Saturday, August 05, 2006

A Critique of "Mysterious Liturgy" in the Spokane, WA. Diocesan Paper

I was recently bemused to read the following article in the Diocese of Spokane paper on "mysterious liturgy" by a Father Jan Larson, a liturgical consultant for the archdiocese of Seattle.

At first, the title sounds rather interesting. Perhaps a reflection upon the sense of the sacred that ought to permeate the sacred liturgy. Perhaps a meditation on the role of mystery and "veiling" in the liturgy which can lend itself to an appreciation of the verticality of the liturgy in its adorative aspect.

Sadly, the article is nothing of the sort and represents rather the ongoing reality that a significant hermeneutic of rupture is still out there on the part of at least some of those in the liturgical establishment.

What is particularly bemusing about it are two things. Father's difficulty with the traditional even in the context of the modern rite, and Father's evident perspective on what the sacred liturgy is and ought to be. But perhaps even bigger than these is Father's approach to the debate, which does not seem terribly befitting a diocesan paper, nor a column in such an official Catholic resource which seems to be specifically for liturgical discussion. I believe why will become as evident as I quote the piece.

Father Larson begins:

"I was recently watching a part of the daily televised liturgy on EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network). The liturgy there is an odd mix of English and Latin, while following the texts of the current Roman Missal. The priest and ministers of the liturgy look way too somber and serious. The ritual is performed with all the exaggerated exactness of the pre-Vatican II Latin liturgy. The Mass is overly formal and mechanical. Needless to say, there are no women allowed in the sanctuary area, there is no procession with the gifts, no Sign of Peace, and, of course, no Communion from the cup for the lay people who are present. The liturgy, in effect, is unlike anything that Catholics experience in the vast majority of Catholic parish churches."

The first principles that we get from Father's complaint about the liturgy on EWTN is effectively that the sacred rites are performed ritualistically. It seems a touch ironic indeed, since the liturgy is indeed a ritual, ceremonial action. But, presuming a potential objection, it should be noted that a ritual and ceremonial action is not by nature therefore also without personal depth and meaning; it is not inherently empty and can be quite profound and meaningful, just as our family traditions and rituals can also be.

Moreover, the liturgy is a solemn action of the priest and the faithful, and thus that it would be solemn (or "formal" as Father puts it) should come as little surprise. After all, the first and primary end of the sacred liturgy is the worshipping of God the Father through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, His Divine Son, in the Holy Spirit.

What we can gather from what Father Larson has said, is that he seems to believe a Mass celebrated in an exacting, formal, or solemn way is not desireable. To him, this is to be lifeless, or as he later calls it, "stuffy". It's an interesting personal perspective, and one that betrays much of that which is worst in our post-modern world which is contrary to and devaluing of tradition, but a personal perspective only is it. We might conclude as well that in Father Larson's view, the priests should be jovial and personality based, rather than themselves taking a tone of solemnity and dignity -- one wonders what Father Larson has to think about the the past Eucharistic synod's thoughts about the need to restore reverence and a greater sense of the ars celebrandi, or about Pope Benedict's critical thoughts as a Cardinal on this "emcee" approach to the priest in the liturgy. Is the liturgy about the personality of the priest, his ability to entertain, or is it about his personality being subsumed into that of Christ, in whose person he ritually acts? I would propose that Father's concern about the lack of "personality" shown by the priest is misplaced and demonstrates that his own focus is perhaps misplaced.

As regards the use of Latin and English, which he has defined as "odd", I would simply remind Fr. Larson of the Second Vatican Council's statements about the use of Latin in the liturgy and remind him that he is standing in opposition to that Council's very intent.and letter when thus commenting. Thus, while this again may be his personal opinion, it is only that and certainly isn't the Church's instruction. This distinction should be made clear.

Further, his critique about lay processions of the gifts or women in the sanctuary, are these then absolute requirements of "successful" or proper Catholic liturgy? That being the case, one might ask Father what his perspective is on the Byzantine liturgy (or other Eastern liturgies) which has no such things? It is worth noting as well that Father comments he was watching a weekday Mass on EWTN; thus his comment about processions particularly comes across as rather a stretch, and a simple opportunity for polemical attack, given that most any parish in a weekday Mass would not have such a procession.

As to his last statement, one is wondering what Father's point is that the liturgy of EWTN is unlike that in many parishes? Does that therefore mean that the EWTN liturgy is not good? Or does it not also possibly mean that the liturgy at many parishes is in a rather poor state by comparison? What is the liturgical praxis in most parishes is not an objective standard by which to judge; liturgy is not a matter of popular vote, nor based upon prevalence -- anyone who is willing to critique the state of the liturgy in the pre-conciliar days must accept this if we are to take this critique seriously. Rather, the liturgy is to be judged by the liturgical laws that govern it, as well as the tradition which formed it, celebrated as the Church would have it be celebrated. It is also judged by its effectiveness in rendering due worship to God, sanctifying us, and being a vehicle for Catholic belief and piety.

Father Larson continues: "I am certain that the planners of these liturgies would explain their differences from parish liturgies with the familiar refrain that the post Vatican II liturgical reforms have taken too much of the mystery away from the Holy Mass. Certainly, they say, allowing the congregation full, active and conscious participation in the ritual is what empties the rites of their mystery, so the further we keep the secular congregation away from the clerical activity and space, the better to preserve the liturgy’s mystery. Thus the need to eliminate any personal touch with the lay folks, and, by all means, do not allow them to communicate with each other, even to wish one’s neighbor the peace of the risen Christ. (One wonders what these people think of the pope as he hugs and kisses the children who present him with the gifts to be offered, giving each of them a small gift as a remembrance of the liturgy. Perhaps it is all right for the pope to be warm and personable during the liturgy, but inappropriate for lesser souls.)

