Reform of the Reform

Instead of grumbling about liturgical abuses I have been asked to do something about it. First, I must confess that I am not a liturgical expert. I am more of a ‘big picture’ person. I’m more interested in reasons than rubrics. In other words, I’m interested in why we do something more than what we do because I think that if we know why we’re doing it the ‘what’ will follow.

In modern liturgical practices there are two different centers of focus: God and Neighbor. These two centers of gravity for the liturgy determine sides one takes on all the liturgy wars. Generally speaking you have the folks who believe the liturgy is all about the worship of God. They emphasize the vertical aspect of worship. For them the Mass is always the ‘holy  sacrifice of the Mass’ which the priest offers up on behalf of the people. This awesome mystery is to be kept at a proper, reverent distance from the people. It is being done for them, not by them. The emphasis, therefore is no what is done at the altar by the priest. The sacrifice is objective. Whether the people ‘get anything out of it’ or not is secondary. Once this is understood then everything else–music, architecture, altar servers, art, preaching falls into a logical place.

The second center of focus for the liturgy is not God, but the people. With this view the horizontal is emphasized. The Mass becomes not so much the divine sacrifice, but the fellowship meal of the people of God. The priest is the ‘presider’ and may even be seen as the ‘first among equals’ for the action of the Mass has become the action of the whole people of God who are, themselves, a ‘priestly nation.’ The music, actions, art and architecture all, then, serve this function–to draw the people closer together as they worship God. The extreme view of this is that in worshipping together and facing one another they actually are worshipping God for we are taught to see the face of God in other people.

I don’t know what people expect of me, but I suppose they think I am all for the first type of worship and down on the second. I’m not. In fact, I think both aspects need to be remembered and emphasized. However, within the whole life of the church the proper emphasis on God and neighbor occur in different areas. In the liturgy the worship must be first and foremost centered on God. That’s simply what worship is: our adoration of God. It is proper to focus on the people of God–but not in the liturgy. We focus on people in the rest of our life together–through education, evangelization, fellowship, social concern, care for the sick and dying etc.

This is not to say, however, that the liturgy must ignore the needs of the people. One of my criticisms of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass as it is often celebrated, is that there is no concern at all for the needs of ‘ordinary’ Catholics. It’s almost as if you have to be an ‘extraordinary Catholic’ to appreciate the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. It is simply not good enough to impose on ordinary Catholics a form of Mass in which the music is so high falutin’ as to call attention to itself and put people off. Neither is it right to impose Latin on people who are not properly prepared and catechized and open to suddenly hearing Mass in a language they cannot understand after years of hearing Mass in the vernacular.

I am not opposed to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, and I am glad it is being more widely celebrated, but I don’t imagine for a minute that it is going to be the cure all for the ills of the Catholic Church. Anyone who thinks, “The Latin Mass is so beautiful and reverent, and once ordinary Catholics get a glimpse of it they will all flock to it…” is living in la la land.

In fact, the experience of an awful lot of ordinary Catholics after experiencing the Latin Mass is that they don’t like it all and couldn’t think of anything worse for their parish. Proper pastoral concern for such people takes time to listen to them, meet them where they are and realize that their concerns and questions are valid. Just dismissing them as ‘Novus Ordo Clown Mass’ Catholics is arrogant and counter productive.

The celebration of the Latin Mass is a good thing, but a better thing will be for priests and people to begin celebrating the new translation of the Mass in a more reverent, God-centered and worshipful way–balancing the need for more reverence and God-centered liturgy with the practical and pastoral needs of the people as they adjust.

Therefore in a series of articles here I will set down what practical thoughts I have on the matter. Again, I do not for a moment pretend to be a liturgical expert. I would never presume to tell my fellow priests (who are usually far more experienced than I am) how to celebrate Mass. My own experience comes from ten years as an Anglican priest and four and a half years as a Catholic priest serving at St Mary’s, Greenville, St Joseph’s Catholic School and now in my own parish.

However, while I do not claim to be an expert, what I say will be based on sound principles as set forth in The Spirit of the Liturgy, and from the bit of experience I have had so far.

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  • the intrepid page

    Thank you for such a clear, persuasive post on this important subject. Could not agree more.What do you think are some practical steps a parish can take so more parishoners will want/appreciate the Extraordinary Form? Obviously, booklets which give the prayers of the Mass in the vernacular are helpful; as well as catechesis on the EF Mass. But is there anything else?

  • Old Bob

    Dear Fr. L.:I like your essay very very much. I come from the generation that assisted at Mass in Latin, with bilingual missals. I served Mass in Latin, beginning about 1955, and I remember well we were expected to understand the meaning of the Latin we answered Father with.Chesterton had some great comments on — not this specifically — but on the shape of the cross, it having both a vertical and horizontal: "It can expand forever without changing its shape, open its arms to the four winds, it is a signpost for travellers." [not exact]I would add that having been raised on Latin, I am very eager to see an accurate English translation.

