Restoring Beauty in the Sacred Liturgy

January 13, 2009

From HSI:

Jesus Christ has chosen the Church for His Bride. In nuptial love, the Bride of Christ looks into the eyes of the Bridegroom and calls out: “Splendor and majesty are in his presence; power and beauty are in his sanctuary” (Psalm 96:6).

The wedding feast of the Lamb described in the Book of Revelation actually describes the sacred liturgy of the Church [1]. In the climax of her heavenly worship, the Bride reflects the image of the Bridegroom-the image of the Word made flesh, who is Beauty Incarnate.

For the world, the maxim “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” [2] is a subjective statement. For the Bride of Christ, this is a concrete reality of the Incarnation.

Sadly, in our own times the banal and vulgar have invaded our sanctuaries, following what John Paul II called in Ecclesia de Eucharistia “a misguided sense of creativity” (no. 52). Nothing, therefore, is more important today than the restoration of the beauty of the sacred liturgy, the restoration of the sacred.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, the twentieth century’s most notable writer on the theology of beauty, said in his preface to The Glory of the Lord , “We can be sure that whoever sneers at Beauty’s name . . . can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”

In order celebrate the sacred liturgy with due reverence and beauty, the Church must be able to “distinguish between the sacred and the profane” (cf. Ezek. 44:23). When false types of “inculturation” pollute liturgical worship, we must be mindful that “all is not valid; all is not licit; all is not good” [3]. The secular, the cheap, the inferior, and the inartistic “are not meant to cross the threshold of God’s temple” [4].

The Canons Regular of St. John Cantius is a religious community that began in 1998 and serves the Archdiocese of Chicago. The order, comprised of 25 priests and brothers, strives to “restore the sacred” in the context of parochial ministry. Their mission requires, first and foremost, contemplation of the beauty of Christ in the sacred liturgy-what Sacrosanctum Concilium calls “a sacred action surpassing all others” (no. 7). This begins with external fidelity to the rubrics, but leads to internal union with Christ, for “those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn. 4:24).

The spiritual beauty of the sacred liturgy transforms the lives of Catholics. Indeed, as then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said in an August 2002 message to Communion and Liberation, “The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes.” This spiritual beauty forms the Christlike heart in moral beauty. And when the spiritual beauty of the sacred liturgy has transformed a soul, man can then create things of beauty, such as art, architecture, poetry, and music.

This man-made beauty, formed by the beauty of Christ in the sacred liturgy, imitates the creative genius of God who gave this world an inherent natural beauty. When the beautiful and radiant face of Christ our Savior becomes the center of sacred worship, all creation longs to cry out with the psalmist: “Every work that He does is full of splendor and beauty” (see Ps. 111:3).

If the beauty of Holy Mass does not, in essence, rely upon the splendid beauty of things such as iconography, ornate vestments, Gregorian chant, or baroque architecture, why then has the Church invested so much of its patrimony in fostering these sacred arts? God has placed a legitimate desire in the human soul to create beautiful things because He wants man to share in His masterpiece of creation, a creation that is good and beautiful. The Canons Regular, in their apostolate, hope to foster this excellence, and seek to beautify the celebration of the sacred liturgy by the enhancement of the sacred arts.

Beauty in the liturgy results from order. This is why the liturgy, by its very nature, demands order. The liturgy cannot exist without rubrics or ceremony. Beauty shines through the gestures of the sacred liturgy. Thus, external acts of worship such as making the Sign of the Cross, genuflecting, kneeling, and bowing become ways to internalize reverence and beauty in our human lives.

“Every liturgical gesture, being a gesture of Christ, is called to express beauty,” wrote Archbishop Piero Marini, the master of papal liturgical celebrations, in his 2006 book Liturgy and Beauty. And so the transcendent beauty of the liturgy permeates the hearts of men and forms us to have proper relationships, not only with God, but also with our neighbor, and therefore empowers us to transform human culture. This is the genuine meaning of “inculturation.” If we Catholics want the inherent beauty of the liturgy to convert the “culture of death,” we must permit the sacred liturgy to form us by its spirit and by its rubrics. This means that, in humility, we must renounce any desire to make the liturgy conform to changing whims. Consequently, let us renounce unauthorized innovations, rubrical improvisation, banality, and over-creativity.

John Paul II saw the restoration of the ancient Roman Rite, the anchor of Catholic identity and faith, as integral to the success of the “new evangelization.” He established the Ecclesia Dei Commission to facilitate this initiative. On July 7, Pope Benedict XVI promulgated a motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, to intensify the work of the “new evangelization.” Now the complete restoration of the ancient Roman Rite, with all of its splendor and beauty, is possible. Pope Benedict achieved this in a genuine spirit of ecclesial unity and in full conformity with Vatican II. In a recent interview with the Italian daily Il Giornale, Russian Orthodox Patricarch Alexy II praised the Pope’s motu proprio, saying, “The recovery of the ancient liturgical tradition is a fact that we greet positively.”

Following the guidance of Pope Benedict, a new movement has recently arisen among the clergy and laity alike to restore the beauty of the ancient liturgy. Some priests are now preparing to celebrate this most beautiful, ancient, and laudable form of the Roman Rite. In order to encourage priests to celebrate the ancient form of the Roman rite, the Canons Regular have launched a new website,, as an online resource and tutorial on the celebration of the Mass according to the 1962 Missale Romanum. It provides the rubrics and texts of the Mass, as well as audio and video materials.

Additionally, the Canons Regular now teach priests to offer the Mass according to this form both here in the United States and abroad. In August 2007, at the invitation of Bishop Eugenijus Bartulis of the Diocese of Šiauliai, Lithuania, the Canons Regular traveled to Lithuania to teach priests and seminarians the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite and introduce them to its rubrics, history, spirituality, and beauty.

Celebrating the Roman Rite according to the ordinary form (Missale Romanum 2003) and extraordinary form (Missale Romanum 1962), the Canons Regular firmly hold that “the Old Rite becomes a living treasure of the Church and also should provide a standard of worship, of mystery, and of catechesis toward which the celebrations of the Novus Ordo must move. In other words, the Tridentine Mass is the missing link. And unless it be re-discovered in all its faithful truth and beauty, the Novus Ordo will not respond to the organic growth and change that has characterized the liturgy from its beginning” [5].