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The Mass and Our Unity


Like many people today, I have been thinking about the Holy Mass — and confusion.

ztradmasskIn the beginning, God creates the world by circumscription, distinction, separation.  He divides the light from the darkness, and he gives each of them a distinct name.  He says to the sea, "Thus far, and no farther."  He makes living creatures according to their kinds.  He makes man and woman, male and female.  Certain sins do more than encroach upon the rights of God or one's neighbor.  They are worse than failures in duty.  They are a kind of anti-creation, confusion, a movement to lapse back into the state of the heavens and the earth before God gave them their forms.

The modern world is awash in such confusion.  Men fear to draw distinctions, because they imply boundaries that should not be crossed, or circumscriptions in being that cannot be crossed.  The ancient pagans may have raised many a bad man and many a bad woman, but beyond the stews of the imperial court at its worst, they knew what a man or a woman was.  The Egyptians used slaves as we use machines, but they never advanced so far as to consider their slaves or themselves as machines.  We had to wait more than 2000 years to discover the merits of the drab and the slovenly.  Phidias and Praxiteles never did.

The love of order, the sense of the beauty of a thing wherein nothing is extraneous or exaggerated or misplaced or tending to corrupt or obliterate the whole, is universal to mankind.  It has the power to unite.  Imagine a band of Zulu warriors chanting a war song in polyphonic power, while Japanese samurai listen in proper silence.  Imagine Onondaga chieftains traveling from far away to hear Jenny Lind sing Swedish folk songs just for them, and then departing with honor both given and received.  That actually happened, in Rochester, in 1850.

Pope Francis wants the Mass to unite Catholics, rather than to be the site of division.  It is right to want that.  But can the means deliver?

The question is not ecclesiological.  I am not asking about what God can do.  I am on the near side of the matter, asking about what does in fact raise the mind of man.  Now, the Novus Ordo Mass can be celebrated in a beautiful and reverent way.  The reverence may be easier to secure than the beauty.  Most priests are reverent.  Most of the faithful who attend Mass want to be reverent.  But beauty is another thing.  That, for the Novus Ordo, takes work.

You must first know what you're doing.  And the Novus Ordo gives plenty of room for people who do not know what they're doing: bad songwriters, treacherous translators, peacocks in the choir, Miss Hospitality interrupting your prayer by welcoming you from the pulpit and advertising the hosts for today, the lounge pianist who plays like Billy Joel while you are coming back from Communion, tempting you to say, "Man, what are you doing here?"

This disorder, sometimes a casual and breezy negligence, sometimes a showy display of tastes and talents or quasi-talents, sometimes both at once, and always a failure to conceive of the Mass as an artistic whole, is anti-evangelistic.  If you want bad art, you can get a much higher quality of it — worse, with more talent for the bad — by staying home and listening to Beyoncé or somebody.

I don't go to Mass for the art.  I go to receive the Lord in the sacrament, and to hear the word of God, grit my teeth as I may when I hear it strangled in translation.  The Mass is valid.  I receive the Lord.  When the priest and the people seem well-disposed, I remember to thank God for them and to pray for them, regardless of the clumsiness, and I ask God to remind me that taste doesn't save or damn.

Still, when I go to an ordinary Mass and I find no choir, I thank God.  I shouldn't have to do so. Were I a Byzantine Catholic, I'd never have occasion for it. When no one bugs me at the door with false welcomes, I am relieved.  I shouldn't have to look for the side door when I enter a strange church.  I shouldn't have to avoid the near occasion of toothache.  Silence — another thing that the modern world flees — is a stream of living water.  In silence I pray.  Only then do I really notice people, they and I with our social guards down.

Imagine you were a Catholic in Vietnam, in old Da Nang, sixty years ago.  You go to Mass.  You are immediately at home.  The vernacular does not obstruct.  Are the service and the church Vietnamese?  They cannot help but be so.  The art isn't merely French, transplanted.

When the priest preaches, he speaks in a language his people can understand.  But the work of art, realized with a French Vietnamese accent, planted in the soil of a real and vital culture and watering and enriching that very soil, is the same in all important respects in Da Nang as in Dublin, in Saigon as in San Diego.  Can you say the same, now, of Saint Joe's on one side of town, and Saint Mary's on the other?  You are a visitor, and you want to go to Mass.  It is like tossing the I Ching wands: "The thirty-sixth hexagram, the hexagram of Haugen.  Alas."

The unreliability of it all gives powerful witness to this truth about man and God.  We are united only from above, by what transcends us.  When we fall to our knees and pray, when we observe the distinction between ourselves and God, between the profane and the sacred, the everyday and the eternal, then more than ever do we draw near to one another, and hearts and hands are joined in anticipation of that city whose single language is praise.



esolenAnthony Esolen. "The Mass and Our Unity." The Catholic Thing (December 21, 2021).

Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to:

The Author

esolen54smAnthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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