Monday, June 03, 2019

Let Latins Be Latins, and Greeks Greeks: On Remaining Faithful to Distinctive Identities

The following is a real exchange of letters.

Dear Dr. Kwasniewski,

I’ve asked versions of the following questions of many excellent Latins for years, and have never gotten a satisfying reply. I’m wondering if you can shed any light.

In human terms, there is a trade-off between optimization and flexibility. The human side of liturgy is the same. Generally, systems optimize for certain conditions until they crystallize, and if all of the flexibility has been optimized out, eventually the tiniest change in conditions knocks the whole thing over. Organizations and communities prepare for this through system redundancies (e.g., back-up plans), subsidiarity, and so on.

There is a type of flexibility in the Greek Rite that I think works against “tinkeritis.” Daily commemorations pile up, and patriarchates, eparchies, and even parishes have latitude about which to celebrate. Certain canons and litanies find favor here or there, certain recensions and uses vary, even the logic of vestment colors. Decentralized and sometimes even competitive overlapping liturgical authorities have helped the Greek Rite ecosystem stay very conservative — by and large, and certainly by comparison to the Roman Rite.

When I listen to my Latin traditionalist (an honorable phrase in my mind) friends saying things like “You can’t have a solemn Mass without a subdeacon,” it just blows my mind. If the barriers of entry to progressive levels of liturgical excellence are too great at the local level, the traditioning process is given over to specialists, and, what’s worse, bishops. [1]

On the contrary, when one of my children was initiated, my parish hadn’t been using the rite of tonsure, probably ever. I asked my priest for the full ceremony, and so . . . he downloaded a perfectly excellent version from the internet. Similarly, we’ve had to have our people translate specific texts when need be from the original languages into English. I know that part of this is a de facto blessing of what you might call “the innocence of the rudeness” of the Eastern Church in the USA, and a lot of it is also the difference in how authority and tradition interplay in the Greek and Latin churches.

I can’t help but wonder, doesn’t a lot of the Roman Rite’s current liturgical crisis stem from a certain type of hyper-regulation, and then a preposterous reaction to it? Wouldn’t the Roman Rite benefit from a certain type of flexibility? Certainly not the one you got, unfortunately. Would the truly stupid ideas like versus populum have been heard of, if (for example) some dioceses could have “blown off steam” by using liturgical blue (or whatever)? I’ve never been able to penetrate the Latin Trad mindset in this regard, even though I am their biggest supporter otherwise. Small is beautiful. Big is always a temptation to mediocrity. Sameness is brittle. The strongest fabrics are cross-woven.

That is my personal and admittedly partial working theory of the human side of the Latin liturgical tragedy.

God bless,
Greek Catholic

Dear Greek Catholic,

I admire and love the Byzantine Divine Liturgy. I was blessed to be able to attend it several times a week while teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria. I learned to cantor, which came in handy later on in Wyoming when we had weekly or monthly Divine Liturgies and I was the only one who knew how to chant the Troparion, Kontakion, Prokeimenon, etc. Even today, at every Roman Mass, I privately pray the great Byzantine prayer: “O Lord, I firmly believe and profess that you are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first…” My son and my daughter both received the “holy mystery of penance” and Holy Communion in the Byzantine rite (for circumstantial and personal reasons). As a family we are traditionally Roman to the core, but precisely for that reason, we love our Eastern brethren and their rites.

What I think is so perplexing to people is how very different the mentalities of East and West are. This difference has its roots in the contrast between the Western Roman empire (and the way it developed into Europe), and the Eastern Roman empire (and the way it developed into Byzantium, later moving into the Slavic realm). To speak in generalities, the Western mind is logical, linear, efficient, succinct, and focused; the Byzantine mind is circular, effusive, redundant, poetic, and diffuse. The strengths of each are also the source of their weaknesses, or at least their temptations. [2]

The liturgical reformers of the 1960s tore out their hair over this difference. In one sense, they wanted all liturgy to look the same, because, well, somehow there ought to be a “right liturgy” that everyone could subscribe to, like a sort of Esperanto. Ultimately, in a savage irony, the postconciliar liturgical reform created a set of rites that, so far from taking inspiration from the East or approaching more nearly to unity with it, amounted to an antithesis on almost every point of magnitude: respect for existing tradition; internal continuity in readings, prayers, antiphons, hymns; the inversion of the orientation of the priest; the dissolution of reverence in receiving the holy mysteries; the abolition of distinctions between clerical and lay, sanctuary and nave; and much else besides. [3] As many have pointed out, the only ecumenism that mattered to the liturgical reformers was accommodation to Protestantism; they could have cared less what the Eastern Orthodox or the Eastern Catholics thought.

