Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The Cathedral: A Home for the Liturgy of the Hours

One of the principal problems in discussing new cathedral designs (or renovations, such as the still-in-the-news Crystal Cathedral) is that, whether the proposed project is "modernistic" or "traditional," most of the time the criteria used to conceptualize it are only tenuously related to the historic notion of what constitutes a cathedral and the liturgy it houses. I have said this several times in the past, but most American cathedrals are essentially overgrown parish churches, and this paradigm has so ensconced itself in our liturgical consciousness that many bishops see their cathedrals as model parish churches for their diocese. The sentiments that go into such a notion are laudable and perhaps even necessary in the short term, but are something of a red herring. The question that must be asked about these edifices, and even many of America’s pre-conciliar cathedrals, is not just, “Is this a fitting style?” but “ What makes a church a cathedral?” It is instructive to compare the liturgical milieu that informed Westminster Cathedral’s establishment in 1895, with that of a typical large American diocese. Part of the problem is of course a diminshed sense of the differences between mass as celebrated by a bishop (though which is still laid out in the Ordinary Form's Ceremonial of Bishops) and a priest's mass, but these are ultimately matters of degree rather than quality. The most significant difference, in my mind, lies in the inclusion or exclusion of the Liturgy of the Hours as prayed by a community.

From the date of its establishment, the prayer of the Church—as embodied by the singing of the daily Divine Office—was inextricably intertwined with the design of the new cathedral. Cardinal Vaughn saw the Office as essential to the efficacy of “a live Cathedral,” a missionary presence at the heart of a very secular city, “functioning […] on behalf of others and winning them graces.” In the foundational documents of the College of Chaplains he established specifically to carry out this liturgical apostolate, he argued that this public prayer was “the highest function of the apostolic calling.” In this regard, Westminster Cathedral started out not much different than our own standard American cathedral. Being a mission territory, America got out of the habit of having cathedral chapters capable of singing the Office. In Britain, with the cathedral canons of Westminster being largely a notional or honorary body at their founding (mostly busy parish priests seldom meeting together in common), the College of Chaplains were founded specifically to take their place. To this day, Morning and Evening Prayer are sung daily in the cathedral, along with a daily solemn mass and several simpler masses. By way of comparison, St. Patrick’s in New York, America’s best-known cathedral, does not perform the Divine Office at all; neither does St. Matthew’s in Washington, D.C., SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, Holy Name in Chicago and the new cathedrals of Oakland, Houston and Los Angeles. Sunday vespers are, admittedly, sung at Holy Cross in Boston and at St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee, along with daily Morning Prayer during the week. In an age when diocesan budgets are stretched to the breaking point, this may not be much of a surprise. Cathedrals have made it their priority to serve as mass factories for workers, tourists, and the local parish community. There is a great deal of logic to such an approach, providing the opportunity for tightly-scheduled weekday commuters to have access to daily mass, and I certainly laud them for their efforts in this area. However, Cardinal Vaughn’s somewhat different thoughts on the subject are worth considering at this point, as communicated by Doyle in his centenary history of Westminster Cathedral:

Where Vaughn departed from the usual message was in insisting that the duty of prayer could be discharged by priests’ devoting themselves to the public liturgical prayer of the Church – indeed, he argued that this was ‘the highest function of the apostolic calling.’ To support his case, he pointed to the long tradition […] of having the Divine Office performed daily in cathedrals. This tradition had been lost in many places, so that ‘a mournful silence reigns in place of the daily chant of the Office[.]’[…] ‘The daily presence of the clergy in choir … gathered in spirit around the Queen of Apostles […] will secure the victory in many a battle with sin and error […].’
However, besides the spiritual graces attendant on placing the full Office at the heart of a diocesan community, there is also considerable evangelical and apostolic merit to the practice. With our urban centers coming to life again as families, gentrifying pioneers, artists and would-be artists move back downtown (many frequently unchurched but not immune to the beauty of holiness), such a living, breathing exemplar of the movement of sanctified time could be a lightning-rod for an explosion of religious revival. It would also represent a tangible way of fulfilling the Second Vatican Council's goal of encouraging the faithful to regularly participate in the Liturgy of the Hours, and the twentieth-century Liturgical Movement's desire to transform the Office into more than a perfunctory priestly duty. It is not that this ideal is impossible--like Chesterton said of the Christian life of faith, "It has been found difficult and left untried." The Council recommended:
Pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and the more solemn feasts. And the laity, too, are encouraged to recite the Divine Office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually. (Par. 100)
If this is true of parish churches, how much more it should be of the cathedral church of every diocese! Whether such a project would be attempted by the laity under the supervision of the rector, by a special college of chaplains in the manner of Westminster, or even by an attached religious house, it is difficult to say; all have logistical difficulties. Vaughn himself initially attempted to outsource the public celebration of the Office to both French and English Benedictines, but found it too difficult. This essay merely proposes the idea--not a detailed plan. I am not saying such an action would be easy, or, with parish closings and priest shortages, even prudent in many locations. But if it could be attempted in just one place by a visionary bishop, I have no doubt the Holy Spirit would ensure spectacular would occur.