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Thursday, June 22, 2017

On the Sign of Peace

Written by  Michael Warren Davis
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A right-minded friend recently told me about a campaign of (shall we say?) nonviolent resistance undertaken by an Anglophone remnant following Vatican II: after the priest intoned, ‘The Lord be with you,’ they would shout, ‘Et cum spiritu tuo!

I’m all for cheeky traditionalism. In fact, we need much more of it. Think of the thousands upon thousands of souls who’ve been formed by great Catholic wits – be it the levitous Chesterton, the acidic Waugh, or the droll Newman. Ours is an uncontrollably joyful faith. Yet we know that underneath it all is a deadly seriousness, too. Think of Saint Lawrence, who mocked his torturers as they roasted him on a spit. ‘Turn me over,’ he teased; ‘This side’s done.’ That’s our greatest example. In the fight to restore the fulness of Faith, we must be solemn, but never dour – humble, not shy.


By my reckoning, the most dangerous inversion of the traditional Mass is the so-called Sign of Peace. It marks the post-VII Church’s most aggressive rejection of the Early Fathers. We gather to witness the sacrifice of Our Lord on the altar, falling on our knees as the priest calls God Himself down from Heaven. This happens every hour of every day, as it has done for millennia. Without exaggeration, it’s the single most important event in the history of the world.

Maybe after 2,000 years we’ve come to take it for granted, because the Peace in the new Roman Rite amounts to nothing but a distraction. Instead of being engrossed by the miracle of transubstantiation – humbled and awed by the love of a God who died the cross to redeem our sins and feed our souls with His own precious body – we mill around the pews making pleasantries.

Dei gratia, those of us who live near a parish that uses the traditional form are spared this rude interruption. But what about those who don’t? Or if we want to attend a weekday Mass, which are rarely said in Latin? And what if we’re invited to a Novus Ordo funeral, wedding, baptism, first communion, or confirmation? My suggestion – and it’s only a suggestion – is this: when you kneel at the beginning of the consecration, resolve in your own mind not to stand until it’s time to approach the altar and receive the Sacrament.

Now, there are certainly reasons why this could prove dangerous. It might foster feelings of spiritual pride. It may sow malicious disobedience to Mother Church. And then there’s the fact that it’s just plain embarrassing. But the sad irony is that traditionalists reject the Novus Peace precisely because it lays out all these spiritual perils. It diverts our focus from the altar. It trivialises the great gift given to the Church by her Bridegroom: the power to summon Him in sacred matter. And it draws our attention back to ourselves, the people – attention that should be given solely and completely to the Lord of Hosts. What could be unseemlier?

Yet it can be overcome. Just be cognizant of the risk, and remember why you’re undertaking them. Shut your eyes tight and bow your head. Meditate on the mystery of the Incarnation. Pray ‘O sacrament most holy…’ Adore Christ, who offers Himself as our spiritual food. And, for God’s sake, smile! If you look down (or, I suppose, up) your nose at those turning to offer you the Peace, grumbling and frowning, that profits neither you nor them. Besides, this your salvation we’re talking about. Where can a man find true, soul-shuddering delight if not here?

The Early Fathers, in their wisdom, asked us for this one brief moment to turn our hearts and minds completely toward the Altar, at the moment Heaven and Earth intersect. Waugh himself wrote in The Catholic Herald that what most affected his conversion was:

the spectacle of the priest and his server at low Mass, stumping up to the altar without a glance to discover how many or how few he had in his congregation; a craftsman and his apprentice; a man with a job which he alone was qualified to do.

‘Waugh’s love of the Tridentine rite was not a matter of loving the solemn splendour of a high Mass,’ writes Francis Phillips, also in the Herald; ‘it was simply the priest’s humble absorption in the rite of a low Mass.’ Low or high, modest or majestic, that ‘humble absorption’ is the quintessence of the traditional form. And it should be true of the laity as well as the clergy. What could be more inappropriate to that end than this mini-coffee hour wedged into the middle of the Liturgy of the Eucharist?

Heaven knows this is nothing against the Peace in itself. But throughout the pre-VII history of the Roman Rite, it was only offered among the clergy. Even in the Ambrosian Rite, it’s given immediately after the Liturgy of the Word. Placing it mid-consecration was unprecedented, and evident of some overtly Protestant influence. It reduces the Eucharist to a meal – a ‘memorial supper’ as Zwingli taught. That’s the same corrupt understanding that leads to female ‘Extraordinary Ministers’ in tank-tops and jeans dropping the Host in people’s hands, which they peel off their sweaty palms and pop in their mouths like potato chips. (God help us.)

But, just as we’re always free to receive the Eucharist from a priest on the tongue, so too are we free to remain immersed in the holy mystery throughout. And by staying loyal to the example set by the Fathers, we can share their example with others. Even in the midst of a Novus Mass, we can encourage others in a deeper and more ancient understanding of the Pascha. It’s as simple as it is luminous: frankly, the Mass isn’t about you.

 It is, however, for you. It was instituted by Christ Himself, for your good and for the good of all His holy Church. That’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s nothing to be prideful of. It’s something to be observed with solemnity, humility, good humour, and – above all – unspeakable joy.

- Michael Warren Davis is a Boston-based columnist.

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