Sacra Liturgia Day 2: Highlights 2

As you can begin to tell, today was a busy day at Sacra Liturgia.

The next paper was by Professor Peter Stephan of the University of Freiburg im Breisgau, who teaches architectural theory and art history. His paper was entitled The Vicissitudes of Liturgy and Architecture shown in the Example of Berlin’s Cathedral of St Hedwig.  Not surprisingly Professor Stephan’s paper had a strong visual component which is impossible to reproduce here.

Professor Peter Stephan

The focus of the paper was, as the title suggests, the Catholic cathedral of Berlin, first conceived in the time of Frederick the Great in a predominantly Protestant Prussia. The building is remarkable for the number of plans for modification that have been developed for it, most of which were actually carried out. The building was modelled on the Pantheon in Rome, and part of the continuing angst surrounding the cathedral’s various renovations has been the struggle to make it clearly identifiable as a Catholic church. A lantern on the dome, with a cross (more or less prominent according to the renovation) surmounting it was the primary feature for identifying the building among the various non-sacred buildings around it.

The most recent renovation by Shwippert has been perhaps the most radical and the most problematic. The principal problem is the “ugly hole”, to quote Berlin’s former Cardinal Woelki, that was dug into the middle of the church. Apparently modelled on the “confessions” of Roman basilicas, with tombs of apostles at their heart, it fails in its imitation by being grossly oversized and throwing the visual focus downwards rather than upwards, extraordinary for a Christian church in which the overriding traditional visual focus is upwards and Godwards. Professor Stephan called it a travesty.

It brought Professor Stephan to speak about what he politely termed “architectural modesty” in modern churches as built or re-ordered. The modern mania for modernist minimalism sends completely the wrong message to the world, one of conformity to the spirit of the time and place rather than proclaiming the role of the Church in and for society. A church needs to be visible as the house of God in the midst of the people, tangible and recognisable, and so inviting the believer and non-believer alike to come and see. It should also manifest both within and without the face of Catholicism, and be marked by a sacred dignity and a spiritual depth. A church barren of ornament, colour or image is hardly able to show forth the face of the Church and its faith to the visitor.

The Professor made a plea to priests and bishops not to accept the architectural dogma of modernism. That school of thought pursues the Enlightenment project of stripping away the religious meaning of things ecclesiastical, not least churches. It is this mindset that sees vestments, icons, liturgical plate and other sacred liturgical objects confined to museums as things to be gawked at rather than used for the worship of God. This is a type of “Babylonian captivity” of sacred things exiled from their sacred context and purpose. Most of us recognised the description and sympathised with the challenge he made to us.

The last speaker for the day was Dr Jennifer Donelson, who is the director of sacred music at St Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie in New York. Her paper was entitled Origins and Effects of the Missa Lecta: Priestly Musical Formation in a Low Mass Culture. 

Professor Jennifer Donelson


Dr Donelson began with something of a lament for the loss of a full understanding of liturgical solemnity in the modern Church and the Ordinary Form of the liturgy. She noted the marks of a modern solemn Mass, at least as seen in parts of the USA: lots of brass instruments, a disparate repertoire of musical pieces, large numbers of concelebrants, rounds of applause and the expression of profuse thanks to all present! She noted that few today have experienced a true solemn Mass, with the appropriate variety of sacred ministers and the proper level of liturgical music. Few also have experienced a sung Mass in which all the music was properly liturgical. The experience of most modern Catholics is of the spoken word above the sung word, an experience alien to the origins of the Catholic liturgy. The Solemn Mass is marked by a balance between the sung word and silence.

There followed a description of the factors leading to the rise of and eventual preference for the Low Mass, noting its quirks and infelicities. The Low Mass and its simplicity allowed for the feasibility of daily Mass in local circumstances. The stripping away of music and chant from the Low Mass led to the danger of a reduction of the liturgy to compulsory texts which had to be said even when they were meant to be sung. It led also to the primacy of the spoken word over the sung word. The priest’s high level of activity in the Low Mass can make his praying the Mass more difficult. The only real remedy to this danger is for the priest to have a strong and healthy personal prayer life to support his liturgical activity and prevent his liturgical activity being degraded to activism.

The Low Mass also facilitated a culture of liturgical minimalism and of clerical manipulation of the liturgy, to the detriment of other ministers playing their proper role. Father ended up doing everything. The focus landed increasingly on licitness and validity, doing the minimum required and little more. The danger for the priest is that if he lacks a regular experience of the fuller splendour of the liturgy he misses out on a real nourishment to his spiritual life and his Mass-life can be reduced to “mechanistic drudgery”.

An aversion to liturgical music and higher ceremonial is, she maintained, a sign of liturgical sloth. [“Liturgical sloth” is a phrase we have heard from several speakers now. It is a familiar sight to many of us, and it is helpful to have it named.] A typical manifestation of liturgical sloth is the attitude: if we can do it in 45 minutes, why bother doing it in 90 minutes! Dr Donelson felt that such sloth drives out love, for the one who loves longs to spend time with the Beloved. The Beloved at Mass is, of course, Christ our Lord.

So the liturgy should challenge us at least a little bit! She set out some challenges. Seminarians, and by implication all priests, should learn at least one setting for singing every part of the Mass. She challenged bishops and seminary rectors to ensure that the Solemn Mass became the centre of the liturgical life of parishes and seminaries. Not everything needs to be sung, as some parts are traditionally inaudible. But those parts properly audible should be marked by the appropriate solemnity of voice. Singing augments and enhances this solemnity. She noted the danger of singing only parts of a whole that is properly sung in its entirety. Thus to sing the Alleluia and the verses before and after the gospel, but not the gospel itself, is incongruous and sends a poor message as to the status of the gospel. In the same vein, to sing the introductory verses to the preface but not the preface itself offers a poor witness.

One striking image that Dr Donelson offered was that the priest’s singing the liturgy was the vocal equivalent of vesting, a diminution of the self and the putting on of Christ. In the spoken voice there is far more scope for the priest’s personality and attitudes to intrude where they have no proper place.

These summaries reflect my assessment of what was most helpful and important. The full texts are being posted in parts on the Sacra Liturgia Facebook page should you want to read them for yourselves.

Bed calls!

(Part one is here)

4 thoughts on “Sacra Liturgia Day 2: Highlights 2

  1. you had me with “teaches art history”—after my own heart and profession as art teacher with a minor in art history!!!!
    This is good stuff Father—as it tells us that not only do we see a retreat in the mass itself in the form of liturgy, even the songs…but even in the subtleties found in architecture…oh how crafty and cunning is our ancient adversary as he allows our senses to dull….

    Liked by 1 person

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