Monday, April 4, 2011

Liturgy Wars: the coming storm

As any Catholic who actually reads Catholic news, blogs and websites already knows, the new translation of the Mass is scheduled to be implemented on the First Sunday of Advent, November 27 of this year. Like many of my fellow Catholics, I am eagerly awaiting the new translation and think it is a good step in the direction of liturgical reform; the more formal language, the (hopefully) decreased opportunities for ad-libbing, and the reminder that the prayer of the Church is something that ought to be conducted with solemnity and elegance is long overdue.

It is obvious that the new translation will not be welcomed with open arms by everybody. There will be some who do not think the effort goes far enough, that even permitting the vernacular at all is a huge mistake, that even if it were in Latin the Novus Ordo isn't salvageable. Their mirror opposites are those who will reject the new translation on the grounds that it goes too far, that it works against the "Spirit of Vatican II" by removing trite and childish language in favor of poetic and formal, adult speech, and that it cramps the freewheeling, anything-goes liturgical style they've come to think of as their right.

I had hoped that my own parish would be spared some of the coming liturgical wars over the new translation--that its general spirit of docile acceptance would carry most of the parishioners through the adjustment period, and that with good instruction the parish would eventually come to appreciate and even embrace the new translation as a fitting work of the Church in her maternal care for her children. Alas, an incident that occurred this weekend has shown me how misplaced that hope really was. I am unfortunately not at liberty to discuss the incident in detail, especially as I did not personally witness it, but it has to do with a really unseemly display of anger directed at our dear pastor for his permitting a tiny spark of more traditional worship in the parish in the recent past. More than that I'm not able to say at present, though I hope to be able to share the whole story someday.

What the incident revealed, though, is that our parish has its share of people who really do think of the Church in terms of what has been called the "hermeneutic of rupture," described very well here by Dr. Jeff Mirus:

What is certain is that a great many within the Church were already infected with Modernism and too closely allied with larger secularizing trends. Some of these were present at the Council itself, and through their influence both as advisors to the bishops (periti) and as reporters to the general public, they sought to sway the Council’s deliberations in the direction they desired. After the close of the Council, undaunted by what the conciliar documents actually said, this same group of intellectuals was able to twist the Council to its own purposes, effecting in many ways a false renewal based on the so-called “spirit” of Vatican II.

In religious life (abandonment of habits, rules and charisms in favor of sociology), in catechesis (jettisoning Catholic doctrine in favor of modern feelings), in theology (reinterpreting theological tradition based on secular ideas and secular sins), in liturgy (celebrating the Novus Ordo as if it were not a continuation of what Catholics in former ages had meant by the Mass, but a radically new rite of community self-praise)—and in every other area from seminary training to diocesan administration—the Modernists and secularists rode the euphoric worldly wave of the surrounding culture to ever-increasing influence and ultimate dominance in Church affairs throughout the West, at least in most places short of the Vatican itself.

Thus had an ecclesiastical culture characterized by a “hermeneutic of rupture” come to characterize the daily experience of the vast majority of faithful Catholics throughout Europe and North America.

I like Dr. Mirus's description of the Mass--that those adhering to a "hermeneutic of rupture" were, as he put it, "...celebrating the Novus Ordo as if it were not a continuation of what Catholics in former ages had meant by the Mass, but a radically new rite of community self-praise..." because that, to me, sums up in a nutshell what has been seriously, deeply deficient not about the Novus Ordo itself, but about how it has been celebrated for so long by so many. Having had the privilege of attending more than a few Novus Ordo Masses characterized by as much pomp, reverence and solemnity as any Extraordinary Form Mass could display, I do not think that the problem with the Novus Ordo is the Mass itself; having also had the misfortune of attending plenty of Masses in which the priest-celebrant clearly thought of himself as a witty and clever emcee at a rousing form of entertainment with vaguely spiritual undertones no deeper than anything Oprah might offer, I am certain of it.

And the problem, the reason for the coming storm on the liturgy, is that plenty of people not very much older than I am really, really like an Oprahified Mass. They go to Mass not with any serious intention of entering into the Church's highest form of prayer, a fourfold prayer of petition, propitiation, thanksgiving and adoration, but to be praised, affirmed, and told how special they are by the whole community. The focus is not at all on God, but on the human self--and it's no wonder, really, that Sunday Mass attendance has fallen to around 30% of Catholics in America, when you consider how much easier and more comfortable it is to worship one's self by sleeping in on a Sunday morning, treating oneself to something nice at the mall, or going out for pancakes and coffee than by spending an hour in church.

