Taking a Stance on the increasing Sentiment in favor of a
Reform of the Liturgical Reform
Recently I happened across what I presume was a sports shoe commercial for television but of a very surreal sort built around a rugby theme. In the video the ball comes crashing through the front window of a restaurant and the next thing you know the men from the restaurant in business suits are joining in the game on the streets of the busy city outside. The video resembles as much urban warfare as it does a sport. I know rugby has become a genuine “thing” for boys and young men, replacing for our day and time the quest for the “red badge of courage” once to be gained in a forgotten type of warfare that was far from all-out for the civilian population but oftentimes mortal for the flower of a nation’s youth. In watching the video, the thought came to me that much of what goes on in the area of vernacular liturgy, its planning and celebration is not without parallels to the sport of rugby and its ethos. The incongruity of this thought is as shocking to me as watching the video “rugby” chase over cars, down alleys and onward through a bustling business district of town. The ethos of Divine Worship should be another.
Since the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum the calls for a genuine reform of that liturgical reform which we have netted over the past forty years have become more insistent but likewise more eloquent and credible as proponents clarify their positions and line up behind the Holy Father. The contrast to the at times rugby-like status quo presented by the Pope’s gentle hand and his balanced words, notably during his recent visit to France, has led me to draw my little parallel between what has been touted as a reform according to the mind of the Second Vatican Council but which many times over the years and even yet today rather seems to resemble rugby rules for picking up the ball and running with it, that is, if you dare. The liturgical renewal which many of us have experienced in many parts of the Western World is unfortunately tinged with an inclination on the part of the priest celebrants to protagonism and no small amount of bravado being shown by others (let’s point our fingers at some of the pop choirs, musicians and dancers, leaving aside people with feminist and other agendas who also occasionally attempt to highjack what we were taught was the work of all God’s people).
I do not believe I am alone in having witnessed attempts by individuals or groups to steal center stage or at least run as far as they can with the “ball” without being tackled. Today’s Catholic youth and a goodly number of folk on the brink of or even immersed in middle age have known only this situation where what was cautiously and wisely decreed by Sacrosanctum Concilium has been bowled over by the “cavalry charge” initiated by enthusiasts who saw their chance to take the high ground. The fundamental appreciation which the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council had for the need to set forth the liturgical reforms begun by Pope St. Pius X and Pope Pius XII seems to have been lost in the shuffle or huddle.
The recent announcement of the intention of the Bishop of Tulsa, Oklahoma to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in English but ad Orientem on the First Sunday of Advent and on Christmas is clearly motivated by a commendable desire on the part of the bishop to reestablish the continuity of the reform within the tradition, one of the hallmarks of the reform as intended and decreed by the Second Vatican Council. The publication in an Italian liturgical “blog” recently of a very eloquent page taken from a publication penned in 2001 by our present Holy Father dealing with being Christian in the new millennium has given new urgency to my own sense of obligation to take a stand in this “game”. For some strange reason, not wishing to challenge anyone’s good will, it seems evident that vernacular liturgy as celebrated today is not only too open to abuse, but is seemingly distant from what the Council Fathers intended and what could have been accomplished since then if everyone had held to their words of instruction and direction.
Were we (priests and people) ill-advised by the liturgical experts to stop praying in the same direction and start facing each other across the table? We know now that the nearly absolute banishment of Latin from our musical repertoire was an impoverishment, a form of iconoclasm, not dissimilar to that which whitewashed and stripped once pretty little churches of their countless votive offerings: sometimes leaving behind barren places where formerly one had felt at home with God, the Blessed Virgin and all the Saints. Could we not then also have been ill-advised in accepting something without precedent in our history (remember that the advice came from the same people and who evidently didn’t sufficiently understand the history of divine worship or care enough about what the Council Fathers had prescribed)? The negative consequences of this personalizing of worship (face to face) are patent. They place unreal expectations on the priest celebrant who as often as not instead of leading us in prayer seems obliged to seek engagement or even eye contact with the people before or around him.
Sacrosanctum Concilium N. 23 laid down the following principle among others for renewal: “Finally, there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them, and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.” Even in the best celebrations of the reformed liturgy today, one would be hard pressed to show any urgency for celebrating across the altar table as “genuinely and certainly” being required for the good of the Church. Organic growth too is hard to plot in what so many people have experienced as rupture.
When N. 33 of the same conciliar decree urges that the sacred liturgy be instructive it does so reminding us that “… the sacred liturgy is principally the worship of the divine majesty…” The above cited page from Cardinal Ratzinger from 2001 rightly emphasizes that it is of the utmost importance that we reacquire respect for the liturgy and once again recognize that it is not open to manipulation; it is not placed at our discretion to be planned and presented as our talents allow. The present Holy Father called in this article for the reestablishment in a clear and organic way of the connections with past history.
I cannot help but think that the multiplication of celebrations according to the usus antiquior since Summorum Pontificum will be of aid in helping us back to the tradition. A full restoration of things as they were before Sacrosanctum Concilium, however, denies the wholesome analysis and the longing of saintly past Popes and an historic ecumenical council. Pope St. Pius X was right to come to the defense of Gregorian Chant and Pope Pius XII gifted us with a renewal of the Sacred Triduum to reflect the sublime mysteries celebrated therein. Both Popes’ interventions brought genuine change to the liturgy in an atmosphere of profound respect for the sacredness of the words and gestures they were modifying. It was undoubtedly the intention of the Second Vatican Council to set forth this same sort of cautious and organic reform. But, as I say, one has the impression that rugby rules were often applied and more than one stalwart decided to pick up the ball and run for it.
The article I read on the decision of the Bishop of Tulsa contains two great quotes from Bishop Slattery: “I hope that this common posture of the Church at prayer will help you to experience the transcendent truth of the Mass in a new and timeless way… “I pray that this restored practice will help us understand that at Mass we participate in the authentic worship which Christ offers to His Father by being ‘obedient unto death’ (Philippians 2:8)”. A modest wish on my part would be that many more chief shepherds would soon be setting a similar example.
The attraction held by the usus antiquior for young people in particular ought to give pause for thought. The explanation for this phenomenon could be as simple as recalling the God experience of the Prophet Elijah on Mount Sinai: he went to the opening of the cave and covered his face with his cloak at the tiny whispering sound of God passing by. God was not to be found in the storm or tempest. Much of what is propagated as youth liturgy today must certainly be judged at odds with Sacrosanctum Concilium N. 34: “The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity. They should be short, clear, and free from useless repetitions.” Though my life as a child was much quieter and free of external stimulation than is that of my nieces and nephews, I still found respite even as a preschooler in the big, quiet church of Sunday morning, where if it wasn’t High Mass, the silence might be broken only by an organ prelude, by another subdued organ piece during Communion and by the antiphons sung by a single voice from the choir loft on high. The genius of the past and its attraction for people of today comes from being able to perceive the Mass as gift, as withdrawn from the ambit of my discretion or caprice, as something of God, something sacred. Pope Benedict XVI speaks with urgency of our need to reawaken an interior sense of the sacred.
We have something altogether priceless in the renewed liturgical calendar and in the bounty of the lectionary with its three year cycle for Sundays and Solemnities. The introduction of the vernacular to worship certainly responded to an almost desperate hunger outside of the Latin world at least, if not universally within the Church. I would like to believe that the Bishop of Tulsa is on to something when he very simply and humbly moves to reestablish a single orientation for prayer in his cathedral this Advent and Christmas. May his attempt succeed to rescue the Mass from those who would beat it down with personal inventions or change the rules of the game to those of aggression! There’s a time and a place for rugby and not all of us are hearty enough to play such a game.