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Friday, November 18, 2016

Book Review: Liturgy and Personality by Dietrich von Hildebrand

Book Title: Liturgy and Personality
Author: Dietrich von Hildebrand

Dietrich von Hildebrand was one of the leading Catholic philosophers of the 20th century, a man Pope Pius XII called a modern “Doctor of the Church.” Von Hildebrand’s recently republished work, Liturgy and Personality, (hereafter referred to as L&P), demonstrates the justice of the pope’s respect. First published in 1933, L&P is a journey into the heart of the liturgy of the Tridentine Mass, now described as the extraordinary rite. The book helps explain its ongoing popularity even among the young who are often, in their youthful idealism, the most eager to encounter the fullness of Christ in the liturgy and to be transformed by Him. Unfortunately, in view of his recent remarks describing young people who love the extraordinary rite as “rigid,” even Pope Francis fails to understand the timeless attraction and deep mystery of the Church’s ancient liturgy shared by most of the saints. One of the great tragedies of the post Vatican II Church was the denigration and suppression of the Tridentine Mass.

Von Hildebrand once said in a private letter that, “I consider the Council—notwithstanding the fact that it brought some ameliorations—as a great misfortune.”[i] Why? He made that clear in a 1996 article in Triumph Magazine writing, “What I deplore is that the new Mass is replacing the Latin Mass, that the old liturgy is being recklessly scrapped, and denied to most of the People of God.” He went on to raise questions that we would do well to ask ourselves today:

Does the new Mass, more than the old, bestir the human spirit–does it evoke a sense of eternity? Does it help raise our hearts from the concerns of everyday life–from the purely natural aspects of the world–to Christ? Does it increase reverence, an appreciation of the sacred?

Of course these questions are rhetorical, and self-answering. I raise them because I think that all thoughtful Christians will want to weigh their importance before coming to a conclusion about the merits of the new liturgy. What is the role of reverence in a truly Christian life, and above all in a truly Christian worship of God…The new liturgy actually threatens to frustrate the confrontation with Christ, for it discourages reverence in the face of mystery, precludes awe, and all but extinguishes a sense of sacredness.[ii]

Many Catholics know that the summit of our worship is the Holy Eucharist, that the Mass is the unbloody re-enactment of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ; that the liturgy brings us together in an adoring community at the feet of our blessed Lord. But how many are truly awake and aware to the opportunity we receive through our worship? Perhaps only a few, and sadly, even fewer since the collapse of devotion after Vatican II and the abandonment of the faith by so many Catholics around the world. Studying L&P gives both a historical view of the Tridentine Mass, but also a challenge for us to be transformed in Christ by the liturgy.

The book is short, only about 150 pages divided into eleven chapters on different aspects of liturgy and our response. It includes a forward by Bishop Robert Barron who writes, “The principle point of the book…is that the liturgy of the Church decisively shapes a healthy personality,” although he says von Hildebrand insists that the primary purpose of the Mass is “to give proper praise to God, the supreme value” rather than using the Mass as a self-improvement project.  “Nevertheless,” the bishop goes on, “precisely by ordering human beings so thoroughly to God, the liturgy does in fact…contribute to their flourishing.” Von Hildebrand expresses this in the chapters relating to liturgy and personality. He describes man as a being whose essence includes gifts and talents freely given by God for which man has nothing to do. This makes him a person created in the image and likeness of God. However, not all men become “personalities” which is the term he uses to identify a particular response to God. That response involves “a new principle of life, participation in the life of Christ and the Holy Trinity. He goes on to write:

To the extent that every baptized person develops this life himself or, more accurately, lets this life be developed in him, to the extent that he gives himself up to Christ and follows Christ, living from Christ, with Christ, and in Christ – he lives no more but Christ lives in him: he thus participates in the unlimited breadth and fullness of Christ. He who is immersed in the life of Christ, he in whom Christ is truly imitated, the saint, become a personality, no matter what his ‘essential endowments’ are.

In other words, a garbage collecter or doorman immersed in the life of Christ may become a personality while an egotistical Napoleon never does. The key is, as von Hildebrand writes, “To die in ourselves, in order that Christ may live in us,” which is the “only path leading to full personality in a far truer and higher sense of the word; and it is this path which is open through the grace of God even to those who possess only a humble natural ‘essential endowment.’”

In the Afterward, Alice von Hildebrand, Dietrich’s widow and a philosopher in her own rite, tells readers that the book, “reveals the spiritual treasures of [the Tridentine] Liturgy – treasures that were too often overlooked by a somnolent clergy and a poorly educated laity. Consequently, many Catholics failed to benefit from the God-centeredness of that Liturgy, its deep sacrality, and its perfect formulation of the dogmas of the Faith.”

One of these “spiritual treasures,” reverence, "the mother of all virtues," is described in Chapter 5, The Spirit of Reverence in the Liturgy. It is a treasure often lamentably lacking in the Novus Ordo. And yet, according to von Hildebrand reverence is the “essential basis” for a “spiritual vision clear and open to the fullness of the world of values, above all to the world of supernatural values” that bring about a man’s “self-surrender to Christ.” Von Hildebrand notes that reverence was often present in pagan cultures even among primitives while it is lacking in more advanced cultures where narcissism reigns:
The most primitive people who ignore all causae secundae and link everything directly to God, the causa prima, are infinitely closer to truth than the modern man who has ceased to perceive the deepest meaning and basis of all things because he is completely absorbed by all that is secondary. In this ultimate sense, the irreverent modern man, in spite of all his knowledge, is far more “stupid” than the most primitive savage possessing reverence.

As I read this, I couldn’t help thinking of the “stupid” liberal elites among us who embrace the barbarism of child killing, assisted suicide, and racial division to advance their agendas while doing nothing to quell the lawlessness and violence of their supporters. This type of egotism is exactly what prevents them from becoming “personalities,” stuck instead in arrogant pride while their followers pursue worldly pleasures.

The French novelist Leon Bloy once wrote, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”[iii] Von Hildebrand’s book is all about how the Mass, when properly prayed, can mold and shape man in such a way that not only does he draw into closer communion with Christ, but with his neighbor as well, fulfilling the two great commandments to love God with your whole heart, mind, soul, and strength and your neighbor as yourself.

I plan to use Liturgy and Personality for my Advent Meditation this year and, perhaps, I will return to it in Lent. It is that thought provoking! The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is central to our faith and, if we fully enter into it, can help us be “spiritually awake” which according to von Hildebrand is “one of the deepest marks of true personality.” How often do we, along with the “average man” described by von Hildebrand “wade through life in a state of spiritual inertia?” We can avoid that if we are centered on Christ and allow Him to transform us.

The advent liturgy calls us to wake up and prepare the way for the Lord. What better way to get ready for the coming of Christ at Christmas than through entering more fully into the heart of the liturgy. I hope reading this book will give many the desire to attend a Latin Mass or at least to read some of the prayers of the Mass to which von Hildebrand refers. The spirit of awe and reverence, worship and praise, call the mind, the heart, and the will to draw closer to the God-Man who created and redeemed us. This slim volume is a treasure and a guide for those who want to love Jesus and want to be transformed by Him. God invites; He never coerces, and to loosely quote St. Augustine, “The God who made us without our willing it, will not save us without our willing it.”[iv] If we will it, by our cooperation with the graces of the Mass, we can more perfectly imitate Christ, God’s will for each of us and the most perfect way to thank Jesus for becoming one of us.

[i] Michael Davies, Dietrich Von Hildebrand on Vatican II: a 'Great Misfortune', The Remnant, 2004 article reprinted June 23, 2014,