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What Sixty Years of Synods Keep Missing

How long ago it seems now, after six and a half grueling, mind-bending years under Pope Francis, coupled with the shock, from which one will never recover, of Pope Benedict’s abdication. It was like transitioning from a post-doctoral theology seminar to a multicultural kindergarten. But I still remember it clearly: the Eleventh Ordinary Synod of Bishops that took place exactly 14 years ago, in October 2005, dedicated to an obviously and decisively Catholic theme: “The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church.” Looking at the anticipatory documents, the various homilies, the final propositions, and the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis is like looking into a different and a better world [i]. Not Rivendell — but not Mordor, either.

This 2005 synod, announced by John Paul II at the tail end of his pontificate, was put into effect by his successor, a theologian noted especially for his liturgical and Eucharistic focus. Synods under Benedict were, in many ways, fruitful ecclesial events, making due allowance for the limitations of any gathering of prelates. Pope Benedict XVI was unusually present and accessible, listening with great care to the discussions and participating spontaneously from time to time. He was clearly at home in discussions of that sort, the give-and-take of theological debate and pastoral deliberations. For their part, the bishops spoke freely, at times movingly, but without saying anything that could be described as a real surprise. (It seems the God of Surprises had not yet visited his — or her? — people.) The 700 or so media agents approved for the event were compelled to leave Rome somewhat disappointed that no items on the liberal agenda — such as married clergy in the Latin rite, or communion for divorced and “remarried” Catholics — were taken seriously, much less proclaimed to a world waiting for more validation of its habitual permissiveness.

What surprised me the most back in 2005, however, was the astonishing lack of discussion or even the awareness of the most fundamental point of all in any attempt to come to grips with the Church of today and her Eucharistic life: the extent to which the “reform” of the liturgy has been a disastrous failure. Here was a golden opportunity for some honest soul-searching, for the admission of collective guilt in allowing the riches of the Western liturgical heritage to be pitilessly marauded, scattered, and buried, for the proposal of radical cures to confront a disease already far advanced. Here was a chance for a humble acknowledgment that what the majority of the Fathers of Vatican II had expected and desired in a liturgical reform was very different from what transpired at the hands of Bugnini’s band, that the de facto abolition of the unbroken custom of ad orientem worship and the associated destruction of sanctuaries and tabernacles across the world was a wretched mistake.

Indeed, though one cannot expect a pope to come right out and say the helmsman of the barque of Peter in the 1970s was derelict in his duties (except when he exiled Bugnini to Tehran), one could have expected the pope, or at any rate some of the bishops, to confront directly the question: what has happened to the Roman liturgy of the Mass? Can it be that there is some connection between unprecedented liturgical experimentation on the one hand and the massive drop in Mass attendance, priestly vocations, and general Catholic devotional life on the other? Did something go drastically wrong, and can we take steps to undo the damage?

My hopes that this would happen were repeatedly dashed. That the synod would be dealing with worthy but, in a way, second-level questions instead of the burning heart of the matter was first indicated by a ZENIT news service report on some comments made by the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Cardinal Francis Arinze, at a press conference on October 13. According to Cardinal Arinze, up until that point, no bishop had mentioned the “Tridentine rite” at the synod — which means that no one had raised the painful question of an inheritance so grievously abandoned and the “banal, on-the-spot product” that replaced it, with its rationalist presuppositions and execution. Cardinal Arinze went on to say: “If there are groups that desire the Tridentine Mass, this is already provided for. Bishops may allow it for groups. It is not a priority for the synod, as no one has spoken about it.” Imagine a group of hundreds of bishops and even more assistants, and not one of them brings up a matter that is, for many reasons, at the heart of all that the synod is supposed to be about. Doesn’t this sound a bit like a conspiracy of silence? Either that, or appalling ignorance and indifference.

I said above that the burning heart of the matter is the Mass in concreto, not the Eucharist in abstracto. One of the most common mistakes today is when people think that since the Eucharist is the greatest mystery of the Faith, we should focus our attention only on it, and not bother so much about the liturgy, which is a secondary affair. The liturgy would be rather like the shell of a hard-boiled egg: when it comes time for eating, you break the shell and eat the egg. It doesn’t matter if the shell’s white, brown, speckled, stamped, or dyed at Easter.

But it is not like this. The only way Our Lord gives himself to us is through the liturgy that His Spirit has lovingly created in communion with His Bride, our Mother the Church. The Eucharist is not a free-floating entity, but a distinctly sacramental, liturgical reality. We cannot be transformed Eucharistically apart from being habituated to a life of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication by the sacred rites of the Church. The attempt to cut off the sacraments and view them as independent wholes, almost like Platonic Ideas, forgets altogether the way in which sacramental life is always and essentially a liturgical life, embodied in sensible forms through which we inherit the entire journey of the Church in her bimillennial history and her assembly of saints. (If we were forced to use our earlier metaphor, we’d have to say that we eat the shell no less than the egg, and that digesting the shell helps us to absorb the egg.)

