What kind of priest thought it was good to whitewash, trash statues, tear out altars?

Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 11.08.39It was a good day for The Catholic Thing today.  Anthony Esolen again knocked one out of the park in an piece in which he talks about reverence.

Esolen starts from an interesting jumping off point: Odysseus slaying the suitors, but sparing the singer who kneels.  In this way, Esolen underscores the importance of reverence and the consequences of irreverence.  Thus, Esolen with my emphases and comments:

We cannot say, “We will emphasize the holiness of the Eucharist we are about to receive, by milling about the aisles to pass small talk with friends.[Not just during the ‘Sign of Peace’, but also before Mass begins.  And then there’s the noisy, disrespectful chaos afterwards.] Our bodies will contradict our purported intention. The “emphasis” will be at best notional. We will not feel it in our pulses.  [Bodily posture matters.  It both reflects and induces attitudes.]

In the diocese where we spend our summers, the faithful at Mass have been instructed to kneel only during the first part of the consecration. When they return from Communion, they’re to remain standing until every communicant is back in his seat. Then they invariably sit down. So there’s no kneeling in silent prayer. That standing is supposed to stress the “community” of believers. [B as in B.  S as in S.  It might reflect, in fact, the anxiety of some liturgist who thinks that uniformity must be enforced… as in row by row Communion, etc.]

I’ve been struggling to put into words an insight I’ve derived from Father Aidan Nichols’ Looking at the Liturgy. [NB…] What kind of priest or prelate thought it was good to cover paintings of the saints with whitewash? To remove great altars? To throw statues into the dump? To reduce communion rails to rubble? To swear off the cassock? To expunge hieratic language? To send ancient prayers written by Ambrose and Aquinas down the memory hole? To rip out pews decorated with flowers and birds, carved by the men who built the church? [I ask myself this all the time.  My answers do not console.]

It is all of a piece. Let’s give the wreckers the benefit of the doubt.  [welllll….] Grant that they actually believed that blank walls do not a warehouse make. Grant that the bishops of Canada believe that people, many of them aged, standing around and watching other people standing around, will think of community, and not the blessed moment when they finally get to sit down. What can I conclude, other than they have been like color-blind people before a Monet, or tone-deaf people at a Bach chorale, or boors wearing sneakers to a wedding, or klutzes in a china shop?

These are natural defects. It’s no sin to be color-blind. But is that all? [No.  They made choices.  They chose whom to listen to, whom to believe about liturgy, architecture, etc.  But watch what happens now…] Over-schooled people, long sheltered from the physical necessities of life, from plowing, sowing, digging, sawing, stitching, bleaching, ironing, mowing – they are most prone to lifeless abstractions, and most dismissive of the bodily gestures that people who work with hands and shoulders and backs understand. That whole scene in Homer’s poem, [Odysseus, returned home, slaying the suitors, sparing the singer] each action in just the right place, would be for them one arbitrary thing after another.

Well done.

One take away from Esolen’s piece is also conveyed by Advent, a penitential season, though a joyfully penitential season.

What saved Phemius, the blind singer, was that he adopted the posture of a supplicant.  He lowered himself, humbly, debased himself before Odysseus.  He became supplex, which is a common word in our liturgical prayer, often found in our collects.

Supplex is an adjective, used also as a substantive, meaning “humbly begging or entreating; humble, submissive, beseeching, suppliant, supplicant.”  This and other derivative forms are commonly used in our Latin prayers; for example, we see the adverbial form suppliciter.  I never tire of this word.  The Lewis & Short Dictionary says supplex is from sup-plico, “bending the knees, kneeling down”.  However, the article on supplex in the French etymological dictionary of Latin by Alfred Ernout and Antoine Meillet offers that supplex comes not from plico but from plecto, “to plait, braid, interweave”.  E&M offers also the possibility that it is from placo, “to reconcile; to quiet, soothe, calm, assuage, appease, pacify”.   The former describes the physical attitude of the suppliant.  The latter describes his moral attitude.  The more probable plecto gives us much the same impact as plico.  L&S also says plico and plecto are synonyms.  Thus, the imagery I have invoked in the past of the supplicant being bent over or folded in respect to his knees (i.e., kneeling or bent low toward the floor) works well.  Also, in the ancient world it was usual for the supplicant to wrap his arms around (plecto) the knees of the one from whom he was begging his petition.

