Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Epoch of Red Ink

Epoch of Red Ink: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Rubrics

In the grey depths of a rainy Roman morning, just after the sun had risen, I visited St. Peter’s, and it was perfectly still within, the perfect presence of absence. I was alone except for one Sampietrini, sweeping an enormous flat mop across the vast dully-gleaming floor of the nave, and the solitary priests saying mass at the basilica’s dozens of side altars, dwarfed by mosaick’d altarpieces of Christ ecstatically transfigured, St. Michael and a enshrined image of the Virgin, cloudy and dark. On lucky days you can hear the jingle of bells from an Maronite liturgy being celebrated in this virtual secrecy. Any priest can say any rite at any altar—now, even the Tridentine mass long proscribed by a former Archpriest—during this loving absence that stretches from seven to nine in the morning. Priests turn to give blessings to absent congregations, read the Gospels, lips moving silently, under the bronze candlesticks, and the mass is honed to a fine simplicity, the perfect bare essentials of devotion for the solitary priest.

The masses they say are virtually unvarying, spiced only by the occasional exotic note of a Byzantine liturgy, and yet these priests, like all priests, always have the mass to turn back to as the font of their spirituality. There are always priests waiting to say mass here, during the dead hours of the day when ordinary Romans drink coffee and unhurriedly make their way to work. They’re saying the same words they say every day, just about.

Do we need variety in the Mass? It seems to have been a question much of the minds of the post-Conciliar reformers. Certainly one of the most novel—and for me, unfortunate—features of the reforms of 1970 was the multiplication of Eucharistic Prayers. First four, then thirteen and now perhaps even more in some parts of the world. There are five different Memorial Acclamations in the American dioceses, two or three different introductions to the Pater Noster, and uncounted permutations of the Penitential Rite with its ad-libbed tropes. Since just about anything seems possible, since the text isn’t fixed with the near-inspired reverence—perhaps slightly excessive—which the Roman Canon was treated with during the Counter-Reformation, many priests take it upon themselves to cook up nice little paraphrases of their own, too. I can’t blame them, considering they were never taught that the words they spoke were ancient and unchanging.

One example of the modern tend towards liturgical variety and liturgical inventiveness is the Dismissal rite, with its curt Ite, missa est—a taut inheritance of spare Roman civil proceedings, according to some. It’s gotten more and more elaborate with every passing year: Go in the peace of Christ…to love and serve the Lord…and one another…. Despite the desire of some of the reformers—a desire which I don’t wholly disagree with in some spots—to remove the Mass of later gildings and additions, it seems that it’s happening again, and with far less elegant results. You can argue that the Last Gospel is a later addition that ought to be removed, but you can’t disagree that St. John’s text is not profound. There’s no such liturgical creativity in modern inventiveness.

In some respects, the problem with the Missa Normativa is not that it expects too little of the celebrant, but that it expects too much. The priest must carefully calibrate his mass every morning with the properly edifying greetings and dismissals, well-written homilettes and rotating Canons. This very seldom happens simply because the priest doesn’t have time to reinvent something every week that has been slowly coming into being for nearly two thousand years. So we’re back to square one—the shortest Canon gets picked and everything else is forgotten, the same tangential and vague greeting is re-cycled, and God manifests Himself on the altar, just like every other week.

The old mass was, to some degree, celebrant-proof—it could be battered and butchered and knocked around by a stuttering priest with bad Latin and a somnolent altar boy ‘till it was homely and tarnished, but it still stayed the same in spite of it all. The old Mass had its occasional shortcomings, but its blocky, hard-wearing, unchanging obstinacy is a virtue to admire.

It’s instructive to compare the current state of liturgical anarchy to the liturgical variety and real creativity of the Middle Ages with its infinitely variable iterations of the classical rite of Rome. Then, each diocese had the liberty to collect and compile its own liturgical books under the umbrella of Roman custom. There were no hard-and-fast rubrics, but a great wild garden of custom that had grown up over the past ten centuries in each place, chosen and carefully pruned with an eye that looked to both past and future. Then all was liberty, under the careful watch of custom. It was a national and diocesan liberty, however, rather than one seated in the individual person of the priest.

Then it died, with Luther.

It worked before it died, because the Middle Ages, with its sincerity, its mixture of childlike lack of self-consciousness and its scholarly caution, worked. Trent, however, realized the Middle Ages was over, and carefully pruned the rite again, and locked down its excesses. Prescriptions and proscriptions multiplied, gallons of red ink were spilled, and some thought it good and some thought it bad. It was the Age of Rubrics, later scholars would write. In the few instances where bishops attended to come up with their own missals, as in France, the result was stilted, dry and almost comically imbued with an inappropriate and classicizing zeitgeist.

Perhaps there was too much red ink in the missals. There’s something to be said on both ends of the debate, but I can sympathize with the rubricists to a certain degree. There are only a certain number of ways one can hold a chalice without spilling it, and legislating that seems a rather harmless matter. The problem lied, perhaps, in viewing every rubric as equally important, something I rather doubt was as common as people suppose today. But they saved the priest the trouble of having to think about the little things and letting him go on to the bigger ones. Today, he doesn’t have that luxury, it seems, and the mass suffers.

The legitimate diversity which we require today is, like in the Middle Ages, a matter of nations and peoples, not Father improvising at the altar. Special draft masses have been promulgated for such far-flung dioceses as Zimbabwe that take, not without some true creativity, their own local customs into account and place it in careful balance with the cultural patrimony of the Catholic west. Certainly a rite as elegant as that of Trent could be constructed for India through the fusion of the Subcontinent’s popular religious imagination and the ancient Roman Canon.

The problem with the diversity of the modern mass is that it crops up in the wrong places; elderly suburban white folk singing Black Spirituals and yuppies pretending they understand the Spanish hymns sung at Communion. Those are almost as strange as Chinese peasants praying before second-rate Parisian oleographs of a blond Christ. There’s a place for cross-cultural exchange, but the legitimate diversity of the Church should not be confused with the homogenously, dully random smorgasbord of modern American diversity, either. The wholesale imposition of an alien culture—whether European or trendily “diverse”—does little good to really help the faithful understand. The true flowers of diversity—such as the hybrid European-native music of the Spanish missions—are organic, flowing from the consciousness of the people who create them. In some case, modern America is so culturally impoverished that some creative reconstructions are necessary when it comes to reintroducing the culture of Catholicism and popular piety, but the imperative that it not be merely exotic for the sake of exoticism remains the same.

The role rubrics play, and will play, is important. If we want variety—and some variety is not a bad thing—it needs to be enshrined in the instructions. There’s precedents for this, such as the long-standing omission of the Gloria in Lent, the disappearance of Alleluia, the myriad possibilities of the vestment color sequence. By all means, let us have different dismissals and greetings—within reason, of course—but let us use them to mark off the Church year. If you must have multiple Canons (unnecessary, I think), at the very least keep the Roman Canon for Sundays like it was originally intended. And make the liturgy celebrant-proof while you’re at it, whether it’s in Latin, English or Tagalog!

Rubricism may have had its excesses, but that doesn’t mean rubrics themselves are tainted. The liturgy isn’t rocket science: say the black, do the red. Get that down, plain and simple, and then we can start having fun.

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