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Liturgical sensibilities, liturgical understanding

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 06, 2021 | In Reviews

I hope nobody else shares my particular liturgical consolations, because broadly speaking I don’t have any. I cannot use the fingers of even a single hand in counting the number of times, over 73 years, that I have been emotionally caught up in the action of any liturgy, regardless of form. Although I have some preferences, I have always been far more mystified by liturgical conflict than by the liturgy itself. Intellectually, of course, I deeply appreciate the liturgy. I know it is of vital importance—to God’s plan for our salvation, to our reception of the sacraments, to the nourishment and formation of the members of the Body of Christ, to my family, to me personally.

I also have an extremely strong intellectual grasp of the principle that the liturgy is the Church’s to prescribe, not the celebrant’s or the congregation’s to improvise. As such I do react, even emotionally, against all who insist upon personal innovation (which is to say making the liturgy a vehicle for the transmission of their own personalities and preferences). But I also react, even emotionally, against those who insist that one approved form of the liturgy is superior to another in its transmission of grace, or who cling to any particular form in defiance of the current liturgical regulations of the Church.

In the same way, I am offended by irreverence, whether it is a casual, sloppy or personally idiosyncratic celebration of the Novus Ordo or a rushed, unintelligible or personally theatrical celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass. Liturgy isn’t a cocktail party, despite the wine and crackers. Nor is it mere theater, despite the representation of a sacrifice.

But it is easy for me to dismiss strong attachments which others may feel because, when push comes to shove, I really don’t enjoy liturgy no matter how conceived. In fact, I have never really enjoyed any kind of ceremony, including school or civic ceremonies. I thought my own multiple graduation ceremonies absurd, and skipped them whenever possible. I felt the same way about the endless posturing in my military training. This, very clearly, betrays a deficiency in me. But because I have never shared this enjoyment of or consolation in the Catholic liturgy, it has always been far easier for me to realize that it isn’t my personal enjoyment or my personal consolation that really matters.

If that were what mattered, my only option would be despair.


You might think, therefore, that I would be incapable of recognizing a good book about liturgy. But I actually don’t think that’s the case. For example, Ignatius Press has just published a remarkable book by David Fagerberg, entitled Liturgical Dogmatics: How Catholic Beliefs Flow from Liturgical Prayer. As you might imagine, this is a challenging book. We should never minimize the challenge of the liturgical action of the Church, because it creates the most complete connection possible between God and ourselves here on earth, and it will actually continue with that purpose in Heaven, in what is perhaps an even more mysterious yet also far more experiential and even intelligible way. If you don’t believe me, I suggest rereading St. John’s Book of Revelation.

David Fagerberg is Professor of Liturgical Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He has written other books with titles like Theologia Prima, On Liturgical Asceticism, Consecrating the World, and Liturgical Mysticism. He is no lightweight, obviously, and his grasp of liturgy far exceeds my own. Nonetheless, instead of getting hopelessly bogged down in this learned book, I am finding it enormously refreshing.

Part of the refreshment, I think, may not be for everybody. Fagerberg is a wordsmith, and even a scholarly wordsmith, which means he doesn’t shy away from using words that almost nobody else knows. I ran into two examples of this right in the Introduction. On page 10, he had the sheer effrontery to write: “Liturgy is the catabatic descent of God’s loving mercy and the anabatic ascent of man’s glorifying latria, of which all reality is made.” Some Catholics will be familiar with “latria”, being the Catholic term for the kind of supreme, interior reverence, worship and adoration due to God alone. For us here on earth, latria takes its preeminent external form in the liturgy of the Catholic Church.

In any case, Fagerberg explains latria. But I had to remind myself that “catabatic” is the kind of wind that blows down a mountain, and “anabatic” is the kind of wind that rushes up the slope. That may be challenging, but it is superior prose, and the author is obviously aware that it compares very well with two terms he uses on the next page, cataphatic and apophatic.

Cataphatic theology is “positive” theology, in which we recognize some similarity in ourselves to the Divine, which makes it possible to achieve knowledge of God through reason and study. In contrast, apophatic theology is what we call “negative” theology, rooted in the idea that we are so dissimilar from God that we cannot really grasp Him intellectually, or attempt to describe Him in detail, but must rely more on our interior experience of God, largely without images and words. Fagerberg mischievously (but brilliantly) springs this on us in the very next sentence:

What we stammer to say cataphatically has been apophatically encountered in the Mysteries of Christ done (celebrated) liturgically. Cataphatic dogma arises from apophatic liturgy, credenda arises from orandi.

My readers probably know that credenda means “believing” and orandi means “praying”. My point here is that Fagerberg might make his readers work a bit, but that can be enjoyable work for those who delight in language and, once a little work is done, a nugget for serious meditation is often unearthed. Besides, human words, like the Word Himself, play a role in both liturgy and in the dogmatic understandings that flow from it.


After the introduction, however, Fagerberg does something that is absolutely brilliant. Instead of writing a long and tendentiously learned treatise for hundreds of pages without a break, he treats a series of key liturgical concepts one at a time, in chapters which average five to seven pages. For example, in the first section of the book (“God and Revelation”) he offers five concise chapters in the space of 34 pages, covering these topics: Liturgical Conditions for Revelation; Knowing God through Awe and Fear; Liturgy in the Trinity; The Trinity in Liturgy; and Revelation, Liturgy, and Scripture.

He does the same with successive sections on “Created Being”, “Man”, “Sin”, “Redemption”, “Christ and Holy Spirit”, “Ecclesiology”, and “Eschatology”. The equally brief subsections in the last section on Eschatology continue to reflect the range of Fagerberg’s insights, the importance of his themes, and his love of wordplay: Our Guide Home; The Harrowing of Hell; Eschatology; and Mary (Liturgical Theotokology).

Liturgical Theotokology!—a significant topic, of course, given Mary as the Theotokos (she who brings forth God), but not without its own linguistic humor from its inescapable pomposity, at once both cumbersome and extravagant. So go ahead and look up words like anamnesis, perichoresis, and kenosis when you encounter them in context, but know that this author is not really stuffy at all. He likes wordplay, and is perfectly capable of writing a sentence like the following, from his four-and-a-half page treatment of Liturgy in the Trinity:

The energies of God are creative and providential and redemptive and make up the subject matter of dogmatics, but even if dogma has tracks of where the Lion of Judah has passed, do not think that dogma can confine him with rational cages any more than liturgy can contain him with its ritual catnip. [31]

Here we have a true scholar, a deep thinker, a brilliant writer, and a delightful companion, all together reflecting on the mysteries we are privileged to share. If you can read only one truly challenging book on the inner dynamics of Catholicism this year, make it David Fagerberg’s Liturgical Dogmatics. With a relatively small amount of effort, you may just exchange being left at the gate for being lifted to God.

David Fagerberg, Liturgical Dogmatics: How Catholic Beliefs Flow from Liturgical Prayer: Ignatius Press, 2021. 262pp, paper, $14.96.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: ILM - Aug. 11, 2021 6:20 PM ET USA

    Priests facing the people dwarfs all other flaws in the new Mass. Now instead of leading us to God priests are tempted to be actors. Very distracting for both us and themselves.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 07, 2021 1:18 PM ET USA

    "Although I have some preferences, I have always been far more mystified by liturgical conflict than by the liturgy itself." This is a breathtaking statement, not so much from any everyday Catholic as it is coming from you. Suffice that the great Protestants gleaned much more from the liturgy. What troubled Catholic prelates in 1969 and forward- perhaps few in number- were the striking similarities between the "New Mass" and the liturgical reforms of the Protestants. What did Cranmer know?