LETTERS ON LITURGY
By Father Dwight Longenecker; Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone (foreword)
Angelico Press, 2020
178 pages, $16.95
The liturgy wars just aren’t what they used to be. That’s an observation, not a lament. Sure, some places and parishes still suffer liturgical silliness. But those are isolated and usually due to laziness more than anything. There aren’t any hot spots spreading the infection. Gone are the days of agenda-driven liturgical mischief.
The parish-to-parish battle for sane and reverent liturgy paid off. More and more priests have grown up in liturgically healthy parishes. They take reverence and Tradition as a given. The grassroots effort for a reverent and accurate translation has borne fruit in the new Roman Missal. Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum reunited an entire generation of priests with their liturgical ancestors. More and more prelates have continued Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s tremendous work in liturgical formation. All of this has brought us to a good place liturgically.
But this liturgical sanity has a danger, as well. If we’re not careful, we could grow comfortable and complacent, forgetful of just how bad things were — and how quickly they could become so again. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, all that is necessary for the triumph of bad liturgy is for good men to do nothing.
This is why Father Dwight Longenecker’s Letters on Liturgy is such a welcome addition to ongoing liturgical conversation and formation. The book provides both fundamental principles and nuts-and-bolts advice on the liturgy and everything it involves (language, music, art, vestments, etc.). Father Longenecker’s background prepares him well for this work. As one “from the world of speech, drama and English literature,” he appreciates the importance of language, beauty and public speaking. As a convert, he knows the need for doctrine. As a pastor he understands that concern for the liturgy does not mean esoteric fussiness about arcane practices; it means the care of souls.
That Father Longenecker can write so serenely and plainly about formerly combustible issues reveals how far we’ve come in discussions about the liturgy. He takes up formerly taboo topics such as altar boys, Mass ad orientem and the extraordinary form in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner. He recognizes that liturgical dangers still exist, and he seeks to inoculate against them. But he writes without rancor, secure in the Church’s liturgical tradition not just as an idea, but also as a lived, pastoral reality.
The book’s format fits the topic perfectly. As the title indicates, Letters on Liturgy is written in an epistolary style, as letters from a pastor to a seminarian, from a spiritual father to his son. Indeed, this is how the Church’s patrimony should be handed down, from father to son. And this is precisely what was lacking in the dark years of liturgy by experts-only workshops and committees. Father Longenecker’s style emphasizes the liturgy not as a bureaucratic production but as a duty of spiritual fatherhood.
Indeed, the reality of spiritual fatherhood is a welcome thread throughout the book. As letters from a father seeking to form a seminarian in spiritual fatherhood, some chapters really only speak to a man in that situation (or to older priests who might need reminders). Practical instructions on liturgical bearing (“manly grace”), modesty (“If anything in the liturgy draws attention to itself, then it is excessive”), and courtesy concern principally the sacred ministers. Nevertheless, everyone who worships can appreciate and benefit from them.
In recent years there has been a lot of talk about the evangelical power of beauty. People throw around Dostoyevsky’s famous line — “Beauty will save the world” — as if it were the last word. But that line needs to be properly understood. Beauty does not and cannot stand on its own. It must be woven together with truth and goodness. Otherwise, it becomes a counterfeit. “Beauty is a whore,” observes Binx Bolling in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that what will save the world will be beautiful … because it is also true and good.
Father Longenecker does not fall into that simplistic view of beauty. He understands both the need for beauty and the primacy of truth. He builds his reflections and teachings on the bedrock of doctrine. The Sacrifice of the Mass is the first thing; everything else serves that. He also knows that a man must acquire an appreciation for beauty, so he writes about the seminarian’s need for formation in the Church’s great patrimony of art. That is, the grasp of beauty is not automatic; discernment and appreciation must be learned.
The approach of Letters to the extraordinary form strikes me as just right. Father Longenecker does not offer that form of the Mass himself, but he knows and appreciates its continuing importance in the life of the Church. He encourages his fictional seminarian to learn the extraordinary form and even advocates every seminarian doing so “as a foundation for a priest’s training.” The extraordinary form, in effect, provides the proper context and hermeneutic for understanding the Roman Rite. We cannot appreciate or understand the liturgy if we view it in isolation from its own history.
Perhaps most welcome in Letters on Liturgy is its good pastoral sense. The word “pastoral” has, of course, been used for years as code for “permissive.” That’s too bad. A priest must be pastoral, in the sense of caring for the souls entrusted to him. Sometimes that requires leniency and sometimes severity. Authentic pastoral care proceeds from true doctrine and seeks to apply those salvific truths to the flock and thus lead the flock to true worship and sanctity. Father Longenecker is unstinting in matters of doctrine, rubrics, beauty, reverence, and so on. But he also understands that bringing these to the people of any given parish requires great charity, care and courtesy. Here the law of gradualness (not the gradualness of the law) applies. A priest does not impose the truth on his people; he gradually (and painstakingly, God knows) brings them to it.
Letters is ultimately a book about liturgical vigilance. It contains eternal truths and timely applications so that the beauty and power of worship can be, as it must, constantly renewed.
Father Paul Scalia is the episcopal vicar for clergy for the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia.