The great English convert and Cardinal Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was convinced that the issue of liturgical reverence was of decisive importance in every age of the Church.
In fact, he contended that the presence or absence of this virtue distinguished true believers from fraudulent Christians.
With audacious verbiage, Newman declared, “There never was a time since the apostles’ day when the Church was not; and there never was a time but men were to be found who preferred some other way of worship to the Church’s way. These two kinds of professed Christians ever have been — Church Christians and Christians not of the Church; and it is remarkable, I say, that while, on the one hand, reverence for sacred things has been a characteristic of Church Christians on the whole, so, want of reverence has been the characteristic on the whole of Christians not of the Church.”
He deplored that so few believers possess this virtue.
In a staggering assertion, the cardinal said, “Whole societies called Christian make it almost a first principle to disown the duty of reverence; and we ourselves, to whom as children of the Church reverence is as a special inheritance, have very little of it, and do not feel the want of it.”
His analysis is pertinent to our times. In many parish liturgical celebrations, it is not common to find the spirit of reverence of which Newman speaks.
Today, Roman Catholic worship has become tainted with abuses, with illicit deviations, with tactless familiarity, with a loss of the sense of the sacred and with an array of disorders that trivialize the sacraments. One often sees that liturgical services have assumed the countenance of a festival of self-affirmation, are driven by formulas of consumerism, entertainment and psychotherapy or reduced to “artificial theatrics,” to use a phrase coined by our present Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI.
As Newman explains, such disregard for the virtue of reverence in the sacred liturgy is not authentically Christian; it is not even authentically religious.
He asserted, “Indeed, so natural is the connection between a reverential spirit in worshipping God and faith in God that the wonder only is how anyone can for a moment imagine he has faith in God and yet allow himself to be irreverent towards him. To believe in God is to believe in the being and presence of One who is all-holy and all-powerful and all-gracious: How can a man really believe thus of him and yet make free with him? It is almost a contradiction of terms. Hence, even heathen religions have ever considered faith and reverence identical. To believe and not to revere, to worship familiarly and at one’s ease, is an anomaly and a prodigy unknown even to false religions, to say nothing of the true one. Not only the Jewish and Christian religions, which are directly from God, inculcate the spirit of reverence and godly fear, but those other religions which have existed or exist, whether in the East or the South, inculcate the same. Worship, forms of worship — such as bowing the knee, taking off the shoes, keeping silence, a prescribed dress and the like — are considered as necessary for a due approach to God. The whole world differing about so many things differing in creed and rule of life, yet agree in this: that God being our Creator, a certain self-abasement of the whole man is the duty of the creature; that he is in heaven, we upon earth: that he is all-glorious and we worms of the earth and insects of a day.”
Liturgical reverence or lack thereof is ultimately a question of faith. Do we believe that the Lord of heaven and earth is made present to us in the prescribed rites, words and symbols of the Catholic liturgy or not? If our answer is Yes, Newman has a response to our acclamation of faith: “I say this, then, which I think no one can reasonably dispute. There are a class of feelings we should have — yes, have in an intense degree — if we literally had the sight of almighty God; therefore, they are the class of feelings which we shall have if we realize his presence. In proportion as we believe he is present, we shall have them; and not to have them is not to realize, not to believe he is present.”
Newman’s words capture the essence of liturgical reverence: Believing deeply in the Church’s liturgy, we stand before the ineffable majesty of the infinite God and behave in accord with that belief.
This is the virtue that must be rediscovered in Catholic worship today, and there is hope on the horizon. The revised English translation of the Roman Missal will be implemented in English-speaking countries this November. This translation reintroduces exalted language throughout the Mass that accentuates the holiness and glory of the Lord. We have every reason to believe that it will infuse a new spirit of reverence in the liturgy and help Catholics once again to perceive who it is they come to encounter at church and thus worship him with the profound honor and respect that he deserves. Or, as Newman would say, we are optimistic that the new translation will arouse “feelings of awe, majesty, tenderness, reverence, devotedness and other feelings which may especially be called Catholic.”
Father Timothy Byerley, Ph.D., is a priest of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey.