Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Measuring and Implementing the Reform of the Reform: Prudence but not Meagreness

Part I: Measuring the Reform of the Reform

In looking at the reform of the reform movement, one is struck by the difficulty of categorizing it and its different stages. This is no deficiency in the movement itself, it is just the context in which the reform of the reform must operate.

This was a topic that has come up on the Friends of NLM Facebook group. Particularly, the question arose as to whether a listing of reform of the reform parishes could be developed, similar to listings for Masses in the ancient Roman rite. Immediately some difficulties came forward. How do you categorize this? First of all, the reform of the reform is a process. A liturgy in the usus antiquior simply is or is not -- if I might borrow from the philosophical language of being. It either exists or it does not. The minute that a priest or parish offers the liturgy in the ancient form with any modicum of regularity whatsoever, one might add yet another time and location to a listing of those masses in a way that will be universally accepted, acknowledged and understood. But the reform of the reform is much more enigmatic because it is necessarily part of a process and that process is going to be defined and advance differently depending upon the initiative of the priest, the diocesan climate, the length of time it has been operative and so forth.

Further, by comparison with usus antiquior Masses, how does one categorize "reform of the reform liturgies"? How much Latin must be employed for it to be representative of the reform of the reform? What of sacred music? How much chant and/or polyphony and how often? Do more traditional forms of hymns count in this equation? What about the orientation of the liturgy? Must the "Benedictine arrangement" at least be present? In short, how much need one liturgically see and hear and on how regular a basis to define a parish, or even just one of its liturgies, as "reform of the reform"?

(Our Lady of Lourdes in Philadelphia, PA.)

A bigger question yet looms. Is that criteria even possible to fairly suggest given the variability of circumstances that might be present and given that the reform of the reform is not so much a matter of "is" and "is not" (in the sense it is with the ancient liturgy) as it is a matter of "is it there in principle and where is it in the process?" Fairly, any priest or parish who begins these things with the deliberate principle of reforming the reform is in point of fact pursuing the reform of the reform, regardless of how new or far along they are in the project. That said, when considering what Masses might be so defined in a way comparable to listings of Masses in the usus antiquior, people will generally be looking for certain elements to at least be minimally present. Insofar as there are such distinguishing charateristics (and there are, even if there is not going to be absolute agreement on what the minimal standard should be) I would encourage those who have chosen to pursue this project on the Friends of NLM group, even despite these difficulties and complexities. It is worthwhile and the reform of the reform needs more such initiatives. That said, there is one another detail to consider as part of that project, and for the general consideration of the NLM readership.

Another aspect that makes the reform of the reform difficult to track by comparison is that, excepting in a few cases of certain congregations which give a parish a stable presence -- one can think, for example, of the London, Toronto or Birmingham Oratories, the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius, etc. -- the reform of the reform is more often than not attached to individual priests rather than particular parishes. While things are improving, particularly with the example and leadership of Pope Benedict XVI in the area of the liturgy, it is also a reality that we still live in a divided world liturgically. Therefore, what one priest comes in and establishes in a parish might be partially, and in some cases even significantly undone by the next priest -- and this is a two-way street. And so, while a parish might have liturgies indicative of the reform of the reform under a particular priest, this may or may not continue when that priest moves on and another enters the picture. This situation will not change excepting for the passage of time as solid liturgical principles come to be more dominant again, thereby making the presence of good liturgics less a matter of intentional choice than it is just the natural approach to the sacred liturgy. Arguably as well, to reach a particular level of stability, this will also require the Church to intervene with regard to the deeper Missal reforms proposed by the reform of the reform -- at least to the extent of tightening liturgical standards and reducing the amount of official variability that can be introduced into the liturgy, thereby making it again more self-governing and less dependent upon priests making choices that will bring the celebration of the Mass more into continuity with the liturgical tradition as it developed over the centuries.

Part II: Implementing the Reform of the Reform

If the reform of the reform is predominantly attached to particular priests and their ability to influence a parish in the time that they have with it -- which, let it be remembered, not only means affecting the liturgical expectations and habits of the parishioners, but also influencing and forming new generations, the same generations that will become the parish priests, religious and Catholic laity of the future -- then it would seem that, while one must not be over-exuberant about liturgical change in the parish, neither should one be overly meek in implementing change either.

Most are familiar with the dangers of change that comes too quickly: it can be harmful to the faithful. This was manifest following the Council -- though it must be noted here that the issue was not simply with the speed of the liturgical changes, but also the character of some of them as well. But what of the potential problems associated with good and necessary reform that comes too slowly? Can this not likewise have an adverse effect upon the advancement of the reform of the reform in particular locales as well as upon the faithful who have to continue to be influenced by liturgy not as the Church intends?

What then is the balance? Evidently somewhere in between, but the key point for our consideration here is that while there is a need for prudence, neither should we be too bashful or meagre in our implementation of reform of the reform liturgical practices either. But since one cannot prudently pursue anything and everything (not only for reasons of prudence, but also for more practical reasons such as available resources) we must therefore also pick our spots carefully and consider what will most profoundly affect the liturgy and, correspondingly, the faithful. To that end, some thoughts.

Four of the most primary issues which positively or negatively affect the liturgy, and which are in the control and perogative of the parish and parish priest, are liturgical orientation, sacred music, sanctuary ceremonial and altar ornamentation. Of the four, the matter of sacred music seems to be most pursued to one or another degree, though that is beginning the change with the advent of the imitation of the altar arrangement Pope Benedict XVI has been employing. This is perhaps understandable because while music can be seen as a matter of the choir, priest and parish, the matter of liturgical orientation lay squarely on the shoulders of the individual priest. Moving contrary to this near-dogmatized principle of many a post-conciliar liturgist can therefore be a particularly uncomfortable position for an individual priest to be in in certain diocesan climates.