Of the ones who do still show up, though, there are many who want and expect a Mass that doesn't mention God or sin more than strictly necessary, but where everybody gets clapped for sooner or later. These are the people who are going to throw whining, screaming temper-tantrums when it becomes obvious that all this talk of a "new translation" of the Mass wasn't just a blurb in the bulletin or some optional instruction that won't really impact anybody, but a mandate to the entire English-speaking world to reform the English used at Mass, and bring the prayers in English more in line with the prayer of the Roman Rite. I fully expect that some people will think that this is an attempt by "Rome" to control or take away "our Mass," which in their minds isn't actually connected to anything the Roman Catholic Church does, but is, instead, some sort of free-standing liturgical prayer made up by some cool American priests back in the 1970s. Of course, it's probably not their fault that they formed that impression in the first place, but that it has been allowed to fester so long in a welter of gross ignorance is really too bad.

And the worst part is that these sorts of people probably expect that what has worked for them in the past will work now: that if they simply stamp their feet and scowl or fuss long enough, their pastor or bishop will appease them by reverting to the former translation. It's going to come as a complete shock, I expect, to many of them to discover that their pastors or bishops have no power whatsoever to refuse to use the new translation, or to return to a practice of using the old one. They may threaten to leave the Church--they may even go ahead and do it--and the new translation will be implemented and used all the same.

I had thought that our little mission parish would be spared much of the drama that will accompany the new translation of the Mass come November 27, but I was probably being too optimistic. There is a storm coming, after all, and as the winds of change begin softly to blow away the trite and trendy and ugly and irreverent out of our churches we will start to see some of our fellow Catholics clinging desperately to the phantom they called the "Spirit of Vatican II," but who was really a mad illusion all along.


John Thayer Jensen said...

It has been fascinating to me to see the predictions coming out of the US regarding possible disruptive receptions of the new translation. We have been using it in New Zealand since the beginning of Advent, 2010, with, so far as I know, very little in the way of noise.

Mind you, the actual words of consecration have not been changed here, to the "for many" - maybe that will cause some tempers to rise.

Or maybe we're just so apathetic (quite a likely fact, I'm afraid) down here that no one really gets too excited about these things.


Tony said...

Were I the pastor, and I was berated for bringing some reverence and holiness to the mass, or preaching on sin and a call to conversion, I would grace the complainer with a beatific smile and invite him to contact the Bishop should he think that I was committing a liturgical impropriety. :)

Patrick said...

"there are many who want and expect a Mass that doesn't mention God or sin more than strictly necessary, but where everybody gets clapped for sooner or later."


Well, I avoid this by always going to the 5:00pm Saturday Mass. Just me and a smattering of pious old ladies. The organ player and I have a Guinness afterwards. A valid sacrament with no fuss and no "church politics".

I'd be pretty surprised if the new translation met with anything but the usual docility at the 5:00 Mass...

Anonymous said...

Indeed. I see no real storm brewing because the mere fact that a better translation ever even saw the light of day means that the language war is over and when that is lost, it's all lost and as Fr. Philip put it, the dinosaurs can only bleat helplessly from their 1973 tar pits.

Anonymous said...

The RC is no different from any other collection of humans in churches, then!

American Episcopalians went through something similar to what you describe with the new translation of the Book of Common Prayer decades ago. A splinter group broke off immediately and set up "Anglican Church in America" parishes under the supervision of bishops from other countries (which they have done again post gay-clergy decisions) to continue using the 1923 prayer book. I wonder what the traditionalists did back in 1923...

Plus ca change...


Bathilda said...

Patrick, we are 5:00pm Saturday mass goers, and it's a packed house of mostly families! We always found that when our kids were really young, it was a good time for them to just snuggle up kind of sleepy, and it just worked. Now we go because it still works out for our schedule. Sometimes we go to whatever parish is closest to the soccer field, but we try to hit Saturday. I've never seen it barren or full of old folks... funny how every parish is so different.

I read through the Mass changes, and I wonder how long everyone will fumble over the responses before they are old hat. Most of the changes sound hokey to me, and not just because of what I'm used to saying. The language sounds forced and isn't how people have ever talked. The syntax seems weird to me. I think it will be weird for months at least.

Hector said...

