Liturgy Conference Highlights Need for Theological Integrity Across Disciplines: Part I

[Note: Jon Laird was The Cardinal Newman Society’s delegate to the Sacra Liturgia conference recently held in Milan, Italy. In this article, Jon explains the main theological themes running throughout the conference and discusses why they are important for the fruitful study of the liturgy in a Catholic university. This is the third article in a series about the conference; the first two introductory articles can be found here and here.]

In my previous article I discussed Cardinal Robert Sarah’s opening address to Sacra Liturgia 2017. Now I begin the task of applying the central themes of the conference to university life.


“In a Catholic University, research necessarily includes (a) the search for an integration of knowledge, (b) a dialogue between faith and reason, (c) an ethical concern, and (d) a theological perspective… [T]he rigid compartmentalization of knowledge within individual academic disciplines, makes the task [of integration of knowledge] increasingly difficult.” (Pope St. John Paul II, Ex corde Ecclesiae 15,16).

Such compartmentalization not only prevents the synthesis of knowledge which a university seeks by its very nature, but also risks doing violence to the university’s Catholic identity by losing the common theological perspective. This perspective allows a university’s Catholic identity to permeate every aspect of campus life and can form the basis for interdisciplinary collaboration in a uniquely Christian manner.

Therefore, in this article I address the proceedings of Sacra Liturgia 2017 in a way that highlights the importance of theological integrity across many disciplines—particularly theology, philosophy, history, psychology, and the arts—in the study of the liturgy. The article will appear in two parts.


Part 1, which begins below, examines two complementary perspectives on the theology of the liturgy:

  1. a Christological-ecclesiological perspective of the liturgy, a theme set down by Cardinal Sarah in his opening address to the conference;
  2. an existential-phenomenological perspective of the liturgy, in which I discuss man’s own experience of the encounter with the divine that takes place in the liturgy.

Part 2, which will appear in a subsequent essay, will examine two themes under the category of authentic liturgical reform:

  1. application of the ancient principle lex orandi, lex credendi concerning the relationship between liturgy and doctrine;
  2. hermeneutics in liturgical theology, concerning certain methodological issues in this field.

Below are the articles to which I will refer throughout Part I:

Naturally, since Sacra Liturgia 2017 took place in Milan, Italy, there were several presentations on the Ambrosian Rite, which has been preserved there without interruption since the beginning of the Church. There is a great deal of fascinating material in the development of the Milanese liturgy, but it is less relevant for my purposes here. I would encourage those who are interested in it to investigate the conference proceedings once they are released in order to see some of latest work being done in this field.

Christological-ecclesiological perspective

Cardinal Robert Sarah, in his opening address, asked this question: “How do we encounter Jesus Christ?” His answer is that the primary way we encounter Christ is ecclesial. While affirming that many people encounter Christ in extraordinary personal ways—particularly at the beginning of their conversion—he repeatedly emphasized that the primary purpose of the liturgy is not to bring about an individual’s personal relationship with Christ, but to sanctify the whole Church when its members participate in Christ’s action of offering himself to the Father.

Other speakers likewise lamented the individualism that often dominates the liturgy. Cardinal Burke, for instance, discussed the betrayal of the post-Vatican II liturgical reform by priests and congregations who use the liturgy as a platform to express individual personalities. In particular he stated the importance of the priest’s recognition that Christ is the protagonist of the liturgy and that it is the whole Church that is praying. He explained St. Paul’s rebuke to the Corinthians regarding the decline in their worship (1 Cor 11:17ff), in which Paul recounts the divisions that had broken out and reminds the Corinthians that it is not their own family’s meal which they celebrate, but the Lord’s supper.

Abbot Christopher Zielinski, in his discussion of the liturgical formation of the human person, stated that the liturgy is a gift that orients us and by which we are to be formed—not the other way around. He discussed the idea that man is primarily receptive in the liturgy and secondarily active (Christ being the primary actor). In response to a question I asked about how university art programs and students can stay faithful to the needs of the liturgy in a culture that encourages constantly pushing the envelope of artistic ethics, Msgr. Verdon suggested that artists need to be taught about the liturgy as a larger work of art into which they are to place themselves.

All of these points serve the basic Christological-ecclesiological notion that the liturgy is primarily an action of Christ, and that we participate in it, not as individuals, but as a Church—that is, as the Body of Christ. In a Catholic university, this is not merely academic but influences both the liturgy and catechetical duty the university has toward its student body and community, a point I will explore in future articles.

