Sunday, March 13, 2011

Continuity in Prayer and Praise

What is Liturgy?

All of the positive signs notwithstanding, that for the English speaking world we stand (thanks be to God) on the threshold of a rupture-healing liturgical reform, I am anxious about doing more to insure that we restore the continuity in our prayer to the Lord and our solemn praise of the Living God. Again and again I am confronted first off with the well-meaning of the laity, but also of priests and bishops, who don’t see as a break with the past, which needs to be healed, the didactic form of liturgy with all its discursive elements as it has commonly been executed over the last four decades. But it must be said: For weekdays we are too far from our roots in the essential liturgy of the Latin Low Mass; for Sundays we are leagues from the once common consciousness that worship by God’s People took place before His Throne.

Can I say to a popular and loving pastor that he should have said “no” to an Ash Wednesday flash crowd, carefully orchestrated for and enthusiastically executed by the children of his grade school? What about that YouTube video of a priest from down in these parts (he’s got a great singing voice for belting out those Gospel/charismatic hymns!), vested for Mass, with wireless microphone, who has the whole congregation singing and swaying? What is liturgy? At some point, we lost all measure making that weekly “hour of power” and those occasional conference gatherings and special events the communal supplement to somebody’s Bible reading and prayers punctuating their quilt making, needlepoint and rocking in that chair handed down from somebody purported to have made the crossing on the Mayflower.

Not in desperation but with a bit of puzzlement over this question, I picked up an English translation of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, in its skeletal form, set down for use in the U.S. today. It is worship (even without all of the pomp and splendor which attracted the Grand-Duke Vladimir of the Kievan Rus and encouraged him to turn his back on paganism and accept baptism) indeed in spirit and in truth. I was impressed as never before with Byzantine Liturgy as petition, intercession and supplication. The Word of God has its place, but significantly the whole from beginning to dismissal is yes an ongoing dialog between the priest and people but by way of an encouragement to a work (laos ergon, leitourgia) addressed to God Himself, while calling on all the angels and saints with Mary the Mother of God at their head. A profound sense of the sacred permeates it all in that it is truly addressed to the Triune God, Who is above all and in all, transcendent yet eminently present, to be worshipped and adored. Worship is not a pep fest and to class it as theater would be denigrating. Standing or kneeling at God’s footstool is not “let’s pretend”; it is Calvary renewed for us in an unbloody fashion; it is Sacrament and Sacrifice for the salvation of the world.

Don’t get me wrong! I am no more tempted to “go byzantine” than I am to investing in the stock market, but this quiet encounter of a Sunday with Chrysostom, with that Church’s unbroken tradition of prayer and praise has aided me in sorting out a few things as I seek to serve the cause of the reform of the liturgy reform within our Roman Catholic tradition of worship.  

"Sunday-go-to-meeting” is not our tradition 
and represents a clear rupture in need of healing. 

   The simple sung propers (entrance antiphon, responsorial psalm, communion antiphon) might be the agreeable “purge” which will enable us to look at a limited role for hymnody, let us say as an enhancement of certain moments of silence (a processional, a Eucharistic hymn of thanksgiving as a post-communion, perhaps? For pilgrimages and devotions?). With the ordinary parts of the Mass sung (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Great Amen, Pater Noster, Agnus Dei) we might find ourselves relishing a lot less all the syncopated stuff in the hymnals presently in usage.

Respect for rubrics and adherence to published texts 
is at no one’s discretion.

      We owe it to our children and to all who enter the Lord’s House to let them know, to assure them that what Joel Osteen does or Bennie Hinn does at a tent revival has nothing in common with what the Church in God’s Name has called the priest to do at the head of God’s People each Sunday. Father did not and cannot simply “make up” what we do in praise of God.

A return to worship “ad Orientem” is or will be our saving grace

    I hope no one misreads me. I would only formulate the wish that EWTN would simply exercise a legitimate option and start celebrating the daily TV Mass “ad Dominum”, so as to give folks from the comfort of their home an idea of what can be. The wood furnishings of that daily Mass chapel in Alabama could be rearranged in lovely fashion in the course of a single day. I am not advocating in parishes and religious houses of the more permanent sort another “barbarian invasion” of the temple to right wrongs with sledge hammer or pick ax. In church buildings, where possible, continuity with the past should be recovered, but some churches (even Santa Sabina in Rome, where the Holy Father celebrated on Ash Wednesday) cannot be changed. The great liturgists of all time, St. John Chrysostom for the East and St. Gregory the Great for the West, agree: we must physically focus together on the Lord when we pray the Eucharistic Prayer.

