What I am going to discuss is the theology of the European Liturgical Movement and one of its greatest pioneers, a German Benedictine monk by the name of Dom Odo Casel. The present Pope (Benedict XVI) always found great inspiration in Casel’s ideas, calling them "perhaps the most fruitful theological idea of our century". This was one of the greatest steps in the development of sacramental theology since the Council of Trent, and this is one of the reasons we only find irrelevance in the typical criticisms “pure Anglicans” level at us.
Johannes Casel lived from 1886 until his death in 1948. He was born in Koblenz in the Rhineland, and read classics at Bonn University. He and a fellow student, Ildefons Herwegen, entered the Benedictine Abbey of Maria Laach, a community that had been suppressed in 1802 and restored by the Beuronese Congregation in 1892.
Ildefons Herwegen became Abbot of Maria Laach and made of this monastery one of the greatest liturgical and intellectual centres of German Catholicism. Casel entered the community in 1905 and was ordained a priest in 1911. Before his ordination, he obtained a doctorate on the eucharistic theology of Justin Martyr from Sant' Anselmo in Rome. On his return to Bonn University, he got a second doctorate, this time in classical antiquities and the Mystery Religions.
During his life as a monk, Dom Casel produced a phenomenal output of 309 major and minor works. In 1921, Abbot Herwegen asked Casel to edit the Jahrbuch für Liturgiewissenschaft (Yearbook for Liturgical Science), which is a monument for the intellectual revival in the German Church between the wars. It is amazing to think of this at a time when the Nazi barbarians were raping their country and throwing its cultural treasures on the fire at the auto da fes of Berlin! One thing that favoured Casel’s work, given the demanding routine of the traditional monastic timetable, was his being sent to be a chaplain to a small community of nuns.
He died from a stroke as he had just finished singing the Lumen Christi on Holy Saturday 1948. "Having just greeted the light of Christ in a clear voice and while preparing to celebrate the paschal praeconium, our beloved Father in Christ, liturgist of the sacred mystery and mystagogue, Odo Casel, monk of Maria Laach, having accomplished his holocaust and passing over with the Lord during the holy night, entered upon the beatific vision, being himself consummated in perfection by the mysteries of Easter which he had given to initiates. Thanks be to God".
It was certainly Casel’s spirituality that kept him going through the horrors of the Hitler regime and the utter defeat of Germany in 1945. He was far away and concerned with things other than politics. As a theologian, he evolved exactly the same way as men like Joseph Ratzinger, Karl Barth and so many others. He saw the deficiencies of neo-scholasticism and a narrow legalistic view of the liturgy and the Church. He must have been exasperated by the rotting remains of nineteenth century individual piety.
Would we Anglicans want to embrace that caricature of Catholicism? I have always felt a great affinity to this robust liturgical and theological German piety so well lived and taught by the present Pope. I spent time with German priests and students in Fribourg, and was considerably influenced by my liturgy professor, Fr Jakob Baumgartner and one of his pupils, Fr. Martin Reinecke, who had also studied with Monsignor Klaus Gamber. It is another vision altogether. It is my regret not to have made much progress in the German language, as most Germans speak English!
Casel’s most well-known book is Das Christliche Kultmysterium (The Mystery of Christian Worship) in which his deep knowledge of antiquity and the old mystery religions comes forth from its pages. His style (as I read it translated into English) is forceful and manly. Man is called to turn to the Mystery. As a Benedictine monk, he was totally immersed in the liturgy and lived it body and soul. The liturgical celebration is the concrete reality in which Christ's saving action in death and resurrection becomes present to us. Think about that idea for a couple of minutes! The liturgical vision is a view of the whole.
What is Christianity almost two thousand years since the death and disappearance from earth of Jesus Christ? Casel has the most convincing answer I know of. He brought us the word mystery, etymologically derived from both Greek and Latin. That is the heart of our faith, not a mere system of doctrinal facts and a code of moral conduct. It is much more than simply a spirituality that appealed to the Romantics and us post-moderns. This word Mystery is evident in the Epistles of Saint Paul – a deed by God, the working of the divine plan in eternity and its realisation in time, and which returns to God in eternity.
