by Timothy P. O’Malley
I had the opportunity recently to give a talk for the Pontifical Mission Societies in the Archdiocese of New York on Liturgy and Mission. In preparing to write a paper for the lecture, I immersed myself in the writings of the 20th century liturgical movement including Lambert Beauduin, Abbot Emmanuelle Caronti, Romano Guardini, Josef Jungmann, and Johannes Hofinger. Throughout the various texts, I encountered the firm conviction that liturgical prayer, if properly understood by the assembly, would result in the renewal of civilization. Individualism would be defeated through the corporate nature of liturgical prayer. Political totalitarianism would dissipate through the politics of love at the heart of the Eucharistic action. The devastation of technological developments, already recognized in the early twentieth century, would be militated against through the Church’s lex orandi. The rise of secularization would be controlled if better participation in the liturgy was fostered.
Perhaps, it is the Augustinian nature of my academic formation, a tendency to perceive the darkness in the midst of such optimism, but the hopes of the liturgical movement remain unmet on these points. Individualism, violence, the abuse of technology, and secularization still affect social life in the United States, Europe, and the Global South (although in very different ways). Some might note that even more persistent liturgical reforms are necessary to bring about the hope of social renewal through the liturgy. Others would blame the liturgical reforms themselves on the failure of liturgy to renew social life, desiring a return to older rites that might at least function as a vanguard against modernity.
The more likely option, as least as I have begun to think about it, is that the liturgical movement of the twentieth century placed far too much hope in the way that the liturgy itself could bear the weight of a desired cultural and social renewal. Indeed, it is Romano Guardini himself, who writes:
Religion needs civilization. By civilization we mean the essence of the most valuable product of [humanity’s] creative, constructive, and organizing powers—works of art, science, social orders, and the like. In the liturgy it is civilization’s task to give desirable form and expression to the treasure of truths, aims, and supernatural activity, which God has delivered to [humanity] by Revelation, to distill its quintessence, and to relate this to life in all its multiplicity. Civilization is incapable of creating a religion, but it can supply the latter with a modus operandi, so that it can freely engage in its beneficent activity (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 33).
An integral aspect of the liturgical movement, perhaps untreated by those in liturgical theology, is cultivating the kind of civilization in which divine worship can flourish. Such a civilization, when fostered, may perhaps facilitate even better participation in the liturgical rites of the Church, opening up parish life to the kind of renewal hoped for by the liturgical movement itself.
In this regular feature at Pray Tell, I hope to muse together with those involved in liturgical scholarship and practice on what such a civilization would consist of. Future pieces will treat our relationship to technology, the kind of education that takes place within Catholic schools in particular, the role of art in social life, our approach to politics, and more. But, at least at the beginning, it would be good to start with a common question for us to consider. That is, where do you see the need to “recreate a civilization” for the purpose of liturgical worship?
Timothy P. O’Malley is director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and a Concurrent Associate Professional Specialist, Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love.