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Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy

The Recovery of the Sacred

Reforming the Reformed Liturgy

Preface [1974]

by James Hitchcock

To write about the recovery of the sacred first of all implies that the phenomenon has been lost, which some persons in the contemporary Church may be inclined to deny. It is the book's thesis, however, that a qualitative change of the most profound significance has occurred since the Second Vatican Council and that this change is perceived by virtually everyone, even if the terminology used to describe it is not uniform.

One of the unhealthy aspects of contemporary religious life is the confusion and, ultimately, mistrust which is introduced by the equivocal use of terms. Thus innovating religious commentators may employ the traditional vocabulary, but it is often evident that they have altered the meanings of the words without acknowledgment. The concept of the sacred is one of the most important of these, since in traditional Catholic theology it has been generally employed to designate special persons, times, places, or objects viewed as having an especially holy character. To use it now to indicate qualities that are suffused through all of existence, or to designate merely what is most precious in the eyes of each individual, is to depart radically from this tradition. At a minimum those who would promote such departures and such redefinitions have an obligation to make clear what they are doing, to offer fair warning of the fullest implications of their work. It is the failure to do this, in matters of liturgy as in many other things, which as much as anything else has contributed to the tensions, uncertainties, and suspicions which now wrack the Church.

Understood in the traditional sense, the recovery of the sacred is thus something which some people will in principle oppose, since it has been the aim of a good deal of liturgical innovation precisely to exorcise the feeling for sacredness which permeated the Catholic Church before the present era of reform. This matter in the nature of things cannot be compromised. If one assumes that the worship of the Church is truly worship and that it has a sacral character, certain corollaries follow inevitably. If, on the other hand, liturgy is perceived as having an essentially humanistic and worldly focus, then it will be necessary for those who believe this to oppose all efforts to resacralize it.

One of the book's major contentions is that a choice between these two attitudes is necessary and that a principal cause of the confusion and malaise which affect the Church is the failure to recognize the implications of certain decisions, the tendency to muddle through haphazardly and without forethought.

It is also the book's purpose to argue that the tendency toward a desacralized liturgy, already partly achieved and destined to accelerate unless deliberate steps are taken to counteract it, cannot help but have the most profound effects on the whole life of the Church. These effects have already been felt in countless ways, primarily in the loss of coherent vision and purpose which followed the manipulation of the Church's most sacred symbols. Often liturgical change has been treated in quasi-isolation from the rest of life. It is now clear that one's basic approach to liturgy is likely to be both a reflection of and a catalyst to a whole range of values and beliefs. It is impossible to change basic symbols and rituals without changing also the life of the society whose symbols and rituals they are. This fact has not been sufficiently appreciated, although evidence of it now accumulates to an overwhelming degree.

The "success" of a liturgy cannot be judged simply on the basis of the subjective reactions of the participants. Liturgies can be rendered "effective" in a variety of ways which do violence to the fundamental meanings that Catholic liturgy is supposed to convey. It is partly by a failure to attend to meanings as well as to forms that the present condition of liturgical confusion has been allowed to develop.

The author is by profession a historian, not a liturgist or an anthropologist. Much of the thought contained here was originally stimulated by a historical investigation into the folk religion of Elizabethan England. A large debt will also be obvious to what is perhaps the most important liturgical book of the post-conciliar period, Mary Douglas' Natural Symbols. Had that work appeared before 1965, recent liturgical history might have been happier.

The author's claim to authority in liturgical matters is based primarily on a long interest in the subject as a "participant observer", along with hard thought stimulated by that best of all goads to reflection -- a painful experience which cries out to be made sense of. For a variety of reasons, many persons in the postconciliar Church have found the experience of liturgy painful; diagnosis does seem to ease pain, even when it does not take it away. The problems discussed here are primarily Roman Catholic liturgical problems, but they have relevance to a good deal of Episcopalian worship as well.

Finally, it is not possible to understand liturgy adequately on the theoretical plane without some powerful experience of living liturgy, which can persist as a glimpse of authenticity even amid a sea of poorer goods. It is probable that only an experience of powerful liturgy, prior to systematic reflection, is adequate to sustain genuine interest and understanding. For nearly twenty years the author was indebted for that experience to the late Msgr. Martin B. Hellriegel, pastor of the Church of the Holy Cross in St. Louis.

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Copyright © James Hitchcock. All rights reserved.
Online edition published with permission.

Preface -- 1995 Edition

Preface to the First Edition - 1974 Edition

Chapter 1 - The Liturgical Revolution -- Published in the Adoremus Bulletin, November 2009

Chapter 2 - The Chimera of Relevance

Chapter 3 - The Cult of Spontaneity

Chapter 4 - The Loss of History -- Published in the Adoremus Bulletin, June 2006

Chapter 5 - The Death of Community

Chapter 6 - Folk Religion

Chapter 7 - The Reformed Liturgy -- Published in the Adoremus Bulletin, April 1996

Chapter 8 - The Recovery of the Sacred

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