Monday, November 04, 2013

On the Ringing of Bells and Other “Anachronisms”

Many years ago, when I was living abroad, I worked in a place where a single church was shared by several different communities of Catholics, all with different ways of worshiping—one might say, to use today’s language, different artes celebrandi.

On one occasion, the liturgical convictions of a particular priest were categorically spelled out in a homily for the benefit of the assembled faithful. I happened to be attending that Mass, and I will never forget the heart of the message:
The ringing of bells at consecration is disturbing. There is no need for bells in the new liturgy because Mass is in the vernacular and people know when the consecration takes place. During the Tridentine Mass, the laity were praying their own private prayers while the priest was offering the Mass, and the bells alerted the people that the consecration was about to take place. There is absolutely no need for them today. Those who favor these practices—Latin, Gregorian chant, incense, bells, lots of candles, organ music, the priest turning his back to the people—are victims of nostalgia who are not where the Church wants us to be today. Let me explain why having the priest face away from the people is such a bad idea. Vatican II taught that the priest is a presider. It would be absurd for a teacher who is presiding over his classroom not to face his students. Likewise, it is absurd for a priest not to face the people during the celebration of the liturgy.
If one traced out their theoretical implications, these statements might well represent the manifesto of a different religion. The last remark implies a classically Protestant notion of worship—for neither a teacher nor any other kind of presider offers sacrifice to God. However, I also fear that these views are those of many clergy and laity, and thus have to be stated, and refuted, in their starkest form.

Is the ringing of bells done solely on account of the people’s ignorance? Quite apart from the respect due to centuries of tradition, is there no anthropological reason behind the use of bells, incense, chant, or other such things? Why would bells have been rung in a monastery at the moment of consecration, when the monks know Latin and are able to follow the liturgy with the closest attention? Speaking of the bells, I am reminded of scholars who say that the elevation of the host and the chalice had no other purpose than to “show” the Sacrament to the poor, groveling, superstitious laypeople of the Middle Ages, relegated as they were to a place far away from the main altar—and thus, that today, when our more mature congregations can easily watch as the priest conducts the Lord’s Supper facing them, these medieval elevations can have no meaning, no significance. Fortunately, this opinion did not prevail in the redaction of the Novus Ordo Missae.

Query: Do people still believe that the Mass—or, as it is more properly called, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass—is essentially the sacramental renewal or re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary? That this is its very definition, and the very reason our Lord Jesus Christ, who redeemed us on the Cross, gave it to us, who always and in every age need His plentiful redemption? If this is what the Mass is, it makes a lot of sense to surround with special signs of attention and adoration the most solemn moment when Christ becomes really, truly, substantially present as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. You could think of the bells as a sort of sonic italics or underlining. When tastefully used, we appreciate italics or underlining in books; it’s not an indication that we’re illiterate or have poor eyesight.

Moreover, is it really true that most of the laity who attended the traditional Latin Mass didn’t know when the consecration was going to take place—or that the laity who attend today are similarly handicapped? What about the widespread use of missals in the twentieth century? Even the little prayer manuals of the various Sodalities and Confraternities printed the Ordinary of the Mass, in addition to prayers suggested for different points of the Mass. What about the gestures of the priest, which speak louder than any bells? The constant assumption in popular and pseudo-scholarly literature that the era of the old Mass implied the darkness of total ignorance on the part of the people is gratuitous and demonstrably false, as is the assumption that many of its externals have no other function than to spoonfeed the liturgical action to an ill-catechized congregation. We traded in many of those externals for a vastitude of verbiage, and what has been the result? One shudders to think of the average catechetical knowledge of Mass-going Catholics today, compared with that of so many of their preconciliar forebears.

Moving right along, what can one make of the phrase “victims of nostalgia”? The last two Popes recognized, as any sensible person would do, that people attached to the older liturgical forms are not attached in a merely sentimental or nostalgic way—they do not, as it were, suffer from an overwrought “sensitivity”—but love the tradition because of its intrinsic merits. It is worthy of our love because it is beautiful, holy, sanctifying, and, in addition to these inherent qualities, simply because it has been handed down for many centuries as the most treasured family heirloom. (Those of us who are under the age of 44 may find it hard to feel nostalgic for something that disappeared before we were even born!) 

And what if, for the sake of argument, we grant that nostalgia is a factor for some—what then? Nostalgia is a profound psychological phenomenon that has its roots in the felt absence, or the condition of emptiness, following upon a loss or taking away of something of the greatest personal importance. In his first encyclical Pope John Paul II said that self-knowledge brings about a “creative restlessness” in which “what is most deeply human beats and pulses”: “the search for truth, the insatiable need for the good, hunger for freedom, nostalgia for the beautiful, and the voice of conscience” (Redemptor Hominis 18).

With authoritative acts of the Church in support of the traditional liturgy and its adherents, it would be presumptuous, to say the least, to claim that “where the Church wants us to be today” is necessarily in the Novus Ordo sphere. Most Catholics inhabit the world of the Ordinary Form, but a sizeable minority do not, and the Church has permitted them, encouraged them, and blessed them in their adherence to the Latin liturgical tradition (as she has done, more recently, with her faithful of Anglican heritage). Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI expected all the local churches to get reacquainted with the ancient form of worship so that the newer form could be enriched and reconnected with its origins.

Finally, we come, as we must, to the ever-controversial Second Vatican Council. Where, could someone point out, does Vatican II say that the term “presider” is the best or the correct characterization of the minister who offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? Yes, Sacrosanctum Concilium mentions the one who “presides over” the liturgy, but it does not limit itself to that language and uses much traditional language as well, as when it refers to the “divine sacrifice of the Eucharist” (n. 2). Is it not a curious thing that perhaps as much as 90% of what has been justified in the name of Vatican II is not to be found in the Council’s documents themselves, while 90% of what is actually in the documents is never discussed or preached or followed? Even the document on the sacred liturgy, which, as many have pointed out, is no model of clarity and coherence, is far more traditional in what it says and stipulates than most of the liturgical opinions and practices purportedly derived from it.

I think back fondly on those days of delirious disputation (I refer to the 1990s), because it was just at that time that, in spite of so much confusion in the Church and in the world, I fell head over heels in love with the Roman liturgical tradition and realized what a treasure had been guarded and transmitted to us for our illumination and sanctification—ours, right here and right now. “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us, too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place” (Benedict XVI, Letter to Bishops, July 7, 2007). And now that we appear to be entering, after a lovely summertime, into a more wintry period, where gains will be hard won and wolves will prey freely upon the sheep, we should thank the Lord again and again for His mercy to us in opening our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to the beauty of the sacred liturgy—that beauty ever ancient, ever new, destined to endure long after we have gone to our rest.

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