Let’s stay with supplex for a moment.   In many churches these days, during Holy Mass – often called “liturgy”, thus stripping it of its sacrificial and propitiatory character, instead of abasing themselves humbly before the Real Presence of Almighty God, they instead celebrate themselves in remembrance of Jesus our non-judgmental buddy.  One reason for this is because we come to believe what we pray.  For years, we English speaker had a lousy translation that systematically expunged the concept of humility, inherent in supplex, from prayers, from contemporary music in parishes, and (in churches now lacking kneelers) architecture.

One of the most “Catholic” of prayers, nearly eliminated after Vatican II, underscores an important dimension of healthy spirituality.  In the once familiar Dies irae, the haunting sequence of the Requiem Mass by the Franciscan friar Thomas of Celano (+ c.1270).  Sung amidst the inky vestments symbolizing our death to sin and the things of this world, in the Dies irae we contemplate our inevitable judgment by the Rex tremendae maiestatis… the King of fearful majesty, who is iustus Iudex, our just Judge.  In two of the verses we pray:

“Once the accursed have been confounded,
once they have been delivered to the stinging flames,
call me with the blessed.
(Knees) bent and leaning over (supplex et acclinis),
My heart worn down like ash, I pray:
Have a care for my end.”

The use of supplex in our Catholic prayers conveys an attitude of contrition for our sins which then shapes other more joyful and confident prayers.  This lowly attitude keeps in close view the reality of our sins, God’s promises of forgiveness, the ordinary means of their cleansing (confession) and thus the joyful comfort we have when we surrender to this merciful plan.

God takes our sins away, but only when we beg Him to.

But… that’s the key.  We have to beg for mercy, as beggars who beg, begging.

God’s justice we are going to get, whether we want it or not.  His mercy we can always, confidently, ask.

During Advent, we are admonished by the voice of John the Baptist to prepare the way of the Lord, who is coming.  We are to make straight and smooth the path between us and Him.  Let’s look at it this way. When the Lord comes again (and let’s include our going to Him in our own death), He will come by the straight path, whether or not we did anything to straighten it for Him.  He will, in the twinkling of an eye, straighten every path.  His way of straightening things out won’t be gentle, but it will be complete.

Advent, in the Church’s year, is a time to prepare the way of the Lord.  Life itself is a time to prepare for what must inevitably come.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in SESSIUNCULA and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Tony Phillips says:

    “It might reflect, in fact, the anxiety of some liturgist who thinks that uniformity must be enforced…”
    I’m afraid this is the mentality that underlies the liturgy of Paul VI: everyone has to do exactly the same thing, at exactly the same time. Even before the ‘reformed’ liturgy was imposed–er, introduced–the practice of the choir singing the Sanctus whilst the priest began the Canon was banned.
    In our parish, like many others, there’s been a recognition that the Novus Ordo lacks a certain something, namely silence. Consequently, at certain times–after the homily, after communion–the priest now retreats to his chair and sits down for a few minutes. The intention is good, but the results unimpressive. The children fidget, the adults read the bulletin or look at their watches.
    Of course, in the old rite, the most powerful moment of silence is when the choir finished the Sanctus and, after a brief tinkle signifying the Hanc Igitur, the priest quietly speaks the words of consecration like ‘a whistling of a gentle air’…the allusion to Elias in 3 Kings 19 is inescapable.

  2. Charles E Flynn says:

    Years ago, there was a film of the Odyssey on television. In one of the final scenes, Odysseus confronted one of the suitors. Odysseus pulled back his arrow, let it loose, and it hit the suitor with such force that he was lifted from the floor and stuck to the wall. Odysseus said loudly, “You stole my world, and I want it back.”

    I think of those words whenever I witness or see a reference to the regrettable aspects of the implementation of Vatican II.

  3. The noisy disrespectful chaos afterwards is the predicted outcome of a poorly offered liturgy that is centered on man and not on God.

  4. msc says:

    However, the vast majority of instances of battlefield supplication in both the Iliad and the Odyssey (and even in the Aeneid), don’t work. Enemy warriors kneel, clasp the knees of their foe, invoke Zeus as the god of suppliants, and are killed anyway. The example of Phemius is a poor one–he is almost certainly saved not because he kneeled, but because he was simply a visiting bard who was not responsible for the devastation of Odysseus’ household, and because he was a bard. It’s Homer’s (who was supposedly blind) nod to the importance of his calling.
    But the column is still good, and I’m grateful for having my attention drawn to it.

  5. Del says:

    “they have been like color-blind people before a Monet”

    That line pierced my heart.