Re: A splinter group broke off immediately and set up "Anglican Church in America" parishes under the supervision of bishops from other countries (which they have done again post gay-clergy decisions) to continue using the 1923 prayer book

It's the 1928 prayer book, actually. One nice thing about the Anglican communion is that we use a family of closely related liturgies rather than being tied to a single one. My home (Episcopal) parish in Boston doesn't use the BCP but rather the Anglican Service Book (which is an Anglo-Catholic version of the 1928 prayer book, in traditional Jacobean language), and there are still some Episcopal churches that use the 1928 prayer book.

I've been to one of the splinter churches (ACC) that broke away over women's ordination and the 1979 prayer book. It's a beautiful liturgy, no doubt, but I have problems with the ACC.

For the record, I much prefer the old liturgy (1928/Anglican Service Book) to the standard, modern Episcopal liturgy. The 1928 / ASB has a more penitential and reverent flavour, and includes some important prayers that the modern liturgy omits.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I appreciate some of the older hymns, especially those of Isaac Watts, and some formality and solemnity in worship. I also appreciate enthusiastic praise songs, the few that are not commercially hyped and thrice plagiarized in lyrics.

But it is good for all of us that all of our churches have come to terms, in some fashion with the modern world. There is as much inspiration for terrorism in our sacred texts and history as in Islam. The difference is, we know to put some limits on our actions, whereas a fair number of Muslims still feel called upon to kill, rape and destroy those who are obscurely and archaically condemned in their holy texts.

Some Christians still believe that adulterous women should be stoned to death. But even the most Orthodox Jews don't actually indulge in such behavior.

Hector said...

Re: There is as much inspiration for terrorism in our sacred texts and history as in Islam

That simply isn't true. Unlike Muhammed, none of the Apostles or Jesus himself was a bloodthirsty warlord; the New Testament supersedes and moderates the Mosaic law; and most importantly of all, traditional Christianity holds that God is bound by reason and by love, while Islam (together with Calvinism) holds that God is beyond good and evil, and could plausibly command us to murder our neighbours instead of loving them. It's all there in Benedict XVI's Regensburg Address from a few years ago, which not coincidentally provoked a bunch of Somalian Muslims to murder some Italian nuns.

Re: Some Christians still believe that adulterous women should be stoned to death.

Some Christians, no doubt, believe that the earth is flat. You can find 'some christians' who believe any manner of things. The simple fact of that matter is that the Incarnate God himself forbade the death penalty for adultery. One can gloss that episode in various ways, but one thing that's utterly unambiguous is that the Christian God ruled out the death penalty for adultery, in no uncertain terms, and the fathers of the church thought this was important and remarkable enough that they included it in the scriptures. This is in contrast with Muhammed, who prescribed the stoning to death for adultery.

I am really not sure there is any commonality here. Come on, Siarlys, you can do better then that.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Whether Muhammed actually prescribed stoning to death for adultery is in some doubt. His wife Aisha, who should have known better, orally claimed he had said that, during the period of the Rashidun caliphs, who were busy collecting all the scraps of writing on which anyone had recorded anything Muhammed said, and assembling it AS "the Holy Qu'ran."

Like the many Christian fundamentalists who proclaim that a 17th century English translation of various Greek and Latin texts, and some study of Hebrew, is "the complete and perfect Word of God," Muslim teachers have inferred that texts assembled after Muhammed's death ARE exactly what he said. Who knows what the resurgent Quraysh clan did with Muhammed's original teachings, which they had found sufficiently threatening that they drove him out of Mecca?

You have a point that Calvinism and Islam have much in common. Calvinism is not exactly a minor sect in Christian history.

I believe that the Gospels moderated the Mosaic law, but there is a perfectly logical argument many Christians make, that if you accept the Trinity (I don't) then what God said in Deuteronomy was Jesus speaking, so it's all still good. Throw in the reference to "not a jot or tittle of the law" being set aside, and we have a terror show in the road. Oh, and I know some firmly "sola scriptura" churches with Bibles hinting that the story of the woman about to be stoned is apocryphal and may never have happened.

It's true that the sociological context of Islam was a bunch of tribes who were always either at war with each other or raiding and stealing from each other. Also, AFTER Muhammed's death, the exhausting war between the Byzantines and the Sassanids left both wide open for rapid conquest or at least loss of substantial territory. The sociological context of Christianity was, by contrast, the subjugated population of a fairly stable and quite powerful empire. But, once Christianity got up a head of steam as the officially sanctioned faith of the Empire, it caught up on all the slaughter it had the opportunity to commit. By the time Islam came along, that was ancient history.