The Mystery is the person of the Saviour and the Mystical Body which is the Church. The term Mystical Body was particularly present in Pius XII’s encyclical Mystici corporis Christi of 1943, mostly written by the German theologian Fr. Sebastian Tromp. This identification of the Church with the Mystery brings a new dimension after centuries of Bellarmine’s “perfect society” analogy. This Mystery is Christ’s person, his incarnation, passion, death, resurrection, ascension and future coming. It is a whole and complete vision that does not reduce the liturgy to a sacrifice, but opens it to the wholeness of Christ. It is the very opposite from the narrow Nominalist mind of Protestantism and neo-scholasticism.
This kind of theology is not peculiar to Casel, as we see from reading Orthodox theologians like Schmemann, Bobrinskoy and Boulgakov among many others. The heart of faith is not simply doctrine and teachings but the acts by which we are sanctified and saved. Our salvation, liberation from sin and union with God are brought about by participation in the saving acts of Christ. This is not a system of morals or a doctrinal system, but the Mystery – God’s revelation to mankind through life-giving and salvific acts.
The Mystery has theological, Christological and sacramental-liturgical dimensions. God is transcendent and unknowable to man’s intellect and reasoning powers, but reveals himself to the humble. Man has always longed for union with the divine, and we see this through any number of temples and pyramids of the ancient world. God revealed himself more fully to the Jewish people, but Israel was no less a preparation for the fullness than any mystery religion of Greece of Egypt.
The deeds of his self-abasement, and above all his sacrificial death on the cross, are mysteries, because in them God reveals himself in a way that goes beyond all human standards of measurement. Above all, though, his resurrection and exaltation are mysteries, because in them divine glory was revealed in the man Jesus, and this in a form that is hidden from the world and only open to believers.
Mystery is necessarily hidden as well as revealed. We have so much difficulty in “getting it” because the Mystery can only be seen by faith and gnosis (yes, there is an orthodox gnosis, not only the heresies of Valentinus and New Age). This is knowledge that is above human learning and the simple use of acquiring information and reasoning.
It is a higher and deeper understanding of the notion of Tradition. The Mystery is not only a word, but also holy actions and deeds. Christ truly and really acts and works through the mysteries of worship and through the Sacraments. The Mystery, in Casel’s words is "a sacred ritual action, in which a past redemptive deed is made present in the form of a specific rite; the worshipping community, by accomplishing this sacred rite, participates in the redemptive act and thus obtains salvation".
In Casel and some of the forward-looking Russians I mentioned above, and others, we find a whole high view of the liturgy. Saint Leo the Great said in his sermon for the Ascension: "what was visible in our Redeemer has passed over into the mysteries". Thus, the liturgy is a Mystery, the Kultmysterium as Casel called it in German.
This is what distinguishes liturgy from ritualism, pageantry, folklore or theatre. It is not simply a collection of rubrics, formulae to say – something divorced from personal prayer and the Church’s humanitarian vocation. It is not the self-worshipping community or about “feeling good”. This is the presence and power of Christ doing his job. It is "the carrying out and realization of the new covenant's mystery of Christ in the whole Church through all the centuries, for her sanctification and glorification".
We are not talking of individualistic religion, but the whole Church. Christ and the Church live a true nuptial sacrament of the bridal chamber. Here we see reflections of Fr. Tromp’s theology and Pius XII’s encyclical. Without this mystery of Christ's liturgical presence, Christianity would be no more than a myth to be grown out of and spat upon by our new atheists! The Church cannot be reduced to liturgy, but the liturgy is "the central and essentially necessary activity of the Christian religion". Indeed, the great Saint Benedict laid down in the holy Rule that nothing was to be preferred to God’s Work.
