Wednesday, May 20, 2009

How Important Is Ceremony?

The other day a note came to me that said: "do you really think God cares whether he hears all this chant you keep talking about or where it is rock music or jazz? Lighten up and realize that praise, not rules and regulations, is what matters."

Sincerely did I ask whether he was Catholic and whether he had any regard for the liturgical books at all. He replied that he is Catholic but he thinks that we should all be priests, that the Mass strikes him as a lot of fuss, that the Pope is just some guy in Rome, and so on.

The answer didn't surprise me. There is a link between respect for the ceremonial aspects of liturgy--the decorum that is required of liturgical music--and a full understanding of Catholic faith. As we pray, so we believe.

However, it is more than obvious to many that the respect for liturgical ceremony, including but not limited to the music that is part of the Roman Rite, has been in decline for many years. This is not only a postconciliar problem, by the way. Thanks to youtube, you can observe preconciliar Masses that seem disregarding of gravity of the liturgy. But at least back then, there were rules and rubrics that served as the glue that it kept it from coming apart.

Today, it is surely easy to get the impression from the typical Sunday Mass that the liturgy is all about reading a book to periodic accompaniment from a choir and instruments interrupted by a sermon and a collection. People are up and down, bodily movements don't seem to follow any predictable pattern, and there's always something a bit improvised about what you see.

Or perhaps you don't notice this aspect of modern liturgical practice, and it all seems quite formal by comparison to the conventional evangelical service. And this aspect of Catholic Mass you quite like. If something is worth doing routinely to the glory of God, a ritual with origins back to the earliest Christians, with patterns of speaking and movement that tie together generations in succession, it is worth doing with precision in deference to what has come before.

When it comes to liturgy, one is either deferring to what has been, treating tradition as authoritative, or one is presumptuously making up something on one's own. The problem with improvisation is that it attracts attention to the will of the worship leader instead of the one being worshipped.

This is why Mass, even today and even without the extended ceremonial that is part of the Roman Rite, strikes the casual observer as an occasion of holiness and sacred mystery, and strikes awe in those who attend, and it touches us more than the most inspired bit of spontaneous worship, no matter how competent its leaders.

Once we understand that point, and really begin to understand it, we notice that there is a dividing line in Catholic liturgical praxis today: a tendency to tighten ceremony and rubrics toward doing what the Church asking vs. the tendency to loosen ever more toward the point that the will of the celebrant and the will of community prevail above all else.

There is a book that helps to sort out some of these issues, a book that I believe every Roman Catholic priest should own, and not because it makes an abstract argument on behalf of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal. No, this is something else entirely, something far beyond a general guide to saying Mass. It is an encyclopedic account of the details of the Roman Rite that goes into more depth than you could ever imagine possible into every conceivable aspect of the liturgy.

It is an important book not only because of the direction and instruction it provides. The full weight of this book is to inspire deep and abiding respect in the structure of the rite and the overwhelming demands it makes upon everyone who takes part in it. It is nothing short of a masterpiece, and one that should be on hand in every parish and every cathedral.

It is The Ceremonies of Roman Rite Described by Adrian Fortescue together with J.B. O'Connell and the marvelous Alcuin Reid in its 15th edition, newly published in 2009 by Burns and Oates. The first edition appeared in 1917 and then continually until 1962 with the twelfth edition. There is an ominous absence of updates from 1962 until 1996, 2003, and today.

The reason for the great parenthesis was the effective suppression of what has always been the Roman Rite and its replacement with what was in practice and general appearance a new form entirely. The interlude was a period in which ceremony in all aspects of life was rejected in favor of spontaneity. It is telling that there is no "Fortescue" on what is today called the ordinary form, the New Missal of 1970.

A excellent attempt toward that end came in 1995 with Peter Elliot's Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite, but the level of detail of Fortescue was notable in its absence; what's more, the book appeared a quarter of a century following the promulgation of the new Missal, which is an alarming fact in some ways.

The revival of this Fortescue book came following a new period of liberality concerning the older form, first with Ecclesia Dei in 1998 and then in 2007 with Summorum Pontificum, which made it clear that the usus antiquior was never abrogated. Before the many rubrical uncertainties and excessive options within the new Missal, having the form of the older Mass before us can make an enormous contribution to Catholic liturgical life, serving as a standard to which the ordinary form liturgy can aspire.