    I am color-blind. And I have stood before a Monet. I have seen that there is nothing for me to see.

    Without the context of shape or contrast, light or shadow, it was nothing but colors that I was unable to discern. Art had been reduced to an old, dirty, grey towel.

    I remember the decades of liturgical wasteland before my reversion. I was unable to “discern the Body & Blood” without the traditional context to guide me. And so I looked to the highlights of the Mass for inspiration — those four guitar songs and Mass parts, when I got to sing something.

    In that regard, Catholic worship was like Evangelical worship — centered on singing. (Although I suspect that the Evangelicals put more effort into their sermons.)

  6. Mike says:

    Perhaps the kneeling communicated more swiftly the fact that Phemius was nothing more than a bard (irony there) than a bundle of words?

  7. The Masked Chicken says:

    “Over-schooled people, long sheltered from the physical necessities of life, from plowing, sowing, digging, sawing, stitching, bleaching, ironing, mowing – they are most prone to lifeless abstractions, and most dismissive of the bodily gestures that people who work with hands and shoulders and backs understand.”

    I am going to keep challenging Prof. Esolen on this issue. It was the under-schooled people who ruined Church music. Actually, I will go a bit farther. The issue is not schooling. It is arrogance. It is control. We got white-washed music because of the arrogance of a few key prelates who certainly didn’t understand about the place of music in worship and really didn’t care, so long as their view carried the day. They aided and abetted the actual composers of white-washed music. Did we get white-washed music? Well, we got worldly music of the lowest common denominator.

    This is just like in the case of television. Former F. C. C. chairman, Newton Minow gave a speech in 1961 in which he cited the great potential of television that went largely under-utilized, instead, being replaced by, what – cop and robber show and Westerns. Eventually, under the pressure to attract advertisers, TV would sink to the level of mere spectacle, attempting to appeal to the lowest common denominator, the basest instincts, of the audiences.

    White-washed music is music of the lowest common denominator. It is spectacle. It is made to arouse passions instead of the soul. Over-educated musicians did not do this. Did any of the St. Louis Jesuits have a degree in music at the time they wrote their folk music? Schutte is the only one who did graduate studies in music, some years later, I believe, but it does not appear that he graduated.

    Compare their disregard, or, rather, ignorant interpretation of the music dictates of Vatican II with the attitude of the distinguished Renaissance musicologist, Gustave Reese (who was not even Catholic). Sr. Joan Roccasalvo shares this anecdote:

    “I will never forget that moment! Flinging off his eyeglasses, he glared at me, ‘Sister, what have you done to our music!’ I froze.

    It was my first year at NYU as a graduate student of musicology, and I was enrolled in Professor Gustave Reese’s course, Medieval and Renaissance Music. He was the world’s leading authority on these two musical periods. An American Jew, a Renaissance Man, he loved the sacred music of the pre-conciliar Church. In a sense, he was its custodian. For him, musical analysis was de rigueur except for the Ave maris stella, ‘a honey of a piece.’ When Reese blurted out his question to me, it seemed as if he had been storing it up for years. How could we have banished the church’s heritage of sacred music, the most consequential result of the post-conciliar Church?”

    It was not the over-schooled musicians who did this.

    I could write terrific Church music entirely in conformity with Vatican II (if I had the gift – I am a mediocre composer), but no one would play it. True Church music in conformity with Vatican II would sound alien to many modern Catholics. Isn’t that irony, for you?

    The Chicken

  8. Josemaria says:

    What about the word “Mass” implies sacrifice? It is derived from the fourth principal part of “mittere” meaning “to send.”

  9. msc says:

    Josemaria: it is the “sending”, i.e., the giving (one extended meaning of mittere) of the offerings to God (or the gods, since the use is classical). So it’s not really implicit in the word, but the word is used in such contexts.

  10. Sandy says:

    When I read such an article as this, I want to shout “Bravo!” It also causes pain to once again be reminded of what has been stolen from us, what some of us knew in our early lives. I was just telling my husband about good old St. Paul’s where we began every day with the entire school body (large in those days) at Mass, and all the children were quiet and reverent. I’d be afraid to see what that beautiful old church looks like now. Even through college, many of us attended daily Mass, and then the earthquake of VII began. (Now all these years later that catholic college has a Pride Club! God help us!)

  11. Stephen Matthew says:

    The Masked Chicken,

    Perhaps this is a case where a little bit of education is a dangerous thing?

    I have sometimes remarked that I don’t know enough about any one thing to be very useful, but I know just enough about a lot of things to be dangerous.

