Calling it a “liturgical debate” suffices only if we understand “liturgical” in the fullness of the term, so as to encompass art, architecture, music, and an almost endless list of types of artisanry which serve the plastic arts in particular: vestment making, textiles in general, book binding, woodcarving, masonry and so on.
While “continuity” might be a fair litmus test for faithfulness to the tradition, I can understand why people get into debates over what is involved with standing in an unbroken line with the past. Maybe the issue can only be resolved by appealing to authority: Roma locuta causa finita… This is not the worst of all solutions. Nonetheless, recent talk about pending developments in promoting the reform of the reformed liturgy through building consensus and appealing to the leadership of bishops and priests has left me cold or wanting additional directives. Consensus building certainly has its place in politics and is most likely the fairest and best way to hammer out a party platform, but in so far as we owe God “worship in spirit and in truth”, it must be more than my conditioning as a canonist which tells me that either the prophet or the prince has to speak and say “This is the path. Follow it!”
Even so, just in case we are relegated to consensus building on the way to reform, I would like to suggest a “via negativa” to help get a handle on a good deal of what is at issue. Call it an added element for a liturgical examination of conscience if you will. Ask whether something is appropriate for Divine Worship; measure the sufficiency of its “gravitas” or weight, and do it by asking whether or not he, she or it (thing or action) is frivolous.
friv⋅o⋅lous [friv-uh-luh s] –adjective 1. characterized by lack of seriousness or sense: frivolous conduct. 2. self-indulgently carefree; unconcerned about or lacking any serious purpose. 3. (of a person) given to trifling or undue levity: a frivolous, empty-headed person. 4. of little or no weight, worth, or importance; not worthy of serious notice: a frivolous suggestion. (Origin: 1425–75; late ME frīvolus worthless, trifling; Related forms: friv⋅o⋅lous⋅ly, adverb; friv⋅o⋅lous⋅ness, noun) Synonyms: 3. idle, silly, foolish, childish, puerile. 4. light, trifling, petty, paltry, trivial, flimsy. Antonyms: 3. serious. 4. weighty.
By way of illustration, one might ask of himself as a celebrant: Is my manner of presiding at liturgy or my preaching style frivolous or thus inclined? Good Church music, which lifts our minds and hearts to God, does so not like a hydrogen balloon or a will-o-the-wisp but by sustaining us with its strength and beauty: are you singing stuff which is “4. light, trifling, petty, paltry, trivial, flimsy”?
Forgive me if I resist the temptation to shoot a whole series of ducks right out of the water! I will not set myself up either as critic or judge in matters where anyone or his friend might question my competency. Let it suffice to say, that with reference to my decision almost two months ago to celebrate ad Orientem always in my chapel, I find myself as a celebrant affirmed and confirmed. Most of the congregation seems to have found the change affirming as well. A certain “gravitas” has won the day; the verdict is indeed positive.
You are excused if you do not buy this business of questioning the frivolity of much of that which is out there as a first step to appreciating where the Holy Father and many others wish to go with a renewed liturgy desperately in need of reform. I personally, however, find the notion helpful in labeling things which have always gone against my grain. Just observing the rubrics presently on the books would in and of itself be a big help toward ordering the house of worship.
To illustrate what I mean by this “via negativa”, I will offer two examples of my “Is it frivolous, yes or no?” test from the realm of art and architecture, dealing with the cathedral where I was baptized, ordained a priest, where in the crypt of the cathedral I celebrated my 25th of priesthood at the same altar of my first Mass, and where I was ordained a bishop.
I clearly remember the first temporary altar set up to accommodate Mass “facing the people” in the cathedral after the Council. It was made of aquamarine or turquoise Formica. Although as an adolescent, I did not have any strong feelings either about Formica or the color turquoise, I can say that as a boy I knew of no self-respecting woman who would have had her kitchen cupboards made out of the same material. Permit me to brand someone’s choice back then as “frivolous”.
These days (the turquoise altar disappeared almost as quickly as it had appeared) I am eagerly watching the diocesan website for progress on the renovation of the cathedral being carried out under the direction of the architect Duncan G. Stroik, LLC, who is attempting to set forth and complete the original architect’s vision for the cathedral, which was never realized because of that man’s death. Basically, Stroik is reversing the modifications made to the building in the 1970’s.
Looking at the photos on the website, I was caught short and really stung to the heart to see the foundations being poured for the new steps up into the “sanctuary”, which are nearly the same as those I remember so well as an altar boy, and which I thought had disappeared forever under the new platform for the new altar and lectern of the 1970’s. It would seem that even modifications in stone might be labeled a hiatus as opposed to a progression. Were those changes, with no provision for a single use cathedra in the bishop’s church, a rupture? I need not say or judge any more. They are gone and continuity with the past in faithfulness to the liturgical norms which have always been in force is in the process of being reestablished. God rest all those behind the stone modifications of the 1970’s, but might they not have been just a bit frivolous in the radical changes they imposed upon that building?
Pope Benedict XVI is preparing for an encounter with artists in just a matter of days within the 10th anniversary year of the letter which the Servant of God Pope John Paul II wrote to artists on the eve of the great jubilee. It is another attempt by the popes to engage human creativity for the Gospel. Although artist saints like Fra Angelico may not have been common over the course of history, the Church has benefited from a marvelous engagement also with very mortal artists who have produced truly sublime works of the spirit over the course of the centuries. Hoping for a wedding between the Church and the world of contemporary art is not a wish for frivolity but might be likened to Hosea's efforts at God’s command to call his bride home.
Ideally, I guess I’d like to propose the frivolity test to bishops and priests concerning their own responsibility for liturgy. Musicians should be able to judge as well if one or another of the pieces in the song book might not better be left aside as frivolous. I cannot see how a call for “gravitas” in worship involves clipping anyone’s wings or hemming anyone in. The instructive parts of the liturgy of ordination call us to just that, to be anything but frivolous in dealing with the things of God.