Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Liturgist Manifesto

By now, most of our readers have probably already seen or read about the article on the website of The Guardian, in which the actor Bill Murray commented on the post-Conciliar liturgical changes.
One new saint he does approve of is Pope John XXIII (who died in 1963). “I’ll buy that one, he’s my guy; an extraordinary joyous Florentine who changed the order. I’m not sure all those changes were right. I tend to disagree with what they call the new mass. I think we lost something by losing the Latin. Now if you go to a Catholic mass even just in Harlem it can be in Spanish, it can be in Ethiopian, it can be in any number of languages. The shape of it, the pictures, are the same but the words aren’t the same.”
Isn’t it good for people to understand it? “I guess,” he says, shaking his head. “But there’s a vibration to those words. If you’ve been in the business long enough you know what they mean anyway. And I really miss the music – the power of it, y’know? Yikes! Sacred music has an effect on your brain.” Instead, he says, we get “folk songs … top 40 stuff … oh, brother….”
As a side note, St John XXIII was actually from a small village in Lombardy called “Under-the-Mountain (Sotto il Monte)”, near Bergamo; and, as we all know very well, he promulgated Veterum Sapientia, but not one of the documents of Vatican II. It is one of the saddest testimonies to the legacy of Pope Paul VI that so many people “remember” John XXIII as the architect of changes he would never have countenanced, like celebrating Mass entirely in the vernacular. A few years ago, Italian television broadcast a docudrama about Paul VI. (In Italian, a docudrama is called, without any deliberate irony, “un fiction.”) The actor who played him, Fabrizio Gifuni, noted in an interview that,
If you go around the area of St Peter’s Basilica, you will see souvenir shops overflowing with postcards of John XXIII, John Paul I and John Paul II. But you will not find one, not a single one, of Paul VI… This is surprising, when you consider that (he) guided the Church for fifteen years, from 1963 to 1978, perhaps the most critical in its recent history.
While looking through the reportage on the Bill Murray article, I stumbled across some comments made by another fellow named Murray, on changes to the liturgy made even before the Council ended. In a letter to the Tablet published on March 14, 1964, Dom Gregory Murray, O.S.B., of Downside Abbey in England, wrote:
The plea that the laity as a body do not want liturgical change, whether in rite or in language, is, I submit, quite beside the point. … (it is) not a question of what people want; it is a question of what is good for them.
Michael Davies quotes this in his book “Liturgical Time Bombs in Vatican II”, and rightly observes that it reflects the same mentality as that of the Soviet Communist Party. Just as the Party “ ‘interpreted the will of the people,’ so the ‘experts’ interpret the wishes of the laity,” and were willing to inflict any amount of suffering on them to make them accept what they, the experts, had determined was for the people’s good. And so I find myself reminded of two stories from those troubled days.

The first was something which my mother and grandmother told me many times about the first Mass celebrated in English in their home parish in White Plains, New York. Most of the congregation left the church in tears, an episode which disturbed my mother greatly, and which my grandmother, who hated to hear any criticism against the Church, preferred not to comment on. Like many Catholics who grew up before the Council, they were both quietly but decidedly indignant at the idea, so common afterwards, that they must have been ignorant of the Mass because it was in Latin, a righteous and proper indignation which I have encountered in a great many other people since. A former colleague once told me something in a similar vein about her Catholic grammar school: “We all had our missals in Latin and English, and those sisters made darn sure that we knew how to use them!”

The second concerns this commemorative plaque from the church of All Saints in Rome,
which reads in part:
His Holiness Paul VI, as the liturgical reform decreed by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council was beginning, was pleased to celebrate in this church the first Mass in Italian, amid the excited exultation of an entire people…
A Roman friend of mine explained to me this is actually the third version of this plaque, because, in fact, not quite all of the people were excitedly exulting about Mass in the vernacular. After the first two plaques were badly vandalized, the third was placed well out of reach, and above a statue that no one would dare climb on. (The current plaque seems however to have a stain on it, of unknown origin, not visible in the photograph.)

No intelligent person would seriously defend the claim that all Catholic liturgical practice before 1962 was always and everywhere ideal. In the 1950s, my father’s parish had ten or more Masses every Sunday between the upper church and the crypt; the only one with music was the last one in the upper church, which he described as “the one nobody went to.” To me, this is simply unimaginable, (perhaps the choir just wasn’t very good), but the preference for low Mass and the dislike of high Mass was undeniably real in many quarters. But far too many of those who (rightly, in my judgment) saw this as a problem, chose to remedy it, not with patience and charity, not by educating the faithful to a greater love of and appreciation for sacred music. They chose rather to force upon them “what was good for them”: bad but easily singable music, and a vernacular version of the Mass as ugly as it was inept.

For those who wish to remedy these failures, and give back to Mr Murray, and countless others like him, something of what they loved and lost, it is hard not to sympathize with Dom Gregory, and just impose necessary reforms immediately. In many cases, this can be done and should be done. Most parishes could probably ban some of the more truly awful hymns, for example, without anyone noticing or caring. Likewise, it is hard to imagine that when the long-overdue ban on the use of the NAB finally comes, we will see resistance and protest comparable to that seen among some Protestants over the use of any Bible other than the King James.

On the other hand, as the great Martin Mosebach recently wrote, we have to a very large degree “lost our liturgical innocence” in the Latin Church. We can no longer simply accept the liturgy as a thing that is what it is, as Mr Murray and my parents did when they were children; we are constrained by our circumstances to treat the liturgy as a thing which we collectively make, more than a thing that makes us. And this means that every Catholic has opinions about liturgy, of a sort which it would have never occurred to ordinary people like my parents to have before the reform. I have known priests who would, of their own initiative, correct some of the more grotesque errors of the old English translation of the Mass, before they were officially corrected; conversely, I have met laypeople who passionately defend some of those same errors afterwards.

Every effort to drive out bad liturgical practice with good will probably encounter some resistance; if it is to be a truly Christian reform, resistance must be overcome with patience and charity, but also with fortitude and courage. Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, has recently given the Church an excellent example of this, by having Masses in his cathedral celebrated ad orientem on the Sundays of Advent, and the midnight Mass of Christmas. Other churches in the diocese may do the same, but are not ordered to. God willing, examples like this and proper catechesis will steer us to the day where no Catholic ever thinks that the priest is “turning his back on the people.” And God willing, by following such a model, the liturgy can be reformed without reproducing the tragic experience of the 1960s.

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