The liturgy is the place of Christ’s real presence, which is the common teaching of the Church, especially since the Council of Trent. However, Casel arrives at the idea, not only of the presence of Christ’s body and blood in the sacred Elements, but also the whole saving deed of Christ. This is the basis of the expression Paschal Mystery that found its way into the teaching of Vatican II and Sacrosanctum Concilium. We are used to this kind of teaching, but Casel in the 1930’s and 40’s came up against considerable opposition for his ontologism, especially from the Jesuits of the time. There is a real ontological presence in the liturgy of both the person of Christ and his saving acts. In a way, the liturgy is like a “window” from time into eternity. Casel’s thought is eseentially founded on Plato’s theory of reality, as we will find with Eastern Orthodoxy and its theological tradition. Here is a realism that goes far beyond Saint Thomas Aquinas and the later scholastic tradition.
For Casel, this whole way of understanding the liturgy is summed up in the Secret Prayer of the 9th Sunday after Pentecost in the Roman missal:
Grant us, we beg thee, O Lord, that we may frequent these mysteries in a worthy way, for every time we celebrate the commemoration of this sacrifice, the work of our redemption is accomplished.
The words in Latin convey the meaning even more strongly: opus nostrae redemptionis exercetur.
This real representation of the saving deed cannot not be, because the saving acts of Christ are so necessary to the Christian that he cannot be a true Christian if he doesn't live them after Him and with Him. It is not the teaching of Christ which makes the Christian. It is not even the simple application of his grace. It is total identification with the person of Christ obtained by re-living His life.
This total identification is made possible by the liturgy.
Casel, as a Platonist, saw everything as a whole. All the sacramental rites and the Office are as much a place of the presence of the Mystery as the Eucharist. Casel’s notion of participation was the direct source of the participatio actuosa of Vatican II, the real participation of the faithful in the liturgy. But this was not a superficial idea of playing priests, handing out hosts, drawing attention to oneself and taking over the church. Participation is living the liturgy in such a way as each one of us can participate in Christ – it goes much deeper. It is being more than doing.
Casel’s work underpinned Pius XII's liturgical encyclical Mediator Dei of 1947 and Sacrosanctum Concilium of 1962. However, in spite of his Platonic metaphysics, Casel was not a systematic philosopher. His appeal to the antique mystery religions sounds dangerously close to the ideas expressed by contemporary atheists that Christ was just a copycat myth of ancient Egyptian and Greek myths of dying and rising gods and heros. This whole notion needs to be clarified and researched.
Father Louis Bouyer was a fan of Dom Casel and wrote that "the heart of the teaching on the liturgy in the conciliar Constitution is also the heart of Dom Casel's teaching". In particular, we read in article 10 that the "liturgy is simultaneously the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed and the source from which all her power flows".
I do believe that much of our Anglican liturgical piety is often founded in a similar “high” vision as we had in medieval northern Catholicism. From Casel’s vision also came a thirst for liturgical reform, the use of the vernacular and participation by the laity. These were good and noble aims, but often implemented without understanding the foundation ideas profoundly enough. There is next to no mystagogy (liturgical catechesis) in the parishes or Casel’s ontological realism. Many contemporary Catholics are profoundly Nominalist in their metaphysics, and this is a major source of secularisation and desacralisation. Casel wanted the very opposite!
Death is Conquered, Glory Fills You”
The circumstances of the death of Odo Casel could not have been more fitting or remarkable. Casel, who had sought to give back to the church a belief that Christ in the paschal mystery was present in every liturgy, died as he proclaimed that resurrection. He had just intoned the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil liturgy at the convent at Herstelle. One commentator remarked that if such an event were recorded in a medieval biography of a saint, moderns would disregard it as pious fantasy. It was not.
It was in light of the wonder of Casel’s death that the sisters of Herstelle concluded the obituary of their mentor:
His whole life was beset with bodily suffering and given to untiring labor in sacred sciences; his passing over into the eternal Pentecost took place by the grace of God during the great night of the Pasch. Deo gratias.
FATHER ALEXANDER SCHMEMANN