Monday, April 27, 2020

Should the Postures of the Laity at the Traditional Latin Mass Be Regulated, Legislated, or Revised?

One plan; not the only plan.
Over the years, I have noticed an interesting group of people who are passionate on the subject of the postures of the laity at the traditional Latin Mass. They sometimes have the zeal of crusaders warring against a stubborn enemy, be it Indifference (laity who couldn’t bother to care who’s kneeling or standing or sitting, when, or why), Diversity (varying customs from country to country or even church to church), or Disorderliness (lack of uniformity at the same Mass). To them, it is very important that a consistent rubric derived from custom or argument be created and implemented.

One can, after all, sympathize with them. We all know about the mayhem that can occur inside a church when the congregation is made up of a mix of regular attendees and newbies who are clueless about what’s going on in the TLM. At various moments, certain decisive individuals kneel decisively, and people look around sheepishly as if to figure out what they’re supposed to do. Sometimes you have a visiting European, or perhaps an American who intensively studies Liturgical Movement brochures, who follows a different set of customs; the confusion multiplies. One can understand, from a purely pragmatic point of view, why a common rubric might be helpful.

This is the perspective offered by a friend who sent me the following letter:
Ever since I started attending the Latin Mass last year, I have wondered about the physical gestures done by those around me. For example, making the sign of the cross during the prayer after the Confiteor, during the Gloria, and during the Sanctus, as well as striking the breast during the consecration. I am not sure if I am supposed to be doing all these or not (or even what all of them are—is there a list somewhere?).
       Having grown up in the Novus Ordo, I have been accustomed to seeing people all doing the same thing, and I had always been told that it was wrong when certain individuals did their own thing (e.g., kneeling during the Agnus Dei), on the basis that “since the Church doesn’t say we’re supposed to do these gestures, we’re not supposed to do them.” Am I mistaken in thinking that a gesture of the people must be approved or instructed to be done by the GIRM? Would this assumption only apply to the Mass of Paul VI?
       I suppose my inclination toward uniformity in gestures comes from a desire to have the “say the black, do the red” consistency of the Tridentine Mass equally present for both the priest and the people. I want to go to Mass and (as you said in this article) “know what I am going to see and hear. The same texts, the same gestures, the same ethos, the same Catholic religion.” Am I misguided in desiring that consistency among the congregation?
       In one way, I lean toward desiring to perform more gestures as a layperson. I’m not sure why, but it seems like a more wholly immersive experience if my arms are symbolizing a truth of the liturgy in addition to my legs (kneeling and standing). On the other hand, my desire to “do” more might just be the permeation of the faulty desire of the late Liturgical Movement to create more opportunities for “active participation,” as if my standing there in reverent, attentive participation isn’t enough. I am torn and don’t know what to do, in both the old and new Mass.
IKEA’s worship aid. (This version is missing the other 67 languages.)

My response was as follows.

You raise a great question about bodily participation. The wonderful thing about the old Mass is that the laity’s bodily postures and actions were never regulated. For nearly 2,000 years, and even now, there are no rubrics that govern what the laity do. Whether they stand, sit, kneel, beat their breasts, make the sign of the cross — all of this is up to them.

The liturgical reformers, who were generally of a bureaucratic and even fascist mentality, were disturbed about this lack of uniformity, which struck them as devotionalistic if not dissolute, and succeeded in creating, in the Novus Ordo, a totally regulated set of actions for the congregation. The problem is, what they agreed on is rather minimalistic, so that one ends up with the surprising paradox that the old rite tended, in the customs that grew up around it, to promote more bodily activity during the Mass, while the new rite tends to encourage something more rationalistic and passive. In this article (which became a chapter in this book), I document the wide variety of actions that are often seen at the TLM (note: as customs, not as requirements).

