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Pope Francis insists on renewed attention to the Constitution on the Liturgy

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 21, 2014

I was very happy to see Pope Francis insist on a renewed commitment to the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium). The history of the late 20th-century liturgical renewal involved several steps backward in practice, and it has taken some time for the genius of what the Council prescribed to become evident, and for it to triumph over both personal agendas and the pervasive secularism of our culture. In the meantime, we have all experienced, at one time or another, a measure of alienation and disunity.

It goes without saying that each of us has reread the Constitution recently—during this past Year of Faith, in fact, since one of our charges from the Church was to reacquaint ourselves with the documents of the Council. After all, the text on the liturgy is one of the four most important documents, one of the constitutions. But those (undoubtedly very few) who did not do their homework can quickly hit the high points by reading my brief four-part series on Sacrosanctum Concilium which begins here: Vatican II on the Liturgy: Introduction.

In any case, older readers will recall that by the 20th century, Latin was little used outside the Church, a good deal of repetition and somewhat extraneous addition had over the centuries crept into the Tridentine Mass (now the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite), only a relatively small part of Scripture was represented in the lectionary, and the feasts celebrated in the liturgical calendar were significantly out of date (including some saints about whom we really do not know anything, and emphasizing older and less culturally relevant saints over newer ones who had lived under circumstances more similar to our own).

But perhaps the biggest need for renewal in the liturgy was that the older rite tended to foster a “professional” attitude toward the Mass, symptomatic of the highly stratified culture in which it was developed, as if it were a rather solitary priestly work instead of the action of the whole community joined together in Christ to offer anew the sacred mysteries through the agency of the priest. The Second Vatican Council did a superb job of placing the action of the liturgy at the heart of the whole Church, as both the source and summit of the Christian life. The Council Fathers also saw an immense benefit to increasing the use of the vernacular in the liturgy and to increasing the participation of the laity in the prayers of the Mass, in order to emphasize the importance of the entire Church in the rite. The ministerial priesthood is uniquely essential to the Mass, but all the faithful participate by their baptism in the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

Finally, while the Council fathers showed considerable reverence and respect for the liturgical tradition of the Church, they clearly understood that the particular Tridentine liturgical form did not have any sort of corner on engendering either positive spirituality or orthodoxy. The “old Mass” was very frequently said sloppily and extremely hastily; it was often doubtful whether the priest really understood the words without a translation (altar boys learned to “read” Latin out loud and memorize it, but only in the sense of pronouncing it correctly); the meaning of the “foreign” text of the liturgy was inevitably obscured.

Moreover, as a matter of plain fact, it was precisely a Church full of Catholics who had always said the Mass this way which was the subject of a much-needed renewal, a much-needed effort to deeply internalize the Faith. And it was priests and bishops who had always worshipped according to this form of the liturgy who promptly gave away the Catholic store when Western culture secularized to the point of declaring the Church irrelevant beginning in the 1960s. Since this time, a myth has developed to the effect that a restoration of the old rite will guarantee reverence, orthodoxy and spiritual depth. One wonders how such urban myths get started. Differences in personal preference are certainly possible, but this myth is both theoretically and historically ludicrous.

Liturgical Forms

Of course, no liturgical form is proof against contrary pressures; I certainly do not mean to claim that a change was automatically destined to make things better. In fact, it is now abundantly clear that mere change has had no such effect. But renewal of the liturgy, along with the deeper appreciation and participation that such a renewal should occasion, is obviously an important part of Church renewal. There was noble work done in liturgical renewal in monasteries and elsewhere in the first half of the twentieth century, with significant developments in the ecclesial understanding of the Mass, and also the ways and means by which the richest aspects of the liturgy’s inner meaning might be more effectively manifested.

Unfortunately, this longed-for renewal was in some ways derailed, along with all the rest of the desired renewal of the Church, in a capitulation to the cultural pressure of secular “relevance”. This capitulation was almost instantly widespread among bishops, priests, and (one of its main sources) the Catholic intelligentsia in universities and seminaries—a clear indication of how far things had already degenerated before the Council was called. In a truly remarkable demonstration of the presence of the Holy Spirit in an ecumenical council, many (indeed, probably most) bishops began around 1965 to lead their dioceses in exactly the opposite direction from what, when sitting in council, they had prescribed.

The result was a protracted era of personal experimentation, an unwillingness among many priests to submit to the fundamental structure and meaning of the liturgy, a vast secularization of sensibilities and attitudes as the outside culture was brought into the Church, and a long bout of inexpressibly banal silliness—not only in preaching, but in the decoration of Churches, in the music used at Mass, and in the demeanor of the liturgical participants themselves.

On the whole, we can see that the bones of the so-called Novus Ordo were quite sound, but its implementation was simply awful. Yes, the fundamental structure of the Mass was made much more clear, restoring the noble simplicity that traditionally characterizes the Roman Rite. Yes, Scripture was much more richly represented in the readings. Yes, the liturgical year was revised to make the fundamental sequence of sacred time more obvious, and also to include a much larger representation of more recent saints and martyrs.

