Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Reform the Reform

We all know we need to careful when it comes to reading the newspaper.  I was often told as I was growing up that paper never refuses ink and just because a newspaper says something is true, it is not necessarily so.  When you get into the nuances of hermeneutics and "sources", a good salt cellar is a handy tool to have at your side. 

The same rule could also be applied to the writings of some theologians and liturgists: one needs to be very careful when thrashing through the ideas and proposals of certain thinkers - knowing where they are coming from is vital.  When reading their account of history, it is even more important to check facts - ideas and opinions are exactly that, but when it comes to historical reality, then we have to show prudence for a false history can serve as a very shaky foundation.

This is especially true when it comes to Church history, and liturgical history in particular.  There is an excellent article by Michael Foley on the Crisis Magazine website, exposing five of the most common myths proposed by liturgists in the last number of decades as an argument to introduce revolutionary ideas and practices in the Catholic liturgy.  

For years these versions of how the early Church worshipped were accepted as fact and changes in the Mass and the orientation of prayer were founded on these very "historical facts".  By the time I got to seminary to study liturgy enough research had been carried out by objective parties to undermine these myths, so much so our lecturers put their hands up and admitted that there was no evidence to support their propositions but they think the new way is the best and, anyway, people are used to it now so things cannot be changed.  Their ideological work done and reinforced, they can afford to let the cat out of the bag.

Well, they thought they could, but they did not factor Pope Benedict into the equation, nor Summorum Pontificum nor the establishment of the new Ordinariates, nor the corrected translation of the Roman Missal nor the orthodox nature of the up and coming generation of priests, religious and laity. 

Now those of you who know me know I am not a Traditionalist, though I count some Traditionalists among my friends and we have had many conversations on the liturgy.  While I am often infuriated by the attitude of some Traditionalists and their views, some of whom pick and chose when they are faithful to the Pope and when not, the ones who are truly faithful to the Pope and not reactionary I respect and admire. 

When it comes to the liturgy I am a liberal: not in accord with the usually meaning of the term, I assure you.  Unlike the ideological liberals, I have no problem whatsoever with the normalisation of the Extraordinary Form and making it widely available.  I think Pope Benedict is on to a winner with his hope that the two forms of the Latin Rite will cross pollinate and, in time, one form may emerge organically with the best of both.  Now I know that statement may give some Traditionalists a stroke, but, if they survive it, they may realise that that will not happen in their lifetime nor in mine: the Church tends to work and think in terms of centuries, and the recalibration of the sacred liturgy will take time.

At the heart of the reform of the liturgy is, of course, a return to reverence, devotion and prayer: three things which tend to be absent to various degrees at many liturgical celebrations.  We need to be reacquainted with the idea of sacred space - something the liberals have been talking about for years, but ironically, have managed to undermine.  Indeed in creating sacred space out in a field or forming a coven in a group, they have turned the sanctuaries of churches into marketplaces.  

Reclaiming the sacred space will include how we behave in a church, and at the moment that is a real issue as people treat the building as if it was an ordinary public hall.  In Ireland in particular we have a real problem of talking, and loud talking, in churches, particularly in the time before and after Mass.  They have forgotten what a church is, and indeed, they have forgotten who is there.   

Over time I have begun to realise the importance of altar rails, dividing the sanctuary from the the rest of the church: a physical reminder to all of us that this place is different. Of course this brings up the whole topic of church architecture, another serious issue that has to be addressed.  It is interesting that the restored St Patrick's Church in Soho is being considered by some to be an example of liturgical progress: I would agree.

Another thing I have come to realise as necessary, is the reorientation of the liturgy prayer.  Pope Benedict speaks about this in his The Spirit of the Liturgy.  More and more as I offer Mass, and try to enter more deeply into the mystery, I find myself wanting to turn around and lead the people in prayer rather than stand as the focus of the Mass. 

