Perfection Is Imperfectible

Perfection Is Imperfectible

Dedication of St Mary’s Cathedral, Hobart

Today in the archdiocese of Hobart we commemorate the dedication of St Mary’s Cathedral. Even though few Catholics have the opportunity to attend the actual consecration of a church, let alone a cathedral, we do have each year the grace to celebrate the anniversary of its consecration. In the Roman liturgy, there are three churches that each Catholic is invited to commemorate, namely one’s parish church, the cathedral of the diocese and the cathedral of the universal church, which is that of the Roman Pontiff, St John Lateran in Rome. The commemoration of the cathedral churches stress the unity of all the faithful in the same faith and sacraments. That is why in the orations for the liturgy we refer to this church as if we were actually there, for we are there symbolically thanks to our faith and communion in the Lord.

The office and Mass for such occasions are among the richest and the most symbolic in our liturgical celebrations. We might ask ourselves why that is. What is it that we celebrate when we consecrate a church? From the day of its consecration, a church building is set aside for one thing, and one thing only: the worship of the Most Holy Trinity which reaches its climax in the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. When you study the great European medieval cathedrals, one thing becomes apparent: the entire edifice is conceived and built to provide a worthy dwelling place for the high altar on which the unbloody sacrifice of the Mass is renewed and the tabernacle where the Most Blessed Sacrament is reserved. This is truly the tabernacle of God among men of which St John speaks today’s epistle.

The presence of God incarnate among us in the midst of our Churches brings before us another and more profound aspect of the reality: we build a house for God on earth, but in reality He it is who is welcoming us into His home which is the Holy Catholic Church. Through Baptism we become a member of the Mystical Body of Christ. So when we celebrate the dedication of a Church, we also celebrate the Church as a gathering of those who share the same faith and the same sacraments. But the Church of the earth points us to the Church of Heaven, the eternal abode of the Holy Trinity, to which we are invited, where God awaits us, and prepares for us a place.

A number of consequences flow from these stupendous realities, and they are stressed in the chants for today’s Mass. First of all there is the great reverence with which we should enter our churches (Terribilis est locus iste – how awesome is is place, for it is the house of God and the very gate of Heaven). When I was a boy – and that is only a few decades ago – it was insisted upon that when you go to church you put on your Sunday best; a proper Sunday suit was the norm. As for the ladies, both young and old, it was unthinkable to not be wearing a long dress or skirt and a veil. The majesty of God commands our respect, as does the need to not be a distraction to those who pray with us. Each Christian is a temple dedicated to God, sanctified by grace. And this reminds us of the great reverence due to our bodies in which God deigns to dwell, into which God Incarnate comes through Holy Communion.

Secondly, when we come to Church, we bring our petitions and supplications for so many intentions that are ours personally or those of others we love, or the world at large. The communion verse reminds us that everyone who asks will receive, everyone who seeks finds and to everyone who knocks, the door is opened (cf. Mt 21:13). If our prayer arises from a pure heart, if we are in the state of grace, if we have no guilt in our minds and hearts, if we have no crimes on our hands, if we pray with unswerving faith, we are heard by God and He will answer in His time. This is why it is so important, especially when approaching the altar for Holy Communion, that we be in a state of grace. As St James reproached the first generation of Christians: You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions (James 4:3).

Thirdly, we must not appear empty-handed before the Lord. The offertory verse brings back before us the majestic scene at the end of the first book of Chronicles in which King David gathers all the people and witnesses them all bringing their offerings for the construction of the Temple, and cries out: Lord God, in the simplicity of my heart I have joyfully offered all these things (1 Chr 29:17). Whenever we come before the Lord we should not just ask for His gifts but offer Him our own, and, most precious of all gifts, the gift of ourselves and our will.

One final consideration which really cannot be avoided as we contemplate the majesty of God’s temple. The Mass of the Roman Rite, even more than the great cathedrals, was long in the making. It attained its providentially-guided perfection over a period of centuries, as successive generations of saints provided it as a bulwark against the distortions of heresies. Up until the mid-twentieth century, the Church held fast to this most precious gem and guarded it jealously, for she knew that when a glorious work of art is achieved, there can be no question of simplifying it. To attempt to do so is to destroy it; it would be nothing short of sacrilegious. What the musicologist Alfred Einstein said of Mozart’s concerti as an achievement ‘beyond which no progress was possible, because perfection is imperfectible’, can be applied to the Roman Rite Mass of Tradition.

Let us ask Our Blessed Lady for the grace to come to a deeper appreciation of what has been handed down to us, for the grace of humility to not think that we can make better the treasure of the ages. And let us ask her to keep watch over us that we may never have the misfortune of throwing in our lot with those who spare no effort to bring down the magnificent edifice of the traditions of the Catholic Church.

Cathedral Hobart