Existential-Phenomenological perspective

Although no presenter used either “existential” or “phenomenological” to describe their perspective on the liturgy, the presentations included frequent and occasionally extensive discussion of man’s experience in the liturgy in ways which, in my view, justify this characterization.

Abbot Zielinski, a professional psychologist, opened his presentation with a personal story from his childhood about observing a monk visiting his church celebrating Mass. This monk was imbued with sacredness, and Zielinski was struck with the holiness and beauty of the Mass; he felt as if Heaven was opened to him, and he suddenly had a profound understanding of the presence of God.

This anecdote reveals the three parts of the perspective I am addressing in this section: (1) the res which is the encounter with God into which man can enter within the depths of his soul (existential); (2) the whole experience content—psychological, emotional, spiritual, and so on—which disposes man toward or against this encounter (phenomenological); and (3) the role of the liturgical rites in facilitating that experience.

Existential nature of the encounter with God

The experience of God in the liturgy, insists Abbot Zielinski, is not merely a psychological phenomenon, not merely a projection of one’s own ideas about God. Rather, it is the fulfillment of a fundamental desire within man that can never truly express itself in human terms: the desire to experience God. The liturgy permits this desire to emerge and has as its object God, who is the purpose for which we are created. It also has a sacrificial nature in that man must die to his own personal ideas and to his limited desires for things that satisfy him superficially in order to enter into a relationship with the sacred.

Zielinski seems to identify this encounter with Rudolph Otto’s numinous experience, as articulated in his work The Idea of the Holy. Briefly, the numinous experience contains two distinct poles:

  1. A sense of something mysterious, overwhelming, and daunting that elicits from us a sense of diminution, humility, submission, and creatureliness.
  2. A sense of something fascinating, desirable, good, caring, and comforting that invites us into its fullness, fulfills us, and in so doing produces a unique kind of spiritual joy.

(Spitzer, Robert, The Soul’s Upward Yearning, Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2015, pp. 28-29)

The way Otto describes the experience connects the res with the experience content.

Experience content disposing man to the encounter

While it is possible to conflate this section with the previous one, I think it can be useful to distinguish between the truly indescribable encounter itself and the phenomenology for two reasons. First, elements of the phenomenology could be present without the res (e.g., an amalgam of spiritual and emotional feelings devoid of a true encounter with Christ). Second, in the next section as I discuss how rites facilitate the experience, the inclusion of the res in with the experience content might mistakenly imply that the ritual constituents take on too strong a role as primary efficient causes of the individual’s encounter with God.

Otto’s two poles reflect the way that several conference presenters described the individual’s experience of encountering God in the liturgy. The following are some examples:

  • We ought to tremble in amazement and fall down on our knees, possessing a disposition of humility, profound reverence and awe (Cardinal Sarah);
  • Gallican influence on Roman medieval liturgy emphasized the interior disposition of the celebrant as humble and penitential, and also added elements of mysteriousness to the more austere Roman liturgy (Fr. Lang);
  • Young people need to experience what is sacred and mysterious, not what is superficial and banal (Fr. Nuara); and
  • We need to experience the paradox, present in the numinous, of revulsion at the idea of self-sacrifice and attraction toward what is achieved by doing so (Abbot Zielinski).

These four views present interrelated yet distinct perspectives about the experience content disposing us to encounter God in the liturgy:

  • Cardinal Sarah clearly wants us to adopt certain dispositions of reverence. Reverence, therefore, is not a case of involuntary “evidence” of our encounter—it certainly can be that, but we ought to choose it also in order to properly dispose ourselves.
  • Lang, from the perspective of the historical development of the liturgy, views the Gallican influence on Roman liturgy (i.e., increasing its floridity and sense of mysterious awe) as a positive development, in spite of the fact that, as I experienced with a few of my own university professors, such development is often characterized in disparaging terms.
  • Nuara views the existential fulfillment possible in a liturgy characterized by beauty and mystery as an antidote to the nihilism that modern culture offers to young people.
  • Abbot Zielinski is interested in (among other things) the spiritual and psychological need to transcend the limited possibilities of one’s lone existence in order to enter into the profound mystery of the presence of God. I should note also that Abbot Zielinski, in his professional view as a psychologist, believes the numinous experience to be an essential therapeutic tool for several pathologies.

