Thursday, May 22, 2008

An NLM interview with Father George William Rutler on the Liturgy

Many of our readership will no doubt be familiar with Fr. George William Rutler, who is perhaps best known for his various series upon EWTN. He is the author of several books and is presently the pastor of the Church of Our Saviour in New York City.

The NLM recently conversed with Fr. Rutler on the subject of the reform of the reform and the usus antiquior. Here is that interview.


NLM: Fr. Rutler, I asked this question in an interview with Fr. Joseph Fessio, and I would like to ask it of you as well: sometimes the "reform of the reform" is understood as simply meaning improving the music and general ethos of the celebration of the modern Roman liturgy -- something that is very important of course. Others propose that this is only one aspect of the reform of the reform, and that there is also a need to propose deeper reforms of the modern liturgical books themselves. What is your thought on the matter?

Fr. Rutler: The "reform of the reform" certainly encompassed more than improving aesthetic elements of worship. This is not to say that beauty in all its forms is peripheral, for beauty is intrinsic to the triad which, with truth and goodness, civilizes man. As any reading of the Pope's liturgical logic will show, the "reform of the reform" is all about the beauty of holiness, without which ritual externals are not much more than cosmetic. The holiness of worship is at the heart of the true renewal that the Second Vatican Council intended when it spoke of the liturgy as the "source and summit" of redeemed life. Without a full dedication of mind and heart, the reform of the liturgy would quickly degenerate into a vain aestheticism little different from the aesthetic movement which marked the decay of the Victorian age. There are Christian denominations that have gradually cloaked their abandonment of Gospel truths in outward ceremonials which become a kind of fancy dress paganism. A defect in some of the recent liturgical innovations has been an exaggerated emphasis on affective piety as a substitute for objective sacrifice. The sturdy language of the traditional texts assumed that the "ex opere operato" fact of the Sacrifice of the Mass will issue from and lead to an evangelical expression of this Sacrifice in the dedication of the worshipers to Christ's commission: to proclaim the Gospel and manifest the Faith in works of mercy. I think one way to get this across is for the liturgical calendar to embrace the many new saints who have lived the Eucharistic life in the challenges of modern conceits. Otherwise the sacred tradition will only be an indulgence of nostalgia.

NLM: In terms of the post-conciliar Roman Missal, sometimes called the Pauline Missal or "Ordinary form of the Roman liturgy", are there any specific reforms to its texts and rubrics that you believe are important as part of the programme of the reform of the reform?

Fr. Rutler:
Most importantly, the texts need to be faithful to the editio typica, and the vernacular should be in a more elevated diction. Not only is the present translation banal, sometimes it is even ungrammatical. This also applies to the approved texts of Scripture for the lectionary; I have grave theological reservations about the neuterized translations, both with regard to the substance itself and to right to alter, and not just translate, the Scripture. The alternative opening collects should be eliminated, as they are painfully bad. The Psalm responses between the readings are too prolix and, as they now stand, the response oddly is taken from a translation different from the verses. I'd eliminate the many rubrical options, and also the fey kind of oblique rubrical suggestions: e.g. "may," "might," "could." The Roman Canon should be the norm. The preparatory prayers at the foot of the altar from the usus antiquior could be included (with congregational participation in the responses.) There should not be rubrical options in the wedding and funeral rites - this engenders pastoral difficulties.

NLM: You've also written and spoken before on the issue of hymnody. In your opinion, how important is it, not only musically but also liturgically, to recover the propers of the Mass (Introit, Gradual, etc.) which have been predominantly replaced by hymns in most of our parishes?

Fr. Rutler:
Approved hymnody is appropriate for processions and closing devotions and during Communion. Hymns, with precedent in the early Church also took the form of the mediaeval tropes. The substantial music of the Liturgical should be Plainchant propers. The "hymn sandwich liturgy" consisting of a said Mass interspersed with hymns is liturgical bipolarism and should be cured. On the other hand, an overlap of singing and the celebrant's prayers as is common in Eastern rites, and in the extended Sanctus in the usus antiquior, is an effective interplay of liturgical roles.

