Because of the Liturgy II

Posted by Webster
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

In each of these moments there was a letting go of what’s not important, a giving up to what is. And I am not even home this weekend.

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—?

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  • Amy Welborn

    There is a lot to say about this, but I think a crucial moment of understanding for me came a few years ago when I realized that the contemporary Catholic understanding of liturgy is that of a "prayer meeting" which is not the same as the ancient understanding of "liturgy." Prayer meetings and gatherings are good and important, but the Mass is – and almost has been understood as – something different. Understanding that difference is key to discussing this intelligently.Going to Eastern Rite liturgies also contributed to my own understanding. More later.

  • Webster,I was going through my blog list this morning before I head out to Mass and came across your post. I was born into the Catholic church, left it for a number of years during my 20's and came back to it right about the time I turned 30. Until I left I had never known anything other than the liturgy that I grew up with. During the time I was "exploring other options" I saw a lot of things, some good and some bad. I have never been to a Tridentine Mass, Anglican liturgy or and Orthodox mass. I have only seen pictures. I enjoy the liturgy we have as long as the priest and local community don't take it upon themselves to alter everything according to a local flavor. There are times though when it seems like Amy said above, a little bit too like a "prayer meeting". I would be very open to the church returning to a more traditional liturgy. Well, I am off to mass. Have a great day.

  • Ahhhh, the Liturgy. It is what first drew to the Anglican church. I knew I was in the presence of something regal and majestic, and through liturgy I learned how to worship God for the first time. It wasn't about me – it was about God. No sappy fake emotion to spur me into some kind of a "spiritual" state. Just pure worship to God, for God, because of God. Pure and unabashed declaration of what He's done and what I believe. But I'm a sucker for Rite 1. For those who aren't familiar with Anglican liturgy, it's basically an older English version filled with thees and thous. Our wedding vows, instead of containing the phrases "'Til death do us part", I said "I give thee my troth" and my husband said "I plight thee my troth." The words were so beautiful to me. I felt they transcended the world I lived in and though I didn't understand everything I was saying, it made it all the more mysterious.However, we moved away from that church to Seattle where there are very few Episcopal churches that do Rite 1 at all, and none do it at a functional time (later than 8 am). My husband and I have had to sit back and say "What's important to us?" But I do have a problem when "He"s are taken out in reference to God to make the liturgy more "sexually neutral", that instead of saying "and became man" we say "and became human," etc. But had/have I become an idolator of the words of the liturgy? This I've never thought of before. Thanks for this post, it really resounded with me and where I am at in my "church search." (We've both been seriously studying/considering the Catholic faith for a couple of years now and are currently at a standstill.)

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks for these comments. As I reflect back over the post, what sticks for me is Benedict's statement that the liturgy is NOT or must NOT be something merely man-made. If it is only that, then anyone can make a liturgy, and of course many have. But by adhering to a "traditional" liturgy aren't we listening more closely to the voice that comes to us from 2000 years ago and can still be heard today? The same principle is behind my other post for today: Because I Believe a Saint is a Saint If canonization is a purely human process or choice that reasonable men and women can disagree about, in such places as the NY Times, then so what? It's just like the Baseball Hall of Fame. What disqualifies someone then? Steriod use? But what if something else is at work in the process by which canonization occurs, the Holy Spirit say? As Catholics, I think we have to open our minds and hearts to that thought.

  • Webster Bull

    Looking over comments on a recent post by Frank about Tolkien , I came across this "liturgy story" about the writer of Lord of the Rings. It'll bring a smile:"In the last years of his life, Tolkien became greatly disappointed by the reforms and changes implemented after the Second Vatican Council, as his grandson Simon Tolkien recalls:'I vividly remember going to church with him in Bournemouth. He was a devout Roman Catholic and it was soon after the Church had changed the liturgy from Latin to English.My grandfather obviously didn't agree with this and made all the responses very loudly in Latin while the rest of the congregation answered in English.I found the whole experience quite excruciating, but my grandfather was oblivious. He simply had to do what he believed to be right.'"

