Letting the Imagination Out to Play

Last weekend, I was in Philadelphia for the Society for Catholic Liturgy. This “multidisciplinary association of Catholic scholars” seeks to promote the “scholarly study and practical renewal of the Church’s liturgy.” The theologians, architects, philosophers, pastoral liturgists, and musicians of the Society range from advocates of the “reform of the reform” to those more sympathetic to Msgr. Francis Mannion’s “recatholicizing approach, one that “seeks a recovery of the sacred and numinous in liturgical expression which will act as a corrective to the sterility and rationalism of much modern liturgical experience.”[1] The Society brings together both those who prefer to celebrate the usus antiquor, the Latin Mass, as well as Novus Ordo Mass-goers who suspect that the low-Mass mentality of the pre-conciliar period has been canonized in the current ars celebrandi and aesthetics of the reformed liturgy.

While attending this event, I often found myself returning to a passage from Artur Rosman’s last column on the retrieval of a Catholic imagination:

Church life must once again become the heart of the Catholic imagination, but the onus of avoiding beauty’s revenge is not entirely upon the artists. The onus is equally upon the institutional and lay Church to revive serious patronage if the Catholic imagination and Catholic Studies are going to be truly Catholic.

I suspect that most artists (even those who aren’t Catholic) would be happy to contribute to a renewal of liturgical art, architecture, and music. Yet, the very Church that once produced these works of art seem to no longer have interest in fostering this material culture. Dioceses over the last fifty years have had no problem building parishes that look like shopping malls and celebrating liturgies with poorly performed and shoddily composed music. The stultification of the Catholic imagination is not a sin that is the fault of liturgical artists alone.

It is the Church herself who must offer a profound mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxime culpa for her neglect of the treasures of the material and artistic culture that are her fruits.

Still, there is a certain Catholic, attached to the Extraordinary Form, who blames this stultification of the imagination upon the reformed rites themselves. Someone like Fr. Jonathan Robinson in his The Mass and Modernity: Walking to Heaven Backward perceives in the reformed liturgy a failure to present “an alternative vision of life to that provided by secular modernity . . . ”[2] According to Robinson, the reformed liturgy of the Second Vatican Council inscribes upon the social body the tenets of modern philosophy relative to individualism, the worship of communal experience, and the divinization of rationalization. The imagination has little room available to play in such liturgies where participation is reduced to reason alone.

There’s something to this critique that must be attended to (even if I suspect Robinson's account is too quick to read modern philosophy in the reformed rites). The reformed rites of the Council do over-emphasize (at least relative to the art of celebration), at times, the verbal. Infant baptism, for example, spills forth word after word, instructing the parents (and those attending) in the sacramental theology of baptism. It's possible that the power of the signs, the actual imagery, gets washed over by the speech of the priest. Likewise, the ability for the priest to insert his own words in the Eucharistic liturgy often becomes a meandering discourse, one that too quickly transfers the worshipper from the church to the classroom.

Before the imagination can be given a space to play, didacticism interrupts.

Yet, is such verbosity intrinsic to the liturgical rites of the Second Vatican Council? I answer unequivocally, no.

I have attended a variety of Novus Ordo liturgies that do not fall prey to such verbal assaults. I have written in this very journal about the gift of Westminster Cathedral in London, where the celebration of the reformed Evensong and Eucharistic liturgies gives space for the Catholic imagination to play among the body of worshippers. The liturgy is in the vernacular. It is celebrated versus populum. English hymns are sung. The variety of side chapels, the play of light and darkness, the chant of the choir, forms the imagination of even the occasional worshipper. In the last year alone, I’ve attended such post-conciliar Masses and celebrations of the Liturgy of the Hours in New York City; Collegeville, MN; Philadelphia, PA; South Bend, IN; Minneapolis, MN; Lublin, Poland; and Brussels, Belgium.

Rationalism seems to be the sin of celebrants, of those who carry out the rites and less about the rites themselves.

Part of this rationalism that has crept into those who pray the liturgy is an intentional forgetfulness of the rich tradition of the ecclesial arts. Architectural styles that inscribed a certain contemplative attitude, a way of meditating upon the mystery of Christian faith, have been left behind for the sake of modernization. Liturgical music must be simple to sing, easy to understand, and thus anything prayed in the Mass before 1970 is considered anathema. This posture of rupture relative to the Church’s material culture constrains the individual imagination such that the “modern” Catholic only understands those images that have received pride of place in late modernity.

A post-conciliar Catholic cannot draw upon Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus to understand the Christian life as a radical thirsting for God. This same Catholic has no access to the Eucharistic image of the Pelican feeding her young, once ubiquitous upon altars, hospitals, and public buildings in an erstwhile Christian culture. No one made the Church give up this imagery. She did so because she felt she needed to. Because she wanted to communicate with “modern man.”

One can understand why a young person in such an environment would find the Extraordinary Form attractive—because he or she has experienced a didactic, imageless, often clerical, non-contemplative Catholicism that (whatever its particular faults) is not always present in the usus antiquor. Those who turn to the Extraordinary Form are not necessarily radical conservatives, Lefebvrists who reject the authority of the Second Vatican Council. They celebrate the usus antiquor because they long to connect to an imagination that has been forgotten.

The reconstruction of a holistic, ancient and medieval and Baroque, yet reformed Catholic imagination is required in our era. This is not simply a matter of ecclesial politics, where we argue back and forth about the prudence of Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum. Instead, we need a Catholic imagination rich enough that it can support a robust Christian identity in late modern life.

Yes, of course, the Church needs to put aside money to this process. To employ artists and composers, architects and sculptors in this work. We must form artists in the richness of this tradition, maybe letting Catholic Universities lead the way (a point I'll take up in another piece).

But we also need to reform attitudes among the Church herself. An attitude that too often sees the retrieval and renewal of such an imagination as a work less important than building school gyms for struggling Catholic schools, fighting over liturgical politics in a Church where no one is attending Mass, and approving catechetical curricula that fall victim to the worst excesses of a modernist pedagogy where speech overpowers silent wonder.

There are those in the Church who are carrying out this approach to liturgical renewal grounded in the fullness of the Tradition.

Recatholicizing the liturgy would mean letting the full Catholic imagination loose again to renew the face of the earth.

Featured image: Basilica of Saint Peter and Paul, Philadelphia, PA. 

[1] M. Francis Mannion, “The Catholicity of the Liturgy,” in Masterworks of God: Essays in Liturgical Theory and Practice (Chicago, IL: Hillenbrand Books, 2004), 217.

[2] Jonathan Robinson, The Mass and Modernity: Walking to Heaven Backward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 18.


Timothy O'Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the Director of Education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life, where he also serves as Academic Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy. He teaches and researches at Notre Dame in the areas of liturgical-sacrmental theology, catechesis, and aesthetics. He is the author of numerous articles and books, most recently, the forthcoming Divine Blessing: Liturgical Formation in the RCIA.

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