For those in such circumstances, the "Benedictine altar arrangement" can serve as an interim measure. Provided the altar cross and candles are substantial, this will at least make a beginning that will help make clear that the liturgy is not a matter of the priest being oriented toward the faithful and vice versa, but rather the common orientation toward God, with the priest leading the faithful in the worship of the Father through the sacrifice of the Son. In this regard, if a priest is implementing this arrangement, I must encourage him to avoid being meagre or bashful about it -- as might be represented in using an arrangement which might be less substantial. We should be robust and confident about it, not weighting the altar down with a "brass reredos" of course, but neither being insubstantial nor apologetic about it either.

(Our Lady's Church, Leonardtown, MD. shows a just one example of a well-balanced arrangement in this regard. Picture this with taller candles that had not burnt down so far. That is an important aspect to this arrangement as well.)

That said, two further considerations. One, in implementing that arrangement, do keep in mind the further goal. I would encourage our priests to not rest content in that arrangement as an end in and of itself, but rather consider how you may move from that to the introduction of the traditional expression of ad orientem in at least some of your parish masses. Second, it would be easy to presume that adopting this arrangement is necessary before even considering taking up the traditional posture at the altar, but I must encourage our priests to not automatically conclude that they could not implement ad orientem itself right away -- no doubt in conjunction with the 'Benedictine arrangement. In point of fact, this may not in fact be the case. The experiences of a number of priests associated with the NLM tells us that many of the faithful are quite open to developments provided they are accompanied by some reasonable amount of preparation and explanation, but even here, we must avoid "paralysis by analysis". This is a matter that can be looked at in weeks and months rather than years.

Priests who reasonably believe that they can do this as part of their parish liturgical practice should be encouraged to do so as soon as possible, for it is an extremely important aspect to the reform of the reform and the liturgy generally -- and it is the natural end toward which the aforementioned altar arrangement tends and aims. Of course, one also need not think of it as an all or nothing. Adopting ad orientem back into parish liturgical practice mustn't mean that a priest must make every parish liturgy so -- as wonderful as that would be. Rather, it might mean that some of the liturgies are done ad orientem while the others employ the Benedictine altar arrangement.

(Both images are from St. Gabriel's in Stamford, CT. which employs both practices.)

The other area of primary importance in strategically implementing the reform the reform is sacred music. The considerations for "prudent boldness" in implementing a programme of liturgical re-orientation apply here as well. The temptation may exist to adopt one or two pieces of traditional chant into parish liturgy -- perhaps an Agnus Dei for example, or maybe the Kyrie -- and leave it at that for awhile. In and of itself, adopting those pieces is a good thing of course, but again, let us not be bashful or meagre in our goals and actions. Two pieces of traditional chant are a good addition to the liturgy, but in and of themselves, if they are not accompanied by other pieces woven into the natural ebb and flow of the liturgy, they will not be as successful in lending an overall character and spirit to the liturgy.

Rather than introducing one piece at a time, set a goal to instead introduce the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei in a shorter length of time so that the parish has these basics down in a reasonably efficient amount of time -- and after all, they are basics of the Roman liturgy. Introducing this into parish liturgy has a two-pronged effect. One is that it re-introduces Gregorian chant back into the liturgy, and second, it re-introduces Latin (and Greek).

Finally, we need to look at ornaments and ceremonial -- two elements that should neither be underestimated nor forgotten. It is not too much for the parish priest to also pursue the re-enchanting his sanctuary by at least ensuring the altar is suitably ornamented with items such as beautiful set of six candlesticks and cross that will serve the matter or orientation as well as serving to make the altar a clearer central focal point in the parish. This is quite important.

Likewise, parish priests and parishes can ensure their servers are vested properly and that both he and they are trained in the traditional liturgical ceremonial of the Church. This would include elements such as proper dress under one's cassock and surplice (in the case of servers), liturgical gestures such as the proper way to hold one's hands, liturgical posture generally, the pace in which to walk within the sanctuary and so forth. The art of serving -- just like the art of celebrating (ars celebrandi) -- needs to be reclaimed, for having servers that are not particularly well trained or who slouch in their seats and look unkempt will be a problematic distraction within the liturgy. (The same, of course, may be said of the priest.)

For this pursuit, I'd highly recommend then Msgr. Peter C. Elliott's book on the subject, as published by the Australian branch of the servers Guild of St. Stephen, as a resource. Priests who feel over-burdened in this regard may wish to consider if they have a man in their parish who has liturgical sense about him and who would take on this role of training and coordinating the servers.

Concluding Thoughts on Implementation

A final thought: I have focused my considerations here on the reform of the reform as it specifically relates to the modern Roman liturgy. This is intentional because that is the liturgy in which most of the faithful worship each and every Sunday and it is that upon which the reform of the reform is ultimately focused. That said, I would be remiss to not at least make passing mention that an additional way in which a priest can help to implement the reform of the reform in his parish is by taking advantage of Summorum Pontificum, offering Masses in accordance with the usus antiquior in his parish. It, after all, is both a necessary reference point for the reform of the reform and the priest and faithful implementing it, and further, it brings to bear in a parish all of the liturgical elements of which we have spoken.

To conclude our considerations then, let us all, whether priests, religious or laity, be prudent and yet ambitious in our implementation of the reform of the reform -- and if we are not in a position to implement it ourselves, then at least let us encourage, support and, if need be, defend those who are implementing it, most particularly our clergy. Let none of us be reckless, but neither let us be passive, sell ourselves short on what possibilities may exist, or take only the paths of least resistance. Let us pray and let us take courage, taking hope from the example of many priests out there who have made great strides in this regard, and who, in the process, have helped to encourage vocations and encourage their brother priests to do likewise.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: