Monday, August 23, 2004

Where art thou, O liturgical beauty and holiness?

Back in February of 2003, a Catholic Long Islander who calls himself a "Generation X Revert" wrote a brilliant poem entitled "Catholic Howel," patterned after Allen Ginsberg's classic "Howl." The Catholic poem opens with the lines:
"I saw the best Catholics of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving,
hysterically naked
dragging themselves through the streets at dawn looking
for beautiful Liturgy ..."
The sentiment is one with which I'm sure many of us can identify. In any case, it got me thinking again about liturgy. I used to be rather indifferent to liturgy at one time. But I've come to see more clearly over the last decade of my life how liturgy impacts the practical lives of people and what they believe. In other words, I've come to a better understanding the law: lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law of belief). That is to say, how we pray will have an impact on what we believe and ultimately on how we live.

It's funny how out liturgical sensibilities are conditioned by our experience. My immediate background before becoming a Catholic was in the Episcopal Church. I was familiar with the restrained decorum, reverence, and beauty of Anglican liturgy and hymnody before crossing over to Rome. Whatever one thinks of Thomas Cranmer and Miles Coverdale, I think all will agree that there is some truth in the remark of those who speak of their beautiful cadences and unsurpassable use of English in the Book of Common Prayer. So you may understand it when I say that it was with an aesthetic sense of having "married down" that I found myself as a new Catholic assaulted by a new liturgy of 1970 vintage, hastily cobbled together after the Second Vatican Council, ineptly translated, freighted with banalities, and serenaded by guitar-strumming song leaders crooning Marty Haugen ditties into staticky microphones. From our point of view in the American Catholic Church today, the Anglican liturgical legacy we experienced in the Episcopal Church compares quite favorably, to say the least. Many of us would probably jump at the opportunity to assist at Mass at an "Anglican Use" parish, where the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer has been slightly modified to bring its most basic points of doctrinal divergence into conformity with Catholic teaching.

The irony is that many of us forget the multitudes of English, Welsh, and Irish Catholics who laid down their lives rather than accept the imposition of the Book of Common Prayer by Cranmer (pictured right), the Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury and apostate Catholic who fiercely hated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and by means of his liturgical revolution in England robbed generations of their Eurcharistic patrimony. The Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman, we may tend to forget, did not consider Anglicanism to be a slightly deficient form of Christianity, but, in fact, an entirely different religion. The Book of Common Prayer refers to the Sacrifice of the Mass as a blasphemy, denies five of the seven sacraments, denies the intercession of the saints and prayers for the dead, forbids any notion of reservation or adoration of "communion bread," and substitutes the authority of the English Crown for that of the Holy See.

Does this mean that the new Catholic Mass, even if its implementation is usually aesthetically deficient, is at least doctrinally better? Well, yes and no. Yes, it is better in that the Sacrifice of the Mass is not declared a blasphemy and there is no denial of the seven sacraments, intercession of the saints, prayers for the dead, reservation or adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, or denial of Rome's authority. Not, at least, in principle. But the ironies multiply when, upon examining the origin of the new Catholic Mass, we see that a committee of Protestants was given an advisory role in its composition, that many of the central and distinctive elements of Catholic Eucharistic theology are played down, such as the Sacrifice and Real Bodily Presence at the heart of the liturgy. Many of the other changes introduced in the new Catholic Mass have had the effect of undermining these traditional Catholic teachings, such as the elimination of the Communion Rail, the introduction of standing instead of kneeling to receive Communion, the reception of Communion in the hand instead of on the tongue, the use of altar girls and female lectors, and the regular use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, so that the altar looks like a common kitchen table being set for a covered dish dinner.

What the Second Vatican Council called for in its Constitution on Divine Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) was a "reform" of the traditional Roman Rite, not a replacement of it by the creation of a new Catholic Mass as a substitute for it. What we have now, however, is a hastily imposed substitute for the traditional Mass, a substitute that is quickly becoming a forum for seemingly perpetual experimentation, which in the experience of the younger generations is the only Mass that they have known. That the new Mass represents what Cardinal Ratzinger calls a "rupture" in liturgical tradition is clear even from the remarks of the most ardent defenders of the new Mass who were responsible for cobbling it together. Fr. Joseph Gelineau, S.J., for example, who was described by the architect of the new Mass, Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, as one of the "great masters of the international liturgical world," declares with apparent satisfaction:
"Let those who like myself have known and sung a Latin-Gregorian High Mass remember it if they can. Let them compare it with the Mass we now have. Not only the words, the melodies, and some of the gestures are different. To tell the truth it is a different liturgy of the Mass. This needs to be said without ambiguity: the Roman rite as we knew it no longer exists. It has been destroyed."
On the other side of the fence, those who are most critical of the new Mass find themselves in complete agreement with this description of liturgical rupture and dislocation, but find the condition utterly devastating and lamentable. Monsignor Klaus Gamber, for example, sums up the result of the post-Vatican II liturgical innovations thus: "Today we are standing before the ruins of almost 2,000 years of Church tradition." Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger likewise sums up the liturgical aftermath of the Council in close-to-apocalyptic terms: "The result has been not an animation but a devastation."

Since the liturgical reforms mandated by Vatican II have not yet even begun to be implemented, and since the widely available liturgical options are far from good, where is a Catholic to look? In his concluding address at a liturgical conference at the Abbey of Fontgombault in 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger significantly declared that it is "indispensable to continue to offer the opportunity to celebrate according to the old Missal, as a sign of the enduring identity of the Church.... [T]his Missal of the Church should offer a point of reference, and should become a refuge for those faithful who, in their own parish, no longer find a liturgy genuinely celebrated in accordance with the texts authorized by the Church.... What we previously knew only in theory has become for us a practical experience: the Church stands and falls with the liturgy. When the adoration of the divine Trinity declines, when the Faith no longer appears in its fullness in the liturgy of the Church ... then faith will have lost the place where it is expressed and where it dwells."

[All quotations from Cardinal Ratzinger are from Looking Again at the Question of the Liturgy with Cardinal Ratzinger, edited by Alcuin Reid, OSB (Farnborough, Hampshire, UK: St. Michael's Abbey Press, 2003)]