We have been through many phases in the history of Western liturgy, and there have been peaks and troughs. Yet the collective desacralization and ideological refashioning of the rites in the 1960s is absolutely without parallel. Fr. Zuhlsdorf’s pithy motto is correct: “We are our rites.This is the true crisis that stands behind the more attention-getting crises in the Church; this is the deepest reason for the Church’s amnesia of identity, her loss of political nerve, slackened missionary impulse, abandonment of contemplative life, and whatever other evils we are suffering from (and there are truly many of them, as Romano Amerio, Christopher Ferrara, Henry Sire, and others have documented in detail).

When she — when we — knew we had, at our heart, the ultimate and supreme mystery of the universe to which all glory, laud, and honor was to be given, from sunrise to sunset, the mystery in which man would find his strength and comfort, the healing of his wounds and the salvation of his entire being, in which the very meaning of life begins to be disclosed and the secrets of divine intimacy are made ours to taste, as we yearn in hope for eternal consummation — when this was our daily bread, we knew we had to celebrate it with all reverence and beauty, we had to preach it and teach it to the ends of the earth, we had to fight every power that would dare stand in the way of Christ the King, Redeemer of the world. This was the message of Pope Leo XIII in one of his last encyclicals, Mirae Caritatis (1902), on the Eucharist as the life of the world and the only hope for modern civilization.

Far be it from me to imply that the Fathers of that synod 14 years ago did not, in fact, believe that the Eucharist is mankind’s only hope. The title of their final document suggests the contrary: “The Eucharist: Living Bread for the Peace of the World.” (Admittedly, the title already niffs of synods to come.) Many things the Fathers said in 2005 were perfect echoes of what Leo XIII said in 1902. Similarly, the lineamenta prepared before the synod as well as the 50 propositions that the pope released afterwards contained much that is beautiful and valuable.

But fundamentally lacking was any acknowledgment of the properly liturgical causes of the churchwide postconciliar crisis, and the corresponding acknowledgment of the liturgical remedy to the same. Until this is done, no matter how numerous or how “pastoral” the documents, we will not be liberated from the prison of our own design. We will continue to be like captives who spend their time longing with sighs and groans for better days (or, more terribly, who are hallucinating that better days are already here to enjoy), when all along the doors of their cells remain unlocked, if only they would try to walk out. The one solution that is ours to begin implementing right now, everywhere, is the one thing that none of the bishops, according to Cardinal Arinze, ever mentioned. One wonders: are they afraid of mentioning it? Or are they really unaware that the Catholic investment house called Tradition is open seven days a week, especially on Sundays, ready to pay out massive dividends to its customers?

But the best is what Cardinal Arinze said last, surely unaware of the irony of his words: “The problem we have discussed [so far in our synod] is that many people don’t go to Mass, and those that come don’t understand — they go to Communion but not to confession, as if they were immaculate.”

“Many people don’t go to Mass.” Does the reformed liturgy not speak to them, after all? And how about their parents or grandparents, their ancestors stretching back so many centuries, who went to a Mass in Latin that they “could not understand,” and yet kept the Faith, and, come to think of it, understood what the Mass was? And those who do go — exquisite irony here, given that the main point of the reform was maximal intelligibility — “don’t understand” what it’s really about or what’s required of them in return for the Lord’s precious gift of Himself. (At the 2005 synod, the bishops, in general, fretted about the loss of a sense of the sacred, the loss of knowledge that the Mass is a true sacrifice, the loss of belief in the Real Presence. A person who cannot see the connection between these problems and the botched reform — which intentionally emphasized a common brotherly meal, downplayed the sacrificial, and took away dozens of poignant ritual testimonies to the Real Presence — has a lot of waking up to do.)

Finally, says Arinze, “they go to Communion but not to confession, as if they were immaculate” [ii]. Is there a form of the Roman rite that duly accentuates man’s unworthiness and sinfulness, his need for divine help and healing, pardon and peace? And is there a form that does not? Experientia locuta, causa finita may not be a catchy phrase, but it’s the truth. There was once a “liturgical culture” in which the sacrament of Penance, the sacrament of the Eucharist, and the ritual of divine worship were all of a piece, proclaiming a consistent message, calling to conversion of heart and promising eternal life to the faithful — a life that one could almost taste in the “tranquillity of order,” the sublime adoration, manifested in the very manner in which the mysteries were handled. No one was tempted to think himself immaculate; the only immaculate one was the Virgin Mother of God, and it was precisely her omnipresent cultus that helped us to see how far we had fallen and yet how high we could rise again by imitating her faith and humility, taking hold of the Lord’s strong right arm. There can be such a liturgical culture once more, and in some fortunate places on every continent, in almost every country, they exist and are coming to exist. But it takes time, patience, and prayer, and most of all it takes priests and bishops who are awake enough and courageous enough to size up the problem from its roots and do the right thing consistently.

