Friday, March 14, 2008

Were the Catholic people happy about the abandonment of the old Mass?

The sociology of Catholic liturgical culture from 1965-1975, despite every attempt to "move on" and forget about the past, still provides endless fascination for many of us. The puzzle comes down to how it could be that the Catholic Church could have permitted such an overnight change to occur, one that effectively wiped out many centuries of artistic treasure, theology, and practice. The tales of upheaval are legion, and though we seemed to have pulled through the worst of it all, there are many questions that remain.

The conventional opinions fall into two broad categories, neither of which capture the whole truth of course but they are views that people adopt in order to make sense of the times. The mainstream view, which has much going for it, is that people were desperate for a change from a Mass that was remote from the people to one that is more in keeping with contemporary norms. So they had gotten fed up with Latin and all the trappings and were ready for a more people-friendly environment.

The opposite view, which is also compelling based on the evidence, is that the turnaround was manufactured by a tiny elite that purported to speak for the people but actually represented a small faction that managed to wrest control of the reform process and ended up imposing its far-flung visions on a protesting Catholic world.

Obviously, I'm painting with a broad brush here, and there are many books on this topic that one should consult, but we all carry around one general package of beliefs with us concerning how the current Catholic world came to be. Which is more accurate: a peoples' revolution from below or a coerced imposition from a powerful elite? The truth is probably somewhere in between but that answer is too much of a cliche to be very satisfying. So I would like to say a few words on behalf of the view that the liturgical change was not entirely welcome.

Sometimes we get the impression that people have very bad memories of the old days. Where do we gain these impressions? Mostly by talking to older people in our parishes. However, we have to remember that these older people who are the witnesses to the old days we never experienced are of a special sort: they are the survivors, the people who made it through the most turbulent years of liturgical upheaval on record.

There is a reason they survived and others didn't, so we have to remember that we might be getting a biased opinion here. Many, many, many Catholics just left after this period, demoralized and upset. We don't hear from them. And we know this is true based on the statistics, which are pretty reliable. What used to be 85% weekly attendance collapsed to something like 25% -- and the recent Pew study we cannot dismiss. It turns out that Catholics have been leaving in droves for decades.

I raise this point only to say that we should be cautious about forming a history of the old days based on contemporary reports. Many of us in the reform movement now have notice an interested demographic fact that the older people in our parishes are more resistant to change. The fact is that the people who reacted negatively to the change in 1970 most probably were not survivors. They left as casualties of the reform, and now they are silent. They aren't around to support the current reform.

What makes me especially suspicious that this was not a welcome change is the manner in which it was imposed -- not as a choice but as a mandatory thing, while the old form was effectively banned. Would this really be required if people were so anxious to dump the old forms? I don't think so.

This is one reason I'm thrilled about the manner in which Benedict XVI has undertaken his restoration: offering not as an imposition but merely as a choice. While it is true that the extraordinary form is not going to sweep the country and enter the mainstream anytime soon, at the point at which it does again enter Catholic consciousness, its permanence will be more assured.

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