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You are here: Articles > History > Learning from St. Gregory the Great  Back one page.
Learning from St. Gregory the Great
Rebuilding Our Liturgy and Civilization
(New Oxford Review) June 1998

Fr. Peter J. Stravinskas

Public perversity, political corruption, the breakdown of the family, massive ignorance and illiteracy, abortion on demand and even infanticide, divorce and remarriage on a grand scale, lack of civic virtue, a booming pornography industry, the total collapse of a culture and a civilization: What a depressing scenario to paint for America at the close of the 20th century! Except it's not America I am intending to describe; it is Rome in A.D. 590, when a humble monk was elected her Bishop. Gregory loved Rome with every fiber of his being, and it caused him immense anguish to envision the demise of the Eternal City. By nature shy, Pope Gregory didn't know how to proceed, but the Holy Spirit gave him ample inspiration, for he embarked on a plan of action to take his beloved Rome back from the brink. So successful was he that he received a nickname that graces his tombstone: "God's consul."

Pope Gregory's program was really quite simple: To return to the people of Rome a sense of sin and a sense of the sacred. He was indefatigable in pursuing both goals. His writing and preaching on the moral life were insightful and engaging; he also enlisted the assistance of his fellow Benedictines to raise the moral level of what had become a sewer of debauchery, not only by words but also by the witness of their lives. At the same time, he endeavored to return to his clergy and laity alike the lost sense of the sacred. He understood in his time what his successor of 14 centuries later, John Paul II, has stressed in our time: "A very close and organic bond exists between the renewal of the Liturgy and the renewal of the whole life of the Church. The Church not only acts but also expresses herself in the Liturgy and draws from the Liturgy the strength for her life."

St. Gregory the GreatThis sensibility Gregory cultivated in a variety of ways - all dealing with the sacred Liturgy - from the composition of numerous Mass formularies which eventually found their way into the Sacramentary that bears his name, to the founding of a school of sacred music, to the standardization of the Roman Canon, which still reflects his noble touch. He realized that while he re-taught basic ethical principles that would restore to the Romans an appreciation of the good and the true, he also had to give them an experience of the beautiful within the context of Christian worship. Gregory wanted to raise up again that marvelous Roman civilization which laxity and decadence had destroyed, the culture which had produced a statesman like Cicero, a poet like Virgil, a general like Caesar. Culture, however, has always needed cult, in the sense of ritual. And so, he made the reform and renewal of the Liturgy a top priority. Gregory's plan worked: From the dungheap of a desiccated, lifeless city, Gregory's Church built a civilization that even the most cynical must acknowledge as a culture to be admired and envied. The Middle Ages, the Age of Faith, was born; Rome, phoenix-like, rose from the ashes and proved herself to be eternal indeed.

The picture I painted of sixth-century Rome at the outset could indeed apply to contemporary Rome - or New York or Paris or a host of other places - where the spirit of the so-called Enlightenment has pulled down God from altars and there enthroned man. And the trade-off has been every bit as disastrous for us as it was for old Rome. The program of Pope St. Gregory the Great was successful for him; I do not think it wishful thinking to suggest it might have something to offer for us as well.

Perhaps we can take stock of what we can do in our own small way to rebuild that civilization of love and faith and culture for which Gregory had laid the groundwork in those very dark and dismal times of his. What can we do to enhance the worship life of the Church as we bid adieu to this most awful of centuries? Allow me to take a look at the situation and offer a few recommendations.

If it is true that the Church is never more the Church than when she gathers to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy, and if Pope John Paul II is correct in asserting that "man cannot live without adoring, " how important it is for us to have our symbols in place! Surely, that is what the great ones of the liturgical movement of the early part of this century had in mind, as did Pope Pius XII. Last November, coincidentally, marked the 50th anniversary of his landmark encyclical on the Sacred Liturgy, known as Mediator Dei. As I reread that document recently, certain words kept popping up with amazing regularity: awe, mystery, august, majesty, wonder, adoration. And that brought me to think of words people often use now to characterize the worship life of today's Church: banal, pedestrian, utilitarian, narcissistic, skeptical, Puritan, disorienting. What happened to the vision of an Odo Casel, a Josef Jungmann, a Louis Bouyer, or even a Pius XII? Vatican II's Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) contains nothing to justify the trivialization of the Liturgy that has occurred. While people of good will can and do disagree about the what and the why and the how of the liturgical reform that followed, it has become increasingly obvious to me that had we heeded the advice of Pope Pius, we would not now find ourselves awash in silliness and bereft of so much of the sense of the sacred.