It is for this reason that the Fortescue book in this new edition is of such enormous value. It impresses upon us just what a massive apparatus we are dealing with when in comes to Catholic liturgy, just how serious and detailed a project we are entering into. This is not a spontaneous community meeting that is held together with a suggested order of worship. This is a monument of civilization and the highest possible act of praise and worship that exists. Solemnity is not just a thing for Good Friday but is at the core of every liturgical action the entire year.

But just so that you know what to expect, I would like to quote a sample passage that is not untypical in this treatise. Prepare for a level of detail that you might not have known to exist.

Here is a large quotation from a page in the chapter on "The Sung Mass Without Deacon and Subdeacon," and the rubrics concerning the use of torch bearers at the Canon:

At the Sanctus the thurifer comes accompanied by the torch-bearers. All genuflect in the middle together, the thurifer in the middle of the torch-bearers, who genuflect in a straight line across the sanctuary. The thurifer goes to the foot of the steps.on the epistle side of the altar.

The torch-bearers separate, bow to one another and kneel facing the altar, in line along the middle of the sanctuary. They stay here fill after the elevation, the thurifer at the epistle side waits till just before the consecration. After the warning bell the first acolyte puts incense into the thurible. The thurifer kneels on the lowest step on the epistle side, facing the gospel side. At the elevation he incenses the Blessed Sacrament with three double swings at each elevation, bowing once before and after each group of three incensings. It is convenient that he time the incensings so as to correspond with the celebrant’s genuflexion, elevation and genuflexion.

Before the consecration the MC kneels. He may kneel on the edge of the footpace at the celebrant’s left, behind him, and raise the end of the chasuble as the celebrant holds his arms. The first acolyte rings the bell at the Sanctus; once when the priest spreads his hands over the oblata, and three times at each elevation. After the elevation the MC rises, goes to the celebrant by the book, genuflects and stands there, turning the pages. He will again stand back a step at the commemoration of the dead. The thurifer rises, comes to the middle, genuflects arid takes the thurible out. His office is now ended. The torch-bearers, if they are to take the torches to the sacristy, rise and genuflect with him, then follow. But atrequiems, on certain fast days, and when people will receive Holy Communion, the torch-bearers stay kneeling till after the communion.

That is just a small piece of the overall structure, one chosen nearly at random. The entire work is 500 pages, and it doesn't waste one word. Alcuin Reid's great contribution to this new edition is to incorporate in great detail the role of music in the liturgy, even going so far as to print the tones for the celebrant and other ministers, drawing heavily on work published by the Church Music Association of America. Reid's own contribution to this new edition must have been enormous in other ways. If I'm reading this correctly, the front matter says that Reid was even responsible for the actual typesetting of the book (which is very beautiful).

I'm going to anticipate an objection that might be offered. Someone might say: all this material applies to the "Tridentine Rite" but has no actual bearing on the modern rite. Well, part of the stated purpose of Summorum Pontificum was precisely to hold up a model and encourage an integration of the modern rite into its deeper history of the past. So while the ceremonies as described in this book might not normatively apply to the new Missal in all respects, the usus antiquior does in fact provide a template and a framework for the ordinary form of the Roman Rite.

Rubricists tell me that one of the most frustrating aspects of the modern rite is that there are so many questions left unanswered in so many areas. There are too many ambiguities, too many unknowns, and they appear in strange places and in surprising ways. Experienced MCs in the ordinary form know that they must rely on the older form to light the way.

Thus does the purpose and utility of this work extend far being its apparent use as a rule book and ceremonial guide for liturgy said according to the 1962 form. In here we have a model for the ideal, one which completely buries the ego in the course of showing the deepest respect for the history and meaning of something that is much larger than our own time and place. Just to flip through the pages is a deeply humbling experience.

A book like this is not the product of one mind but of 2000 years of experience. In its vast detail, it will convince you that without ceremony, without deference to tradition, without extreme discipline over what one says and does at Mass, there can be no liturgy that is authentically Catholic.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: