Monday, February 24, 2014

The Death of the Reform of the Reform? Part 2: The Liturgical Movement

What is this priest doing? Just adding incense to the thurible.

In my last post I introduced the idea that the Novus Ordo and the Vetus Ordo have, corresponding to them, distinct understandings of liturgical participation. I think a little argument, in this and the next post, can make what I mean both clear and incontrovertible. This has dizzying implications for the future liturgical development in the Church, but we'll come back to that.

During the course of the Liturgical Movement, liturgical enthusiasts became very excited about the wonderful riches of the Catholic liturgy, and about conveying these to the Faithful in all their glory. They were liturgical historians, so they were looking at the texts. So they wrote lots of very good books about the Mass and commentaries the liturgical year. These were very successful, but naturally they were read only by a small minority of Catholics.

As time went on, members of this movement began to wonder about how to get more of the riches of the texts across to the Faithful. You can only do so much by writing books. You need to do things in the liturgy itself. They tried a whole series of things. There was a great revival of chant going on, so they encouraged people to sing the newly-edited ordinary chants (Kyrie, Sanctus, Gloria etc.). They tried to get people to look at the text of the Mass while Mass was going on, with hand-missals: after all, everyone could read by now. They tried to get people to make the responses which the servers make, in Low Mass.

These aren't necessarily bad ideas. But they are all going in the same direction. Because the liturgists of this era - the early and mid 20th Century - were focused on the texts, they wanted the Faithful to focus on the texts too. They began to think that if the Faithful don't follow and understand the Mass at the level of the texts, they aren't really participating. This idea began to find its way into official documents: Pius X talked about 'active participation' in the context of getting people to sing, for example. Later, an instruction spoke of saying the words of the server in Low Mass was the 'more perfect' way of participating. And among the liturgists, you start hearing a polemic being developed against the way that ordinary Catholics attended Mass, if they haven't been drilled enough. They are called 'dumb spectators'. It wasn't long before they realised that this charming description applied, if to anyone, then to almost every lay Catholic from at least the 8th century up to 1930, and to the vast majority from 1930 to 1964. That liturgical period, in which the Mass as we experience it was, in many ways, developed, was just a dead zone. It was spiritually worthless.

Some liturgists made a final effort to get the wonderful texts of the ancient liturgical tradition across to the Faithful. They experimented with having Mass facing the people, so everyone could see what was going on. Then they realised that, if you want people to understand the texts, you really are a lot better off having the texts read aloud, and in the vernacular. It stands to reason! But things were moving on. Even aloud, and in English, the texts were too long, too complicated. In fact, putting them into the vernacular simply served to emphasise that these texts were unsuitable for repetitive use in the congregation's mother tongue. Furthermore, the order in which things happened was confusing and (apparently) illogical. And then there were other theological fashions which disliked the emphasis on sin, penance, and the saints. It all had to go.

What we got instead was a Missal which the Faithful could follow word by word, without the need (after a while) of hand-missals. The prayers were simple, the ceremonies short and cut down to the bone, and (apparently) logical. It was in the vernacular. It faced the people. The translation used words of one syllable wherever possible. It all fitted together.

I have on a previous occasion quoted the Catholic sociologist Anthony Archer as saying something which is is really shattering to this whole development.

But it was an unkind fate that allowed the new mass to come to completion just when – elsewhere – the importance of non-verbal communication was being rediscovered.

This was what was missing from the Liturgical Movement. An appreciation of non-verbal communication is not incompatible with the writings of the earlier exponents, such as Guéranger, despite his emphasis on 'understanding'. But as the movement develops, and turns into the movement to create the Novus Ordo, a blindness to non-verbal communication (and a parallel lack of interest in gestures and visual ceremonies) becomes increasingly evident and increasingly problematic.

But what was going on between the years 700 and 1930? How was it all those saints were formed by the liturgy? Contrary to the patronising assumptions of scholars like Josef Jungmann, they were participating, they were understanding, despite not hearing the words of the Canon, despite not understanding the Latin even when they did hear it. They understood it at a profound, contemplative level. This kind of engagement with the liturgy was, in fact, particularly intense, because it is not just intellectual. Don't believe me: believe the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was composed when non-verbal communication was beginning to creep back into theology.

2711: ‘Entering into contemplative prayer is like entering into the Eucharistic liturgy: we “gather up” the heart, recollect our whole being under the prompting of the Holy Spirit, abide in the dwelling place of the Lord which we are, awaken our faith in order to enter into the presence of him who awaits us.’ 
2716: ‘Contemplative prayer is hearing the Word of God. Far from being passive, such attentiveness is the obedience of faith, the unconditional acceptance of a servant, and the loving commitment of a child. It participates in the “Yes” of the Son become servant and the Fiat of God's lowly handmaid.’
2718: ‘Contemplative prayer is a union with the prayer of Christ insofar as it makes us participate in his mystery, the mystery of Christ is celebrated by the Church in the Eucharist, and the Holy Spirit makes it come alive in contemplative prayer so that our charity will manifest it in our acts.’

Isn't this amazing? Non-verbal prayer is actually being proposed as the model for liturgical participation.