Just now I absent-mindedly touched my bishop’s ring and was reminded that with my titular see of Bomarzo I have a “Bride” who doesn’t talk back and who cannot not understand. For this I bow my head to all bishops with real “brides” and parish priests more familiar than I will ever be with “domestic” life. Be assured of my prayers that you might find ways, like our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, to open this loving dialog as Christ Himself would do, washing her clean and healing every spot and blemish.


Pachomius said...


A small point, but one worth making, I think: That is, the 1570 Missale Romanum conceives of the possibility of the celebrant facing versus populum, and allows for this (however briefly).

Whether or not this is as a contingency for churches which face West I couldn't say, but it is there.

Therefore it seems a little misjudged to claim (as so many do) that the mass ad orientem is a venerable tradition to be lauded, while the mass versus populum is rebarbative. Indeed, in some of the major churches in Rome, there is little choice for the celebrant: not only St Peter's itself, but St-Paul-Without-the-Walls and San Clemente all face West and necessitate the celebrant to say the Mass both ad orientem and versus populum.

Of course, many churches now are not built with an East-West axis in mind, and so all of this is somewhat theoretical.

Thomas said...

Dear Pachomius,
Of course you are right, but the rupture comes with the discursive and try as I will I can find no remedy or healing for that rupture except in strict adherence to rubrics and preparing the gifts and praying the Eucharistic Prayer facing together toward the Lord. Again, I cannot and will not advocate a repetition of the violence which brought us to the present state of affairs.

Pachomius said...


I certainly didn't mean to disagree with you on the importance of re-solemnising the Roman liturgy. We are told that the early Roman liturgy was considered very solemn and severe.

Indeed, St Gregory the Great supposedly had the mosaics in one church in Ravenna painted over in black, as he thought them distracting for the congregation, and supposedly troped chants were banned for lacking solemnity.

It seems to me that a large part of the problem is this lack of a sense of the solemn. Even in the Extraordinary Form, the adoption by the Church of the baroque seems to me to have harmed this sense of sobriety.

I think the wider adoption and use of (unaccompanied) Gregorian Chant, as well as, as you say, stricter adherence to the rubrics, may well be an antidote to both problems.

dmwallace said...

Regarding the EWTN Mass, it should be noted that the former bishop of Birmingham in Alabama, David E. Foley, forbade the televised Masses to be celebrated ad orientem/apsidem. Prior to this decision, which I believe was in 2000, the daily Mass broadcast from the chapel of Our Lady of the Angels in Irondale was celebrated ad orientem/apsidem.

See the official notice from the office of liturgy in Birmingham:

Anonymous said...

Your Grace, this is an excellent post and the suggestion re: EWTN is excellent. Let's hope they give it serious consideration.

I prefer Mass ad orientem but I agree with Pachomius that it's not intrinsic to the Old Mass itself. Indeed Cardinal Ottaviani, the most reactionary man in the Roman Curia and associated with the famous 1969 Intervention sharply criticising the Novus Ordo Massae, celebrated Mass facing the people at the International Liturgical Congress in Lugano (1953), which a certain Cardinal Montini attended in persona Papae.

Fr Matthew Green said...

This is a very interesting article! I think there is a lot of confusion in the Church right now (among both clergy and laity) about what the Liturgy really is and should be; which paradigm (pre- or post-reform) is closer to the intention of Christ. Honestly, I am not entirely sure sometimes... But I recently started celebrating Mass in the Extraordinary Form periodically, and in my opinion there clearly is, in practice at least, a rupture between the two forms. As a priest, I find celebrating Mass ad orientem less distracting and more prayerful. It's clearer that the priest and people are primarily addressing God. I think a lot of (well meaning) people do come to Mass expecting a feel-good prayer meeting more than an act of worship focused on God.

Father Harold said...

When Pope John Paul II came to Trinidad,(January 1985) he commented on how the vast Congregation at the Stadium was able to move reverently from the lively Entrance Hymns into a respectful and prayerful beginning of the Mass and then again from the effervescent exchange of Peace into the quieter and prayerfully sung Lamb of God.
Fr. Harold Imamshah,
St. Joseph's
Colfax, Louisiana