In Mediator Dei the Holy Father warned against a kind of liturgical archaicism that hankers after particular practices simply because they were done in the early Church. He cautioned against tinkering with Liturgy. Already in 1947, he sensed problems on the horizon when he wrote: "We observe with considerable anxiety and some misgiving, that ... certain enthusiasts, over-eager in their search for novelty, are straying beyond the path of sound doctrine and prudence." He went on: "Not seldom, in fact, they interlard their plans and hopes for a revival of the Sacred Liturgy with principles which compromise this holiest of causes in theory or practice, and sometimes even taint it with errors touching Catholic faith and ascetical doctrine" (n. 8). He expressed dismay over efforts to eliminate Latin from the Church's Liturgy, apparently being done by some priests with no ecclesiastical approval. He likewise condemned notions of the Eucharistic Sacrifice that talked about the "concelebration" of priests and people in such wise as to hint at no qualitative difference between the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of all believers. Now, truth be told, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council reiterated every single one of Pius's concerns (on novelty, see Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 23; on Latin, see Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 36; on the ministerial priesthood, see Lumen Gentium, nn. 1011). And our present Holy Father has likewise spoken bluntly about "erroneous applications" of conciliar mandates and about "outlandish innovations." So, what happened?

We all know Pope John XXIII's famous image of "opening the windows" of the Church. An astute person once commented that the only problem was that opening one's windows in Sotto il Monte (where John MII was born) in the 19th century did not bring the same hazards as doing so in the second half of the 20th century in Rome, New York, or any other metropolis for that matter. So a heady, romantic worldview entered the Church when a more rational approach would have been more helpful.

I would maintain that short of Cardinal Ratzinger's "reform of the reform," there is still a considerable amount that we can and should do to ameliorate the situation as we seek to recapture a spirit of mystery. Is it any accident that immediately following the Consecration the priest refers to the Eucharistic Species precisely as the "mysterium fidei"? Many of the proposals I shall make need no ecumenical council or ecclesiastical endorsement; indeed, many of them are already called for but roundly ignored.

We need reverence. Make a conscious decision to genuflect whenever coming into or leaving the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, as well as before receiving Holy Communion. St. Francis penned these lines to his followers seven centuries ago: "I beg you to show the greatest possible reverence and honor for the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ...." If it was good for the 12th century, it should be good for the 20th and the 21st. As James Hitchcock has so wisely observed, "a deliberate iconoclasm or a deliberate casualness in Liturgy, insofar as these come to be accepted, signal the death of the sacred. " Isn't this exactly what Eamon Duffy documented so strikingly about the Protestant Reformation in England in his magisterial work The Stripping of the Altars?

We need beauty. Beautiful vestments, vessels, and places of worship. Once again, St. Francis - the saint of holy poverty, remember - had this attitude, recorded by one of his early biographers: "He wished ... to send his brothers through the world with precious pyxes, so that wherever they should see the price of our redemption [the Holy Eucharist] kept in an unbecoming manner, they should place it in the very best place." And in his own testament, the little man of Assisi wrote: "Above everything else, I want this most holy Sacrament to be honored and venerated and reserved in places which are richly ornamented." While the Second Vatican Council surely called for what is simple, Cardinal Ratzinger is certainly correct when he reminds us, "but that is not the same as being cheap." The pre-eminent theologian of beauty, we might say, was Hans Urs von Balthasar, who rhapsodized on this notion thus:

beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past - whether he admits it or not - can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.

Which is to say, beauty here below allows us, in the gracious words of Michael Gaudoin-Parker, "to pierce through the crust of our commonplace experiences," to gain at least a glimpse of the glory and splendor of God.

We also need a very special kind of beauty good music. How can we forget that it was not erudite theological debate that won St. Augustine's mind and heart? The sweet chants he heard outside St. Ambrose's cathedral did the job; it was the "singing Church" (Augustine's words) that brought him and countless millions of others down the centuries into the communion of saints. St. Thomas Aquinas saw this clearly when he taught that liturgical music had a most important mission: ad provocandum alibs ad laudem Dei (to stimulate others to the praise of God). Cardinal Ratzinger has aptly summarized the musical development since the Council as that "grim impoverishment which follows when beauty for its own sake is banished from the Church and all is subordinated to the principle of 'utility."' With what result? Most congregations, as he says accurately, "endure [it all] with polite stoicism." What a damning analysis, yet how sadly true. Mahatma Gandhi spoke of the three modes of being: The fish live in the sea and are silent; the animals who inhabit the earth scream and shout; the birds who soar through the heavens sing. He spelled it out in this way: Silence is proper to the sea, shouting to the earth, and singing to the heavens. Man, by nature, ought to participate in all three, yet what so many would-be liturgists have done to our worship is to eliminate silence and proscribe good, uplifting music, so that contemporary worshipers are left with little to do but scream.

We need beautiful Liturgy to remind us of our finitude and of the sublime nature of our God. That is, we must be helped to appreciate the surpassing transcendence of God, Who nonetheless deigned to approach us in the mystery of the Incarnation and continues to do so in the Church's sacramental life. Back in 1962, Louis Bouyer felt compelled to highlight this truth:

The Incarnation therefore does not efface or render useless or outmoded the primitive notion of the sacred - of a domain if set apart," as the word indicates, in the life of man to belong wholly to God and God alone. How could it do this without abolishing even man's sense of God as of a being distinct from man, independent of him, but sovereign alike over him and all things?

