts to adhere to divine revelation as given in the Old and New Testaments—that line would be impossible to utter. Religion is the primary moral virtue by which we offer due worship to God, above all in the public worship of the Mystical Body with Christ as its head: the Mass, the Office, the sacraments through which grace flows to the members of that body.
There is a sense in which it is true to say “nothing but God matters.” St. John of the Cross is famous for his nada, nada, nada: nothing is real, nothing to be clung to, except God. The more elusive question is: In just what sense is that true? No masters of the spiritual life have ever in fact severed spiritual maturation from liturgical tradition, much less pitted them against each other in a simplistic, inhuman, anti-incarnational way. Certainly St. John of the Cross, who was formed by and offered Mass in its traditional Latin form, would never be able to recognize himself in such a comic-book gnosticism or spiritualism.
Practically every great saint of centuries past was shaped and stamped, inside and out, by the liturgical rites of the Church—by the splendid ceremonies, by the Holy Sacrifice, by the weekly Davidic psalter (in full, not expurgated), by the rich panoply of orations, lessons, responsories, antiphons. This was the air of faith they breathed, the water of devotion they drank, the bread of intellect they consumed, together with the Bread of Life. One can trace the profound marks of the quiet, consistent, stable cycle of liturgical rites on every page of the saints who left behind writings. It was taken for granted as the steady backdrop that was always there and would always be there.
It is highly questionable to think that “being spiritual,” whatever that means, or “being dogmatically correct” or even “being charitable” is more important than worshiping God with the fullness of divine worship unfolded by His Providence in the Church. It is a matter of fact that the liturgy is the vehicle He employed to carry, express, and impart the orthodox faith, and, what is more, to unite us to the source of Charity itself, and through Him with the other members of the Mystical Body on earth, in heaven, and in purgatory. Orthodoxy, as Joseph Ratzinger liked to remind us, means both “right doctrine” and “right worship”; charity, doctrine, and worship are inseparable companions, like the three Graces of antiquity.
We should be ready to live and die for the Mass or any sacrament or any dogma of the Faith. We should have this disposition because these things, although not God, are from Him and for Him, uniting us to Him the way a photo or a letter unites us to someone beloved, or the way a face unites us to the heart of the person who shines through the face. If we do not understand this point, we will soon be condemning marriage and religious vows, as some heretics did in search of a “pure love of God.” We are not a sect of Buddhists who seek to escape from flesh-and-blood realities, but Catholics who see the world sacramentally.
Our Struggle for the Whole Christ
One wonders if anyone who says “the only thing that matters in the Mass is Jesus” actually means it, when push comes to shove. It seems more like a defense mechanism, deployed whenever another Catholic legitimately raises questions about our worship’s worthiness, beauty, theological content, or connection with immemorial tradition (or lack thereof). Questions like that make people uncomfortable. And they should. As we can see, some prelates in the Church are so uncomfortable that they are trying to beat down, silence, or drive away those who ask such questions.
Is “good enough” really good enough for God? The traditional Roman liturgy is the sum total of the highest aspirations and most fervent prayers of generations of Catholics, high and lowly, coalesced into an offering of concentrated faith, piety, and honor. Does God not deserve the best we can give Him? We can never be worthy of Him in His divine infinity, but we can give Him the best of which we are capable.
One can understand why some people would feel moved to address the hierarchy like this: “Please, dear bishop (or dear Holy Father), please let us have the TLM.” But your enemies are progressives, liberals, modernists, who hate what you love, who hate the idea of your children loving what you love, and don’t care if you despair while they flex their administrative muscles to stamp you out once and for all, like the annoying vermin they think you are. We must resist, with every fibre of honesty, the now-habitual gaslighting and the Stockholm Syndrome.
