Thursday, June 21, 2007

The beauty of the Roman liturgy

G.K. Chesterton has a line often quoted: "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been wanted and not tried." It would well apply to the Roman Rite, insofar as what many, many Catholics experience is really a minimal shadow of the liturgy as it is intended, as clearly spelled out in the teachings and directives of the Church.

This must come as a terrible shock to many Catholics, and I have been trying to find a way to soften the blow, but I haven't found a way to do it, without concealing the truth.

What prompts this reflection is my participation in study and celebration of the sacred liturgy here at the Church Music Association of America colloquium. What are we doing? We are learning Gregorian chant and polyphony, and reflecting on the nature of the liturgy in various lectures and conversations, and of course, celebrating the liturgy itself. No minimalism here!

Each Mass is celebrated with full use of the music that is integral to the liturgy, from the opening processional chants, with the prayers of the Mass sung, either by the celebrant, the choir or the faithful, as well as in some cases, even the readings. And we have no scruples about using incense and proper ceremony (such as the priests exchanging the sign of peace in the traditional Roman fashion -- a kind of embrace, rather than a handshake), and no one fusses about time.

Oh, of course this isn't something we can easily do in a parish; I doubt any of us really expects this to be how parish liturgies will be celebrated. As one participant said, "this is offered as the paradigm, from which we draw lessons, and which we keep as a benchmark."

By the way, there is also no gnashing of teeth about Latin. Wednesday featured a Mass almost entirely in English; today, a requiem Mass (i.e., for the dead), was almost entirely in Latin (the readings and one piece of music were in English). So it goes.

I certainly don't expect to return to my two parishes and celebrate Mass just like this; but I do hope I bring back better skill and habits in prayerfully and in an orderly way, offering the sacrifice. Many parishioners may not realize how much effort it takes for a priest to make offering the Mass seem effortless! Many, sadly, don't care, or they think they don't; they think it doesn't matter very much how carefully and soberly the priest presides. But it does, because the celebrant, by his steadiness, prayerfulness and care, communicates a reverence and seriousness that benefits all. It need not be fussy or (gasp!) "rigid." When it is steady, without constant improvisation, then something wonderful happens--the liturgy itself communicates, and it isn't all about the priest (or anyone else). It is prayer.

The other thing I want to mention is that when one experiences the liturgy in its fullness, with care and attention to the actual celebration of the liturgy, one discovers the important qualities of the liturgy: it is a unity, from beginning to end (as opposed to a series of things we say and do); it is sober and solemn. These don't mean sad, or cold; but rather, the prayer is not obtrusive. One person at Mass may find occasion for great joy, another for deep insight, another for profound sorrow and conversion, another simply for consolation. The Mass should not impose any of these on you, but allow you to experience them in communion with God and his people.

Yet again, the liturgy fully celebrated clearly becomes another moment, another place. It is not part of our time and world; it is an escape, a refuge, a sanctuary.

Now, one might ask: is it necessary to do all the full ceremonial, all the "bells and whistles," in order to experience the Mass this way? I think not; but I do think it is necessary to have the proper reference point. Hence the need for a paradigm, a benchmark, not only for the priest, but for all of us. I suspect many, many faithful Catholics come to a solemn, "high" Mass, and they see "the Mass" with lots of "extras," perhaps too many to bear; when one could just as well come to a low-key, early Sunday or daily Mass, and see that, instead, as a Mass that is abbreviated and simplified out of necessity. See the difference?

I may be wrong, but I fear there are many Catholics who, for whatever reason, have been brought to a place where they reject the Mass in its fullness; they consider it an imposition, a violation, a matter of a priest indulging all his personal preferences: "why must we have all this singing? Incense? Latin?" etc.

It is useful and practical to have distinctions between "high" and "low" Mass; but I do think many Catholics are either being deprived, or depriving themselves, if they do not have a meaningful experience of the Mass in its fullness--by meaningful, I mean a lot more than occasional; and I mean, an encounter that is not defensive and belligerent. The cross-armed scowl is not a proper liturgical posture.

