Whither the Liturgy

Whither the Liturgy September 7, 2014

Writing over at NCR Online, Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ discusses the recent vacancy at the Congregation for Divine Worship and offers his thoughts on the issues that the new prefect (as yet unnamed) should set before the congregation.   After lamenting that Pope Francis does not appear to be a proponent of liturgical reform (though he notes approvingly that the Pope is no fan of the Extraordinary Form of the mass), he argues that

The greatest challenge facing the new prefect is to develop a new way of managing liturgical change in the church….The Vatican response was to stop all change, crack down on experimentation, and force reluctant bishops to provide the Tridentine Mass to anyone who wanted it long after the vernacular language had firmly taken hold….A more intelligent and pastoral approach to liturgical change would include three things: centers for liturgical research and development, market testing, and enculturation.

All of these ideas focus on the idea that liturgies should develop and evolve at a more local level:  that bishops’ conferences and indeed individual bishops should devote resources to studying the liturgy and proposing ways for it to evolve.   His ideas about market testing are off-putting in their formulation (I cringe to think of the mass as a “product”) but he is correct that liturgy should not simply be created and imposed from on high.  Liturgy needs to develop organically, and this means that new ideas and new formulations need to be shared with the laity to see how they respond.  I am not a scholar of liturgical development, but my sense from what I have read is that this is how liturgies developed prior to Trent:  bishops and religious orders had ideas and tried them.  If they met with a positive response they were kept (and sometimes spread, as Gregorian chant was exported from the Frankish Churches to Rome); other ideas withered away or were actively opposed and were dropped.  Something of this pattern can be seen in the post-Trent period with the development, spread and decline of various devotions.

Fr. Reese then goes on to lay out a smorgasbord of ideas for the new Prefect to explore using this model:  revisit the English translation of the Roman Missal (including the idea of reviving the original 1998 ICEL translation), revisit moving the sign of peace to elsewhere in the mass (something he has written on extensively), explore adding new Eucharistic prayers and prefaces, the latter of which would be tied closely to the readings in the lectionary for the mass.   I must confess that none of these really seem that pressing.  For better or worse we now have the new Roman Missal, and (despite my multiple concerns—see here, here, here and here) I do not think anything is to be gained from revisiting this question.  Continuing to discuss moving the sign of peace seems jejune.  I am intrigued by the idea of having prefaces that match the lectionary—I have always liked a lot of the prefaces for particular feasts—but again it is not clear that this is a central issue facing us.

Truthfully, I don’t think I would have bothered to blog about this short article, except that Fr. Reese’s penultimate paragraph and a perceptive comment in the commboxes really struck me.   Fr. Reese wrote

Despite my hope that the new prefect would take up such an agenda, we need to recognize that even if we had perfect liturgical texts and ceremonies in the Sacramentary, liturgy lives or dies at the local parish. What the people want is good music, good preaching, and a sense of belonging, which cannot be prepackaged in Rome. Parishes that are welcoming and have good music and good preaching see their pews filled. We cannot blame Rome for everything that is wrong in the liturgy.

This really resonated with me, especially his comment about “a sense of belonging.”   In the earlier part of my life, due to education and career, my wife and I moved a fair bit.  We were blessed twice by finding parishes where we quickly felt we belonged, and part of our struggle in Connecticut was that it took a long time gain this sense of really being part of the community, as opposed to a long term visitor.  Much of our sense of community came from the liturgy, whether it was from the spirit that arose in the close confines of mass said in the school cafeteria (because the Church building was destroyed by an earthquake) or from the sense of joining when our pastor at a parish in Indiana allowed us to have our second son baptized at mass—not his regular practice but one which made my whole family part of the parish.

As I have indicated in other posts (cf. my thoughts on vocations) I strongly believe that our faith needs to be lived out in all its dimensions at the local, parish level.  It would seem to me that if we are going to have a true, ongoing liturgical reform, we need to discuss what is needed to revive liturgies at the parish level.  Part of the problem with liturgies is a function of the vocations crisis—decreasing numbers of aging, over-worked priests is not going to create quality liturgy—and so must be addressed elsewhere.   And fixing the problem is not simply a matter of rooting out abusive practices from the odd corners in which they exist.  (I am hereby adding a corollary to Godwin’s Law:  in any discussion of Catholic liturgy, the first person to mention clown masses automatically loses the argument.)   Rather, we need to ask ourselves:  does our liturgy build up community:  both in and among those present, but also with the broader Church and as a springboard to bring the Gospel to the whole world (and not just to the narrow bits that are “just like us.”)

One perceptive comment in the commboxes to Fr. Reese’s article really struck me, because I think the writer put his finger directly these concerns:  Shaun G. Lynch wrote

We need to disconnect from pointless arguments about modern versus traditional form masses and address the bigger problem. It doesn’t matter which kind of mass we’re talking about. There are still more self-identified Catholics outside our churches than inside. The research that I’ve seen cited indicates that the single biggest problem is that too many feel no connection to the proceedings or to the other people in attendance. It’s the connection that matters, not the words per se.

When people who don’t attend mass say “I’m bored” it doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to be entertained. It indicates that they can’t identify anything meaningful in the experience. Blaming them for that attitude is entirely useless and counterproductive; there’s no fault to be assigned, simply a challenge to be undertaken.

Some tweaking of the liturgy would certainly be helpful, but that alone is only a way to treat a symptom, not the underlying problem.  I suspect that what we really need are ways to teach the faithful how to go to mass! i.e. how to prepare, what to listen for, what to do to deepen the experience, etc.

I found his analysis of “I’m bored” startling in its insight.  I have heard this expression before, and I have always cringed when it is simply dismissed as a demand to be entertained.   Or, as Cardinal Dolan so unhelpfully put it recently, “You may find the Mass boring, but, that’s more your problem than the fault of the Mass.”  But until I read Mr. Lynch’s this comment , I could never quite put my finger on what was really being said.

This, perhaps, is the fundamental problem facing us:  far too many people self-identify as Catholics, but attend mass infrequently or not at all.  Rather than attempt to apportion blame, maybe we need to ask why the mass holds no meaning for them, or at least has so little meaning that the “Easter/Christmas/Baptism” circuit suffices to maintain their link to the Catholic Church.  How can we bring the gospel to the whole world if we cannot bring our own (and they are ours, however imperfectly) into the pews on Sunday morning?

I don’t have any answers.  Mr. Lynch suggests better education, but this seems to be a chicken and egg kind of problem:  how do you educate the people who are not at mass in the first place?  I would suggest increased professionalism, particularly among laity involved in the liturgy as lectors, EMHCs and altar servers.   But even this seems to miss the mark.

So let me close this post with a question:  what can we do to help our brethren (and really, ourselves) find deeper meaning in the liturgy?

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