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Restoring The Sacred Humility In The Sacred Liturgy

January 16, 2018 Featured Today No Comments


One of the most serious and endemic problems in how the sacred liturgy is celebrated in many parishes in our own age is a conspicuous lack of humility. Certain contemporary hymns seem calculated to drum into the congregation how supposedly holy, gifted, lovable, and prophetic they are, with scarcely a word about how sinful they are.
A misunderstanding as to what “active participation” in the sacred liturgy truly means has in some cases turned the sanctuary into a sort of theatrical stage where parts are doled out in what seems like an “affirmative action” program to appease power-hungry laity who think the Church is “too clerical.”
Some priests appear to think that they are entertainers with an audience to amuse, and that their own ad-lib prayers and invented comments should supersede what the Roman Missal gives them to say.
This is all far removed from what our Lord taught about divine worship in His parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), wherein He has made it abundantly clear that He has no use for prayers of self-congratulation. It is the worshipper who humbles himself and even abases himself before the Lord whose prayers will find favor before the throne of God.
Indeed, the Incarnation has made humility an absolute imperative. For in the presence of a God who has humbled Himself to the point of becoming an infant, to the point of dying on a cross, and even to the point of taking on the appearance of a small bread host in the Holy Eucharist, how can we, how dare we, proudly “assert ourselves” or “affirm ourselves”?
The liturgical rites of the Church across the ages teach a spirit of humility, if we are willing to listen. In the Confiteor of the penitential rite of the Mass, we profess that our sins are no small matter, describing even our venial sins as having “greatly sinned” and “most grievous” faults.
One of the many remarkable features of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the Usus antiquior, is that in the penitential rite it is the priest, the celebrant, who must first recite the Confiteor by himself before the assisting clerics and acolytes do so. He is required to set an example of humility by being the first to abase himself before the Lord, with those assisting praying that he may be forgiven, before anyone else does so, and he in turn prays for their forgiveness.
In both the Ordinary and the Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite, if a deacon (or a priest fulfilling the liturgical role of the deacon) is to chant or read the Gospel at a pontifical Mass (a solemn Mass celebrated by a bishop), he does not simply go to the ambo and begin reading, but rather goes first to the bishop to ask for and receive his blessing before proceeding. There is in this act a tacit admission of one’s unworthiness even to utter the sacred words of the Gospel without the help of God.
In a similar vein, the twelfth-century Easter Vigil rubrics for the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino instruct the deacon who is going to sing the Exsultet, the great hymn of the Paschal candle, to say privately to his fellow monks as he passes through their midst in the choir, with his head bowed, “Pray for me” (text in Dom Teodoro Leuterman, Ordo Casinensis Hebdomadae Maioris (saec. XII), Miscellanea Cassinese, n. 20, Monte Cassino, Italy, Monte Cassino Abbey, 1941, p. 114).
In the sacred liturgy, humility is expressed not only in words, but also in actions, in the outward deportment of the body. In the Roman Rite tradition, we do this first and foremost by dropping to our knees before God. In kneeling we temporarily sacrifice our mobility and decrease ourselves to the height of mere children, acknowledging our littleness and weakness as creatures utterly dependent upon God.
We all know, of course, that there can be health concerns that can validly excuse a person from kneeling. But all too often in our own time, there are those who won’t bend their knees to God for the thinnest of excuses. For Catholics in good health, kneeling and genuflection should be routine expressions of their participation in the sacred liturgy.
There are special occasions in the sacred liturgy that call for an even more radical humbling of the body in the sight of the Lord — the posture of prostration, traceable back to Abraham, who “fell on his face” before God (Gen. 17:3). The medieval theologian Honorius of Autun (+c. 1135) explains that by totally leveling our body to the earth we adore “Christ in the flesh,” who “descended to the earth” and “put on flesh from the earth to wash us.”
It is moreover a reminder that by sinning man lost his stature of standing with angels in Paradise and descended into the mire, putting himself on a par with irrational beasts. Yet by this ultimate physical act of humility we find the way to raise ourselves up again, to rise above the things of earth: “…We make our stomach cleave to the earth, and our soul to the ground, that we may be worthy through Christ to rise from earthly desires” (Honorius of Autun, Gemma animae, book 1, chapter 117, PL 172, col. 582).
In the rites of Ordination, candidates to the diaconate and the priesthood prostrate themselves as the Litany of Saints is said on their behalf. At the beginning of the Liturgy of the Passion on Good Friday, the celebrant, upon reaching the sanctuary, prostrates himself totally in silence. In his book The Power of Silence, Robert Cardinal Sarah says of this solemn action, “Man acknowledges his nothingness, and he literally has nothing to say in view of the sacred mystery of the Cross. Humbly, he can only prostrate himself and adore” (The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2017, p. 123).
For centuries, the liturgical rite of installation of a new Roman Pontiff carried amid its splendor and pageantry a brief but telling admonition for the new Pope not to be puffed up by the honors bestowed upon him in his sacred high office. During the procession at the beginning of the Mass, the master of ceremonies, bearing two shafts, one mounted with a lit candle and the other with tow, would set the tow ablaze with the candle and say to the new Pontiff, “Holy Father, thus passes the glory of the world.”
This rite with its stark message would be repeated three times before the Pope reached the altar (1488 Ceremoniale Romanum, in Fr. Marc Dykmans, SJ, ed., L’oeuvre de Patrizi Piccolomini, ou Le Ceremonial papal de la premiere Renaissance (volume 1), Studi e testi, n. 293, Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1980, p. 70).
So vital is humility to our life as Catholics, to our eternal salvation, that God has in a sense made a sacrament of it in the Sacrament of Penance, for the sincere confession of one’s sins is the ultimate expression of self-knowledge, the ultimate admission of who we really are in the sight of God. In the matter of sin, one hears those of other faiths speak of simply confessing their guilt interiorly to God. Such a “confession” requires from a man no outward admission or acknowledgment of his guilt.
But the Sacrament of Confession that Christ has given to His Church requires from us a far greater act of humility, going outside of ourselves, as it were, to profess our guilt in detail verbally to Christ in the person of His priest. It requires from us a surrender of something of ourselves, of our own will, in laying bare our consciences and the secrets of the soul to the judgment of the priest.