  • priest’s wife

    can I hear an AMEN?!

  • Sheila

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  • Robert

    Intrepid, personally I think that the Pope has given several ways in his liturgies:(1) Place a cross directly above the altar. It's clear that both the priest and congregation are facing Christ and it is for him that we make our offering.(2) The Church should reflect the nature of the Mass, namely statues and icons of saints should surround the walls to reenforce the fact that heaven and earth are participating in the liturgy; this is not merely a bunch of people praising God.(3) kneeling when receiving communion, and receiving it on the tongue so that one understands that the Eucharist isn't merely bread and wine.(4) Music should be reverent and beautiful, though not necessarily Gregorian Chant. Catholic tradition includes many other forms of Chant (Anglican, Byzantine, Ethiopian, Russian, …).(5) The psalms and scripture were meant to be sung (go into an Orthodox Jewish service or Eastern Catholic/Orthodox mass if you don't know what I'm talking about), as such they should be.

  • FJH 3rd

    Like so many things Catholic, "both/and" applies, "either/or" is not helpful. While I attend the Novus Ordo nearly daily, in a parish that celebrates it reverently and by the books, I also find much edification at Mass in the Extraordinary Form, and try to attend at least monthly. I would attend the EF more frequently were it a bit more convenient geographically.

  • Gina

    I am a Catholic who loves and appreciates both the Novus Ordo and the Extraordinary Form of Worship, as I see the beauty in both. I am really looking forward to your series, as our diocese isn't really offering anything, nor are many of our parishes (including mine).

  • Savia

    Robert,The psalms and scriptures are not sung, in the West, only in Eastern Catholic churches.

  • Savia

    Gina,The issue is one of politicization. The Holy Mass should not be used as a political tool by anybody right or left.

  • Gail F

    Father L: You will probably get flak for some of that but I think you're right. My own experience of a TLM was that it was wonderful and reverent, but I would not want one every mass. However, it did help me to see (after just one time) much of what was missing at my ordinary mass, and help me to understand what parts of the ordinary mass are supposed to be but are not. IMHO, that is what the pope hopes to accomplish: to have the TLM invigorate the OF, like leaven in dough. We have gone WAY too far on the horizontal, but the answer is not to go all the way vertical. It is, as always, to find the correct balance.

  • Lynn

    Thank you so much for those. I'm one of those Catholics who drove quite far to go assist at a TLM, thinking it would be a life-changing experience, and it. just. wasn't. One blog that I read tried to explain that there was something wrong with me and my faith if I just didn't "get it." Took me a while to get over that. I'm very happy for the TLM to be used as often as people want it to be, but I far prefer a reverent OF.

  • Elizabeth

    I agree with you Fr. there has to be a balance. If you have the most beautiful Latin liturgy done perfectly and no one goes then you haven't acheived very much. I grew up with the Latin Mass and I know that as a child my mind often drifted away from the prayers, whereas with the Mass in English my mind never does. But I do feel the need for more reverence especially before Mass and at Communion. I think the idea of kneeling to receive Communion is a good idea. In our parish the psalm is often sung if we have someone to do it, and at the televised Mass here in Canada the psalm is always sung, and it is much better, much more prayerful.

  • Giovanni A. Cattaneo

    I attend the TLM only but I am very much of the mind that the NO can be and should be celebrated with reverence, however to active this goal I believe there should be certain aspects of the Mass that should be non-negotiables because they are the very tenets to which Vatican II documents actualy rest upon.In other words do what the council actually said and when in doubt default to tradition.1. Ad Orientam, I believe that the single most damaging innovation was having the priest face the people this single act has distorted the entire view of what it is that we do at Mass and what it actualy is. 2. Re-introduction of the Latin it is the language of the western church we are after all "roman" Catholics. By this of course I don't mean go back to an all Latin liturgy but certain things must be preserved. I like the EWTN example the best.3. Gregorian chant. It is the music of the church our patrimony it has been praised by several Popes, councils and generations of Christians. It is as the council calls it "optimal" for the roman rite.

  • Giovanni A. Cattaneo

    Just to give an example this is how the NO Mass should be done in my opinion. This is better than any NO I have ever seen. in Spanish parts of it but you get the idea. This is a very saintly priest I forgot which diocese he is in, I think New Mexico somewhere but excellent.

  • Dr. Eric

    I wish we would have the option of the "TLM" in the vernacular with the people saying the servers parts (was that the 1965 Missal?) That seems the best to me.

  • Suburbanbanshee

    Chantingthewordsofthepsalmsishardlyhighfa-luuuu-ting.And singsingsinging the words of the psalmspsalmspsalmsin harmony isn't that remote, eeeeeeeither.What's weird is that all this vernacular and hominess and ease of use, has made my generation the first in centuries not to know any psalms by heart (unless you count Psalm 23). Methinks that stinks.