The excessive "horizontalism" of much of what passes for Liturgy today requires the corrective of a heavy dose of "verticalism." The anthropocentrism or "man-centeredness" of the 1960s and 1970s has devolved even further into anthropomorphism, whereby man is not only the measure of all reality, but, when divine categories elude us or displease us, we presume to change the divine plan of things to conform to our own desires. Of course, this is not a completely modern temptation; Voltaire remarked, tongue-in-cheek, that "God made man in His own image and likeness - and man has never ceased to return the compliment." "Creating" liturgies out of whole cloth or "theme-setting" projects are misdirected and will prove barren. True Liturgy is given and received, not concocted.

We need to re-learn the meaning of symbol and ritual. Years ago Fr. Hugo Rahner wrote a book on this topic called Man at Play. Its point was uncomplicated and profound, namely, that when we engage in symbolic and ritual activity, what we do is not practical, pragmatic, or quantifiable. A good rite serves as a "condensed symbol," in Mary Douglas's words - "a timeless act which sum[s] up the whole moral and spiritual existence of the participant, which join[s] God and man in profound unity."

Clifford Geertz has noted that "religious symbols provide a cosmic guarantee" to human beings, not only to comprehend their world but also "to give a precision to their feeling, a definition to their emotions, which enables them, morosely or joyfully, grimly or cavalierly, to endure the world." Yes, symbols help us "to endure the world." In other words, without them life is flattened out and can often become overwhelming and oppressive.

We need Latin. Fifty years ago Pius XII saw some merit in a limited use of the vernacular; Sacrosanctum Concilium expressed a similar view. But no one - not even the most wide-eyed liberal in the mid-1960s - imagined that Latin would just disappear from our liturgical landscape within our lifetimes. How did this happen? In characteristically blunt style, Cardinal Ratzinger gives the answer: "It is simply a fact that the Council was pushed aside.... It had said that the language of the Latin Rite was to remain Latin, although suitable scope was to be given to the vernacular. Today we might ask: 'Is there a Latin Rite at all any more?' Certainly there is no awareness of it." Pope Pius warned that the loss of Latin would endanger the catholicity and unity of the Church, and also leave her easy prey for doctrinal deviations (Mediator Dei, n. 60). James Hitchcock once more offers a sober assessment: "The association of the Latin language with the timeless, mysterious, and traditional aspects of worship is so profound that no fully adequate translation of it into the vernacular is possible." Does that mean a wholesale return to Latin overnight? No, that would be as pastorally insensitive as was the nearly overnight banishment of Latin from our lives. It will require patience and prudence to reintroduce the Church's language gradually but effectively: A Sanctus here, a Credo there, a Renaissance motet here, an Agnus Dei there. And experience shows that when such practices are introduced, the vox populi always asks for more!

When St. Paul attempted to explain the essence of the apostolic call to the Corinthians, he used the image of Christians as "stewards of the mysteries of God." As stewards, they had to be (as we must be) trustworthy, for in our stewardship is the Church's great treasure - the Sacred Liturgy. The weak and sinful Simon Peter was asked by Our Lord if he truly loved Him. Hearing his response, the Lord commissioned him to feed and tend his sheep - a task accomplished in an unparalleled fashion in and through the Church's life of worship.

Pope St. Gregory the Great learned these great lessons in the school of monasticism, and then taught them to the whole Church. Fr. Gaudoin-Parker summarizes St. Gregory's contribution this way:

Pope Gregory played his part in offering something nobler and more beautiful to civilization. than the outworn Pax Romana could provide in sustaining the old order, which was collapsing both because of the threat of the Barbarians and its own decadence. He strove to inculcate the spirit of Christian worship which requires service and sacrifice -characteristic features of the Eucharist in the Roman Canon [which bears his imprint]. Worship celebrates and brings about freedom from fear, peace and harmony. This great Pope taught Europe to look to God for true peace and to sing His praise as the Liberator of the whole world.

Traditionally, man at prayer has always sought to fulfill the Latin adage quantum potes tantum aude (dare to do as much as you can). Gregory the Great proved himself in this way to be a man of prayer and worship. In like manner, by his lively example and with the help of his powerful intercession, may we seek to do the same as much as we can to renew the Church at prayer, that form of the Church which is as close as she can opt to heaven while remaining on this earth.

Fr. Peter M. J. Stravinskas is Editor of The Catholic Answer and the founder of the Diocesan Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania.

Copyright © 1998 New Oxford Review. Reprinted with permission from the New Oxford Review (1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706).

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All contents © copyright, 1998-2020
The Catholic Liturgical Library