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"The Liturgy Changes Us...": A Review of Worship as a Revelation: The Past, Present and Future of Catholic Liturgy, by Laurence Paul Hemming | Rev. Brian Van Hove, S.J., Ph.D. | July 29, 2009

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Worship as a Revelation: The Past, Present and Future of Catholic Liturgy
by Laurence Paul Hemming
Continuum, 2008 (paperback)
192 pages, including glossary, bibliography and index
ISBN: 9-780-8601-2460-3

Liturgy has shifted with the appearance of younger scholars and critics who write about the reform of forty years ago. Generally, they see defects of the reform to be pronounced and the benefits of it to be dubious. L. P. Hemming calls the present state of Catholic liturgy "chaos".

Defenders of the official liturgical reform in the days of their euphoria were once able to dismiss negative assessment. Unable now to ignore this rising tide, they are at last compelled to address it. Examples of still-serious defenders are John Baldovin and Piero Marini. [1]

Of course the same official reform (with special reference to the Missal of 1970) is also criticized by those of another extreme who maintain that it did not go far enough. Ironically these, so opposed to authority, do not remember that it was authority itself which launched and supported liturgical reform.

Living with a failed reform is uncomfortable. Pastors who would set things right are afraid to disquiet the ordinary faithful who have already been so disturbed during the previous generation. One is reminded of a work proposing "national repentance" by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, From Under the Rubble. [2] Where do we go from here? Can the Church correct what has gone awry? [3]

Hemming's academic concentration in philosophy gives him analytical power to comprehend the liturgical situation, even though he does not propose a specific solution to our plight. "However, what historical study of the liturgy has all too often overlooked is the philosophical aspect – or it has substituted the most fundamental philosophical aspect for a metaphysics or rationalism. That missing aspect is what we might call the 'surrounding world' – the place from out of which man emerges, needing to be redeemed." A return to a "philosophy of being" was mandated by Pope John Paul II in Fides et Ratio at a juncture when the "turn to the subject" ended in rationalism and nihilism. The quagmire of subjectivism took the liturgy down with it!

Perhaps not since the publication of Jonathan Robinson's The Mass and Modernity [4] have we had such adroit use of philosophy to help us understand liturgy. Hemming regards this book as a preparation for even greater depth along the same themes, either by him or from future writing of named allies and others who see things, especially the historical Liturgical Movement since Guéranger, in a similar way.

Our author asserts that the enemy of Catholic liturgy is rationalism – "the fact that a propensity towards philosophical rationalism was one of the motor forces of the post-conciliar liturgical reform". Rationalism is defined as "the understanding that everything, all truth, arises on the basis of what can be foreseen by man, what is calculable and predictable for him in advance of its occurring." Again, "the rational is the essentially calculable...."

The effect of rationalism and its inherent problematic as applied to the "adaptation of the liturgy" has an extensive history. Only gradually did it become as strong as it is now. Hemming agrees with Martin Heidegger that "God is not an object of philosophy" and he finds an ally in Aidan Nichols on the point – "... the impulses for liturgical reform have their origins in a commitment to rationalism that stems, certainly from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and even before." [5]

Allies in addition to Nichols include Alcuin Reid and Lauren Pristas. Cited favorably are Klaus Gamber, Martin Mosebach, Uwe Michael Lang and László Dobszay. Hemming is no supporter of Catherine Pickstock who, for a time, was quite fashionable in some circles. Other contemporary figures whose thought he engages in various ways include Odo Casel, Romano Guardini, Cipriano Vagaggini, Berhard Blankenhorn, Margaret Barker and John McDade. This is not a taxative list, either.

When Hemming assesses the calendar reform of 1911, well before the calendar changes so familiar to us, he is only illustrating one example in the long saga of erosion which he sees before the Second Vatican Council. He mentions that the Eastern Church has preserved some liturgical understanding or "ancient practice" now lost in the West. Besides the loss of the "distributed body of Christ" is the loss of all sense of intertwinement between the cycles, sanctoral and temporal. The Christian East kept both insights.