However, it is not a very good model for participation in the Novus Ordo. To be brutal, contemplative engagement is not allowed. There is too much jumping up and down, shaking hands, and making responses. The priest is trying to catch your eye. The texts are trying to get your attention. People are being spontaneous. The readings are unfamiliar and often obscure. You don't know what is going to happen next, because of all the options. These are all tricks which were included in the liturgy quite deliberately to aid the word-by-word engagement which is the kind of participation the creators wanted.

There are problems with this, at least according to the Reform of the Reform crowd. Something is missing from the Mass, the sacrality has gone. So they want to put some sacrality back. They see the things which seem most associated with it in the Traditional Mass, and they want to put them back. So they propose, and actually practice, the use of Latin, celebration ad orientem, Gregorian Chant and so on. These are all good things. But when the reformers said that they had to be sacrificed for the sake of comprehensibility, they weren't entirely wrong. Thinking about word-by-word understanding, verbal communication, it is perfectly true that, unless you are a superhuman Latinist, it is harder to follow the Canon in Latin than it is in English. Unless you are lip-reader, it is harder still if it is silent. Unless you have X-Ray eyes, it is harder still if the priest has his back to you.

Pope Paul VI famously said, using a phrase of Jungmann's, that Latin was a 'curtain' which obscured the liturgy, it had to be drawn back. Yes: if you have a very narrow understanding of participation. But that is the understanding of participation upon which the entire reform was based.

So here is my suggestion. If you take the texts and rubrics of the Ordinary Form, and add to them all the bells and whistles you can from the liturgical tradition, you will, obviously, not wholly succeed in creating the atmosphere and liturgical drama which draws us in to the ancient Mass, and allows us a profound form of participation of heart and soul. What you will certainly do, however, is draw a curtain over the texts from the point of view of verbal participation. You will very easily succeed in making the texts incomprehensible - you do that just by putting them into Latin.

So the problem is this: you can end up falling between two stools. The Novus Ordo has a completely different approach to the Traditional Mass in its form of participation. Just as attempts to get people to engage with pre-1970 Missals on a word-by-word basis were unsatisfactory, so attempts to get people to have a contemplative engagement with the 1970 Missal is never going to be wholly successful. You can't jump in and out of a deep contemplation.

'Dominus vobiscum', after kissing the Altar: an eloquent liturgical gesture.
In the next post I will explain this some more.


  1. The liturgy is a form of communication and the verbal component is only a small part of that communication.

    no wonder the new mass is sending the wrong message.

    looking forward to the next post.

  2. Joseph, thank you so much for your insights, they are so very illuminating. After reading the 3 parts you've posted in this series, I have a much better understanding of all the things in play: the contemplative orientation of the Vetus Ordo, the focus on the textual aspects by the pre-Vatican II liturgical movement, the mind and the aims of the VII reformers, the attempt to reconcile the two forms in the RotR, and the ultimate realization of why a fusion of the forms won't work.

    I can't wait to read the 4th installment. My prayers are with you to keep up your labors in the vineyard. One day near or far the Roman rite will have its beauty and its mystery - and all that flows from them - restored to their rightful place for all Catholics. The graces poured out will be enormous.

  3. My anecdotal experience suggests that, today, very few Catholics born and raised with the postconciliar liturgy -- even pious daily massgoers -- have any detailed sense of the textual structure of the mass, what a "collect" or "proper" is, etc. This sort of knowledge is and always will be mainly the domain of clerics, monks, scholars and, for lack of a better word, hobbyists.

    I would venture to guess that this is even more true now than it was in the first half of the 20th century, when very pious Catholics would have at least followed a hand missal at some point in their lives.

    All of this seems to me to hint at what other commentators have called the naivete of the conciliar period. It is certainly true, at least in some sense, that the kind of participation favored by the late liturgical movement is "more perfect" than the kind of participation used by most lay Catholics for the bulk of the history of the Roman liturgy.

    But it's also true that consecrated celibacy is "more perfect" than marriage. Yet it does not by any means follow that most, or even many, people ought to live as consecrated celibates. By the same token it is not in any way obvious that most people ought to, or are even able to, participate in the liturgy verbally/intellectually.

  4. This is good stuff! I think it's touching on a problem that will have to be addressed as the NO is "fixed." The only point I would contend here is that I don't think ad orientem worship is contrary to the participation fostered in the NO. Let me explain in a round-about way. Different liturgical traditions throughout the history have reflected different emphases in theology and very different kinds of participation. Just compare our TLM to the Byzantine liturgy; most Orthodox, I have been told, do not "get" or particularly feel comfortable with the TLM and all its silence. Coming from the NO, neither of those older traditions make too much sense at first; in both cases you're left wondering what you're supposed to be doing (albeit for extremely different reasons.)

    But ad orientem worship is a given in both. In fact, in addition to traditional Anglicans, I have also seen ad orientem altars in Lutheran and Presbyterian churches.

    So, I think that some of the bare basics of Christian worship do need to be restored to the NO, such as ad orientem and generally a reverent style of decor, etc. Yet, on the whole I agree with you; I don't think that trying to get the TLM style of participation in the NO can be successful. And that has probably been the weakness of the RotR; it has focused on trying to make the NO more like the TLM rather than simply trying to make the NO more reverent. It is possible for it to be reverent and beautiful while still maintaining its "active participation."