    Like a amateur chemist carrying out an experiment in his kitchen, who knows enough that he predicts an interesting result from mixing this and that under those conditions, but does not know enough to realize he will be blown to bits, his neighbors will be poisoned by the fumes, and an entire block of apartments will be burned to the ground.

    The most ignorant of all are those who are ignorant of their own ignorance.

  12. Matthew Gaul says:

    I don’t think it was too much musical education that ruined the music. It was, if anything, the “knowledge that puffeth up” – too much theological and philosophical training. At least too much for the persons in question. Those fields can inflame pride, because if you *think* you understand Everything, then music and architecture are mere playthings.

    So also, the intellectually gifted and well-educated, like any group blessed with advantages, can be proud and troublesome, and look upon those unlike them as “the other.” Too much uniformity tends to breed chauvinism and decay (as an aside, this is another reason all the minority rites are so important).

    From my armchair in Nowhere, NY, it would seem that the early Church’s system of “battlefield promotions” of clergy could provide a useful injection of diverse temperaments. At least as a complement to the seminary system. But there are obvious problems with this, as well. Such is the human condition, I suppose.

  13. steveesq says:

    When I was a child soon after the introduction of the Novus Ordo Mass, the response to the prayers of the Faithful was “We beseech You hear us.” Then it became “Lord, Hear our prayer.” We went from begging Him, supplicating Him, to hear our prayers, to ordering Him to hear them. 40 years later I am still disgusted by this. I have never heard an explanation for this change, but I know it has everything to do with all the other man-centered orientation that has taken place. If I remember right, it was around the same time we went from kneeling at the Communion rail and receiving the Blessed Sacrament with a paten under our chin, to standing and taking the “cookie” in our dirty hands and “feeding” ourselves. At that time we went from great hymns to the folk music. All that gave me the message that all that I thought I had been taught wasn’t really important anymore, and when I was about 15 I left the practice of the Faith, and wandered through life for the next 28 years with none. When I did go to a Mass, I would find myself weeping, and would scold myself because I thought I had no Faith and I was just pining for the “old” days. In hindsight, I think I was just disgusted for the loss of reverence in general. If those things hadn’t changed, I don’t know if I would have still left, but I do believe it would have been much much more difficult to have done so.

    Finally, this week I have gone to two funeral Masses, for two men who practiced the Faith in all aspects. On Wednesday, the recessional “song” was “On Eagles Wings”. As I walked back to my office, I thought that Bill would have preferred “How Great Thou Art” if he had a say in it. Today’s funeral recessional hymn was “How Great Thou Art.”

    The music is indeed so, so important, especially if we are to have men return to Mass. The banal, “woo-woo”, how-wonderful-we-are music I am convinced keeps many men away.

  14. robtbrown says:

    Matthew Gaul says:

    I don’t think it was too much musical education that ruined the music. It was, if anything, the “knowledge that puffeth up” – too much theological and philosophical training. At least too much for the persons in question. Those fields can inflame pride, because if you *think* you understand Everything, then music and architecture are mere playthings.

    If the study of philosophy and theology is concerned with Truth (nb: Christ said that He is the Truth), how can there be too much theological and philosophical education (I don’t care much for your use of the word “training”)?

  15. Supertradmum says:

    Secular humanism ruined churches and music, all done by the “me” generation.

    This is the primal sin…wanting to be God, not just like God. Wanting to be God means stripping the churches of the worship due to God, which is part of the virtue of religion.

    The “me” songs make me feel ill. Until people repent from self-idolatry and really learn to love and worship God, none of this will change.

    God must be justly angry that for years right worship has been denied to Him.

  16. robtbrown says:


    Do you think it’s coincidence that Chartres Cathedral, often considered not only the most beautiful church in the world but even the most beautiful building, was the site of the School of Chartres, a renown center of 11th and 12 century philosophy?

    Or that Fra Angelico, a member of the most intellectual order in the Church, produced religious whose purity is unequaled?

  17. robtbrown says:

    Those who whitewash churches are Quietists (Quietism and Iconoclasm are not mutually exclusive). Quietism is the error that consider annihilation of the faculties to be advancement in prayer. For the Quietist, thinking of Christ and His Mysteries is an Imperfection.

  18. The Cobbler says:

    Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said, “I have never let my schooling get in the way of my education”?

  19. Pingback: Persecuted Christians: Their Struggle Is Also Ours - Big Pulpit

Comments are closed.