In his 2007 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (SC), Pope Benedict XVI remarked that ‘Everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty’ (SC §41). I would like to offer, here, a few short reflections on how a better understanding and knowledge of this simple, guiding principle, might underpin our celebrations of the Eucharist.
First, it is the duty of the Priest (and all those assisting with the celebration) to ensure that everything neccesary is made ready before the Mass begins. This may seem to be an obvious point, but being ‘ready’ does not simply mean being organised; it means being spiritually prepared for the role we undertake in the Sacred Liturgy, from the Priest-Celebrant to those in the pew. The Priest should take – and should be given – space and time to prepare to ascend the altar, both in the church and in the sacristy before Mass. Bishop Peter Elliott recently called for the mandatory and official use of the Vesting Prayers in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. This is a good way for the Priest to recognise that he is not simply ‘getting changed’, but being clothed to enter the Holy of Holies. In the Personal Ordinariates, some priests make use of the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, from the Extraordinary Form, as a preparation with the servers before Mass. This, too, can inculcate a proper sense of preparation and readiness for the sacred action.
Secondly, those items used in the celebration of the Eucharist should be worthy of their role. Attention to detail in the choice of vessels and vestments and music not only show a proper human care and attention for the divine encounter, but it also points towards the sacred character of the Eucharistic celebration – setting apart specific things for the service and worship of God. It is contrary to the nature of the Sacred Liturgy for secular characteristics to replace those nurtured and grown from the tradition of the Church, especially under the notion or guise of simplicity. Noble simplicity, as called for by Sacrosanctum Concilium, is not an invitation to a bland or dumbed-down celebration, but one marked by a simple and obvious demarcation between the sacred and profane (see Mgr Frederick McManus in Worship May 1964, and also Dom Alcuin Reid’s article, Noble Simplicity Revisited). This simplicity is not a reduction of the liturgy to secular ideals, but a more profound clarity between the sanctuary and the saeculum.
Thirdly, the transcendental nature of beauty cannot simply be ignored or sidelined. Beauty, together with Truth and Goodness, is a characteristic of the divine – of God – and so we can say that, “To speak of beauty is to enter another and more exalted realm” (cf. Roger Scruton Beauty). If we underplay beauty in our liturgical celebrations, we devalue them to the extent of overlaying an anthropocentric glaze to the sacred character of the rites. This is not to say that the Sacred Liturgy need necessarily be ornate or like an over-gilded lily, but true simplicity – which reveals the sacred character of worship against the background of the world – is intrinsically beautiful because it is the primary means by which we encounter God himself. As Pope Francis said to representatives of the media shortly after his election, “[T]he Church exists to communicate precisely this: Truth, Goodness and Beauty ‘in person’. It should be apparent that all of us are called not to communicate ourselves, but this existential triad made up of truth, beauty and goodness”.
It is my firm belief that a more conscious pursuit of beauty in liturgical celebrations will not only confirm the faith of those who already participate in them, but will enable fruitful evangelisation by re-establishing what it is the Church offers to the world. We do not seek to conform Christ to the world, but the world to Christ; only by showing the awesome splendour of a life lived in union with him – exemplified in the Eucharist – can we hope, together with lives lived in integrity with that faith, to bring others to a knowledge of, and desire for, the grace, mercy, and peace, that is Jesus Christ.