I suggest that you relinquish the very modern idea that everyone should be doing the same thing at the same time. It may be fitting to make certain physical gestures, but they simply can’t be imposed or demanded. It seems better that books (or occasionally homilies) should explain to the faithful how their discreet imitation of some of the priest’s gestures can be a way to make their prayer more holistic, more “whole-person,” and more likely to elicit real prayer—without any of it being required. Basically, if it helps, do it; if it doesn’t, no bother.

To my mind there is a judgment call with the Novus Ordo. If one attempts to do all of the old gestures at it, one will probably become a distraction to others, and perhaps to oneself. If, on the other hand, no one is likely to notice you, why not do some of the same gestures that one would do during the old Mass? It may be a form of “mutual enrichment,” such as Benedict XVI called for. When I was still attending the Novus Ordo, I found myself making all sorts of “extra-rubrical” signs of the cross, kneeling when I wasn’t “supposed” to, and so forth. I could get away with it easily enough because I basically lived in the choir loft!
Has our thinking become permeated with the GIRM?
To this, my intrepid friend responded:
The article you linked from 1P5 does a good job clarifying that active participation is more perfectly present in the TLM, a point I remember reading about in Resurgent too. I am, however, still left with some confusion.
       You said that I should relinquish the modern idea that everyone should be doing the same thing. I can see why this idea is wrong when it is motivated by bureaucratic and fascist intentions, but I do not understand what could be wrong with it when it springs from an authentic desire for liturgical unity among the laity, consistent with the precise liturgical unity demanded of priests during the Mass. If it is demanded down to the last detail that the priest have specific physical gestures, why is it unreasonable to similarly demand specific physical gestures from the laity?
       It seems like such a demand would promote the liturgical unity and consistency you so often extol. I remember you telling me once about why the rubrics of the traditional Latin Mass were originally “nailed down”: years of regional liturgical variances had resulted in a certain anarchy within Catholic worship. To recover liturgical unity in the face of the Protestants, the Church demanded that priests adhere to the rubrics she put forth, which were not novel but had organically developed through the centuries.
       The situation with the laity seems similar to me. Even if distraction by what others are idiosyncratically doing during Mass is the sole detrimental result of the lack of gestural unity, that lack itself seems to contradict the marvelously regimented spirit of the old Mass. Would it not be helpful for the Church to put forth a set of TLM rubrics that definitively list the physical gestures she wants the people to follow, as long as the gestures on the list are the ones that have organically developed throughout the centuries of tradition?
       Perhaps I am misunderstanding the shortcomings of a regulated set of actions created by the liturgical reformers. In order to avoid the danger of minimalism, doesn’t it seem better to establish a more thorough and rightly-ordered rubric?
       Your advocacy of “extra-rubrical” gestures in the Novus Ordo surprises me, considering what GIRM 42 says (2011 ed., USA): The gestures and bodily posture of both the Priest, the Deacon, and the ministers, and also of the people, must be conducive to making the entire celebration resplendent with beauty and noble simplicity, to making clear the true and full meaning of its different parts, and to fostering the participation of all. Attention must therefore be paid to what is determined by this General Instruction and by the traditional practice of the Roman Rite and to what serves the common spiritual good of the People of God, rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice. A common bodily posture, to be observed by all those taking part, is a sign of the unity of the members of the Christian community gathered together for the Sacred Liturgy, for it expresses the intentions and spiritual attitude of the participants and also fosters them.
       The part I put into italics sounds reasonable to me; am I barking up the wrong tree?

In response, I wrote:

There is something indescribably beautiful about people being allowed to pray in their own way, and peacefully. Now, obviously, some large-scale postures can be expected of everyone: this is consistent with piety, and who would complain? We all stand at both Gospels (the Gospel of the day and the Last Gospel); we all kneel at the “Et incarnatus est” and during the Canon. There are some other widespread customs.

