The reactions to Cardinal Sarah's words encouraging celebration of Mass 'ad orientem', with the priest facing east as the congregation does, continue to reverberate. In addition to a 'clarification' by the Vatican spokesman, Fr Lombardi, and a letter from Cardinal Nichols to the priests of Westminster Diocese, we have now had a letter from the Chairman of the relevant committee of the US Bishops' conference. All these statements point out that Cardinal Sarah's comments do not change liturgical law, and in slightly different ways claim that the current law favours celebration 'versus populum,' with the priest facing the people. The US letter asserts that a decision to change from vs. pop. to ad orientem celebration by a priest should only be done with the knowledge and approval of the bishop.
None of these statements, any more that Cardinal Sarah's, have in themselves the force of law. Nevertheless, they make public, clear, and official, a view which was up to now not so public, not so clear, and not so official: that celebration vs. pop. is officially favoured to the point that celebrating ad orientem needs, at least, special justification.
The kind of initiatives in which the 'Reform of the Reform' (RotR) consists, at the local level, depend on a degree of ambiguity about what is allowed or favoured by the rules. Such ambiguity abounds in official documents. Are altar girls permitted or actually favoured? Female lectors? Communion under both kinds? The use of the Roman Canon? Silent recitation of the Offertory? The sign of peace? Concelebration? The debate about the rules (unlike the debate on the underlying theology) is not only endless, but both exceedingly boring and ultimately pointless. It suffices that conservative and liberal priests alike can claim a degree of leeway and, when the pastoral and political conditions permit, quietly move things in their favoured direction. The golden rule in such matters is that you don't press for clarification unless you are sure things will be clarified in your favour.
This is the rule apparently forgotten by the organisers of the Sacra Liturgia conference, and their friends in the Catholic media, both on and offline. I certainly don't attribute any blame to Cardinal Sarah, who said nothing more in London than what he has said, without any bad results, on the record before, and, if anything, less than what Cardinal Ratzinger said in the Spirit of the Liturgy in 2000 and Cardinal Schonborn said in a retreat he preached to Pope St John Paul II in the mid 1990s (it was published as 'Loving the Church' in 1996). The problem lay in the hype heaped on his words by others. Not only was the hype false - as just noted there wasn't anything new or big about what he said - but it meant that Cardinal Nichols, Fr Lombardi, and all the others felt that they had to respond. And what sort of response did the organisers imagine they would get? What sort of official atmosphere do they imagine pertains in the Church right now? Where, in heavens' name, have they been for the last few years?
It is this which has put the cause of the Reform of the Reform back by twenty years - back before Cardinal Schonborn's cautiously worded but carefully argued and impassioned plea for worship 'obviam sponso', 'facing the bridegroom', twenty years ago. Is it conceivable, now that Fr Lombardi has nailed the Holy See's colours to the mast, that such an argument could be made in the presence of the Holy Father now? I don't think so either.
Behind this tactical blunder lies a more fundamental strategic mistake. The organisers of the Sacra Liturgia conference were keen to present the whole thing as about the Reform of the Reform rather than about the promotion of the Traditional Mass. The Traditional Mass was included just as part of the Church's rich pattern, and not as in any way a key element. The idea is that too-obvious association with the EF is politically disadvantageous: it is safer to present oneself as wanting to tinker with the (when properly understood, wonderful wonderful) liturgical reform, rather than as rejecting it.
The argument would seem to make sense, but people have been making it ever since the Novus Ordo Missae appeared in 1969, and it has never worked. The first problem is that the things the RotR people want, particularly celebration ad orientem, are interpreted as a de facto rejection of the reform as a whole by overwhelming powerful forces in the Church. I noted in a previous post that this view has its own logic; for present purposes it suffices to note that it is not going away. An auxiliary consideration is that it is suspected, with perfect justice, that many RotR advocates actually want the Traditional Mass anyway.
The second aspect of the mistake is that the Traditional Mass is not today seen as a poisonous, problematic thing at an official level in the Church. Although a much more radical departure from the reformed Mass than RotR ideas, it is treated much more leniently. Cardinal Nichols doesn't fancy his priests celebrating the OF ad orientem, but asked two of them to learn the EF to expand Sunday provision for it in his diocese. Religious Institutes committed to the Traditional Mass are welcomed into dioceses all over England, the USA, and indeed the world, by bishops who are never going to get rid of Altar Girls, Eucharistic Prayer 2, or communion in the hand, in the Ordinary Form.
The reason is not difficult to understand. The Reform of the Reform has the potential, if widely taken up, to turn dozens of parishes into liturgical war zones. Priests who take a stand on any of the major RotR issues can expect confrontations with parishioners with complaints going to the Bishop. People walk out of Mass; there are shouting matches. The development of the Traditional Mass in a diocese works in a completely different way. Here a bishop saves a historic church by giving it to a traditional Institute. There a priest introduces an extra Mass into his timetable for a handful of parishioners. People might complain but the complaints are obviously unreasonable, since it doesn't affect their own spiritual lives. No one need walk out of his favoured Mass never to return. No one has had his spiritual peace shattered. But in the meantime these initiatives have the potential to grow. They draw in the lapsed, they foster vocations. We don't pull down; we build up.
Hard-core RotR advocates will tell us that this is no way to restore the Church. They say we have to 'save' the OF because that is what nearly all Catholics attend. They like to imagine that celebration ad orientem could be rolled out in dozens of parishes in a short time, and that it would be a huge step forward. I don't disagree with the theological arguments they advance; I would just like to point out the real world - that annoying thing which gets in the way of so many fine theories. In this real world, which I at least am condemned to inhabit, this plan is not working. What is working is the steady advance of the Traditional Mass, which give people not a peculiar compromise liturgy, but a coherent liturgical and spiritual life.
There is something else as well. I don't bring to this debate many decades of personal experience. But I have already seen one of the consequences of the Reform of the Reform movement which its advocates are not so keen to advertise. That is sincere and zealous priests having nervous breakdowns. I apologise for putting it here in black and white, but it is something we should face. If you are telling priests to adopt a plan of action, you need to think through the consequences. Putting priests into massive unavoidable conflict has predictable results. Many priests have told us of the spiritual consolations accorded to them by learning and saying, even if only in private, the Traditional Mass. This is something which we can help them do which will be good for them, and if good for them then good for their parishes. Having arguments with Tablet-reading members of the parish liturgy committee does not pack the same spiritual punch.
So perhaps it is not such a bad thing, all things considered, that the cause of the Reform of the Reform has been set back by twenty years.
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