Sermon: 20th Anniversary Mass

20th anniversary Mass of the Saint Gregory Society
November 12, 2006
Rev. Richard G. Cipolla

Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam. Those words resonate with me in so many ways, so many times, places. You will forgive me if on this occasion I put aside at least some objectivity, if I indulge, if only for this Sunday, in a more existentialist perspective in the delivery of this sermon. One of my students came into my office last week, having just seen an impressive film in his European history class about Martin Luther. He is intelligent, moral, and takes Latin (the latter nearly equal to being moral!). He proceeded, on the basis of the film, which had its biases, to rip apart the Catholic Church, corruption, bad popes who had children, priests living in sin, failure to preach the Gospel, and much more. We have all heard this view of history, which despite the biases, has some basis in reality. In response, I tried to explain the significance of the Tu es Petrus saying in the Gospel of Matthew; but he would have none of it, because to him it was obvious—that is, someone had told him—that Jesus was not referring to Peter but to the rock which is the Church in some idealistic sense. So all I could do was to tell him how and when I understood this passage. I was in Rome for the first time in my life in the summer after my first year at the Yale Divinity School. I shall not tell you, for it has nothing to do with a Christian sermon, about my discovery on that occasion of my Italian heritage. Nor shall I tell you about the beginning of my love affair with the baroque in the church of St. Andrea al Quirinale. But I shall tell you what I told this young man, for it has to do with my discovery of the Catholic faith. I went into St. Peter’s and stood under the dome and read those words: Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram. And I looked to the confessio where lie the bones of St. Peter, and I looked again at the words in the dome, and I understood, and from that understanding I have never turned back.

And neither did Gregory the Great. If I were to be elected Pope, I have no doubt as to what name I would choose: Gregory. For two of my greatest heroes of the Church both bear the name Gregory: Gregory the Great and Gregory the VII. And they are my heroes because they both understood what the words Tu es Petrus mean in the most existential yet in the most objective way. Let us not quibble about understandings about jurisdiction, decretals, or Gregorian chant. Both of these men knew who they were and what they must do. They both knew the terribly earthen vessels they were, and yet pressed on with their reforms, for they were both reformers in the truest sense, not puritans or reactionaries but true reformers. What is a true reformer? And its attendant question: what is a true reformation? We all think we know what reformer and reformation mean, but if we look deep into the roots of these words we see something that surprises us. What is a true reformer: he is the one who recalls forma, he is the one who recalls beauty, he is the one who recalls the forma Ecclesiae, who recalls the Ecclesia Formosa—whose beauty is a reflection of the beauty of God in Jesus Christ—back to who she is, the bride of Christ, the locus of salvation, the meeting of heaven and earth. For the Christian, beauty finds its source in the beauty of God, whose love is the source of beauty. It is the Christian who looks upon the crucifix and there sees sheer and utter beauty. And it is in this sense that Dostoyevsky’s Idiot is absolutely right: beauty will save the world.

And it is the Mass that is the recollection of beauty, of the beauty of God. Recollection is a strange English word. To gather together again, to bring together in the mind, to remember. And yet much more than this. But to not remember, to refuse to remember: this is sin in the deepest sense. Forgive my classical allusions today, but I know many of you share my love of the classics. I teach both Catullus and Cicero. Catullus and Cicero were certainly, although contemporaries, quite different men. Yet both took friendship ultimately seriously. Both agreed on one thing: to be immemor, to be forgetful of one’s obligations to one’s friends, was a terrible sin. To forget on purpose the bond that joins two friends who have agreed to enter into this relationship: that is the unforgivable sin. The sin of being immemor is taken to tragic and lofty heights by Vergil in the Aeneid. When Aeneas forgets on purpose who he is, that is to say, what he must do, what his destiny is, he is recalled in a terrifying way to do what he must do. And thus, for the Western hero, for the pre-Christian hero, to forget in a deliberate way who one is by forgetting what one must do—this is sin. Adam and Eve forgot deliberately who they were and what that meant. And they sinned. When Israel forgot who she was, the chosen people of God, she sinned. And then comes that moment in which the sin of being immemor is made forgivable by a gesture, by a word: “Do this in memory of me.” Memory and its pollution by sin is purified by the breaking of bread and the drinking of a cup of wine by God in the flesh: anamnesis makes memory the vehicle of God, the calling forth of God: the bell rings, the host is held on high, the people sigh, and God is with his people. Past becomes present: the unreality of the future is guaranteed and made real by this presence, the presence of God.

