Looking at the Liturgy: A Critical View of Its Contemporary Form
By Aidan Nichols
Ignatius, 129 pages, $11.95

Something is terribly wrong with the Roman Catholic liturgy, and more and more people seem to know it. Unfortunately, what they don’t seem to know is where precisely the problem lies and what precisely needs to be done about it. It is on this sea of uncertainty that Aidan Nichols’ new book, Looking at the Liturgy , comes as a real help, promising at least to give us some bearings for navigating amidst the questions and concerns that beset today’s liturgy.

The book is quite short”but that is, in fact, one of its virtues, for it digests and makes available to nonspecialists a number of the more technical studies that explain the reasons for our liturgical problems. After three chapters treating the history of the modern liturgical movement, the sociological influence on liturgical reform, and the critiques of contemporary cultural and artistic critics, Nichols turns in his fourth chapter to practical suggestions.

The ideas that led to the ritual reforms of the Second Vatican Council”and are still driving further reform”did not spring brand-new from the deliberations of the Council. They have historical pedigrees, often quite long, and some of those pedigrees ought to give us pause. Nichols presents some of the little-known work of Waldemar Trapp in Vorgeschichte und Ursprung der liturgischen Bewegung (1940), claiming, “Trapp’s study makes it abundantly clear that the origins of the liturgical movement lie in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.”

Although Nichols does not automatically dismiss the liturgical movement for its Enlightenment roots, he does suggest that knowledge of these roots helps the reader understand why the reformed liturgy moved in certain directions, manifesting, at its worst, “a utilitarian or pragmatist philosophical infrastructure for which happiness or usefulness is the key to truth; anthropocentrism; a predominance of ethical values over strictly religious ones; a downplaying of the notion of special revelation in favor wherever possible of religion within the limits of reason; and in aesthetics an ideal of noble simplicity.” The ritual reforms following Vatican II were conducted largely under the influence of these Enlightenment notions, and the reforms continue to advance accordingly as styles in music, vernacular languages, architecture, and all the other churchly arts are justified and promoted according to Enlightenment ideals.

More implausibly, Nichols suggests that the liturgical reform movement might have relied profitably on nineteenth-century Romanticism (where the idea was not so much reform of actual rituals as deepening sensitivity to their meaning and beauty), though Romanticism is a tradition with its own serious problems. But in any case, the reforms happened as they did happen, and now, thirty years after Vatican II, we are left wondering what we ought to do. No one, not even the surviving reformers, remains as confident as in the heady days immediately after the Council. In his second and third chapters Nichols presents the analyses of anthropologists, sociologists, and cultural critics who, though they do not speak with a theological competence, ask whether there was not a failure in human prudence in so rapid and academic a dismantling of ancient rites sunk deep in the consciousness of generations of believers. Rites do change, of course, but anthropologists tell us that such change usually occurs organically and almost imperceptibly.

The sociological problem, as Nichols describes it, seems finally to be that rapid reform of the Roman Catholic liturgy was made under the influence of a set of very large, very abstract philosophical ideas about how people ought to interact with God and other people-despite the fact that sociologists now uniformly claim that such large ideas are “wholly impotent when considered as bases on which to found the life of groups or even individuals.” (It is worth observing, however, that sociologists were making somewhat different noises back in the early 1960s when most of the reforms were undertaken.) We have, Nichols observes, rites and architecture and music and language and a disposition of the altar, all conceived according to the Enlightenment ideal of “noble simplicity,” when “to the sociologist, it is by no means self-evident that brief, clear rites have greater transformative potential than complex, abundant, lavish, rich, long rites, furnished with elaborate ceremonial.”

To some, Nichols’ practical suggestions in his fourth chapter will seem radical; to others, not radical enough. Last November, in an article in America , Monsignor M. Francis Mannion identified five distinct positions on the liturgy, and Nichols falls squarely into the category Mannion calls “reforming the reform.” He acknowledges the dangers of further rounds of reform in the same direction as the postconciliar one (better to stick with something half broken than allow those who broke it to finish the job), and he suggests that considerable gain can be had merely by promoting the prayerful, dignified, correct, and solemn celebration of the Novus Ordo that came out of Vatican II. A renewal of the arts and more graceful movement and gesture in the liturgy could also contribute much. Probably his most significant immediate suggestion is the recovery of the eastward position of both priest and people in the recitation of the Eucharistic Prayer. Perhaps nothing has made a larger contribution than the moved altar to congregations’ concentrating more on themselves than on worship of the Father.

But Nichols also thinks, at last, that the Rite of Paul VI, which is almost universally used today, cannot really be fixed. It could be the basis for the development of new ritual traditions in cultures far removed from the world of Bible and Fathers, and could perhaps also serve as a rite for Catholic-minded separated Western Christians who wish to enter Catholic unity in some corporate way. And, of course, it could be used in communities that do not wish to recover the historical and spiritual patrimony of the Latin rite in a fuller form. Nichols feels, however, that there should be “provision by the Holy See of means for a future moderate revision of those earlier forms of the Latin rite,” by which he has in mind a reform based on the Latin, Tridentine, and very traditional 1962 Missal.

I was quite young when the liturgy changed and so have lived all my adult life and all my priestly vocation under the reformed liturgy”a liturgy that has blessed me again and again, a liturgy that lives deep inside me. And yet, as I have grown older, I have come to see, in much of how we celebrate, serious problems that seem to derive directly from the rite’s discontinuity with the spirit of liturgy from past centuries.

At the same time, however, I am only partially convinced by the author’s suggestions for what amounts to a phasing out of the Rite of Paul VI, just as I am only partially convinced about a Mass celebrated with priest and congregation facing in the same direction. My cautions come from the thinking of the sociologists and anthropologists Nichols himself presents. What would they have to say about more sudden ritual change coming from the top? Nothing in Nichols’ book allows for”as we used to say”the sensus communis fidelium to influence the lex orandi, lex credendi . Though the sense of the faithful shows us that something is wrong with our sacramental rites, it also shows that at least some of the reformed liturgy is accepted and even cherished by those who worship according to the new rites.

While discussing such things, it should not be forgotten that something deeper than rites, language, and style is at issue. The real reform is always spiritual; and although it can never be achieved without affecting rites, language, and style, it cannot be identified with them. Today and tomorrow we will celebrate the Mass according to the Rite of Paul VI, in most cases with priest facing the people at the altar. We can do so more prayerfully and with more dignity, and we can seek more worthy music and better translations of liturgical texts. We can even hope, while we do so, for a radical return to older liturgical rites. But first and foremost, we must continue to celebrate the Mass.

Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B., is a Benedictine monk and priest at Mount Angel Abbey in St. Benedict, Oregon. He teaches theology at Mount Angel Seminary and at the Pontifical Athenaeum Sant’ Anselmo in Rome.