The great Tridentine liturgy is not the hierarchy’s plaything, their pet possession, to allow or forbid as the modish mood or trendy theologoumenon takes them. They have no business preventing you from offering the Church’s worthy worship to God in her hallowed traditional rites. The immense treasury of the classical Roman Rite is ours—the entire Church’s—and we will keep it no matter what, for God will not forbid it to be loved and revered or allow it to perish.
Clergy especially must recognize that any “obedience” that forwards the destruction of the Church, the loss of vital tradition, and the injury of souls is not from God and cannot be from God, and that a most grave obligation lies upon them to resist, whether openly or secretly, such rampant and flagrant spiritual abuse of the little ones of Christ.
In a way, then, we agree: all that matters is Jesus. But we mean, as St. Augustine would say, the whole Christ—Head and members, the Mystical Body in all its wealth of life, homage of praise, and instruments of holiness, spanning the ages and resounding eternally in the courts of heaven. Our adherence to tradition is motivated by our love for Christ. Understand that, and you will understand the rest.
For more on this subject, see my related articles:
- “The Way is the Goal”: Against Reducing the Mass to a Sacramental Delivery System
- Is the Mass “Just” the Mass?
- The Long Shadow of Neoscholastic Reductionism
Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew.
 It has been objected to me in the past that I am not being fair to people by using the unqualified form of this sentiment—“the only thing that matters…”—rather than a qualified form: “Jesus is the most important thing about the Mass.” However, first of all, I have seen or heard the simple version. Second, there are attitudes that reduce to it, such as “We should just go to Mass and offer up whatever bad things are happening.” This logically reverts to the thesis under critique. Third, the moment someone admits that something else deeply matters besides the Real Presence, they are already outside of the minimalist-utilitarian-reductionist paradigm and have no salient reason to object to the traditionalist’s love of the ancient Mass.
 Encyclical Lux Veritatis, n. 9.
 See this article on why Calvinism is a form of Nestorianism. The line of argument I am criticizing is also like Protestantism in that it gives exclusive emphasis to divine causality in justification and overlooks or even denies human co-causality.
 The underlying premise of the liturgical reform was mid-twentieth-century functionalism, which looks at a thing and asks “what is the essential element to its function?,” and the function itself is conceived of in a stripped-down way—the essential function. The essential function of the Mass would then be the confection of the sacrament, as the function of a house is to provide shelter. If that can be done more efficiently by tossing out other elements (e.g., repetitious litanies of prayer, stretches of silence or chanting, layers of symbolic garments), then it should be. Yet how could someone arrive at this functionalist view without already having a skewed Christology?
 As John Paul II said in his final encyclical: “Like the woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany, the Church has feared no ‘extravagance,’ devoting the best of her resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 48).
 I say “practically every saint” because there were the occasional desert hermits who had rare access to the liturgy and whose sanctity was forged in solitude and penance. Even this radical eremitical commitment usually came after some period of time spent in a communal setting.
 From my Foreword to Stuart Chessman, Faith of Our Fathers: A Brief History of Catholic Traditionalism in the United States.
 I do not say this to slight anyone who believes that addressing the pope or a bishop with such a respectful gesture is likely to win him over: they might believe they are following St Francis de Sales’ saying that one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar. My disagreement is that I believe such efforts betray a lack of awareness of how serious, how all-pervasive, the corruption is in much of the hierarchy and how bold a resistance effort is called for. In fact, it is my view that sending letters and petitions in many cases will make the matter worse by convincing our enemies that the “problem” they are fighting is bigger and scarier than they thought and demands even crueler clampdowns on their part.
 My new tract True Obedience in the Church: A Guide to Discernment in Challenging Times (Sophia, 2022) delves into these questions more extensively.
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America. He taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. Today he is a full-time writer and speaker on traditional Catholicism who has written many books and publishes on a wide variety of sites. His work has been translated into twenty languages. Visit his personal website at www.peterkwasniewski.com, his Substack “Tradition and Sanity,” his publishing house Os Justi Press, and his composer site CantaboDomino.