But the moment one tries to legislate details such as “everyone makes the sign of the cross at these eight times, and everyone beats their breast at these four times, and everyone should bow their heads at these five times,” etc., it becames extremely difficult to implement and enforce, and also turns into an occasion for policing and hectoring. It’s too complicated to ask it of everyone all the time. Heck, I don’t even do quite the same thing each time I attend Mass. It partly depends on how slowly or quickly the priest is celebrating it, or how well one can hear the priest and servers! [1]

To achieve total uniformity, one would have to “put people through their paces,” like a marching band or a squadron of soldiers. In addition, one would be forced to simplify to a minimalist extent, as has indeed occurred with N.O. rubrics for the laity. The very thought of it makes me cringe. I honestly don’t think it’s either possible or desirable. It is good to have some broad agreement on major postures and then broad latitude about everything else.

Even with the major postures, customs differ from country to country. Why should the bishops or liturgists of the USA or Canada, the United Kingdom or Ireland, Poland or Germany, etc., get to be the ones who decide how the rest of the world will behave?

Jacques and Raïssa Maritain were convinced that Rome was the friend of liberty in this regard — even as late as the years just before the Second Vatican Council; and perhaps, indeed, she once was. Here is what they say in a book published in French in 1959 and in English in 1960:
Against the pseudo-liturgical exaggerations it behooves one to defend the liberty of souls. . . . Rome has always been vigilant in opposing any attempt to regiment souls. She knows that the spirit of the liturgy requires respect for the Gospel liberty proper to the New Law. On the contrary, in holding as valid one single form of piety, that in which each one acts in common with the others, and in demanding of all that by word and gesture they obey the liturgical forms with a military precision; in challenging or putting in question private devotions, nay even the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass, those who confuse liturgy and pseudo-liturgy impose on souls rigid frameworks and burden them with external obligations which are of the same type as the observances of the Old Law. [2] 
The Maritains, earlier in their career
So, in a truly Catholic spirit, we should let the Irish kneel throughout High Mass if that is how they pray best, and let Americans stand a lot instead; we should let some countries or parishes make all the Mass responses, and others say a few or none. Catholicity involves both holding the most important things in common, and having a wide variation and flexibility in how things that are not matters of natural or divine law are conducted. I am reminded of the old saying, which is no less true for being vague and overused: “In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas” — in necessary matters, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in everything, charity. I think one would be extremely hard-pressed to argue successfully that a regulated uniformity of lay postures and gestures during Mass is something essential to our fruitful participation in the liturgy.

As Michael Fiedrowicz writes:
In typical Catholic vastness, a great variety of individual possibilities for participation accompany the rubrical strictness of the rite that do not need to be regulated in any way, but should be respected. Even being silently present and merely watching do not necessarily indicate a lack of interior involvement. The very act of listening, be it with the ears or with the heart, is assuredly a form of active participation. (The Traditional Mass: History, Form, and Theology of the Classical Roman Rite [Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2020], 228)
I would hazard to guess that most traditional Catholics prefer it when everyone is doing the same things in regard to the major actions of standing, sitting, and kneeling, as it removes occasions of confusion and distraction and assists in prayerful engagement with the liturgy. But this much has become clear to me from my travels: whenever I am somewhere unfamiliar, I don’t sit in the front row but rather towards the back, and, keeping my wits about me, I look at what the majority are doing, and follow the local custom, as St. Augustine recommended long ago in his Letter 54 to Januarius. Few things are worse than the stranger who acts like an angel sent by God to correct singlehandedly the waywardness of backwater yokels. If it matters much to you to keep your own postures, be sure to sit far in the back where you won’t be a bother to the rest. (Fr. Z offers similar advice.)

There is but one further angle to examine: the Problem of Pews. Since nearly every Catholic church in the West is now equipped with pews, usually bolted down for permanence, the topic is far more speculative than what we have discussed heretofore, and deserving of a separate treatment.


[1] I recommend two articles for further reading: “ASK FATHER: Excessive pious gestures during Mass”; “Is Passivity Mistaken for Piety? On the Perils and Pitfalls of Participation.” Concerning the GIRM, this article discusses two different approaches to rubrics in the Novus Ordo.

[2] Liturgy and Contemplation, trans. Joseph W. Evans (New York: P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1960), 88–90.

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