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Liturgy and the
Virginia Tech Massacre

by Christopher A. Ferrara

Even non-Catholic commentators on the horrors of modern society, such as Catherine Pickstock and John Milbank, have concluded that one of its principal defects is the lack of a common liturgical life of the people.When people no longer share a common religion, they no longer participate in a common form of worship.Without a common form of worship, a key social bond is lost, and society begins to disintegrate.

As the Catholic encyclopedia explains: “Liturgy (leitourgia) is a Greek composite word meaning originally a public duty, a service to the state undertaken by a citizen.” The word has been appropriated in Christian usage to mean “the public official service of the Church, that corresponded to the official service of the Temple in the Old Law.” That is, the liturgy is the public worship of God by the Christian people. It was the liturgy of the Mass that united the peoples of Christendom for more than 1500 years, until the Protestant revolt against the Catholic Church that destroyed both liturgical and doctrinal unity in nation after nation.

In today’s pluralistic society, which is the end result of the Protestant revolt, there is no form of public worship of the true God in the true religion. But, as we can see in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre, people instinctively yearn for just such a liturgy; and in a twisted way Americans have tried to concoct one to cope with their grief.

In the days following the massacre we witnessed grief-stricken people engage in that panoply of American civic rituals devised to take the place of true religion in a culture without the unity of the Mystical Body or the inspiration of grace: the mounds of flowers and candles; the mystical balloon release (32 balloons for the 32 victims); the flight of doves; the moment of silence with its fervent petitions addressed to who knows who; the non-denominational gathering with vague supplications To Whom It May Concern; and the “Hokie Day of Hope,” in which participants all over the country were expected to wear the Virginia Tech sports team colors as a kind of liturgical garment of mourning.

Then there was the healing Sacrament of Baseball. In an article entitled “Baseball Spurs the Healing Process,” a local Virginia newspaper reported on how the Hokie baseball season resumed only four days after the massacre, with a record crowd of more than 3,000 (five times the usual number) showing up for the game on the Virginia Tech campus. The article recounts this curious liturgical practice: “At a makeshift stone memorial adorned with flowers and notes and arranged in a semicircle, the players knelt and prayed and left a pristine baseball at each stone.” (Newport News, Va. Daily Press, April 21, 2007).

After the placement of the Sacred Baseballs, the congregation at the ball field observed a 32-second moment of silence (one second for each victim). The public-address system broadcast the “hymn” for this Liturgy of the Ball Field: “poet Nikki Giovanni's poem from Tuesday’s memorial service, entitled ‘We are Virginia Tech.’” The reporter recounts how “Solemnity and sadness seemed to lift at the game, the first on-campus sporting event since Monday …” A mere four days after the slaughter of 32 people on the very campus where they had gathered, “People laughed and smiled and cheered. They lined up 20-deep to buy peanuts, hot dogs and Cracker Jack at the lone concession stand.” The Communion of the Snack Bar sustained the congregants in their time of grief.

The “liturgy” of our neo-pagan society — from balloons to baseballs — is more disordered than even the worship of the pagans of old, for it is not addressed to any god at all but rather to Nothingness or to man himself. This is just another sign of how, for the lack of Christ, “civilization is tottering to its fall,” to recall the words of Pope Pius XI in his great encyclical Quas Primas.

As the Anglican scholar John Milbank has put it: “Only a global liturgical polity can save us now from literal violence.” But such a polity exists already, and has existed for 2,000 years: It is the Catholic Church, the same Church that will be restored throughout the world upon the triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.