People judge the Mass on the basis of the priest's ability to say it (perform it??), and this, of course, distorts what the Mass is.  The priest-performer is under pressure to deliver and make the Mass interesting and entertaining, so he has to resort to new ideas, themes, para-liturgical elements, to keep his congregation (audience??) onside.  This has to change not only because greater reverance is needed, but also because thus way of worship cannot be sustained: people's threshold for boredom will get lower and more and more crazy stuff has to be introduced be it clown Masses, or Barney blessings, or aging sisters girating in the sanctuary (that'll drive them out!). 

So much to do, and so much opposition, and the worst enemy is the mediocrity which reigns among bishops, priests and laity.  It seems for many in the church today mediocrity is taken as a sign of authenticity: beauty, excellence, devotion and ritual are seen as dishonest, irrelevant and unnecessary.  Yet these things are part of our human nature, they have always been a means of expressing what is important to us.  We are in a bad way if we deny this part of our humanity and our worship. 


  1. By the priest making himself the focus of the Mass, I find it virtually impossible to connect with God.

    It must be acknowledged that one of the most patronising notions is that of laity involvement in the sanctuary. In order to have a valid role, the laity must be imitating Father. We have no valid role outside the sanctuary.

    I find that utterly patronising that some priests and bishops would appear to think that the laity are not useful unless they are as much like Father as possible.

    You even hear ridiculous things like when a priest thanked all those who actively took part in the Mass - the readers, EMHC, those who carried things up. And here's me thinking, so I've been totally disengaged and non-participative for the last hour? Well, there probably is a lot of truth in that, given that the priest has played the performer for the last hour and I was unable to pray the Mass.

    It's deeply frustrating for me as a Catholic that I have a better liturgical formation from reading books and websites in my free time than the majority of priests who are saying Mass. Of course, if I said anything, I'd be labelled an old fuddy-duddy and summarily .

  2. ... summarily dismissed.

  3. You said, "I find myself wanting to turn around and lead the people in prayer rather than stand as the focus of the Mass."

    Excellent idea, but is this allowed?

  4. It is allowed by the rubrics and the constant tradition Caroline, but there would be uproar if a priest tried this, and he would probably be commanded to stop by his bishop.

  5. You are correct Anonymous, there would be uproar if the priest turned back to face the East, as was the orientation for the Mass for 1,700 years. The main problem is the people: they have come to see the ad orientem position as a priest "turning his back to the people" and they have been taught by liberal priests, liturgists and "experts" to see this as an offensive action designed to cut them out. Thanks to their manipulation of language, the liturgical revolutionaries have won a resounding victory in this regard negativising what is in reality a positive gesture, one in which the priest is one with the people in orientation - a much more humble position than "running the show" - and that is what is most ironic of all.

  6. Indeed. Facing the people, the priest indeed is the performer, and not a very good one at that. This in turn foments resentment and division and calls for women priests or lay persons to say the Mass themselves so as to do a better job of it themselves. The thing with liberal solutions is that they cause endless problems, which 'require' more liberal 'solutions' to the problems that this liberal sickness itself has caused.

  7. @Caroline it is not only allowed but in some places the 1960s de-orientation never took root. Thus in the London and Birmingham Oratories Mass (Ordinarty Form) is always celebrated versus Dominum (facing the altar rather than the congregation). The celebrant facing the "audience" so to speak is a 1960s fad and rubrically an acceptable option rather than a normative posture.

    PS As a trad, now that I've recovered from my stroke, I think you're right, Father. A slow and gentle normalisation on a gradual timscale would be very good.

  8. Perhaps you could try it at the next Fraternity Mass. We won't report you provided you make sure the mass lasts for at least 1hour and 15 minutes. ;-)

    Jim McG

  9. Indeed, Jim. I believe to celebrate Pope Benedict 60th anniversary of priestly ordination, many across the world, will be hosting 60 hours of adoration and prayer. We could do that: the 60 hour Mass - has a ring to it! Ah, but which form should we use? Any ideas anyone....?