Thursday, September 22, 2016

Thomas Merton on the Liturgical Reform

The Religion and Ethics section of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s website has posted a very interesting article by Gregory K Hillis, an Associate Professor of Theology at Bellarmine Univ., about the famous Trappist monk and writer Fr Thomas Merton, and his attitude to the reform of the liturgy. No one who knows anything at all about Merton will be surprised to learn that he was rather ambivalent about the post-Conciliar liturgical reforms. As was the case with so many people, the initial enthusiasm with which he greeted the publication of Sacrosanctum Concilium was very much tempered by some of the results he saw in the following years, results which he himself predicted while the ink on the Council’s document was still drying.

Prof. Hillis cites Merton’s journal, in which he writes immediately upon reading SC, ‘There is no question that great things have been done by the Bishops,’ and then notes that “(a)s novice master, Merton devoted three sessions to it in the days following its release.” And yet, only five days after the document was officially promulgated, he wrote to a friend at the Grand Chartreuse, with astonishing prescience, “Our great danger is to throw away things that are excellent, which we do not understand, and replace them with mediocre forms which seem to us to be more meaningful and which in fact are only trite. I am very much afraid that when all the dust clears we will be left with no better than we deserve, a rather silly, flashy, seemingly up-to-date series of liturgical forms that have lost the dignity and the meaning of the old ones.” Likewise, in 1966, he describes the English liturgy at Gethsemane Abbey as “very open, simple, even casual, but very moving and real,” while writing a year before that in a letter to an Anglican friend “As I tell all my Anglican friends, ‘I hope you will have the sense to maintain traditions that we are now eagerly throwing overboard.’ ”

Merton died in December of 1968, just under a year before the Novus Ordo Missae came into use. One can only wonder what his reaction would have been to the explosion of abuses that attended the coming of the New Rite, the disintegration of Catholic liturgical music, already well-under way by the later ’60s, and whether he would have seen in these things a cause of the collapse of his order, now at 40% of the membership it had in 1971.

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