Mosebach on Losing our Liturgical Innocence


One of the most formative books in the development of my own thought on Catholic liturgy and tradition was The Heresy of Formlessness by German author Martin Mosebach (Ignatius Press, 2006). Though relatively unknown in America, Mosebach is a well-known voice for Catholic Tradition in the German speaking world. Heresy of Formlessness is truly an illuminating book that puts the liturgical rupture of the past four decades in perspective from the point of view of the layman in the pew. Particularly fascinating is Mosebach's notion that the liturgical problems since the 60's have caused us all to lose what he calls our "liturgical innocence." What does it mean to lose our liturgical innocence?

Liturgy is the public expression of cult, the worship of the Catholic Church. For our liturgy to be authentic, it must be received naturally as a gift, which means to a great extent our liturgy ought to be equally natural, to some degree reflexive and even unthinking - not in the sense that we do not engage our intellect, but in the sense that what we are doing is so natural that we do not find ourselves having to pay attention to particulars. When we drive to work along the same route we have driven for ten years, we do not need to pay attention to where we are going or what turns to take or the scenery; we know it all intuitively and can free our mind from the details of our route to contemplate other things. But if we suddenly are forced to take a new route, or drive somewhere we have never been before, we suddenly must become very attentive to details that otherwise would not have engaged our attention. If we are not clear on where we are going, these details can become very important. Unfortunately, they also mean we cannot free our mind as much as we'd like because we must stay focused on where we are going. We must become experts in the new route until we master it. 

To apply this to the liturgy, Mosebach opines that the liturgical reforms, because they were unnatural and non-organic, force those on either side of the debate to delve into liturgical matters and become "experts" on matters liturgical, thus diminishing the subjective elements of the liturgy of the mystery and sanctity that it formerly possessed. Mosebach explains:

"Perhaps the greatest damage done by Pope Paul VI's reform of the Mass (and by the ongoing process that has outstripped it), the greatest spiritual deficit, is this: we are now positively obliged to talk about the liturgy. Even those who want to preserve the liturgy or pray in the spirit of the liturgy, and even those who make great sacrifices to remain faithful to it-all have lost something priceless, namely, the innocence that accepts it as something God-given, something that comes down to man as a gift from heaven. Those of us who are defenders of the great and sacred liturgy, the classical Roman liturgy, have all become-whether in a small way or a big way-liturgical experts. In order to counter the arguments of the reform, which was padded with technical, archaeological, and historical scholarship, we had to delve into questions of worship and liturgy-something that is utterly foreign to the religious man [i.e., the man whose religion is so natural to him as to be unintentional and reflexive].

We have let ourselves be led into a kind of scholastic and juridical way of considering the liturgy. What is absolutely indispensable for genuine liturgy? When are the celebrant's whims tolerable, and when do they become unacceptable? We have got used to accepting the liturgy on the basis of minimum requirements, whereas the criteria ought to be maximal. And finally, we have started to evaluate liturgy-a monstrous act! We sit in the pews and ask ourselves, was that Holy Mass, or wasn't it? I go to church to see God and come away like a theatre critic. And if, now and again, we have the privilege of celebrating a Holy Mass that allows us to forget, for a while, the huge historical and religious catastrophe that has profoundly damaged the bridge between man and God, we cannot forget all the efforts that had to be made so that this Mass could take place, how many letters had to be written, how many sacrifices made this Holy Sacrifice possible, so that (among other things) we could pray for a bishop who does not want our prayers and who would prefer not to have his name mentioned in the Canon.

What have we lost? The opportunity to lead a hidden religious life, days begun with a quiet Mass in a modest little neighborhood church; a life in which we learn, over decades, discreetly guided by priests, to mingle our own sacrifice with Christ's sacrifice; a Holy Mass in which we ponder our own sins and the graces given to us-and nothing else; rarely is this possible any more for a Catholic aware of liturgical tradition, once the liturgy's unquestioned status has been destroyed" [1 25-26].

The reforms of the 60's have led us to a place where we are losing our liturgical innocence. Part of this is the tremendous variety of options allowable in the Novus Ordo and the many ways of doing things that are tolerated by local ordinaries. Are drums allowed at Mass? Can I be prohibited from receiving Communion kneeling? When are we supposed to kneel? The great variability and uncertainty means we all have to become experts to resolve these questions. In other words, the fact that the Church does not know where its going means we all have to pay a lot more attention to the landmarks along the way so we can try to orient ourselves. In a very real and tragic sense, the fact that we have to maintain our tradition with great intentionality is itself a sign that we have lost it.

It could be responded that the fault here lies with us in allowing ourselves to be liturgical "experts"; can we not simply adopt the "hidden religious life" that Mosebach speaks of and cease being liturgical "theatre critics"? Can we not just smile, get along and forget all of these things? Unfortunately, that approach is no more tenable than telling the man who is lost on the road that the best thing for him to do is to pay no attention to where he is going or the markers along the way. When a man is uncertain of the way, or when the way is disputed, he cannot help but pay attention to the landmarks along the way. And this is the situation we find ourselves in - Catholics who desperately want to arrive at the place the Church wants them to be at but find themselves in a vehicle that is going down uncertain roads, roads that have never been tried before, and not knowing where they are going or if they are going the right way, they naturally grasp onto things they see along the way and question them. Unfortunately, this means that it is harder to detach and just let oneself be Catholic, as Mosebach said. We are all experts now. We have lost our innocence.

For more articles on Martin Mosebach, see:

Mosebach on the Church
Mosebach on Veiling

Click here to purchase Heresy of Formlessness