The latest issue of First Things, a periodical of religion and politics, has an article on the revival of patristic thought in the contemporary Church. Whether this revival is real or not is a subject of debate. But the article begins with an allusion to one of my favorite pieces of literature: the Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis. The third book is Prince Caspian. The prince is fighting a battle against the evil forces led by his wicked uncle, and the prince’s troops are losing. In desperation the prince blows on a magical horn that is able to summon the heroes of the past to come to the rescue of those in the present. The Prince sounds the horn and the kings and queens of the past come back and with great courage and fortitude lead the charge and win the battle. But here and really. Not nostalgia, not memory. But anamnesis. The horn sounds not to summon imaginary heroes from the past to fight battles of the present. The horn sounds, the bell sounds, the silence sounds, to summon the power and person of God himself to be present in and defend and make fruitful the Church, his Body, et portae inferi contra eam non praevalebunt.

Twenty years is a long time and a very short time. The Saint Gregory Society exists not to wallow in nostalgia. Not to exult in some sort of gorgeous Wagnerian glorification of the past and therefore the present. Not to preserve Gregorian chant and Lassus as a wonderful and beautiful art form, which both are. Not to wall its members off from the crass and vulgar and chillingly secular and anti-religious aspects of contemporary society. But rather, with the explicit support of Pope Benedict XVI, to refuse to be immemor, to refuse to pretend that the post-Vatican II liturgy, despite its validity and source of grace, is continuous with the traditional Roman rite, to refuse to reduce anamnesis to the memory of the present community: but more importantly to take on the task which is the task of the Cross: to bear the burden of Christ whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light; to continue to offer the Holy Sacrifice with dignity, reverence and faith, and to witness to the Church and to the world, by the beauty of the Mass and the holiness of its members, the reality of the truth, goodness, and beauty of God. You who come here for the first time and experience the depth of Catholic worship which unites us beyond time and space with the dead and with the saints in heaven; you who come here occasionally when your schedule permits. Go home and consider whether what we do here and in my own parish of St. Mary in Stamford in the offering of the traditional Mass is important for the Church and important for you as Catholics. If what we do is important then it deserves the active support of those who understand what is at stake—not merely time and financial support but bodily support, being present here to worship God in this timeless rite. It is certainly easier to pop into one’s parish church and sit through the Novus Ordo Mass and, knowing that that frail garment is a source of grace, to receive Holy Communion and go home and suppress the feeling that there is something missing, something wrong. We are a people whose lives are based on convenience. And not only is this Mass not convenient to come to: the odd hour, the sketchy neighborhood, the peeling paint of the church: this rite itself is not convenient, for it demands that you give yourself, you lose yourself, you allow yourself to be swept up into the re-presentation ofCalvary; it demands that you use silence, holy silence, to go where words cannot go; it demands that you participate deeply in the act, participatio actuosa, rather than persisting with the kind of “active participation” which belongs at a school assembly. To come here requires sacrifice, but that’s what it is all about anyway.

Today we ask for the intercession of Saint Gregory the Great, that he may give us all the courage and strength and hope and joy to recall the Church to liturgical reform—not to bring something back from the past, but to recall the Church to its essence in the beauty of Christ as seen and experienced in the traditional Roman rite. Sancte Gregori, ora pro nobis.

[This sermon was kindly made available by Fr. Cipolla for the benefit of the members of the Saint Gregory Society. It has been lightly edited, but I trust in such a way that it has retained all of its original character, not to mention all of its original relevance. – Richard Dobbins]