  • Thank you for this post. I got lost at "am I in love with the words or The Word." It reminds me of something else that nags at my conscience-"am I in love with the consolations of God or the God of consolations." It's a lot to ponder. It fits in with am I in love with nature or the creator of nature, am I in love with others or the God I see inside of them? I worry quite a bit about idol worship, feeling that I am extremely guilty of it. But when it all boils down, God made the people I love, God made the nature I love and God made the church I love. I know others could easily argue with me on this, but the reason that I love anything, is because I love God. Yes, I love the words. They are immensely powerful and beautiful. But nothing can surpass The Word, without which none of those words would mean anything. And if I happen to enjoy the words as a consolation from God, it's all gravy!

  • Warren Jewell

    I think that I have found the spirit-check (think 'gut-check' but much higher) one should get out of our highest ritual, the Mass, has more to do with my assisting at the Mass, no matter the liturgical rite. If I involve myself in the inspired Word, and adore 'my Lord and my God' in the consecration, and eagerly look to take His Body and Blood – all of which as has been meant for two millennia – I am with Him, and He is with me.It does help to have pre-read the readings, to have examined my conscience, to make time in some minutes before Mass to pray before His tabernacle throne in our church. But, that is dressing the mind, heart and spirit, just as one gets into his 'Sunday best' for his body. I just may be a lot simpler than a theologian – there is just less mystery to accepting God at His Word that all this, this Mass, is meant for me. And, He finds He enjoys me as I enjoy being so near to Him.No real mystery – He's my Abba.

  • Anonymous

    The King James version is so Protestant (not an ecumenical point of view I realize) and ARCHAIC. We dropped thee, thou, thy, etc., about 500 years ago in common speach. The NRSV and Jersualem Bible do a goood job. I don't think that the prefaces of the mass, the pravers,and the first three Eucharistic prayers are devoid of pious languague. After that, the other Eucharistic Prayers do tend to digress.On another note, I if in my personal prayers, called God "Thee" or "Thou", I think he would say, John, Get with the program. Jesus called His Father Abba, which means roughly as we all know, "daddy" be even more intimate than that say language scholars.Pax et Bonum!

  • Sal

    At the risk of sounding professorial:"Thee" and "Thou" were actually the familiar forms of the second person in English. They sound 'churchy' because they are no longer in current use, but their usage in liturgy was, in fact, making your point- we are to be intimate with God, addressing Him in the terms we use for our nearest and dearest.But you can certainly make the point that they sound affected, because they're archaic.What a wonderful post!I spent almost a decade going to our local Indult TM, which I loved primarily because I had been a Latin student in high school and college. When it was no longer possible to go often due to family duties, I discovered that I was just as happy with a 'straight' Mass of Paul VI. The observations of B XVI on the way the Novus Ordo was issued was one of the primary arguments of the TM crowd.I am blessed to be able to attend Sunday Mass at a local Cistercian monastery- no creative hoo-hah there! And no vestige of 'prayer meeting' either.I am a convert from Anglicanism, as well. And while I knew I would miss the liturgy, it was a peripheral concern, knocked into perspective by larger issues, mostly Matt. 16. And history.

  • Anonymous

    Warren Jewell has it figured out. It took me a long time to do likewise.Daily Mass sets me up for the whole day. As much asIlook forward to the new missal, and still miss the Latin, I've reached a point in my life where I let go of those things. Like Warren all I want is to adore my Lord and God and be near Him. Nothing else matters.

  • Webster, thanks so much for this post — I've been wrestling with the exact same issues lately. This gives me a good chance to try to sort some things out.As an Anglican in RCIA, I also miss Cranmer's cadences (though it has been a long time since I've heard them in the Episcopal Church) and have had to face the idea that we can indeed make an idol of them ("our incomparable liturgy"). In that respect I'm definitely with Warren Jewell and Anonymous just above, that the most important thing is to adore our Lord and God present in the Eucharist. My recent experience underscores this approach for me: when I began attending Catholic Mass, I found the service (presumably the Novus Ordo) to be quite similar to the comtemporary Episcopalian one, yet the Catholic liturgy is done so carefully and reverently that I experience as a true act of worship.However, I still believe that it is important to offer our best to God in worship, and many seem to believe that the language of the Mass needs to be improved. One thing that thrills me about the Apostolic Constitution is the idea that some of the beauty of traditional Anglican worship may ultimately be incorporated into the Mass. I would also love to see more use of the Latin Mass.Thanks for the quotation from the Holy Father (I consider him my Pope too!). It's very helpful in trying to understand what the changes in liturgy have meant in the experience of Catholics. I agree with him that it must have been very disruptive and harmful. The bit about what happens when liturgy is self-made hit me between the eyes; it was a priest at my former Episcopal parish writing and using new prayers of consecration that finally drove me out of the Episcopal Church (for which I will be forever grateful to him, being so happy to be becoming Catholic).One final comment to a long post: I found a remark by Chesterton recently to the effect that the reason we love the original Book of Common Prayer is that it is essentially Catholic (not doctrinally of course — I think he was thinking of the fundamental conviction of faith that informs the BCP). I will try to find the exact quotation, if you're interested.