It is worth emphasizing that our discussion here about disposing oneself to encounter God in the liturgy is limited in scope. A broader view would take into account elements such as the subject’s ethical life and pursuit of extra-liturgical mystical theology.

The role of liturgy in inducing phenomenological content

Given the high value placed on a certain type of experience, conference presenters argued that the Church has always seen facilitating this experience as one essential task of an authentic liturgical style. Cardinal Sarah, for instance, questioned whether our liturgies today are as efficacious as St. Thomas the apostle’s encounter with the risen Christ that resulted in his cry of astonishment, “My Lord and my God!” In other words, to Cardinal Sarah, even though participation in the liturgy is primarily an ecclesial event in which we are drawn into the perfect and never-failing self-offering of Christ, our encounter with God nevertheless pertains to the very efficacy of the liturgy.

Other presenters offered similar warnings regarding liturgical celebrations that were devoid of awe, mystery, beauty, and humility and encouraged the use of objects and gestures which promoted them:

  • Treating the Mass as if it is a meal with my brother Jesus will not facilitate the proper experience (Cardinal Sarah).
  • Our posture and the way we carry ourselves affects our disposition and either promotes or hinders a sense of awe and humility. For example, standing disposes us toward joy, kneeling disposes us toward adoration (Cardinal Sarah).
  • Ad orientem worship removes the individualism of the priest and allows the whole church to encounter God “face to face” together (Cardinal Sarah and Cardinal Burke). It was clear that both Cardinals were discussing the importance of experiencing this gesture, in addition to its theological symbolism.
  • Using the liturgy to express individual personalities or to serve other agendas is a betrayal of the liturgical reform (Cardinal Burke).
  • The liturgy needs to be celebrated in a way that clearly manifests God’s presence compared to the emptiness of contemporary culture which lives as if God did not exist (Cardinal Burke).
  • Inattentiveness to sacredness in the liturgy hinders the participation of the faithful and causes us to be guilty of falsification (Cardinal Burke).
  • The way that the physical structure of church buildings developed influenced the audibility of certain parts of the Mass, increasing the sense of mystery (Fr. Lang).
  • Dumbed-down liturgy alienates young people, who are seeking an experience of truth, goodness, and beauty (Fr. Nuara).
  • A liturgy focused on “what I like” betrays and frustrates the ultimate desire of man and condemns him (Abbot Zielinski).
  • Beauty is necessary to achieve the experience of the numen; it is not enough only to be theologically sound. Beauty, according to Jung, is necessary in the liturgy in order to break the tendency to make the liturgy a purely human, utilitarian activity (Abbot Zielinski).
  • Modern liturgy too often makes man the protagonist, posing serious obstacles to the needed abandonment attitude (Abbot Zielinski).
  • Diminishing the sense of sacrifice and turning the Mass into a mere meal or symposium helped create a generation of narcissistic and neurotic individuals (Abbot Zielinski).
  • The whole liturgy should take man by the hand and lead him to God through sights, sounds, smells, and gestures. Everything should be oriented toward God (Abbot Zielinski).
  • Architecture is extremely important for this purpose; it does not serve the liturgy to have simply a room to hold people. The altar should be elevated to indicate the need to rise up from where we are. There is an important psychological component relating the structure of the building itself to our interior life (Abbot Zielinski).
  • Images are “road signs” for those who walk the Christian path (Msgr. Verdon).
  • We relate personally to the persons depicted in images. We identify their bodies with ours, and in this way they can be a mirror for the Christian to contemplate his own dignity and reveal what his disposition ought to be (Msgr. Verdon).

I will return to many of these items in a later article about the responsibility of an authentic liturgical praxis in a Catholic university.

Conclusion to Part I

The existential-phenomenological perspective as presented here describes the full experience of living the theology present in the Christological-ecclesiological perspective. The description and connection of these two perspectives on the liturgy puts us in a position to examine in Part II of the present article the main theme of Sacra Liturgia 2017; namely, the nature of authentic liturgical reform.


Jon Laird is the Director of Music at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Woodbridge, Va. In addition to his parish duties, Jon is active as a freelance organist and pianist specializing in vocal accompaniment and as a piano technician. He also operates Laudate! Choir Camp, a summer music camp for children with an emphasis on the Catholic choral tradition. Jon holds a Master of Music degree in Sacred Music (emphasis organ) from The Catholic University of America and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Geography from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

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