Monday, July 16, 2007

The 1962 Missal's glorious lack of options

In the days and weeks following the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum, there have been many reports, some public and some private, of priests setting out to learn how to say the Mass from the Missal of 1962. Some of these reports were rather surprising in some respects, at least to me. The goal of learning the old Missal was being adopted by priests who otherwise evidenced little previous interest in the old Indult, or, perhaps, they had been interested all along but held some fear of taking on the associated political risks of drawing the attention of chanceries on the lookout for signs of “reactionary” impulses.

This is one of the many reasons that Benedict XVI’s document is so wise. It leaves the choice to learn the old Missal to the priests themselves, even while not taking the authority from the Bishop to regulate the liturgy within his own diocese. It merely shifts the burden of the first-round of decision making from the Bishop to the priest, and this has made all the difference.

What is the appeal of the old form to younger priests? Aside from its intrinsic merit of the Mass of countless saints and martyrs, the old Missal represents a much-welcome means of re-connecting Catholics to our liturgical history and heritage. The new Missal appeared five years following the close of the Council, and four years before a new Graduale appeared, which helps account for why the Council’s directives for Gregorian chant to assume primacy of place were widely ignored.

Perhaps, then, it should not be a surprise that the 1962 Missal would carry such appeal. The Missal is coherent and artistically and theologically integrated from start to finish. A potential pitfall of this approach is that ambitions that are too large will go unfulfilled. Perhaps it is like a person who has never been jogging suddenly announcing that he is going to run the marathon: it is a praiseworthy goal, but there are intermediate goals that are perhaps more realistic.

It remains true that the promise of Sacrosanctum Concilium has yet to be fulfilled in most parishes. Why not use the occasion of the Motu Proprio to take smaller yet decisive steps toward reintegrating our current liturgy with the past? There are many ways that celebrants can do this. Simply singing the existing English Mass goes a long way toward recapturing the solemnity of old. This can be a process. It can begin with the Pater Noster, extend through the sign of peace, and then work backwards to the Eucharistic Prayers and Prefaces. These are all more beautiful when sung in plainchant.

The same is true of Latin. The Ordinary chants can be sung in Latin even as the rest of the Mass remains in the vernacular. As for Latin itself in the priest’s parts, it is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Why not say the Roman Canon (Eurcharistic Prayer I) in Latin, if only as a start? Latin can then be added gradually as a means of providing practice for the celebrant and re-acculturating the people to a now-unfamiliar language. Once the entire Mass is sung in Latin, the step toward the 1962 Missal will not seem as gargantuan as it currently appears.

One problem with this strategy presents itself, however. The new form builds in many options for celebrants. They can select among four main Eucharistic Prayers. They can say Mass facing the people or ad orientem. They can distribute communion with the people standing or kneeling. They can use vernacular or English. They can use the sotto voce, use a polyphonic Sanctus, and even eliminate the audible Mysterium Fidei.

There are ways that musicians can help celebrants in this process. They can send music and small MP3 examples of sections of the Mass, and schedule times to work on the dialogues between the people and priest. In this way, they can work together on one section of the Mass together, and make a bit of progress each week. This approach asks very little of the celebrant’s time, which is a relief for priests who schedules can be wildly over-committed as it is.

In an ideal world, progress would occur week by week, always choosing the solemn option which such choices are available. However, the problem with all these options is that they invite people to express their preferences and leave the burden on the celebrant for account for why he is choosing how he did.

In this way, he feels himself forever on the “hot seat”: “Father, why did you use that old dead language today? I can understand a word of it!” “Why did you turn your back to us?” “I don’t want to kneel like they did in the old days, and, in any case, it is my right to stand.” “Why did you cut the sign of peace? That is a special time of the Mass for me.” And so on.

One attraction of the older form is precisely that it does not have all these options. The celebrant is in a better position to just explain that this is the way the Mass rubrics work. It must be in Latin and ad orientem, communion must be kneeling, there are few choices among prayers, and there is no sign of peace between the people, etc., so there is less to fight about and less for insufferable liturgy committees to manage. The Mass is a package deal, and the celebrant and the people are asked to submit to the structure in humility for the greater good. This has the advantage of ending the liturgy battles and even wars over who or what is in control.

And yet, surely those priests who might have considered re-solemnizing the liturgy in the past should consider pushing forward today, in today's new light of freedom and renewed appreciation of our past and its accumulate wisdom. The culture of the parish is changing and so is the tolerance level for an overt love of the sacred.

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