  • Maria

    Something I did not know until yesterday… John Hardon SJ on The Sacrifice of the Mass( mind you not "the litugy" or "a Eucharistic Celebration):"Saint Ignatius put into the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus this statement at the head of the means by which the Society would both survive and do its work for the good of souls: “The most important and powerful means that the Society of Jesus has for obtaining the grace it needs is from the Sacrifice of the Mass.” He led the way when there was a question of getting the Society’s Constitutions approved, as there were serious doubts as to whether they would be approved. He ordered the priests, just a handful, to offer three thousand Masses without asking how long it would take. “I don’t care how long it takes! Three thousand Masses!” Well, they said them. Thanks to those Masses the Order was approved. It is the only Religious Order in the history of the Church that has been approved not only by the Pope but by a Solemn Eucumenical Council, the Council of Trent. And ever since, every priest in the Order is ordered (Saint Ignatius started the pattern) to offer about four Masses a month for the intention of the Father General. Since we have about seventeen-thousand priests, that means seventeen-thousand times fifty Masses offered each year for the Society of Jesus and her multitudinous, desperate needs".( I will refrain from comment lest I fail against charity).Later on Hardon says, "Saint Leonard observed that except for the Mass being offered on thousands of altars throughout the world, the world by now would long ago have been destroyed because of its sins". I think that this is remarkable.

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks for all of these long and thoughtful comments. They convince me even more than I was already that the liturgy is a central issue for all of us who find ourselves near the banks of the Tiber: whether we're converts who just crossed over, or people in discernment who are considering Catholicism, and even those born to the Faith who have crossed to the other side but might consider returning.

  • Tap

    As our pastor, Mgr Quinan, used to say at St Paschal Baylon in the 60s, 'now don't get excited but there is another change coming in the Mass next week'.I was one of the few that didn't wander away from the Church just because a few ceremonies and words changed. It's my love for Christ Jesus, the saints and angels that had me stay when so many others wandered away sad or angry for the 'changes' that occured. When you love you don't worry about the words you look deep within the soul of the loved one, the Holy Eucharist. Realize that despite all those V2 changes you still said, "My Lord and my God' at the consecration, for it is still Him. When you realize that you won't get so worried about 'new changes' in the missal.

  • I'm with Tap on this one. "Because of the Authority of the Church" has more weight with me. I too love the Liturgy but changes to it would not be what brings me in to the Catholic Church, nor what would drive me away.

  • Fr Patrick

    A sociological survey in a three-mile radius of this parish in Monterey was taken some years ago; it was for all households, not just Catholic homes. When the word WORSHIP was offered, the word most chosen in connection with it was ENTERTAINMENT, 70%. As a parish priest this seems the most pressing problem. In a more progressive parish this may involve anything from rock music to the priest presenting as t.v. personality; in the more traditional approach, the ludicrous video of a Solemn High Mass in St John Lateran with an orchestra playing to the left of the high altar. In either case…entertainment. Devout celebration of Mass involves a true selflessness on everyones part–a true challenge to us in 21st century USA.

  • Webster Bull

    Dear Fr. Patrick, We laymen can theorize all we want about the liturgy, but it is you and your brother priests who have to deal somehow with the "entertainment" issue, who have to encourage all of us selfish lay people to be selfless. That can't be easy!

  • And you do know that JRR Tolkein was one of the translators who worked on the Jerusalem Bible?

  • JB