I went to Mass this morning after a couple of days away and a mildly troubling personal experience last night, and I was greeted by a whole string of that’s-why-I-go-Mass moments:
- entering and finding fellow members of the Universal Church who had arrived ahead of me, yes
- kneeling gratefully before Mass, yes
- standing to honor the priesthood as the celebrant entered, yes
- examining my conscience privately, saying the Confiteor publicly, yes
- the second reading from First Corinthians about the gifts of the Spirit, yes
- the silly story in the homily about the priest’s mother putting a glass of water in front of him at his ordination party and telling him to be an alter Christus and turn it into wine, yes
- the consecration, yes
- the elevation, yes
- the Our Father, yes
- the waiting in line to receive, yes
- the meditation after communion, yes
- the benediction, yes
- the flowing back into daylight with the stream of the Universal Church, yes
That’s right: This little chaplet of moments unfolded at a foreign parish—an away game! I had none of the familiar cues offered by Father Barnes, or Frank Gaudenzi kneeling in the first pew ahead of me, or Ferde and Heidi two rows behind me, or familiar lectors, or Fred’s masterful organ music, or the chance to wave to Flo during the Sign of Peace. It was a pure experience of the liturgy. The Presence of Christ in his Word and his Body and Blood, shared in communion with others. Where two or three are gathered together. Home or away.
This little meditation relates directly with my recent thoughts about the liturgy. I have been thinking quite a bit about the liturgy, thinking that it’s a complex issue I don’t understand well. My thinking has been fueled by an exchange of e-mails with a faithful reader of this blog, an Anglican who loves many things about his church (as I loved many things about the Episcopal Church of my youth), but who is also looking closely at Catholicism and perhaps even Orthodoxy.
My Anglican friend is concerned, as I am, about the liturgy. In a recent e-mail, he wrote (and I excerpt liberally):
A week or so ago, in response to a post on the website, I had expressed my frustration with the quality of the language in the liturgy that I have heard in Catholic parishes. I think what set me off was a translation of a portion of the lectionary read during Advent. Instead of what we often get as "And his name shall be called wonderful counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace," there was a stilted near equivalent which included odd constructions like "God-Man." It may have been closer to the literal construction of the Hebrew, but it didn't work in English. . . .
On the other hand, I was recently a member of an Episcopal parish that, from time to time, resorted to "The Message," an abominable "contemporary" version of the Bible. It's more of a paraphrase than an actual translation, and I vividly remember a passage from Revelation which came out as "God is in the neighborhood." Which (naturally) made me think of God firing up the hibachi and inviting the folks over for a couple of Millers. A vision of the eternal banquet, to be sure, but . . .
I think I realized I was a traditionalist when I articulated this thought: there is nothing so dated as that which was deliberately contemporary ten years ago. Or perhaps it was when I decided that the word "creative" ought never to modify the word "liturgy."
And now I hear that the Catholics are approaching the approval of a revised missal for English speakers. So my residual affection for Episcopal forms and practice may soon be moot. . . .
We are approaching a revised missal, aren’t we? It is this, along with a certain wistful nostalgia for the Book of Common Prayer, that glorious English text of my youth, that has made the liturgy a burning question for me. Why do the words matter? Which words?
Before I share a few thoughts from Pope Benedict that may help guide thinking on this issue, let me add a few more thoughts from my Anglican friend, written in a follow-up e-mail:
The real issue, of course, has been what all of this really meant to me. I have forced myself to evaluate whether I have been looking for a pretty neat expression of a particular culture, with a bit of spiritual uplift thrown in, or whether there was something more that I was looking for, but not quite getting. The real hard question is this: whether I love the words more than the Word. Does my affection for the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer amount to idolatry? Is the "reformed catholicism" model of Anglicanism still viable, or have the current crises in the Anglican Communion exposed fatal flaws? Is the Catholic Church in fact who she claims to be, or should I be talking to those in the Orthodox traditions? How do I engage in this process of discernment without excessive disruption of my family life?
This e-mail reinforced for me the central question of the liturgy. What do I want from the liturgy? A reaffirmation of my own cultural heritage? (Bring back the King James Version!) A bit of spiritual uplift? (The Gloria set to “Greensleeves”!) But particularly—Do I love the words or the Word? And if I love the words, is that idolatry?
I do not have easy answers to these questions. But I have just finished reading Pope Benedict’s early memoir, Milestones: 1927–1977, and I have found, to my relief, that questions of the liturgy have been central to his life. In fact, he writes (in the mid-1990s) that—
“I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy.”
Imagine that! My Pope says my question is central! Of course, I don’t pretend to understand this “disintegration” with the complexity of thought that Benedict, a great theologian, brings to it, but at least I know this is something worth thinking deeply about.
Now, to close this already long post with a pretty long history lesson from my Pope—
The critical moment of concern, according to Benedict (writing as Cardinal Ratzinger), was the introduction of a new missal by Pope Paul VI in the wake of Vatican II—“accompanied by the almost total prohibition, after a transitional phase of only half a year, of using the missal we had had until then.” With arch-typical balance, Ratzinger writes:
I welcomed the fact that now we had a binding liturgical text after a period of experimentation that had often deformed the liturgy. But I was dismayed by the prohibition of the old missal, since nothing of the sort had ever happened in the entire history of the liturgy. . . . The prohibition of the missal that was now decreed, a missal that had known continuous growth over the centuries, starting with the sacramentaries of the ancient Church, introduced a breach into the history of the liturgy whose consequences could only be tragic.
Never before in history? Tragic consequences? Of course, Ratzinger backs this up with history, looking back at the Council of Trent which was followed by the creation of a new Missale Romanum in 1570 by Pope Pius V. He explains that Pius V did not create a new missal and did not prohibit old, local forms of the missal, so long as they had been in use for at least two hundred years:
Many of his successors had likewise reworked this missal again, but without ever setting one missal against another. It was a continual process of growth and purification in which continuity was never destroyed.
Then comes, for me, the punch line, delivered like a knockout blow:
The irruption of the Reformation had above all taken the concrete form of liturgical “reforms.” It was not just a matter of there being a Catholic Church and a Protestant Church alongside one another. The split in the Church occurred almost imperceptibly and found its most visible and historically most incisive manifestation in the changes of the liturgy. These changes, in turn, took very different forms at the local level, so that here, too, one frequently could not ascertain the boundary between what was still Catholic and what was no longer Catholic.
In the face of these questions, it seems we have to be extraordinarily vigilant. However, if you ask me to be vigilant on this issue, I feel like a child asked to perform nightwatch duty, who is wide awake, vigilant as he can be (he is a good boy), but he doesn't know what to look for!
My pope offers a few guiding principles, and with these this long post will close—
There is no doubt that [Pope Paul VI’s] new missal in many respects brought with it a real improvement and enrichment; but setting it as a new construction over against what had grown historically, forbidding the results of this historical growth, thereby makes the liturgy appear to be no longer a living development but the product of erudite work and juridical authority; this has caused us enormous harm. For then the impression had to emerge that liturgy is something “made,” not something given in advance but something lying within our own power of decision. . . . When liturgy is self-made, then it can no longer give us what its proper gift should be: the encounter with the mystery that is not our our own product by rather our origin and the source of our life.
Rather than try to frame this post with some sort of concluding thoughts, I would rather ask readers (the few of you who have come this far) to offer your own complementary thoughts on the liturgy and what my Pope calls its “disintegration.”
Which is to say, your comments—?