Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

vine & branches

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Nov 20, 2006

In his book of memoirs titled Milestones, Pope Benedict tells of his having received, in his childhood years, a series of Latin-German missals called the Schott Messbuch, which were annotated with progressively detailed "age-appropriate" explanations of the Mass. The following passage gives articulate voice to an intuition that, while often "pre-discursive" in itself, will be recognized by those who have shared it: an awareness that the liturgy is something both human and larger than human:

Each new book I was given was something precious to me, and I could not dream of anything more beautiful. It was a riveting adventure to move by degrees into the mysterious world of the liturgy, which was being enacted before us and for us there on the altar. It was becoming more and more clear to me that here I was encountering a reality that no one had simply thought up, a reality that no official authority or great individual had created. This mysterious fabric of texts and actions had grown from the faith of the Church over the centuries. It bore the whole weight of history within itself, and yet, at the same time, it was much more than the product of human history. Every century had left its mark upon it. The introductory notes informed us about what came from the early Church, what from the Middle Ages, and what from modern times. Not everything was logical. Things sometimes got complicated, and it was not always easy to find one's way. But precisely this is what made the whole edifice wonderful, like one's own home. Naturally, the child I was then did not grasp every aspect of this, but I started down the road of the liturgy, and this became a continuous process of growth into a grand reality transcending all particular individuals and generations, a reality that became an occasion for me of ever-new amazement and discovery. The inexhaustible reality of Catholic liturgy has accompanied me through all phases of life.

Ronald Knox's autobiography likewise describes his encounter, as a boy, with a book called The Ritual Reason Why, whereupon he too became fascinated by the way an ordinary object (a cup, piece of colored cloth) remains what it is while pointing to something more important, something beyond itself -- because it is part of the liturgy. Neither for Knox nor for Ratzinger was this intuition part of a passing juvenile enchantment that was later outgrown: both knew that the stairway led upwards.

"The fathers have eaten sour grapes," says Jeremiah, "and the children's teeth are set on edge." The technicians arrived. Dom Alcuin Reid, O.S.B., in a lecture given last April called "Looking Again at the Liturgical Reform," cited the Ratzinger passage above, along with several sober observations on the extent to which the post-Conciliar liturgical reformers neglected the slow-growing ritual in favor of university-hatched theories. Reid quotes a 1978 remark of Dame Felicitas Corrigan:

The new Missal is not so satisfactory. It has an artificial ring about it, as if scholars had first gone mapped it out in the abstract, and then gone to work with scissors and paste in a Roman parlour to produce a new organism. But do living organims ever follow a neat scientific pattern?

Those familiar with Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House may recognize the parallel with the modern architects for whom "Starting From Zero" was the revolutionary motto. They were angry men, men on a mission -- and their mission was precisely to purge themselves of any memory of tradition so as to design from scratch a new world in their own minds. They saw themselves as engineers of the human soul.

The men who came up with the Novus Ordo were not so thorough-going as the Bauhaus iconoclasts, but they brought much of the same abstract academic fervor to the task. They were Big Idea guys. Of course they didn't get all they wanted -- some compromises with the tradition were necessary -- but the new Mass clearly has that "mapped out" quality that Corrigan refers to. It's a wordy rite: discursive in form and aimed principally at adults with well-developed language skills. Young children, new immigrants, mentally impaired adults will (in contrast with the older Mass) miss most of the intended wallop. The sacramental dimension, which fascinated Knox and Ratzinger even as children, gave way to the didactic. There are still sporadic moments of contact with the Holy, that mysterium tremendum et fascinans, but the didacticism and stress on the here-and-now-ness of the liturgical action means fascination is rare and awe rarer still. As Thomas Day laconically remarks, "Not many boys today will put a chair behind their bureaus and pretend to be presiders."

Recent adjustments in the liturgy -- such as the restoration of pro multis and the broader scope for Latin -- are I believe part of an effort to reconnect with that older, organically developing root-stock of which Ratzinger spoke. Progressive fears of a systematic counter-revolution misjudge the situation. What's happening is not retro-engineering, but a move away from engineering full-stop, in favor of a cautious return to vinedressing. It's impossible to predict how many Catholics will be going to Mass fifty years from now, but it's almost certain that those who do won't be stuck with the 1974-model year Novus Ordo. Incremental husbandry, of course, will have its own mixture of failures and successes. Not all grafts are sure to take. Some will.

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