But whatever the pluses and minuses of the rubrics themselves, where Rome stopped and the local episcopal conferences began, trouble loomed. And where the local episcopal conferences stopped and individual celebrants began, the trouble got even worse. The translations were both inaccurate and tendentious (that is, they tended whenever possible to desacralize and secularize the Catholic community’s relationship with God, and they employed the language of the street rather than the language of devotion). The Church’s musical heritage (including Gregorian chant, which the Council had stipulated must have pride of place) was replaced almost overnight with music that was hastily (and usually badly) written and performed with no sense of its role in the action of the Mass. And then there was the all that damnable experimentation and silliness.

But that was then. Most of this, in time, has settled down, and much of it is settling out altogether. We have a new translation which, while the awkwardness of its extensive relative clauses certainly still needs work, is far more serious, reverent and devotional. The crazy and typically heterodox “presiders” of the revolution are largely in the rear-view mirror. Most parishes are gradually beginning to use better music, though this is a slow process. And reverence is certainly growing. A related indication of this is a rapid growth in the practice of Eucharistic Adoration in one diocese after another. At least this is largely true in the United States.

And so…

And so it is a good moment indeed for this latest Pope to call for “a renewed willingness to move forward on the path indicated by the conciliar fathers, because much still remains to be done for a correct and complete assimilation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.” There are, in fact, two recent news stories that are worth reading in this regard, not only the one about Pope Francis linked in the first sentence, but another from a week earlier in which Vatican officials pay tribute to Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. In this story, the Prefect for the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments explains that the Second Vatican Council desired to make the Mass a “more informed, participatory, and active celebration of the paschal mystery of Christ” for the sake of “holiness, communion, and mission.”

Anyone who does reread the Constitution will see immediately that this is true. Of course, the liturgy is not sufficient all by itself to renew our lives as Christians, except perhaps in the pure order of grace. There are many other things that need continued attention as well. But still: If enough people are not yet participating actively both externally and interiorly; if enough people are not yet growing in holiness as a result of their participation in the liturgy; if enough people are not yet finding the liturgy a source of communion; if enough people are not yet being impelled by the liturgy into a profound commitment to Catholic mission—then the conclusion is obvious. It is as Pope Francis says. There is still work to be done.

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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Feb. 24, 2014 10:18 AM ET USA

    As a 35 yr old who attends both forms of the Mass every Sunday and is in a Gregorian Chant schola, I have been watching recent blog debate with interest. It seems to me that the "sides" of this debate (about whether the Novus Ordo is "fundamentally structurally unsound") obviously have different criteria in mind. Particularly from a monastic perspective of singing the liturgy in the traditional Chant it is almost inevitable to consider the Novus Ordo structurally unfit a discontinuous change.

  • Posted by: oakes.spalding7384 - Feb. 23, 2014 9:59 PM ET USA

    "...[A] myth has developed to the effect that a restoration of the old rite will guarantee reverence, orthodoxy and spiritual depth..." No. The claim is merely that it would help. My thriving Latin Mass friendly parish in Chicago-St. John Cantius-is about to ordain three new priests (two were created last year). That's roughly 20% of the total for the entire archdiocese. And given the number of brothers in the accompanying Order, there's every indication that the trend will continue.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 22, 2014 3:07 PM ET USA

    There was a time in this country not long ago when gay meant happy, bad meant evil, sex meant the difference between male and female, and gender meant a difference in the form of words in foreign languages. Latin, as a so-called dead language, does not undergo this obfuscation of the post-Christian era. The Latin text of magisterial documents means today what it meant 100 years ago, even 1,000. Value is found in the traditions of men, both in the language of the Church and in sacramental forms.

  • Posted by: Dlukenbill2151 - Feb. 22, 2014 1:39 PM ET USA

    Unfortunately, all of that “damnable experimentation and silliness”, went on for a couple generations—a pretty deep cultural impact—and for new Catholics who were baptized in that period (my wife and I were baptized in 2003) it seemed to be the norm. Fortunately, the way the New Mass was celebrated was not what drew us to the Church, but as soon as we discovered a Latin Mass parish, it became our periodic refuge; though we also attend the New Mass at a parish where it is celebrated well.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Feb. 22, 2014 10:56 AM ET USA

    "...[A] myth has developed to the effect that a restoration of the old rite will guarantee reverence, orthodoxy and spiritual depth...but this... is both theoretically and historically ludicrous." Just so. We should never tire of pointing out that Catholics of yesteryear accepted the A bomb, widespread anti-Semitism, and industrial-strength clericalism. There was a serious disconnect between the message of the liturgy and perceptions in the pews. In fact, "the good ole' days"...weren't so good.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 22, 2014 9:04 AM ET USA

    The history of the development of the Novus Ordo is not a history of the realization of Sacrosanctum Concilium. The development of the Novus Ordo involved much that might not have been anticipated. Several prelates remarked after the implementation of the new liturgical form that it was not nearly what most bishops present at the council would have expected. There is still much work to be done beginning with the daunting task of filling pews. The novelty has run its unfortunate course.

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