  • Suburbanbanshee

    Now, if you want to argue that familiarization with the stuff we should have grown up with, can't be all done overnight, I'll agree. But you can't look at a bunch of adults who don't know the alphabet, and decide that obviously you should keep that oppressive alphabet away from them altogether.

  • Foxie

    Hi Fr. L,I've been watching your blog for maybe a year now:) This was an interesting post for me. I live in Central Europe and this morning I went to a Latin Mass. In my parish, every week on Tuseday morning there is a Latin Mass. There are many other Masses during the week (on Tueseday evenings too) in our national language, so the people can choose when they like to go. I like that opportunity. It's part of the business of living in a capital city though and I know many people live in parishes with only one Mass on Sunday. Then I know I'm not even using that opporunity of a daily Mass very often because of my morning idleness.. As to singing psalms etc. and claims Westerns don't do it,… well, I guess it depends on the national/archdiocesal bishop conferences to decide. In our region, we like to sing the psalms and we have hymnbooks and also notes for the organ to accompany the psalms. In my parish we use also second voice in the psalms. We also sing the Passion during the Holy Week. Regarding Ad Orientem, I think that at the Last Supper Jesus and everyone faced each other and so it can't be so wrong;) Well I'm no expert:DFather, keep up the good work and god bless you, I pray for you sometimes:) I hope I've added a tiny constructive bit to this discussion, shalom y'all:)

  • Natasa

    What I always find frustrating is this belief that we simply can't achieve anything better because we are so used to things that are easy. People couldn't possibly get used to Latin. It's a foreign language – run for the hills! Who could be bothered with a missal? After all, literacy has never been so high as it is today and most people know how to hold a book. This attitude that everything has to cater to the lowest common denominator is typical of our age. And yes, I believe that the TLM is objectively better and should be the norm once again.

  • George @ Convert Journal

    So much informality has entered the OF that IMHO, its supernatural nature can get lost. For those not well catechized, it may begin to look like just another Protestant worship service. Surveys show a majority of Catholics do not attend Mass. Of those who do, a shocking number do not believe in the real presence of our Lord. Why is that?I think that reverence is the key and that is why people like TLM/EF. I bet that for many it has little to do with Latin.FWIW I also wrote about this subject recently – here and here. Father, I look forward to your posts on this very important topic.

  • Robert H

    One issue is, I'm afraid, is that way too many priests have lost their faith. A number that I have known can talk about all sorts of things except God, when they get uncomfortable. Perhaps the clergy should be re-evangelized.

  • Anthony Brett Dawe

    In the 'ancien regime' Orthodox Church* The Communion is celebrated by the Christian 'people of God' both clerics and laity- which, unlike the innovative RC church is not possible without at least on communicant to, well communicate!After the chrismated and in trad Russian practice confessed (before every communion, for none of us are without sin) congregation have all received communion, and at the end of the Liturgy all people may take the antidoran- blessed bread.So, look forward not back for the 'via media' good Padre.*[we freed the serfs what more do yah want? ED]

  • Anthony Brett Dawe

    Robertbond bing boda boom!!!amen good sir{the Padre is converted and a convert though ED]

  • Merry del Val

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • veneremurcernui

    Giovanni – That is Fr. Michael Rodriguez at San Juan Bautista parish in El Paso, TX. Fr. Rodriguez is a very good an holy man who has been subject to vicious attacks from all corners (and I mean all, if you get my meaning) for his rigorous but charitable defense of Church doctrine on homosexuality. I know several of his family members, and his treatment by those who should be in the fight with him has been scandalous. You can read more here:

  • Sal

    I think what we'll find as time goes on is that things will look up on the liturgical front.Benedict XVI's making the E.F. licit for any priest went a long way towards calming down the 'Trads'- if you stop treating people like a red-headed stepchild, they will cheer up and stop being all beleagured. And may have some useful things to add to the question of the reform of the reform.The new translation is a step in the right direction- won't do much for the die-hard VII liturgists- but enough time has passed that at least some of the problems of the N.O. can be acknowleged and addressed.I'm an E.F. attendee, but have hopes for the reform. It'll be slow going, and can't be achieved without a concurrent reform of catechetics. In fact, I'm not sure but that the latter is slightly more important.

  • Anthony Brett Dawe

    in the meantime whilst we all bicker about rites and wrongsthe good Lord is still saying:'what you do to the least of these you do to me'{Fr. Les would send you some bill cribs mate, are you expected to do everything? How many 'clerics' are there in the church of Rome? does anyone ever DO anything apart from an overworked and underpaid handful?… just wondering… ED]

  • Sal

    Whoa there, cowboy.I don't think you can assess the priorities and activities of people you don't know from a hole in the ground on the basis of one brief blog comment.Liturgy is everybody's business- we're soaking in it and can't get away from it. And if better liturgy = better praying + more co-operation with grace = more charity, that's a good thing.