Thursday, January 14, 2016

George Weigel Vs. Liturgical Improvisation

In an article published yesterday on the website of First Things, George Weigel takes the clergy to task for the less-than-happy results of the widespread habit of liturgical improvisation. The tone of the article is such that I am sure that Fr Zuhlsdorf is correct when he says about it, “He must have had an experience recently which set him off.”

Citing the words of Sacrosanctum Concilium that “no . . . person, not even a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority,” Prof. Weigel writes,
… Auto-editing or flat-out rewriting the prescribed text of the Mass is virtually epidemic among priests who attended seminary in the late Sixties, Seventies, or early Eighties; it’s less obvious among the younger clergy. But whether indulged by old, middle-aged, or young, it’s obnoxious and it’s an obstacle to prayer. …
… after more than four decades of priest-celebrants trying to be Johnny Carson, Bob Barker, Alex Trebek, or whomever, this act is getting very old. Father, you’re just not very good at it. …
So please, fathers in Christ, spare us these attempts at creativity, or user-friendliness, or whatever it is you think you’re doing. They just don’t work. Please just pray the black and do the red. And the worship Vatican II intended will be much enhanced thereby.
Of course, priests should Say (or “Pray”, if one prefers) the Black and Do the Red, as Fr Z has been very rightly exhorting them to do for years. But I cannot help but think that Dr. Weigel has diagnosed a symptom, while referring only obliquely to the disease which has caused it. He is right to say that “… in metaphorically thumbing his nose at the Council’s clear injunction (not to mention the rubrics in the Missal), Father Freelance is … asserting his own superiority over the liturgy.” But the simple fact of the matter is that where such a sense of superiority exists, it is both de jure and de facto very much encouraged by the current liturgical discipline of the Church.

De jure, the post-Conciliar liturgical reform gave the clergy a degree of liberty to decide what shall be said or sung, how it shall be said or sung, whether it shall be said or sung, and with what rituals accompanying, that was far broader than anything known within the Church before 1969. (Yes, St Justin Martyr says in the mid-2nd century that the celebrant of the Eucharist “offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability.” There is a very good reason why this passage of the First Apology, chapter 67, is always cited by those who favor liturgical improvisation; it is the only such passage available to cite.)

Just to give an example or two: prior to the reform, every sung Mass of the Roman Rite on the First Sunday of Advent began, as it had begun for centuries, with the Gregorian Introit Ad te levavi, and every low Mass began with the prayers before the altar, after which the priest read Ad te levavi. Since 1969, the ubiquitous and fatal rubric “or another suitable song” has given him (or the persons to whom he has delegated responsibility) permission to sing more or less anything, since inevitably, everyone has their own ideas about what sort of song is really suitable.

There are also plenty of places where the priest is permitted to make up what he will say, like the supposedly “very brief” (brevissimis) words by which he, or a deacon, or a lay minister (as options multiply) may introduce the day’s Mass to the faithful, and the exhortations which begin rites such as the prophecies of the Easter vigil or the processions on Candlemas and Palm Sunday. One formulation of this permission, “vel similibus verbis – or with similar words,” occurs eight times in the rubrics of the 2002 Latin edition of the Missal. The Prayers of the Faithful have a fixed form, but no fixed content at all.

Even discounting these permissions, it is impossible for a Catholic priest to celebrate the modern Rite without having to continually choose among options. Examples could be given almost without end, but I am sure they are well known to our readers. Suffice it to say that the multiplication of options is not even excluded from the very heart of the Rite, the Eucharistic Prayer. Here, Father is compelled, whether he will so or not, to make a choice among at least four options, often many more, guided by almost nothing.

When the novelty of multiple Eucharistic Prayers was introduced into the Roman Rite, it was often justified by appealing to the practice of the other ancient rites of Christianity, especially the Eastern rites, which all have more than one anaphora. Very rarely did anybody bother to point out that although the Byzantine Rite, for example, does indeed have two anaphoras, each is appointed for certain days; that of St Basil the Great is said on ten days of the year, and that of St John Chrysostom on every other day. A Byzantine priest is not at liberty to say, “It may be the First Sunday of Lent, but I’m in a Chrysostom mood today,” and decide to use the latter. But when a priest uses the modern Roman Rite, he is never required to choose any particular Eucharistic Prayer, not even the venerable Roman Canon. The rubrics of the Missal offer no more than suggestions as to when they may be “suitably” chosen.

Now there is, of course, a significant difference in theory between choosing among licit options, or making up things to say where this is permitted by law, and the improvisations which Prof. Weigel rightly decries. But in practice, once the clergy were given such a broad degree of liberty to fashion and refashion so much of the liturgy as they saw fit, it was completely unrealistic to imagine that they would NOT apply this liberty to the rest of the liturgy as well. Basic experience of human nature should have made it obvious that in almost any climate, but especially in the revolutionary atmosphere which prevailed in the Church in the later 1960s, the bounds set by liturgical law would be effectively ignored.

And now we come to the de facto part. The abuses of this new-found liberty were for a long time encouraged by an almost complete absence of will to restrain them. In many parts of the world, this is still very much the case to this day. Prof. Weigel is certainly correct, at least as far as the U.S. is concerned, to say that the problem is now greatly lessened among the younger clergy. But his appeal to Pray the Black and Do the Red will almost certainly fall on deaf ears among those priests “who attended seminary in the late Sixties, Seventies, or early Eighties.” It is completely unrealistic to imagine that they will suddenly agree to obey the law if their bishops did nothing to restrain their breaking of it in a matter of such importance for so many years. Truth to tell, many of those bishops were in fact the very same men who put their signatures to Sacrosanctum Concilium in the first place, almost none of whom could later be found to say to their priests, “Thus far shalt thou come, but no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed.”

Where I write above “encouraged by the current liturgical discipline of the Church”, I wish to emphasize the word “current.” Taking St Justin’s description of the “improvised” Eucharist as a starting point, experience must surely have taught the Church in antiquity the same thing which it is teaching Her now – that giving people broad liberty to fashion and refashion the liturgy is a terrible idea. There is absolutely no reason why this lesson cannot be applied to the post-Conciliar liturgical reform. There is no reason why the Church cannot say to Her priests, “You will say this Eucharistic Prayer on this day, and no other, that one on that day, and no other. These are the words that are said before the Candlemas procession, these and no others. This is the only vernacular hymn in this language that may substitute Ad te levavi on First Advent.” And so on.

Of course, the Church must also be willing to train Her priests to be obedient sons, to recognize themselves as the servants of the liturgy, not its masters, as men called to be formed by the liturgy, not to form it. But She must also be willing to give them a liturgy that truly forms them, and does not need to be formed by them, one that spiritually rewards its faithful servants, and needs no master other than Herself. Until this lesson is relearned, She has sown the wind, and must now continue to reap the whirlwind.

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