Pope Paul VI endorsed a surrender to the Enlightenment rationalism represented by the Jansenist Synod of Pistoia, which had failed in the 18th century, but with his aid triumphed in the 20th. This reformist-constructivist mentality yielded rotten fruits at various moments in the last century, but its final and supreme fruit was the postconciliar reform, which finished stripping the Latin Church of all that was magnificent, orderly, and decorous, substituting in its place all that was industrial, modular, verbose, and hip. The East would never toy with liturgy this way, but neither would the West had it not fallen under the spell of Pistoia.

In place of the Protestantizing and rationalizing work of the Consilium, Catholics owe it to Our Lord and the providential guidance of His Spirit to respect rigorously the irreducible complexity and distinctness of the two lungs of the Church, and remain true to the originating genius, spirit, and traditions of each. The Western approach is good if, and only if, it remains true to itself. As long as we keep our inherited rituals — our concisely chiseled orations bristling with layers of meaning, our military but ravishing ceremonial, our unsurpassable Gregorian melodies, our special love of silence, our penchant for kneeling not so much as a sign of penance as a sign of humble adoration — we will be healthy. We will be decisively Roman, not making a sorry embarrassment of ourselves by second- or third-rate imitations of the secular world, of Eastern Christianity, or of evangelical Protestantism. We can be who we are, and do it brilliantly; that is all, and that is more than enough to keep us happily busy. We cannot be someone else and should not try, for failure waits at the door of rivalries and envies.

This much is obvious to me: one of the perfections of the East is the calmness, smoothness, and relaxedness (if that’s a word) with which the clergy perform the services. They know what they are supposed to do, and they do it effortlessly, without fuss, and without rubrical elaborateness. Still, it is done reverently, ceremonially, not at all casually or randomly. In the West, centuries of rubrical development brought about a situation where every motion, posture, position, and interaction was carefully orchestrated and regulated. I happen to think this is a perfection peculiar to the Latin tradition, and again, if done well, it is magnificent to behold, like a sacred dance, like Japanese Noh theatre, like Her Majesty’s guard on parade, like a flock of birds in geometric formation. It is a science and a study, a form of asceticism, an offering of the body in sacrifice. The moment one loses the meaning of it — that it is an outward expression and offering to God of a mind well-disciplined and subordinate to Him — it can become regimentation, formalism, rubricism. In other words, it becomes ripe for caricature, rejection, and replacement with a desperately bad attempt at naturalness.

The West cannot succeed except by being Western in the best possible way, just as the East cannot succeed except by being Eastern in the best possible way.

For many centuries the Latin liturgy had the deacons, subdeacons, acolytes, and other ministers it needed, at least at the cathedrals and monasteries, and in smaller places on special occasions. It was all done according to local customs and expectations, which are good things to have in play. As Roman centralization asserted itself more and more, the local customs evaporated, and the age of legalism began. This, I would agree with you, has been a scourge on doing the liturgy well, because it places the same set of ideal standards on every locality, which rather discourages than encourages solemnity. Ultimately, the root of all of our woes is Roman centralization. Once the bishop of Rome thinks he is the absolute master of the Latin liturgy, it’s all over. I would not say this of Pope Pius V, who codified an existing liturgy; but once we see Pius X radically changing the Divine Office, Pius XII radically changing Holy Week, and Paul VI radically changing everything, there is no longer any paradosis worthy of the name. It is, as Eastern Christians have rightly recognized (and as we should be humble enough to admit), the sacrifice of tradition by and for pastoral authoritarianism. I think more and more people are recognizing this deviation and seeking to do what they can about it — at least those who have an orthodox conception of what liturgy is and how it has always been handed down, not without development, of course, but never put on the chopping block of academic theory or pastoral expediency.

On the other hand, and I hope you won’t mind my saying so, it seems to me that the Eastern tradition can be so loose that it is difficult to say what “ought” to be done. What ought to be done is what’s fitting, yes; but who decides what’s fitting? The local priest? The faithful? The eparchy? Why do certain customs vanish from whole territories, while variations creep in that may over time separate national churches from each other and work against mutual recognition? Why are some Easterners so against development that they would wish to abolish devotions cherished and loved by the faithful, out of an archaic purism? Of course you are far healthier than we, in general; I am simply raising some questions.

Thank you again for writing to me. I very much enjoy this sort of dialogue.

Yours in Christ,
Peter Kwasniewski


[1] I take it that my correspondent, by this unusual phrase, means the process by which the content of tradition is handed down, that is, inculcated in practice. He seems to be arguing that if it is too difficult for a local community to take hold of and implement the liturgical tradition, they will not be able to live it or pass it on; it will become a domain of specialists only.

[2] I go into this matter in greater depth in this article: “Byzantine Splendor and Roman Sobriety.”

[3] For more on these points, see my article: “The Byzantine Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and the Novus Ordo — Two Brothers and a Stranger,” and the related piece “For the Liturgical Progressives, Dialogue Means ‘Agreeing With.’

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