For the vast majority of the Church’s hierarchy and clergy, it seems the time for this sizing up is still in the future. Among the synodal bishops’ own propositions, the second proposition, deliberately in a place of prominence, refers to the “beneficial influence that the liturgical reform implemented since the Second Vatican Council has had for the life of the Church.” As readers of OnePeterFive are aware, this is a stock phrase that is dutifully repeated in all official documents (e.g., John Paul II’s commemorative documents on Sacrosanctum Concilium: Vicesimus Quintus Annus of 1988 and Spiritus et Sponsa of 2003), apparently without regard to mountains of evidence to the contrary. Michael Davies has often spoken of the “obligatory optimism” of the Vatican. There is no room for an obligatory pessimism. It would seem that realism ought to be the default position.

Cardinal Arinze was not the only one who bore witness to this profound lack of analysis, this baffling disconnect between cause and effect. Cardinal Marc Ouellet, then archbishop of Quebec, admitted frankly in an interview with Inside the Vatican that the testimony of the Greek Catholic bishops at the synod was immensely important because they have a much deeper sense of the sacred:

Something very enriching was the experience of the Eastern Churches. They have different liturgies and they have a different sense of the liturgy and so to hear them speak about the holy Eucharist was very defining for us. … They have a deep sense of the sacredness, and so to hear them speak about the holy Eucharist was very edifying for me. In the West, we need to recover the sacredness of the liturgy.

It almost sounds like the words of Pope Francis on an airplane press conference on July 23, 2013, when he said to a Russian journalist, speaking of the Orthodox Church:

They have conserved that pristine liturgy, no? So beautiful. We have lost a bit the sense of adoration, they conserve it, they praise God, they adore God, they sing, time does not count. The center is God and that is a richness that I would like to emphasize[.]

Such true but vague words point to the much more precise analysis of “loss” and “recovery” that traditional Catholics have already given for decades, though it seems to fall on deaf ears: we in the West had that sense of the sacred, we had (and still have) the pristine liturgy, so beautiful, that preserves the original undivided sensus liturgicus of the whole of Christendom before the Great Schism. The center of the Tridentine Mass is God: this is our richness. In terms of ethos, atmosphere, density of prayer, and symbolism, High Mass in the ancient Roman rite has far more in common with the Byzantine rite than it has with the Novus Ordo.

The lesson Cardinal Ouellet and the other bishops should have taken away is that we in the West need to recover the birthright that Catholics in the East have never been foolish enough to sell for the pottage of modernity. The Eastern churches give us a model, an inspiration, and a warning: the model of traditional worship in spirit and in truth; the inspiration to return to our glorious and much maligned heritage; the warning that we shall never reform our church life until we make the worthy glorification of God our absolute priority.

Cardinal Ouellet rightly pointed out that “adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is awakening and developing all over the world, and this will help to restore the sacredness of the liturgical celebration of the Mass.” Nevertheless, as I said above, this is simply not enough. Even in a Western world where everyone venerated the Body of Jesus as he ought to do — a tall order for any century, not just for the present one — such uniform behavior would not, in and of itself, automatically produce a liturgy worthy of the sacra mysteria. We would still be eating the divine banquet with plastic sporks. While in a state of emergency there is no reason to complain if the cutlery is substandard, in “ordinary time,” the service, when God and His gifts are in question, should be extraordinarily good.

The Fathers of the October synod of 2005 did not, as it were, carry off an October Liturgical Revolution. It may well be too soon, humanly speaking, for the radical response that is required. We may need a hierarchy of bishops permeated with traditional liturgical piety who, at a synod in (say) 2055, by an unforeseen and overwhelming inspiration of the Holy Spirit, arrive together at the realization that it is time to dig up that treasure buried in a field — the full liturgical treasure of the Roman Church — and to unload its riches far and wide. Perhaps someday the cry will go up and resound in the heavens: “Burn the polyester capes and Cranmer tables! Reconsecrate the high altars! Bring back the tabernacle, the relics, the fiddlebacks, the schola cantorum!”

There is still and always available to us the freedom to make radical acts of Christian hope, radical acts of daring petition. In these duller times of ours, we are only at the beginning of a long, long journey, and we cannot assume that things will get better and better; that is the obligatory optimism machine, not faith in a divine Providence that embraces both the bitter Passion and the glorious Resurrection. It is up to us to pray and to work — ora et labora — that we ourselves may become the intelligent instruments of that same provident God, who with His Son is ever at work (cf. Jn. 5:17), in open and hidden ways, for the renewal of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

[i] The important documents surrounding this synod are available at the Vatican website (; these include the instrumentum laboris of July 7, 2005 and the Message of the General Assembly at the Conclusion of the Synod, October 22, 2005. Pope Benedict’s homilies and messages in connection with the event are worth reading.

[ii] Why is it that people now do not think themselves sinners? Why does communion seem such a simple, lighthearted affair, like taking a potato chip? Could communion standing and in the hand, disbursed by ever-multiplying lay “ministers of communion,” or the giggling girls at the altar, have anything to do with this?

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