The gravest misunderstanding today is the erroneous interpretation of "active participation" in the liturgy. In Hemming's view, this misperception which grew in strength after Vatican II, "betrays an underlying rationalism in understanding what the liturgy itself is to do."

The author traces its root to the "modern self" of Cartesian philosophy. "In his Meditations on First Philosophy, after having established the self as first in the order of things of which I can be certain, the second indubitable thing Descartes discovers is God." However, the second indubitable thing Descartes discovered was not God, but the idea of God. After explaining the philosophy that reduces the external world to subjectivity, Hemming concludes: "Liturgical prayer works in exactly the opposite way." We do not approach the liturgy as complete selves – we let our incomplete selves be filled and perfected by the liturgy.

Rather than beginning with the fixed Cartesian ego, approaching the liturgy must begin with an unfinished self "constituted through a pilgrimage of discovery." Over a lifetime we slowly discover God in and through the liturgy. At least that is what should happen; or that was traditionally the perceived goal. Hemming asserts that the purpose of this book is to emphasize that we do not make or force God to become present in the liturgy. Rather, we listen and wait for God to act and to move us. "Prayer does not bring God or the divine presence to us." Even esteemed friends seem not to understand this. [6]

Chapter 5 bears the title "Understanding Understanding". This summarizes Worship as Revelation: The Past, Present and Future of Catholic Liturgy. Unless we come to understand what the liturgy is and how it works to draw us into the mysteries of God, it becomes something else, discontinuous and novel. Hemming identifies the philosophical ideas that affected the formal liturgical reform of our tradition. These ideas show their imprint upon Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Deepening our understanding of what happened over the last century or more can help us address the confusion introduced by the reform. If the old Liturgical Movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries influenced bishops, council and pope, then a New Liturgical Movement may do something similar for us.

Paraphrasing Hemming, we need to recover the wisdom that "the liturgy changes us – so who are we to change the liturgy?"


[1] John F. Baldovin, Reforming the Liturgy: A Response to the Critics. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008. pp. 188. $29.95, pb. ISBN 978-0-8144-6219-9. Piero Marini; John R. Page and Keith F. Pecklers (eds.), A Challenging Reform: Realizing the Vision of the Liturgical Renewal, 1963-1975. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007; The Columba Press, 2008; 205 pages, $15.95, pb. ISBN: 9780814630358. See also Annibale Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy (1948-1975), hardcover. Liturgical Press, 1990. ISBN-10: 0814615716; ISBN-13: 978-0814615713.

[2] Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn, From Under the Rubble. Tr. from the Russian, A. M. Brock... [et al.] under the direction of Michael Scammell; introduction by Max Hayward. London: Collins/ Harvill Press, 1975. ISBN: 0002622343; DDC: 947.085. Also Bantam Books, 1976; University Press of America, reprint 1989, pb. Out-of-print.

[3] Publication of Rembert G. Weakland's memoirs tainted the reputation of the official reform's inception since we know that after Vatican II Weakland was a "liturgy insider" consulted in Rome by Paul VI. See Rembert G. Weakland, A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009; 433 pages, $23.10 hardback, ISBN:0802863825.

[4] Jonathan Robinson, The Mass and Modernity: Walking to Heaven Backward. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005. ISBN-10: 1586170694; ISBN-13: 978-1586170691.

[5] Aidan Nichols, Looking at the Liturgy: A Critical View of its Contemporary Form. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996. ISBN-10: 0898705924; ISBN-13: 978-0898705928
Esp. p. 11-48.

[6] Robert Sokolowski, Eucharistic Presence: A Study in the Theology of Disclosure. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994. ISBN-10: 0813207894; ISBN-13: 978-0813207896.

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The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer | Excerpt from The Spirit of the Liturgy | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
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Foreword to U.M. Lang's Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Mass of Vatican II | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
Learning the Liturgy From the Saints | An Interview with Fr. Thomas Crean, O.P., author of The Mass and the Saints
Walking To Heaven Backward | Interview with Father Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory
Does Christianity Need A Liturgy? | Martin Mosebach | From The Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy
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Father Brian Van Hove, S.J,, resides at Jesuit Hall, St. Louis University, St. Louis, Missouri.

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