It was a little embarrassing to tell some brethren that I was off to a liturgical summer school at the monastery of St Benedict in La Garde-Freinet. Inevitably the question would come, where is that? Offering "the south of France" was never satisfying. So one had to make the admission that it is near St Tropez, between that resort town and Antibes and Nice. The southern region of Provence, on the outskirts of the French Riviera. Not convincing as a destination for work rather than play with Europe's rich and infamous.
In fact, Sacra Liturgia's fourth international summer school is hard work, despite the sunshine, good food and wonderful camaraderie. It is not a theoretical school but a practical one. We do not talk about liturgy as much as do it. A lot of it. And it is usually in its most solemn form, and invariably its more ancient form, the Extraordinary. Some readers, though I suspect not most, might have just now rolled their eyes, or worse. "He's gone trad" they might groan. Apart from the obvious riposte that it is impossible to be Catholic and not be traditional, such laments do warrant something by way of an answer, as to why I am here and why it is good to be here. Since I am writing this on a tablet, my frustration, quite apart from my fatigue, will keep this fairly short.
Why am I here? The easy answer- that I was invited -will admittedly not cut the mustard for anyone. In truth there are a number of reasons all coalescing into one general motivation. There is my growing dissatisfaction with the post-conciliar liturgy. Having been born and raised Catholic after the Council, I have no experience of, let alone nostalgia for, a liturgy I never knew. Yet, having spent many an hour reading about Catholic liturgy, its history especially the recent, its principles and aims, and indeed what the Council actually taught about the liturgy and what reforms the conciliar decree actually proposed, the modern liturgy as received and experienced appears more and more like Hans Christian Andersen's emperor with no clothes. As I've suggested before here, my personal discovery of the 1964/5 interim missal was a revelation: the reformed Mass we could have had, yet which proved to be a Mayfly Mass. For all that, this missal seemed to coincide far more faithfully the reforms actually proposed by the Council rather than those imposed by the Consilium. Its final product, substantially our current missal, seems a very distant cousin to the liturgy by which the western Church worshipped for nigh a millennium and a half.
Recent studies and memoirs have laid bare the shoddy (or worse) process that led to the missal we have today. It is not always an edifying story, and some of the current liturgy's original proponents, such as Louis Bouyer, came to regret their own work. By its own measure, as a liturgy expressly and specifically designed to be more accessible to ordinary Catholics and allow for greater participation by them to the benefit of their Catholic lives, it simply has failed. Great swathes of traditionally Catholic heartland are now blighted by near-empty churches, even after many others have been closed, and so many of those that remain have been renovated in ways that have destroyed the work of centuries, so often funded by the pennies of the poor. Very frequently sacred spaces have been turned into banal, lifeless monuments to architects of widely varying talent and ephemeral secular taste. It is a sad sight to see such monuments to fashion sitting almost lifeless and largely unloved.
That being so, the logical step seemed to me to see firsthand the liturgy we forsook in the 1960s. I say we, but I had no say in that forsaking of course, nor did the laity in general back then. It was the work not even of bishops but of experts who applied to the liturgy the historical-critical method that emasculated the Bible in the life of the Church.
In discovering first-hand what I have missed had been disturbing and rewarding. Fully formed in the new liturgy, I find the old often feels very unfamiliar, and uncomfortably so. In the next few days we will reach the zenith of our activity with a trilogy of solemn liturgies for the Assumption, two of them pontifical, all of them in the presence of a Cardinal. Into some of those I will be thrown as a sacred minister. Thrown into the deep end, I fear very much that I shall drown, and the MCs will have to labour as they never have before to save me. The saying, As lost as a Jesuit in Holy Week, will be wholly inadequate to my state!
For all that, I will at least have had the reward of seeing and experiencing how profound the traditional rites are. Truly they merit the description "sacred mysteries". They have a logic and symbolism all their own that enable the self-emptying required for true worship. And far from being triumphalistic, I have seen and felt his humbling they are, how they reduce the ministers to almost anonymous servants of God and the people, and they free these people to taste a little of the heaven to which they are called in grace and in love.
Equally as inspiring is the youth of the majority of participants in the summer school. I am one of the oldest here, and I am not yet 50 (young in EBC terms!). Some of these young are religious or seminarians but most are not. Many are converts, and not from high-church Anglicanism but from bible-based Protestantism. They have asked the hard questions and found the answers in Catholic tradition and truth. They are not young fogeys but young people with a taste for authenticity. One is an economics graduate from Princeton, another studies space sciences in Toulouse, by way of brief example. They know their stuff.
In the affluent west our congregations are rapidly ageing and to replace them will be those young people who already commit themselves and their time and talent to the Church they have recognised in scripture, history and tradition. It is a fact we must face that so many of them find more nourishment in the old rite than the new, and we clergy must be humble enough to put aside some cherished but failed initiatives and give the young, and the not so young who have held their peace so long, what they desire, not least the liturgy so many feel they have been cheated of.
The reform of the reform is not necessarily dead, as these Ordinariate shows us. But more and more it seems to me that the new rite is. Even as I celebrate it personally here, in Latin with an attentive server, I feel as if I am celebrating its obsequies.