Monday, October 30, 2017

“What Were They Smoking?”: On Liturgical Art from the 1970s

My liturgical library contains two types of books: ones that I look at because they are beautiful, edifying, or full of wisdom and piety; and ones that I keep precisely because they are the opposite. As I once said to a friend, “You need to know what people were thinking when they destroyed the liturgy. We can make all the guesses we want, but if we don’t actually read the authors of the fifties, sixties, and seventies, we won’t be able to get into their mindset and see what makes them tick.” In this latter category of my library would be such recently added gems as the collection of essays Secular Priest in the New Church (Herder and Herder, 1967), George McCauley’s Sacraments for Secular Man (Dimension Books, 1969), and Leonardo Boff’s Sacraments of Life, Life of the Sacraments (a translation of a 1975 book). Boff’s book is notable for the coffee cup, hunk of bread, and burnt-out cigarette on the cover, which allude to the chapter “My Father’s Cigarette Butt as Sacrament.”

Among these peculiar treasures is a smallish fake-leather-covered red book called The Sunday Missal, first published in 1975 by Collins in London. Here it is, in all its faded glory:
The book opens with a hauntingly melancholy Preface by the long-suffering John Cardinal Heenan, Archbishop of Westminster, well known to traditionalists for his correspondence with Evelyn Waugh, in which he repeatedly stated that the liturgical reforms were just about over -- right when they were going to get worse and worse. Heenan’s Preface is pathetic, as he palpably longs for a better past and half-hopes that this missal will half-match up to it:

The Introduction, while not heretical (unlike the original version of the General Instruction that was hastily rewritten after the Ottaviani Intervention), nevertheless displays the same sort of “theology lite” that was and still is characteristic of the post-conciliar period. Characteristically, “eucharist” is not capitalized. Jesus gives himself “under the eucharistic signs of bread and wine to be the life and food of the community.” (This could be straight from Boff, incidentally.) “When the priest greets the people with the words ‘The Lord be with you,’ he is stating a fact -- the Lord is with his people as they gather to celebrate the eucharist.” Curious how a blessing in the subjunctive has turned into a declarative statement. The second paragraph is actually pretty Tridentine. The third paragraph apologises for the length and number of the readings. In the fourth paragraph we see the conciliar tricolor waved from the barricades as the old city smoulders below: “The more the people enter into the mystery of the eucharist by conscious, active, and fruitful participation, the more they grow in holiness.”

The real wonders begin when we start to see the block prints that are, it is to be believed, meant to depict in graphic form the wonderful liberating energy, the controlled chaos as of split rocks, and the implicit but nearly emergent parousia brought to the People of God by the renewed rites.

Since the art speaks for itself, no more words are necessary. Enjoy!

ADDENDUM: A Sample of Liturgical Art from the 1960s

After I wrote the original version of this post, my son returned from a week spent at a seminary and excitedly shared with me photos of a number of books he had found in the excellent library -- books both beautiful and ridiculous. Here, for the delectation of the curious and the admonition of future artists, are some of the worst examples of religious art I have ever laid eyes upon. This is from The People’s Mass Book: A Complete Sunday Missal, published in 1966. (OED editors, take note: this title appears to give “complete” an entirely new ironic meaning in the English language.)

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