THE HERESY OF FORMLESSNESS:
The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy
by Martin Mosebach
(Ignatius Press, 2006, 210pp, soft cover, $36.95.
Available from Freedom Publishing)
An outsider to the Catholic Church might expect to find among its ever-shrinking core of orthodox believers an emphatic unity, given the hostility of our times to religious orthodoxy of any kind. Unfortunately this is not always so, and we find in the Catholic Church, as is so often the case in other, purely human institutions, grave points of division among even the most loyal and committed of the faithful.
One such issue, always certain to create a stir, is that of the role and significance in the present-day Church of the pre-Vatican II liturgy, the so-called Tridentine Rite, or Old Roman Liturgy.
With his book The Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy, celebrated German author Martin Mosebach weighs into the debate, with a challenging, compelling, and often unsettling argument for the superiority of the old rite over the new.
Mosebach is an accomplished writer, and his prose reads fluently, imbued with the lyrical dexterity and fervent impulse of the artist. His passion derives from a clearly evident and devout love of the Mass, and particularly of its culmination in the sacrifice of the altar, the sacrament of the Eucharist. Each minute detail of the ancient Roman rite is cherished by the author as being instrumental, and in no way incidental, to the renewal of this perfect and eternal sacrifice, and the means by which we, today, are graced with the bodily presence of Christ.
Wealth of insight
Readers unfamiliar with the fine symbolism in which the pre- conciliar rite is drenched will find in Mosebach's account a wealth of insight, as he variously explores the significance to the pre-conciliar liturgy of such elements as Gregorian chant; the detailed liturgical rubrics; religious art and architecture; and the order of the Mass. Along with these, his examination of the organic nature of liturgical change prior to Vatican II, and of the artistic character of the liturgy itself, provide the basis of his call for 'the re-establishment of the Latin Orthodoxy.'
Mosebach's account is compelling, although not without misgivings, and a tempered reading will undoubtedly inspire readers to commit themselves to a more devout participation in the Mass, through a better understanding of a liturgy which draws deeply from the well of Jewish tradition, and bears the marks of some two thousand years of faithful Christian devotion, since Christ renewed God's covenant with his people at the Last Supper.
Nevertheless, the book seems, at times, awkwardly compiled, and awkwardly pitched. It is comprised of 10 chapters (with two appendices), although it has only a vague cohesive structure, and lacks any concluding synthesis which might draw the various strands of the author's argument together.
Neither does the book exhibit the characteristics of academic writing - the author cites only a handful of references, most of them literary. I mention this because Mosebach's intentions in contributing to the debate surrounding the place of the traditional rite within the Church today are unclear. What's more, it is unclear exactly who Mosebach is trying to convince.
This becomes most evident when one considers all that Mosebach has failed to include in his account. The most significant of these omissions is the role played by the Church hierarchy, and particularly the Pope, prior to, during, and since the Second Vatican Council.
The Church's motivation for initiating change is not addressed; neither is its role in the subsequent fracas on the extreme fringes of the responses to Vatican II, whether involving Archbishop Lefebvre's Society of St Pius X (which does not itself rate a mention), or the radical and destructive 'progressive' movement which sought to extinguish all traces of the old rite, and, as a result, caused violent harm to the Novus Ordo.
In this way, those sympathetic to the author's cause will find in his book much to applaud, regardless of any prior knowledge of the complex issues involved in the changes made by Vatican II and their validity. But for those who do not accept at face value the author's blunt assertion that 'it is impossible to retain reverence and worship without their traditional forms' (p. 31), and the implication that the Novus Ordo Mass does not facilitate reverence and worship, no matter how devoutly celebrated, I would suggest that a more substantial case must be presented.
While Mosebach declares a repugnance for any legalistic treatment of the liturgy itself, I would suggest that a more legalistic approach to the debate regarding the role of the traditional rite in the Catholic Church would better satisfy the rational mind of the inquiring believer.
In his foreword to the book, Fr Joseph Fessio SJ, the editor in chief of Ignatius Press, notes that although he does not concur with every conclusion Mosebach reaches, he does hope that the book will contribute to a new 'liturgical movement' towards the renewal of the reverent and proper celebration of the liturgy in the Novus Ordo.
I share this hope, with the reservation that we, who like Mosebach lament the deterioration of reverence in the Mass, and who are appalled at the vulgar intrusion of this or that trend into our churches, do not allow ourselves to become distracted from the reality of the sacrifice of the Mass in the Novus Ordo. Neither should we forget that this Church to which we belong is guided ever wisely and lovingly by that third Person of the Blessed Trinity to whose governance it has been explicitly entrusted by Christ himself.
Tim Cannon works as a research officer with the Thomas More Centre.