Yesterday I was at our cathedral with the other priests in the diocese for the Chrism Mass. It is rare that I am able to be at Mass without celebrating and preaching, so for once I sat and observed and simply took in the ceremony and took time to pray and worship and thank God for the Catholic Church.
As I did, it came to me just how much the Catholic Church has to offer not just Catholics, and not just fellow Christians, but the whole of society–whether they know it and love it or not.
I will leave on one side all the practical aspects in which the Catholic Church contributes to society–the millions we educate in our schools, heal in our hospitals, care for in our orphanages and rest homes–the millions of hungry we feed and homeless we house–the services we offer to prisons and schools and the military through chaplaincies.
Instead I was thinking of the cultural contribution. Whenever we celebrate Mass we are keeping alive the tradition of the West. As I saw the Bishop censing the altar the servers moving ceremoniously, the priests consecrating, the choir singing and the people participating I saw two thousand years of Western Culture alive and well.
This was not like any other traditional rehearsal of a shared culture. This was not a patriotic event with soldiers on parade. That would be just one nation. This was not an artistic event like an opera or a play that would only appeal to certain personality types. This was not a concert or a speech or a commencement ceremony, but a regular ritual that drew together the vast array of Catholics united by religion in one cultural tradition that not only stretches back two thousand years to Christ the Lord, but also to the Jewish religion and culture before that.
Here was not just Western Catholic culture alive, but a vast panoply of human culture reaching back to pre-historic times. Here alive and well was a religious awareness and human civilization that holds together in historic continuity the great philosophers and sages of the classical cultures of the West as well as the great minds of Christendom down the ages. Here the cerebral wisdom of the Greeks was merged with the earthy wisdom of the Hebrews and kept alive and amplified and added to throughout the ages.
Here was the best of art and architecture and music and poetry and storytelling from the Golden Age of Greek and Rome continued and completed by Christianity down the ages. Here through faithfulness to the liturgy which we have received we echo and re-echo the great moments of the past–not as some dirge or empty museum piece, but with the hymns of praise and fervent prayers of faithful people–ordinary people of all races and ages and socio economic background–gathered together in a common act of worship.
I saw for a moment that this simple action of liturgy connected us today in our fragmented world with a unified and beautiful vision of the cosmos. I saw that in our shallow and superficial world this liturgy and this unity gives us roots. I saw that our own civilization will wither and crumble and fall if those roots are not nourished. I saw that two thousand years and more of wisdom and beauty and courage and truth and goodness and light were alive and well in that liturgy.
This is why the liturgy is a treasure and why, as Benedict XVI says, “It is not a place for creativity.” The liturgy is a gift from the past to the present. It is a gift from the church to the Church. We are stewards of a masterpiece, a priceless relic, a living and dynamic tradition. It is not up to us to seek to make it ‘relevant’ or ‘cool’ and to make sure everyone ‘relates’. Instead it is up to us to ‘say the black and do the red’–to be faithful to what we have received so that there is something there to hand on to the future generations.
This is also why we need a renewal of sacred architecture, sacred art, sacred music, sacred theology, sacred preaching and teaching and writing and prayer. All of this is the way we preserve the treasures from the past, apply them in the present and hand them on to the future. This work is not, therefore, simply for us and for our enjoyment, but for the good of the whole society and for the redemption of the world.