Friday, June 22, 2007

Bonfire of the Vanities: The beauty of the Roman liturgy

Fr. Martin Fox of Bonfire of the Vanities who is attending the CMAA Sacred Music Colloquium in Washington D.C. presently, shares a reflection on The Beauty of the Roman Liturgy.

Here's an excerpt:

The other thing I want to mention is that when one experiences the liturgy in its fullness, with care and attention to the actual celebration of the liturgy, one discovers the important qualities of the liturgy: it is a unity, from beginning to end (as opposed to a series of things we say and do); it is sober and solemn. These don't mean sad, or cold; but rather, the prayer is not obtrusive. One person at Mass may find occasion for great joy, another for deep insight, another for profound sorrow and conversion, another simply for consolation. The Mass should not impose any of these on you, but allow you to experience them in communion with God and his people.

Yet again, the liturgy fully celebrated clearly becomes another moment, another place. It is not part of our time and world; it is an escape, a refuge, a sanctuary.

Now, one might ask: is it necessary to do all the full ceremonial, all the "bells and whistles," in order to experience the Mass this way? I think not; but I do think it is necessary to have the proper reference point. Hence the need for a paradigm, a benchmark, not only for the priest, but for all of us. I suspect many, many faithful Catholics come to a solemn, "high" Mass, and they see "the Mass" with lots of "extras," perhaps too many to bear; when one could just as well come to a low-key, early Sunday or daily Mass, and see that, instead, as a Mass that is abbreviated and simplified out of necessity. See the difference?

I may be wrong, but I fear there are many Catholics who, for whatever reason, have been brought to a place where they reject the Mass in its fullness; they consider it an imposition, a violation, a matter of a priest indulging all his personal preferences: "why must we have all this singing? Incense? Latin?" etc.

It is useful and practical to have distinctions between "high" and "low" Mass; but I do think many Catholics are either being deprived, or depriving themselves, if they do not have a meaningful experience of the Mass in its fullness--by meaningful, I mean a lot more than occasional; and I mean, an encounter that is not defensive and belligerent. The cross-armed scowl is not a proper liturgical posture.

In terms of the tiresome-yet-common pre- vs. post-Vatican II way of talking about such things, it is terribly ironic that many think that celebrating the Mass in its fullness, as I have described, is some sort of "pre-Vatican II" thing! The truth is exactly 180 degrees the opposite!

The Mass, before the Council, was widely (not exclusively) celebrated in the "low" fashion, and then with hymnody almost entirely displacing the proper chants. The Council, in seeking to bruit about a reassessment and rediscovery of the liturgy, manifestly called for a very different approach. One example will suffice: when, at my prior parish, I sang the entire Eucharistic prayer, someone said, "oh, that's like the old days!" (she meant in a good way, but no doubt others do not) -- and, of course, prior to the Council, the Eucharistic prayer was rarely spoken out loud, let alone sung!

So what do we do?

Well, many things might be said, but I believe many of us need to experience some conversion, some dying to self, and some openness. It's not about what happened when one was 10 years old, it's not about your pastor did right after the Council, it's not about personal likes and dislikes. No one has a right or even good reason to expect to "like" everything that takes place in the Mass.

Nor is it about immediately grasping the meaning of what is happening. That is a snare and a delusion! "Father, when we sing Sanctus, sanctus, I don't understand!" Well, first, I am tempted to say, "if I told you you'd get $20 for correctly describing what English prayer corresponds to the Latin "Sanctus," I am certain almost no one would fail to get his or her $20 bill. I.e., you do, indeed, understand it." But set that aside: what makes you think you understand the English? Who really understands what it means to call God "holy"? And so it is with the entirety of the Mass. The English texts are a huge help, but the downside is expecting it to be readily graspable, and that is impossible--or, in fact, the true mystery eludes us still, we haven't really even encountered it.

The focus of our gathering here--chant and polyphony--are not the be-all and end-all of liturgy; rather, they are essential part of the liturgical tradition that, for various reasons, have been almost entirely left out in recent decades, and that is, in my judgment, a harm to the liturgy and more, to the faithful who have a right to their full inheritance, and who, in my judgment, do not really experience the Roman liturgy fully when such things are unknown and alien.

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