This is being written on an iPad Mini screen, which makes writing anything beyond small gobbets a penitential work. But perhaps life could do with some more penance. Anyway, prepare for typos while I prepare for slings and arrows.
At present I am staying at the small but fervent Monastère St Benoît, in the steamy hills beyond St Tropez, and over the past week uncomfortably hot for one now acclimatised to the gentle summers of England. Of the many virtues of this house, apart from its excellent liturgical life, can be numbered its excellent liturgical library and the encyclopaedic liturgical knowledge of the prior, Dom Alcuin Reid. Both have enabled me to make some progress in preparing for a research proposal.
Yesterday was published online the text of Dom Alcuin’s paper at the recent colloquium of the Church Music Association of America in Philadelphia. The paper is entitled Reflections on authority in liturgy today. I do not propose to offer a commentary on the paper here, as it is quite accessible and comprehensible and merits reading in its entirety. As the title suggests, it addresses the place and limits of authority in the liturgy as we experience it today as the fruit of recent decades of change. In confronting the reality that too often too many have acted as their own pope in the celebration of the Church’s liturgy, as well as the reality that even real popes have limits on their legitimate authority over the liturgy, the paper addresses itself both to those who adhere to the postconciliar reformed liturgy and to those who adhere to the ancient liturgy. On both sides subjective motivations can overpower objective demands. The liturgy is not for ‘me’, but for the Church and thus for me only within the Church, and taken out of its proper ecclesial context it can become the plaything, and victim, of personal whim and neediness.
It is the paper’s admonitions to both sides as to how properly to address liturgical desires and aspirations that have intersected especially with my own reflections in recent times. On these reflections I would like to spend a moment or two.
Central to these thoughts is the question as to whether the liturgy is something we fashion anew to suit our time and context (too often code for suiting ourselves) or is it something received, which forms us and to which we allow ourselves to be adapted. The tendency of some who use the more ancient form of the Mass, and of many who use the more recent form, is to do their own thing, to make changes that are against the liturgical law proper to the particular form they use.
Dom Alcuin’s admonitions to both are necessary: to obey liturgical law. At the heart of the problem is the fact that to the degree to which liturgical law is set aside or directly flouted, to that degree does the resulting liturgy cease to be the Church’s liturgy and becomes instead the liturgy of my little coterie, even if it be a parish or monastery. To that degree also is the unity of the Church undermined.
The liturgy belongs to the whole Church, and by it the Church excites unity in its worship of God. The liturgical law safeguards that integrity without which there can be no real unity other than, perhaps, an unity of desire and feeling, which leaves one then still stuck in the mire of subjectivity rather than objective unity.
This is not a question, necessarily, of validity, but of fruitfulness. How can a liturgy celebrated in defiance of the conditions the Church lays down for it ever be truly and fully fruitful? Or put more bluntly: how can build-your-own liturgy be pastorally effective in reality? The answer to both is: it can’t, by definition.
Some time ago I posted a lament of a liturgical loner. I am no less one today. On the one hand I find the ancient Mass embodied in the 1962 Missal intellectually satisfying and ecclesiologically coherent, yet I find it unfamiliar territory in practice, with a mindset and methodology that is not immediately accessible to me, clerically heavy and potentially a little alienating. On the other hand, and partly in consequence, I see the reasonableness in the basic desire of the Liturgical Movement to foster a richer actual participation in and engagement with the Church’s liturgy, a desire which was granted a magisterial voice at the Council; yet I find the reform that was delivered in the Council’s name unsatisfying intellectually and spiritually, and something irreconcilable with the organic development of the liturgy up until the new liturgy’s birth in 1969. Worse still, it is clearly not what the Council mandated.
Even more gravely, the reforms to the Mass made expressly for the benefit of the people have been attended by an immense decline in Mass attendance, and sacramental practice in general. It’s no good blaming a secularised culture, as the reforms explicitly sought to accommodate and address that culture. As the adage has it, she who marries the spirit of the age will soon be a widow.
So I am left looking to the interim rites of the mid to late 60s to find something that embodies together the conciliar mandate for reform, an organic connection to the liturgical tradition of the Church and a liturgy that seeks to make of the congregation more than a mere presence at Mass, but an engaged participant that seeks to offer worship to God according to its proper charism.
The burden for the traditionalist stream in the Church is to acknowledge that there was a valid desire to make of the liturgy something that better acknowledged the presence of the congregation and better engaged it in the act of worship. The burden facing the progressive stream is to acknowledge that the reforms have failed in their purpose, not least because they do not square with the Council’s liturgy decree.
The unhappy legacy of the Council itself is that it framed its mandate for reform in a web of generalities, vagaries and ambiguities. It was a compromise document that in its execution really pleased very few.
In light of what Dom Alcuin points out, the solution cannot lie in swapping elements between the old liturgy and the new. It does lie in making the best of what is there legitimately in both. Regarding the new liturgy, a burning challenge in most parishes is that of the various lay ministries in Mass, their logical and licit employment, and their nature as a service not as a right to be asserted at every turn.
It is, in fact, at the very least a matter of formation. Priests are formed over six or seven years full time to perform their sacred ministry. They must pass exams and assessments. Permanent deacons too must be formed for their ministry over time. Is there an adequate equivalent for those who perform the lay ministries? One example suffices: I have seen children asked to read at Mass, with barely a few minutes for preparation. All too often the result is a mangling of the Word of God, and thus a disservice to God, to the congregation and to the child himself or herself. Is that a proper exercise of lay ministry? What attitude to the liturgy does it expose?
The time has come, as a basic first step, to establish a uniform and consistent system for forming those who exercise a liturgical ministry, one that is comparable in degree and quality to the seminary formation of priests and deacons; and to ensure thereafter that only those properly formed and instituted (preferably by the bishop) are allowed to exercise a ministry in the liturgy. In a way comparable to the vesting of the ordained ministers, the lay ministers should also be required to dress in a way fitting to the liturgy.
Some will argue, not without warrant, that this is too cosmetic and too late a reform. They will point to inherent defects in the new liturgy that allow it to become an indulgence of man rather than the worship of God. But in my own case I have found that the more deeply I was formed, the greater my knowledge grew about the nature of the liturgy and its history, the better I was able to recognise the problems and the greater my ability and will to work towards remedying them.
And they need to be remedied. The ancient and the new forms of Mass will coexist for the time being. More and more the churches using the old liturgy are growing while the churches using the new are largely withering. Statistics, if nothing else, make it clear that unless there are radical changes to the celebration of the new liturgy, and soon, most parishes which celebrate it will not survive. Demographically, the old liturgy churches have a younger membership. My proposal is that, at the very least and as a very first step, we take lay formation for and participation in liturgical ministry vastly more seriously if, in fact, we hope to maintain it at all. Of course, the same need is just as urgent, if not more so, for certain generations of clergy who were often short-changed in their own formation. Only then can the laity be recatechised in the full riches, purpose and potential of the Church’s liturgy.
For now, I will continue to look to the interim Mass of 1965 as a lost opportunity for meeting the demands of both tradition and development. It deserves revisiting.
This was a bit of a late night ramble. Take it as you will.