Thursday, January 28, 2010

Introduction to Msgr. Marini's Address

The Wanderer is publishing the address by Msgr. Marini as a special monograph, and the paper kindly asked me to write an introduction - a rather intimidating assignment, I must say.

Here is what I have written.

Every Catholic has experienced it at some level, that culture of disdain for the past that has afflicted Catholicisim in the postconciliar period. It happens at our parishes, when a special guest lecturer talks about the supposed horrors Catholic school back in the day, or of how ridiculous it was that the Mass was in Latin, that we attempted to sing chant and did it so poorly, or that we went to confession behind a screen. We read about it in our catechetical materials, that contempt for what has gone before in the great age of ignorance and oppression that was finally swept away in the liberating Age of Aquarius. How unfortunate those people were and how fortunate we are in this enlightened age.

Or so we've been taught. So pervasive has this attitude been that we can speak of self-hating Catholics as a widespread cultural phenomenon. Even in our own parishes, the absence of a positive self identity seems almost required as an ground rule for every conversation. "I don't want to go back to the past of course," we are expected to say before adding any critique of the present. This attitude - this hermeneutic of discontinuity, this positing of a great divide between preconciliar and postconcilar faith - has cut us off in a strange way. Wondering used book stores we find pre-1965 books on the faith and read them like relics. We don't recognize the pictures, understand the words, or even see a familiarity in the disciplines then and now.

I can recall experiencing this in a parish environment in the 1980s, when I took an exam to qualify me as a CCD teacher. I had just completed a re-read and study of the Catechism of the Council of Trent, so one might suppose that I was ready. The test results came back: I had missed every single question. The pastor pointed out that this was a achievement in itself and so surely must be the result of a systematic error.

I immediately realized that the purpose of the test was precisely to ferret out people schooled in the old ways, so I asked to take it again. He agreed. I answered every question that way any goofy progressive would answer it and thereby achieved a 100 percent score. My foot in the door, I taught the Baltimore Catechism for a full year to a roomful of kids, while hiding the books whenever there was a knock at the door.

What we were doing all these years in which the past had been blotted out to us? We were impoverishing ourselves. The results are all around us: a barren land of lost and confused people who are sure of what we are not (Catholics of old) but unsure of what we are. It is of course true by definition that we can't go back: time only moves in a forward direction. The question really comes down to whether we want our future informed by the past or a future made up out of whole cloth.

The truth is that Catholics cannot conceive of their own faith without reference to the past. The entire liturgical calendar is bound up with a continued retelling of past events in the life of Christ. We tell of the saints. We talk of the prophets and apostles. We do it every year, again and again. There is no such thing as Christian understanding without an understanding of the past. It is a grave and dangerous error to deracinated ourselves from a deep and abiding focus on where we came from. We must root ourselves in history, else our theology becomes a floating abstraction and our liturgy the invention of a single generation.

It will take decades to repair the damage that this attitude has wrought, but we are all deeply blessed to live in times in which this process has decisively begun. The attempt to build a bridge between to old and new Catholic worlds affects every sector of Catholic life but it felt most conspicuously in the area of liturgy. Here we see sweeping changes making their way through the life of the Church, changes that rediscover and revive an liturgical ideal that has been part of the longest teaching of the Church.

Liturgical translations are being improved so that they are translations and not merely vague paraphrases of the original. There is new interest in nobility and dignity in vestments. Gregorian scholas are being started around the country, while instructional conferences on singing chant are filling up months in advance. It is even true of tutorials on what Pope Benedict XVI has called the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, the liturgical structure in place when the Second Vatican Council opened.

We can all detect the difference that these changes are bringing about. With our eyes now opened to the past, and with a new freedom to learn from our history and tradition, we feel like we've been invited to tour a grand castle with a million rooms filled with treasures. We feel a sense of ebullience, moving from room to room in awe. But as with visiting any museum, we must resist the temptation to rush through the place too quickly. We need to be patient and disciplined as we going about the process, knowing full well that it will continue long past our own lifetimes.

I can't imagine a better tour guide than Msgr. Guido Marini, the Papal Master of Ceremonies who delivered a spectacular address on January 6, 2010, at a Rome conference for the Year of the Priest. He covers the urgent need to make the spirit of the present and future consistent with the past.

"The liturgy cannot and must not be an opportunity for conflict between those who find good only in that which came before us, and those who, on the contrary, almost always find wrong in what came before," he said. "The only disposition which permits us to attain the authentic spirit of the liturgy, with joy and true spiritual relish, is to regard both the present and the past liturgy of the Church as one patrimony in continuous development."

His eloquence is magnificent in explaining why we must look back as a way forward on liturgy, and here we find that the liturgy is not merely a gathering of people looking inward; rather it is God's summons to be in God's presence, in the manner of a procession as led by the celebrant, in a ritual that emerged over hundreds of years so as to reduce the arbitrariness of human choice and personality. The liturgy asks us to pray with St. John the Baptist: we must decrease so that He can increase. Msgr. Marini speaks of the need for a full orientation toward this purpose, not only with a new emphasis on facing toward the liturgical East but also an orientation that affects even our choices of music. Liturgical music must be "anchored to the biblical or traditional texts" and it must be truly liturgical and not secular in text or form, and not even merely religious. Our music must bear the three marks: holy, beautiful, and universal. The ideal is now what it has been as far back as we can see: the chants of the Church, the chants that grew up alongside the ritual itself.

Msgr. Marini has been a leader for Catholics of the world in the revival of the preconciliar form of liturgy and also in the reform of the modern ritual in a manner than makes it part of the great continuity of development that stretches from our times back to apostolic times. In this essay, he presents the rationale for reform from his perspective, from the perspective of the Pope, and also the perspective of uninterrupted Catholic teaching. There is so much to learn from in his speech, and it leaves us all with so much to do and for which we must all pray.

The last the decades of forgetting our past has wrought terrible devastation, perhaps unprecedented devastated. But do not despair! After forty years of wandering, the promised land is in view. The changes are in motion. The teaching and hard work has begun. The ideals are being restored.

As we move along the path as mapped out here, we all have a role to play. We must not depend solely on Rome's lead as a legislator. We must feel the inspiration and look to the model be given here and act on a local level to undertake constructive change. In this way, the change will take root and not be swept away in the next generation. This is gift we can leave for the next generation of Catholics, who, we can pray, will have a greater love for the faith and appreciation for tradition than Catholics have had for many generations. Under the leadership and inspiration of Msgr. Marini and Pope Benedict, we can surely learn to sing, pray, live, and believe like Catholics again.

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