29 December 2023

A Comment on Memory and Mass

Received on Facebook from Peter Hansen commenting on the article I shared here.
Thank you for the interesting article. It touches a subject that modern churchmen and scholars fail to grasp. Any event, once past, ceases to exist. An impression of it remains in the mind, but immediately the mental impression - the memory - becomes subject to the vagaries of time. The memory can be warped, or forgotten, or conflated with other events. The way that memory works compounds every time that the story of the memory is told to someone else. The memory is also subjected to the changes in interpretation that language, image and symbol that occur over time.
There is no way to repeat the past. This fact must be accepted as part of God's providential plan for the world, like birth, death and matter. Ages past, the people who established the form of the Catholic Church dealt with this fact by ordering the Christian life by means of rituals. The ritual is a symbol that can be repeated, taught, and shared. The ritual extends the "shelf life" of the memory that is ritualized, and allows the memory to persist in the daily life of the people who experience it. The rituals of the Catholic Church contain symbols of such antiquity that their reasons - let us say, the memory of why things are done in a certain way, have been lost. But the symbol persists, and the Catholic is conscious of participating in a continuity of believers, living and dead, going back to the earliest days of the faith.
When the rituals were changed, this continuity was broken. This is not to disagree with Pope Benedict - he was talking of a somewhat different "hermeneutic." The changing of the rituals was premised - and is still premised today - on a crudely "literal" interpretation of what the rituals, and particularly the sacraments are. One reads hundreds of posts debating whether a clown mass, a beach mass, or a run-of-the-mill vernacular service confect the blessed sacrament.
This reduces the mass to the level of a magic spell - restricting its meaning to a simplistic analysis of whether the species change. For Catholics, this analysis is easily seen to be ridiculous: just as the past cannot be repeated, transubstantiation cannot be visually observed or verified. It can only be "heard," as St. Thomas Aquinas tells us in his famous hymn, Adoro te devote. And what one hears is the formula of the ritual, which assures the believer that Christ is again present among those gathered.
To accept the ritual on its own terms requires the Catholic to conform himself to symbol. This act, which happens internally in the mind and heart of the Christian, allows the personal memory to recede, and the collective memory to assert control over the consciousness. We could, if we wanted, describe this as "conversion," and it is essential to the entire faith. The old mass, with its ritual, allows the Christian to change, and enter into the life of Christ and the Church. The Christian then becomes, by means of the ritual, a Catholic.

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