Thursday, September 26, 2013

Carrying Forward the Noble Work of the Liturgical Movement

I have a personal library chock full of books of liturgical theology and popular devotion from the early twentieth century to the eve of the Second Vatican Council. As I have studied these works over the years, one thing has struck me with increasing amazement and a growing melancholy: the vast majority of these authors, in their publications before the Council, evinced a deep and tender love of the traditional liturgy of the Church. They knew its every phrase, gesture, and chant, its vessels and vestments, its historical development, the delicacy of its minutiae no less than the grandeur of its broad features. They desperately wanted the faithful to appreciate just these treasures. Through indefatigable labors of preaching and publishing, they dedicated their lives to making known the glorious splendor of the Church’s public worship, which had tended to be locked away as the preserve of specialists. What the Liturgical Movement wanted above all was this: intelligent, active participation of the faithful in the traditional liturgy of the Church—not in some other kind of liturgy.

In short, many famous proponents of the liturgical movement would get classified today as traditionalists. Were you to take their major writings and quote portions of them chosen more or less at random, without attribution of authorship, probably 90% or more of the readers would peg the authors as members of an ultra-conservative or traditionalist school. It is not as if these authors lack innovative or problematic ideas; it is not as if some of them did not go off the deep end in the mid- to late sixties, as did so many priests, monks, sisters and nuns in the same period. Rather, it is we ourselves, in our liturgical thinking and practice, who have deviated so far from the Catholic tradition that even the more radical proponents of change in the mid-twentieth century can nowadays look moderate, restrained, and old-fashioned compared to the voluntaristic chaos in which the local churches find themselves today. Some of the better theologians saw the destruction coming and lamented the day: noble souls like Louis Bouyer, whose searing book The Decomposition of Catholicism (1969) plotted the suicidal trajectory on which the reform was headed, although he himself had earlier been an eager participant in the liturgical movement.


So, what did the liturgical movement want, if we can judge from the vast mass of publications it left behind, most of which are now forgotten? In practice, they wanted greater awareness of the meaning of the rich tapestry of prayers, rituals, and symbols; greater congregational singing of the responses and the easier chants of the Ordinary of the Mass (and this really is easy enough, as I have seen in 24 years of experience as a choir director); and a generally more serious and solemn character for the daily liturgy, instead of the omnipresent low Mass. They wanted the people to be knowingly and lovingly involved in the celebration of the mysteries, not as mute spectators, to use a phrase from Pius XI, but as engaged participants—engaged, however, in the complex and subtle manner appropriate for human persons: interiorly and exteriorly, in mind, heart, and body, with voice and silence, acting when appropriate, but also, and more fundamentally, receiving, listening, watching, absorbing.

In all of these goals, they were disappointed, and indeed repudiated. If anything, such men as Romano Guardini and Louis Bouyer are not the fathers of the superficializing revolution that took place, but rather of groups seriously dedicated to the liturgical apostolate, like the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter or the Institute of Christ the King; and Joseph Ratzinger, not Annibale Bugnini or Piero Marini, is the legitimate heir of their theology.

What the Liturgical Movement turned into in its late cancer phase was second-rate modern(ist) theology embedded in a prosaic, earthbound, unimaginative spirituality, along with a tremendous naivete about sociology and worship, plus a good bit of plain dishonesty in their lopsided ressourcement, advocacy scholarship, narrow agendas, and peculiarly modern form of archaicism that did not seek to restore the mentality and spirituality that corresponded to the external elements they purportedly recovered from early Christianity.

Let us consider just this last aspect, as does Catherine Pickstock in the short Blackfriars essay she published prior to her book After Writing. Are we trying to make a mockery of ourselves by talking about returning to the practices of the early church? Are we ready to restore solemn penances—the sending out of penitents on Ash Wednesday and their public reconciliation on Maundy Thursday? Shall we revive the severe, almost crushing ancient penances that were part and parcel of the Church’s daily life? Are we ready to begin each Mass with a slow and beautiful procession down the main aisle, accompanied by the chanting of psalms? Are we prepared to heap incense upon the burning cinders and fill the church with the sound of men’s choirs? Are we really willing to follow St. Paul and the whole ancient tradition by forbidding roles to women in public worship? Are we ready to have bishops pronounce, in the context of the solemn Sunday Mass, excommunications on stubborn heretics and apostates? This sort of thing was bread and butter to the early Christians. Or are we trying to get back to the simple “house worship” of the very first generation of Christians? How very convenient that we know so little about those first Christians! We can make things up as we go along, supported by highly imaginative hypotheses and reconstructions—reminiscent of artistic renderings of our distant ancestors, hairy broad-browed cavemen, tossing a log on the bonfire—so that unhistorical and revolutionary agendas may be cloaked under an appearance of scholarly authority and pastoral solicitude.

Once, a friend and I were talking about whether the laity have a vocation to the mystical life. It is sadly ironic that the Catechism of the Catholic Church decides the question positively for the first time, when never before in the history of the Church has there been so little in her liturgical life to foster contemplative prayer and the mystical gifts. The Catechism also notes that conscience can be properly formed and heard only when there is sufficient interior silence—another condition well-nigh abolished in the new liturgy as it is celebrated almost everywhere. The old liturgy opened to many serious Catholics a path of asceticism and a path to contemplation. Its beautiful stillness, pregnant silences, richly nourishing prayers, poignant gestures, and (in those fortunate locales where a musical revival had occurred) its exquisite chant melodies made the regular life of public worship a continuous schooling in the prayer of the heart, a repeated call to ever deeper penetration of the mysteries of faith, a recurrent opportunity for exercising the theological virtues, a convivial context for receiving higher graces from God.

All saints agree that the mystical life is founded upon a healthy asceticism. Where is this asceticism present in the new liturgy? Are the Ember Days and Rogation Days celebrated? Is the pre-Lenten season observed? What of the daily Lenten fast and the multitude of days of abstinence? Why were the character of the Lenten collects and postcommunions so radically altered away from the constant theme of detachment from the world, salutary hatred of self, contrition for sins? The changes, which are many and significant, represent a practical repudiation of the fullness of ascetical spirituality, and thus a closing-off of the steep and narrow path of mystical initiation attained at the cost of intense spiritual warfare and discipline. The ancient liturgy is truly ancient: it breathes the spirit of the martyrs, the Fathers, the monks and hermits, the mystics. Where is that spirit today? Which Catholics are coming face to face with it, week after week, day after day?

Pierre Hadot wrote an influential book entitled Philosophy as a Way of Life, showing that philosophers of antiquity were more than mere intellectuals; they were striving to be, you might say, saints of the rational life, mystics of logos, priests of sophia. The traditional Catholic already has his Way of Life: it is the ancient Liturgy. In this school of endless subtlety and abiding simplicity, he finds an entire way of life which encompasses and transcends the truths and blessings of human or philosophical wisdom. The liturgy gives him at once a broad and clear teaching on holiness and an inexhaustible wealth of new insights, new layers of meaning he may never have noticed before but which are already present in the texts he has always known. The liturgy is where he goes for his identity, purpose, and strength. He does not think of changing the liturgy to conform it to himself; he rather strives to conform himself to the liturgy, to be formed by it and for it, so that Christ Jesus may be formed in him.

This is what the original Liturgical Movement was all about, and this is the work to which we of the New Liturgical Movement are called today. Be the challenges what they may, let us carry forward the noble work, the best principles, of our forebears, as we seek to spread far and wide the inexhaustible riches of the traditional liturgical life of the Catholic Church.