Friday, April 06, 2007

Christopher Pearson: Liturgy's rite of passage

Via The Australian (and thanks to a tip from an NLM reader) Christopher Pearson: Liturgy's rite of passage

Christopher Pearson
April 07, 2007

LAST Saturday, France's Le Figaro Magazine carried as its cover story a four-page interview with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State. The most senior official in the Holy See was talking about his boss's immediate plans and priorities.

The most newsworthy item on the agenda was the long-expected document freeing up the use of the old Latin rite. He confirmed that it did indeed exist and would be published. There was a great deal of media speculation that it might be released as soon as Maundy Thursday, the Feast of the Last Supper. It didn't happen but the date would have coincided neatly with the 38th anniversary of the promulgation of Pope Paul VI's new rite of mass, the novus ordo.

Even at this distance, feelings run high either way about the mass of 1969. For some it is the defining moment of the church's opening up to the modern world, Catholicism's finest hour. Others are inclined to view it as an unqualified catastrophe. My preference for the old rite is a matter of public record, but I shall try to resist the temptations of triumphalism. While the Catholic world waits for the new document it seems timely to consider what's known, from his speeches and writings, of Pope Benedict XVI's considered opinions on these matters.

He took a dim view of the speed with which the new rite was introduced and the old one all but suppressed. Partly, his reasons were pastoral. Almost any sudden changes and departures from familiar custom are likely to be unsettling and painful. Radical change tends to call into question the worth of the habits of a lifetime.

There is another, even graver problem when an institution that deals in certitudes displays signs of incoherence. The sociology of knowledge calls it "an erosion of plausibility structures". As Benedict has remarked on several occasions, the promulgation of 1969 was utterly unprecedented.

The old mass, which had always been regarded as the church's greatest treasure, was within a few short months consigned to the museums. After such a change, who could be completely confident other settled customs or doctrines might not be abolished in the same, arbitrary way?

This is a theme I'll return to, in considering a speech Benedict gave to the Roman Curia last Christmas, but there are some other longstanding positions that need to be noted first. Benedict is liturgically minded, in a way that his three immediate predecessors plainly weren't. His critique of the new rite comes from someone who has thought long and hard about the theology of beauty, most notably expounded by his old friend Hans Urs von Balthasar. In it the fitness of earthly worship is judged by how closely it is inspired by and mirrors the celestial liturgy. There are related, more narrowly aesthetic issues concerning ritual language and music, church architecture and the like.

He's more openly critical of the novus ordo, both in itself and in terms of the liturgical and theological revolutions it generated, than most of his brother bishops. Although he says all the usual laudatory things about the Second Vatican Council, he takes the documents of the council as a yardstick with which to measure the reforms issued in its name and often finds them wanting.

However, it needs to be stressed that much of what he has been saying since the 1970s has since been broadly accepted.

For example, there's no room for argument that the council documents didn't mandate vernacular liturgies, as was often wrongly argued at the time, especially in ostensibly progressive magazines and the mass media. Indeed, the council documents enshrined the normative use of Latin. The bishops were prepared to countenance the vernacular in the readings and prayers of the day, which change constantly, while leaving the unvarying parts of the rite in Latin. A liturgy entirely in the vernacular was the handiwork of a committee that felt free to exceed its brief, as Alcuin Reed has argued most persuasively. When the synod of bishops was consulted in 1967, it failed to win majority support.

The other dramatic change to the liturgy that followed hot on the heels of the 1969 promulgation was the turning around of altars, so that priests faced the people throughout the mass. The council never mandated this development and the new rubrics did not envisage it. What happened was that some scholars working in the '50s and '60s became convinced by the strange idea that, contrary to all received tradition, altars facing the people were standard practice in the early church. Noted historian Klaus Gamber had demonstrated by the early '70s that they were mistaken and that the clergy and the people had always together faced east, or as near it as the orientation of particular church buildings permitted. But it was too late because a fad had suddenly become a symbol of cheerful acceptance of the new rite and "the spirit of Vatican II".

Whether the priest faces the people across the altar may seem an issue of little consequence. In fact it does matter because the face-to-face position has a marked tendency to reduce the celebrant to a personality, an actor performing for the benefit of an audience when he and the congregation should be most absorbed in the rite, free of all distractions. The Pope has lent his support to a gradual return to tradition, hoping to avoid the sudden reversals that characterised 1969.

Benedict has often stressed in his liturgical writing that the main decisions on reform were top-down and driven by root-and-branch modernisers whose expertise was questionable. He has endorsed the analysis and underlying assumptions of Reed and Gamber in prefaces for their books, the contemporary equivalent of imprimaturs. The starting point in their approach and his is the concept of "organic development" of rites. Judged in that light, the problematical features of the mass of Paul VI stem from its having been designed by a committee more interested in radical departure from tradition than building on it. Benedict has spoken of aspects of the novus ordo as "manufactured on the spot" and banal.

There are other difficulties arising from the embrace of vernacular languages. The Pope has called the loss of Latin as a universal language a tragedy. It's a trend he wants, to some extent at least, to reverse. He has called for it to be taught to seminarians, for its wider use in Gregorian chant and more frequent celebrations of the new rite in its Latin form, particularly at international gatherings where even now it functions as a lingua franca.

Another vernacular problem is that some liturgical translations are exceedingly loose as well as philistine, while others are manifestly the work of radical clerics tampering with things as sacrosanct as consecration formulas. The worst excesses appear to be in the rites rendered into English. The bureaucratic skirmishes over Roman rite translations are just one front of the liturgy wars. The Pope, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, has taken an active but above-the-fray interest in both during the past 30 years and more. The task of producing dependable translations, through the Vox Clara Commission, is almost complete and even the more mutinous American bishops seem resigned to the prospect of adopting them.

I've made mention of "the spirit of VaticanII", a notion vague enough to be capable of legitimating doctrines and practices quite contrary to "the letter of the law from Vatican II". Last Christmas the Pope addressed the question of how best to view the council. He said there was a choice to be made between an interpretation concentrating on radical change and rupture and a more fruitful one based on continuity. The former led to the ecclesiastical equivalent of Year Zero or, as Catholic Archbishop of Sydney George Pell ruefully recalls, what seemed at the time a second Pentecost for the church. The latter asserted that it was the same church, before and after the council, an institution faithful to its origins and traditions despite occasional ill-considered concessions to the zeitgeist. While it had some new and different emphases, they still applied to the same timeless truths.

Explicit in the Pope's speech was the recognition that "the spirit of the council" had been used to endorse all sorts of excesses. But, choosing to accentuate the positives, he also suggested that some of its most important insights and projects had scarcely begun to be explored. It was a bravura exercise in taking a long view of matters. He succeeded in putting the council, almost as though for the first time in 40 years of turbulent debate, into the sort of perspective historians routinely bring to other important synods of the past.

Another element of the Christmas speech was his stress on the importance of a coherent narrative. A deracinated church, announcing itself as a new institution, could be understood only as in effect repudiating its history and previous claims to authority. And that is pretty much how millions of lapsed Catholics came to read the post-conciliar church and its reform agenda, especially in the developed world. One curial observer last week summed up the significance of liberalising the use of the old rite as a gesture of reconciliation: "The Pope is trying to make peace with the church's own tradition."

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