In one of his Angelus addresses last year (11/3/96) Pope John Paul II took occasion to comment on the beauty of the Mass with special reference to the Divine Liturgy as celebrated in the Eastern rites by both Catholics and Eastern Orthodox:
"The Liturgy we celebrate on earth is a mysterious participation in the heavenly liturgy (celebrated by the Angels and Saints). The sense of the Liturgy is particularly vivid among our Eastern brothers and sisters. For them, the Liturgy is truly "Heaven on earth" (Orientale Lumen, n.11). It is a synthesis of the whole faith experience. It is an involving experience which touches on the whole human person, body and soul. Everything in the sacred action aims at expressing "the divine harmony and the model of humanity transfigured": the shape of the church, the sounds, the colors, the lights, the scents. The lengthy duration of the celebration itself and the repeated invocations express the progressive identification with the mystery celebrated with one's whole person (Cf. ibid.). The special care that Easterners devote to the beauty of form is also at the service of mystery. According to the Kiev Chronicle, St. Vladimir is supposed to have been converted to the Christian faith also because of the beauty of worship in the Churches of Constantinople."
A recent TV special "BYZANTIUM, THE LOST EMPIRE" has brought to American viewers something of the sights and sounds of Byzantium Greek architecture, iconography, and liturgical splendor which manifests that spirit of Eastern Christianity intent upon the majesty and glorification of God. The Mass of the Roman Rite – at its best – also exemplified a similar sense of the awesome and inexpressible mystery conveyed by the celebration of Mass involving the worship of Christ the God-man.
As the Congregation for the Eastern Churches also noted in its important "INSTRUCTIONS FOR APPLYING THE LITURGICAL PRESCRIPTIONS OF THE CODE OF CANONS OF THE EASTERN CHURCHES" (a document intended to preserve or restore the rich traditions of the Eastern Rites):
"The contemplation of divine mysteries (during the Divine liturgy) and participation in them are realized through expressive forms which are also spiritual attitudes... There is the apophatic dimension, which expresses the sense of unworthiness and finiteness before the inexpressible nature of the divine realities which presents itself to mankind as the "Mysterium Tremendum", surrounded by the veil of awe, by a sense of inadequacy and this out of humble adoration."
Whatever differences there might be in Western and Eastern sensibilities as liturgical response, there has always been a common spirituality reflected in acknowledging the Mass as the most sacred of religious actions, and as the exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ, Head and members. Vatican II's teaching for all Catholics is no different:
"In the earthly Liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that Heavenly Liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, Minister of the holies... From the Liturgy, therefore, and from the Eucharist, grace is poured forth upon us as from a fountain, and the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God to which all other activities of the Church are directed, as toward their end are achieved with maximum effectiveness."
(Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred liturgy, nos. 8, 10)
In view of all the above which accentuate the solemnity, dignity, majesty, and splendor with which the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass should be celebrated, there remains for many today the burning problem of what Cardinal Ratzinger recently referred to as "the collapse of the liturgy" in the West. When liturgical celebration suffers terrible impoverishment in language, gesture, and music, and when it causes divisiveness in parishes, offends the religious sensibilities of parishoners who expect better of their priests, and even alienates people from the Church itself, then something is terribly wrong. It is no secret that liturgical scandals abound, as many letters to Catholic and other Christian publications testify. It is a fact that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the manner in which the Holy Mass is celebrated in all too many parishes nationwide. This dissatisfaction is registered by Catholics who retain a sense of what Catholic Liturgy should be and the legitimate religious experience it should provide.
The witness of our Slav Pope and our Eastern rite brethren to liturgical beauty, sobriety, and to a contemplative atmosphere conducive to prayer should be heeded by American Catholics who no longer find their parish liturgies transmitting a sense of deep encounter with the transcendent, mysterious and Holy God, and with the ancient and timeless. When liturgical celebration no longer conveys a sense of "the numinous" and of the All-Holy Triune God, then it has failed miserably, having reduced the encounter with Christ in the Liturgy to the level of a purely secular, all-too-human and irreverent gathering.
How is the experience of Mass in your parish? Is it likened to "Heaven on earth?"