NLM: On the topic of the usus antiquior, many believe that the spread of it into parish liturgical life, or even just the fact of priests learning about this form of the Roman liturgy can be a leaven for the reform of the reform. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Fr. Rutler:
The saying "a rising tides lifts all ships" applies here. Learning about the usus antiquior can raise the general conscience of parishioners to a clearer understanding of what worship is. Each age is tempted to ape the current cultural milieu in its approach to God. The tendency to make the Mass an ecclesiastical form of television entertainment is a mistake of our day, but it is not more seductive than the inclination of an earlier generation to make the Mass operatic. Pope St. Pius X tried to reform that by his attention to Gregorian chant. Bad money drives out the good in every epoch, and some of the worst elements in current liturgical life have just updated the pietism of earlier times. From my experience, young people respond to classical worship well, albeit at first with astonishment and bewilderment, but their response is healthier than that of some older people who lack the humility to admit that their abandonment of authentic worship was a mistake. For those in their twenties and thirties, the guitars and faux folksiness of the 1960's is as archaic as the culture of the 1920's is to those in their sixties and seventies. To recover the virile authenticity of true worship, I certainly prefer the sacral language of the Latin texts but, more importantly, I think the "leaven for the reform of the reform" would best begin with worship "ad orientem." The psychological shock some may have when they realize the priest is not looking at them when he prays can be a very good tonic.

NLM: On the subject of sacral language, Fr. Uwe Michael Lang of the Oratory has presented papers at various liturgical conferences on this subject in relation to the adoption of Latin into the liturgy and how it differed in idiom from the Latin of the typical Roman in the street. Taking the retention of Latin in the liturgy as a granted, where the vernacular is used within parts of the liturgy, how do you think should be manifest?

Fr. Rutler:
Without the question, the low quality of the English in the present use has been a principal causes for criticism and even, sadly, ridicule. I hope the Vox Clara project will signal an improvement. That said, ours is not a golden age for the English language. For all his heresies, it must be admitted that Thomas Cranmer was a fine Latinist and also lived in a sublime age of English letters, with the result that the Cranmerian translations, when they wanted to be accurate and not polemical, remain superb models and replicate Latin preciseness and even intonation. A generation ago, attempts to "modernize" those collects in the Anglican prayer book produced prayers which were wordier than those of the sixteenth century - rather like the very lame poesie of the alternate collects in the Novus Ordo. ---All would benefit from more frequent use of the Latin editio typica of the Pauline missal. It is easier to encourage sacral language when it is chanted. It is more difficult, and can seem stilted, when it is recited. Any language is sacred when it is prayed, and we should not confuse mystery with mystification, but the wider use of Latin transcends both time (connecting with other ages) and space (uniting different cultural groups.) In a society more mobile and mixed than ever, a common sacral language unites phonic groups, so that there is less emphasis on an "English Mass" versus an "Hispanic Mass" etc. The failure of a vernacular liturgy here is evident in the irony of having polyglot prayers in the vernacular liturgy, for instance using different languages in the petitions of the Prayers of the Faithful. Thus what was organically universal has merely become politically international.

NLM: Many would hold that aside from its value for a "reform of the reform", the wider availability of the usus antiquior is in and of itself of value in the life of the Church. Would you concur?

Fr. Rutler:
Unless the usus antiquior is more widely available, it could end up being the exotic indulgence of few for whom it can function as a symbol of other problems they have with the Church and with life in general. Quite simply if it is not centric it will be eccentric and will give the impression that it is for people who do not want to face the challenges of our age. When the usus antiquior is rare, it attracts the rara avis type of person who discourages others. I am impressed by the large number of people, including an increasing number of young ones, who do not use the liturgy as an expression of the psychological baggage that weighs them down. One proof of this is how the usus antiquior celebrated without self-consciousness or some subconscious social agenda, inspires priestly vocations among solid young men.

NLM: You have recently started to celebrate the ancient Roman liturgy on occasion at your own parish, the Church of Our Saviour in New York City. Have you found anything in the texts and/or ceremonies of that Missal that has particularly struck you on a liturgical or spiritual level?

Fr. Rutler:
Actually, I was spiritually formed as a "High Anglican" more familiar with the rituals of the usus antiquior than many of my Catholic contemporaries and, upon becoming a Catholic, the adjustment to popularized forms of the Novus Ordo, albeit not envisioned by the Fathers of Vatican II, was painful. Most of the Masses in my parish are Novus Ordo but they are celebrated in such a way that visitors often think they are "the old Mass." But what impresses me deeply about the usus antiquior is that it really is hard work, and properly so. It is a cult of God and not of personality. I find this even more so in the liturgies of the Eastern rites which combine the sublime and earthly in a blatantly Catholic sacramental economy. While we rightly venerate the Latin ethos, the "hermeneutic of continuity" must be a continuation of a spirit that goes back beyond the Baroque or even mediaeval to the organic life of the Church before the trauma of 1054. While not compromising the integrity of respective rites, we have much to learn from the Eastern sensibility. As the Western and Eastern churches have been called "two lungs" of Christendom, so also are they "two lobes" of the Church's brain, and they are incomplete in isolation. The positive response of many Eastern church leaders to the "reform of the reform" bodes well.