Turning To God

The English Oratorian Fr. Frederick Faber (1814-1863) describes this superbly:
“Confession is an act of faith on the part of the creature. It is also an act of the most concentrated worship. It is a breaking with the world, and a turning to God. It is a triumph over millions of evil spirits of huge power and, comparatively with us men, of unbounded intellect. It is the beginning of an eternity of ineffable union with God, and confers the right of beholding the Invisible face to face.
“A man in a state of sin sees in a fellow creature, as sinful as himself, perhaps even evidently more unworthy, the form and features and real jurisdiction of the Incarnate Son of God. He kneels at his feet as if he were divine. He narrates to him the most secret shames and hidden sins of his soul. He submits to his questioning, as if he were the absolute and ultimate Judge of all the earth. He listens with meekness to his reproof, as if it were God Himself who spoke. He leaves to him the fixing of his punishment. He gives him rights over the arrangement of much of his external life” (Fr. Frederick Faber, Spiritual Conferences, London, 1860, pp. 245-246).
In the eyes of God, we all leave a whole lot to be desired. No, God doesn’t simply love us “just the way we are”; rather, He loves us despite the way we are. If we will only have the humility to admit this, God in His love and mercy will help us change who we are for the better. Humility is a virtue we should all pray for, as in this Collect from a votive Mass for obtaining humility found in the late medieval missals of Toledo and Girona, Spain (1499 and 1557 respectively):
“O God, who resist the proud and bestow graces upon the humble: increase in us the virtue of true humility, the pattern of which thy Only-begotten Son exhibited in Himself to the faithful, that we may never provoke thy indignation by our pride, but submissive [to thee] we may receive ever more the gifts of thy mercy” (Missale mixtum almae ecclesiae Toletanae, Toledo, 1499, fol. 299v; Missale secundum laudabilem consuetudinem dioecesis Gerundense, Lyons, 1557, fol. 276v).

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