In terms of the tiresome-yet-common pre- vs. post-Vatican II way of talking about such things, it is terribly ironic that many think that celebrating the Mass in its fullness, as I have described, is some sort of "pre-Vatican II" thing! The truth is exactly 180 degrees the opposite!

The Mass, before the Council, was widely (not exclusively) celebrated in the "low" fashion, and then with hymnody almost entirely displacing the proper chants. The Council, in seeking to bruit about a reassessment and rediscovery of the liturgy, manifestly called for a very different approach. One example will suffice: when, at my prior parish, I sang the entire Eucharistic prayer, someone said, "oh, that's like the old days!" (she meant in a good way, but no doubt others do not) -- and, of course, prior to the Council, the Eucharistic prayer was rarely spoken out loud, let alone sung!

So what do we do?

Well, many things might be said, but I believe many of us need to experience some conversion, some dying to self, and some openness. It's not about what happened when one was 10 years old, it's not about your pastor did right after the Council, it's not about personal likes and dislikes. No one has a right or even good reason to expect to "like" everything that takes place in the Mass.

Nor is it about immediately grasping the meaning of what is happening. That is a snare and a delusion! "Father, when we sing Sanctus, sanctus, I don't understand!" Well, first, I am tempted to say, "if I told you you'd get $20 for correctly describing what English prayer corresponds to the Latin "Sanctus," I am certain almost no one would fail to get his or her $20 bill. I.e., you do, indeed, understand it." But set that aside: what makes you think you understand the English? Who really understands what it means to call God "holy"? And so it is with the entirety of the Mass. The English texts are a huge help, but the downside is expecting it to be readily graspable, and that is impossible--or, in fact, the true mystery eludes us still, we haven't really even encountered it.

The focus of our gathering here--chant and polyphony--are not the be-all and end-all of liturgy; rather, they are essential part of the liturgical tradition that, for various reasons, have been almost entirely left out in recent decades, and that is, in my judgment, a harm to the liturgy and more, to the faithful who have a right to their full inheritance, and who, in my judgment, do not really experience the Roman liturgy fully when such things are unknown and alien.


beez said...

Thank you, Father. That was a beautiful post.

I was asked my opinion of the Tridentine Rite (I returned to the faith through a T.R. parish) and the alleged pending motu proprio. What I said came as a bit of a shock even to me.

The Mass isn't about the language or the direction of the priest, so much as it is about the Cross and the sacrifice that God deigns to allow us to enter. When I realized that it didn't matter as much what other people were saying or doing (or wearing) in the Mass as what I was understanding and experiencing, everything changed.

When we enter into the Mass reverently, the priest serves truly as Christ, in the person of Christ, in the upper room, even on the Cross. And we, the congregants, we are allowed, by God's grace and Love, to join Mary, John and the others at the foot of that Cross. We are able to do what the Apostles didn't. We are able to stay, for pray and to offer what little we have to console our crucified Lord through the great sacrifice through which we can all even be here to talk about any of this.

Like you, I love a truly involved, reverent and intricate Mass. But all the bells, chant and incense aren't going to be worth Bogart's "hill of beans" if I am more concerned about all of them than I am concerned about why we are all there.

highview416thomas said...

Thanks! A friend of mine is attending the convocation right now. I am not a traditionalist but I think that it is important for many reasons to bring singing in Latin - by the people! - back to the Mass. I grew up singing in Latin in Mass, I still remember it all by heart, and as you say, people are not idiots.

Cathy_of_Alex said...

Superb post, Father.

Anonymous said...

Dear Father, thank you for the post: please keep us updated on your efforts to celebrate a beautiful and dignified liturgy. One point of clarification, though: the quotation from G. K. Chesterton is, ""The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried." You can find it in What's Wrong with the World; Part I, Chapter 5, "The Unfinished Temple."

MomLady said...

You are spot on, Father!