There are a great many assertions, assumptions and polemics to be found herein. But I wish to focus upon one in particular.

In all my years focusing upon such questions and debates, I actually haven't heard or read anyone whom has argued that "allowing the congregation full, active and conscious paritcipation in the ritual is what empties the rites of their mystery..." Thus how Father Larson can suggest that this is "certainly" what would be argued is mystifying to say the least. This seems to be either a bad presumption (or source) about what the argument really is, or it is possibly a case of the fallacy of reductio ad absurdum -- reducing one's opponents arguments to an absurd and then responding to that absurd characterization (which of course is not a valid form of argumentation). Ultimately Father is seemingly trying to suggest that those working for traditional liturgy, liturgics, or even the simple following of the rubrics, are against "active participation". But a further problem with this is that Father is basing this assertion upon his own private, and I would say limited, understanding of what precisely constitutes "full, active and conscious participation".

Certainly this is partially to be found in vocal and bodily participation in the sacred liturgy -- though this can of course take various forms and needn't exclusively or strictly take the forms that Father has spoken of. In fact, this very thing was being accomplished under the auspices of the former liturgical movement by which the dialogue Mass was promoted and the move away from the saying of private devotions during the liturgy was encouraged. But let us also remember that full, active and conscious participation is not simply external activity. Pope John Paul II quite adequately clarified this with the bishops of the United States when he stated as much in quite direct terms. I might further direct Father Larson to the recent offering from Hillebrand Books, Cardinal Reflections which analyzes this fuller, more approrpiate understanding of full, conscious and active participation which includes interior dimensions of listening and observing in the liturgy. These too are part of full, conscious and active participation.

Further, what Father Larson may not realize is that there likely are no "planners" in such traditional liturgies; after all, the planning is relatively provided for by the texts and rubrics of the Missal, as well as by our tradition. How much planning need go into the sacred liturgy when it is not to be a vehicle for personal creativity? After all, as the catechism reminds us, we are servants, not masters, over the sacred liturgy. It seems that this idea of those "planning liturgies" itself betrays an idea contrary to the essence of the Church's teaching on the liturgy.

Father Larson then goes on to make an interesting distinction:

"I think the folks responsible for these stuffy liturgies are confusing mystery with mystification. Rites that express mystery will invite people into the unknown, into what lies beyond the action of the ritual. Liturgy done well this way will cause people to ask, “How does this ritual which I can see, and in which I am participating, lead me more deeply into the beyond, into life of the God of mystery whom I cannot see?” Mystification, on the other hand, leads one to ask, “What on earth does that mean, and why in God’s name is he doing that?”

This division between mystery and mystification is an interesting one, but Father has not really made a case here about why the former is not mystery, but mere incomprehensibility -- nor for that matter why what he is arguing for is. One cannot simply levy a charge without making an argument for it. It simply comes off as a kind of anti-traditionalism and a hollow charge.

Father Larson then quotes another writer who supports his own position in this regard:

"“Critics who complain that these ‘horizontal’ values have been realized at the cost of ‘vertical’ ones, that mystery and a sense of the transcendent have disappeared among all the folksiness, need gently to be reminded of the difference between mystery and mystification. We who grew up in a Tridentine liturgy and who witnessed the travails of reform can bear an important witness to those of a younger generation who hanker after the ‘good old days.’ Some fear they have missed the solemn richness of Catholic piety, believing that the reformed liturgy comes dangerously close to Protestant worship, and that the perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is the essential expression of authentic Eucharistic theology. But we are in a position to state that for every example of splendid monastic liturgy in the old days there were countless examples of parish worship that appeared meaninglessly mechanical."

“We know that birettas and fiddle-back chasubles, mumbled (and often mangled) Latin, and truly execrable renditions of Gregorian chant were no more aesthetically than theologically impressive. Having lived through ‘speed-typing’ Masses guaranteed to last no more than twenty minutes, we can point to the greater seriousness, even greater solemnity, of parish worship today. Those who call contemporary worship insufficiently sacred literally do not know what they are talking about.

Such an assessment of the state of parish worship prior to the Council may actually be historically correct in many regards. Certainly the prevalence of the Low Mass was identified by Cardinal Ratzinger as an issue that needed to be reformed. And indeed, there may have been many liturgies poorly celebrated prior to the Council, but then, there are many liturgies poorly celebrated after the Council (and arguably a great deal more liturgical abuse; let us not forget that sloppiness is one thing, and abuse another, even more serious, matter) -- though there seems to be little recognition of this on the part of these writers.

That being said, the necessary distinction between a poorly celebrated liturgy and the actual liturgical rite itself is not made. Thus, this also isn't truly an argument for this case anymore than a poorly celebrated liturgy today is an argument against the modern Roman missal as a liturgical text -- unless it can be demonstrated that it is the text (ie.the rubrics) itself which lends itself to this scenario. Missals must be examined of their own accord, in its texts and rubrics.

The article finally ends with a polemic jab at the intelligence of the critique (and those who wield it primarily) to which they are responding to. The irony is, this particular piece, taken as a whole, ultimately provides no real argument or reasoning that follows, but rather only assertions or half-proposed arguments. Nor, I should note, does it really make any reference to the teaching of the Church, only to popular practice. Thus we seem to be simply left with private opinion, personal ideological preferences, and a polemic which is perhaps ultimately worried about the gathering strength of a return to our liturgical laws, traditions and order, which represents a movement beyond the rebellious infancy of the immediate post-conciliar years.

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