A few days ago Inside Catholic re-ran a piece of mine from 2007, wherein I related personal experiences with “old” and “new” Catholic liturgy. It was a gentle essay that concluded in the hope that Catholics could find a way to bring the best parts of past and present liturgies together and weave them into a marvelous whole cloth upon which we might all stand “as we wait in joyful hope, for the coming of the Lord.”
Over at America, Jesuit Fr. James Martin kindly linked to the piece with an excerpt.
At that point, Michael Sean Winters, in the grumps because “the pope presided ad orientem or facing away from the people.” decided to let slip the dogs of war. Rightly finding fault with both “progressive” and “traditionalist” Catholics who get too caught up in their respective de-or-re-constructions, Winters pounds out: Every pastor and every parish that pay little attention to planning their liturgies are cause for battle.
I do not disagree, but I would add that every pastor or parish paying too much attention to developing their liturgies risks inserting too much (of themselves or their respective political/theological/ideological bugaboos) into the liturgy. I will never forget preparing my children for the liturgy of Passion Sunday (or Palm Sunday, as I still call it). They were looking forward to receiving the palms, having them blessed, and then taking part in the long, terrible scriptural reading, where it is made so plain to us that we are all part of the teeming mob of humanity for which Christ died.
Instead, when we arrived at Mass, there were no palms (“they are too distracting and they shed all over the carpet; they’ll be handed out as we exit.”). At the gospel reading, the priest—rather than give voice to Christ—left the altar and a crew of red-shirted parishioners entertained us with their rendering of the Scripture, which required nothing of us but our rapt-and-undistracted-by-palms attention, and included pantomime. My kids were disappointed but I was crushed; this was horizontal worship taken to a look-not-at-Christ-but-at-us extreme. I still feel sick thinking about it.
Agreeing as I do with much of what Winters has written here, I nevertheless must take issue with the notion that there must be a war for liturgy. I believe we have wars enough to see to, corporeal and spiritual, without having to go to war with each other within the Church.
If Winter must have war, however, I hope he’ll keep it clean and agree to one basic rule of battle which has been long-standing in our family—that he must repeat an opponent’s argument back to him, to that opponent’s satisfaction, before sallying forth with his charge. He has not managed that here:
Some silliness, too, lives in both perspectives. For example, in a post at First Things . . . the Anchoress writes, “there is an increasing trend among Catholics—particularly young Catholics, who got a taste of a fuller, more solemn liturgy with the funeral mass of Pope John Paul II—to seek out the so-called Old Latin Rite.” Of course, John Paul II’s funeral was in the new rite, not the old, so it is hard to see how that experience motivated young Catholics to see the solemnity of a rite they were not watching, but that is not the first time that First Things, in reaching for grandeur, has made the facts fit a theory rather than the other way round.
I suspect Winters quotes me, distorts my meaning and then sneers like a fourteen-year-old trying to entertain his friends in the school cafeteria while not actually having read the piece in question, which was written in 2007 for Inside Catholic. Except for my linking to it, “One the Cusp of Something Great” was not associated in any way with First Things, so Winters has wasted some perfectly good (if rather uncharitable) snark, in that respect. I know Winters dearly loves his snark, so I grieve that he has spilled some on infertile ground.
Moreover, my notion that young people witnessing the solemnity and excellence of John Paul II’s funeral may have something to do with their seeking out the Old Rite was not—as Winters wants to believe—a grandiose error on my part, made in the pretense of an intellectualism I neither claim, nor possess. My meaning—and I think Winters could easily grasp it, as others seemed to, if he would read the piece—was that many young people, having witnessed at John Paul’s funeral a “fuller, more solemn liturgy” than they were accustomed to (one that included chant and the sort of “smells and bells” Catholic atmospherics which add gravity and meaning to our liturgy, but often go missing in much of the slap-dash worship that has sadly accompanied the Novus Ordo) have thus sought out liturgy that allows them to experience more of the same. I cannot help it if, in seeking out those liturgical touches, many young people end up appreciating the Old Rite.
Perhaps if more parish liturgists would accept the fact that not everything that came before them requires deconstruction, or if they could be persuaded that modern liturgy is not meant to be a showcase for their creative energies (no more puppet or pantomime liturgies, I beg!)—if they could be urged to take the daring path of re-introducing a bit of chant, a smackerel of Latin within the Eucharistic responses or hymns—then those who are looking for a bit more reverence within the Novus Ordo might not be ending up ad orientum, with an acolyte needed to hold aloft the rear end of a fiddleback vestment.
Had Winters read my piece, he would have realized that I was making no argument in favor of losing the Novus Ordo, but that we in fact stood on common ground. As I wrote:
It is doubtful that the re-emergence of the Old Rite will bring a large number of us cuspers back to it, but interest in the Tridentine Mass might actually benefit the Novus Ordo. It may restore some equilibrium to those self-indulgent liturgists who have come to believe that any old thing they can come up with must be a better option than what worked for 2,000 years. A return to seriousness and an appreciation of what came before could help strengthen liturgy that has been too long unsettled (and as the liturgy goes, so goes the worship). In that case, Summorum Pontificum could be a win/win for everyone.
Winters would probably be horrified to learn that this is not the first time he and I have found common ground. I am not sure whether that means I am bad at being a grandiose reactionary hate-monger with intellectual pretensions, or he is bad at being an intellectual reactionary snot-nose. We clearly both appreciate a healthy donnybrook, but those need not spill over into war.
Though it is fodder for another free-for-all, I do disagree with Winters, though, when he writes of “the achievements of Vatican II, starting with the significant fact that the people of God better understand what they are doing at Mass.”
When a mere 30 percent of Catholics polled understand that the Eucharist is truly the flesh and blood of Christ, the Real Presence, I think a very strong argument can be made against that claim. But that is really about the deplorable catechesis of the last forty years, isn’t it?
The wrangling and haggling between “progressives” and “traditionalists” within the Church will continue for some time to come, but there needn’t be war. If all can agree on a few basics—those being that we believe, and that we have a duty to teach succeeding generations what we believe, why we believe it, and how we manifest that belief in worship and in daily living—and if we can debate the liturgies and dogmas in good faith, without throwing uncharitable stinkbombs for the throwing’s sake, then things will shake out to the glory and purpose of Almighty God, despite our meanest machinations.
Let us not fear the re-emergence of what is "old" or the primacy of what is still relatively “new,” but manage to commingle them as water and wine are commingled at Mass, for the sake of the life of the world. My own instinct is that most Catholics would be very content with a Novus Ordo liturgy that managed to be what the Second Vatican Council actually had in mind: a vernacular liturgy meant to be like the Cross of Christ itself—both horizontal and vertical, but balanced in a way that does not over-emphasize in either direction; a modern liturgy that manages to incorporate the ancient touches that help us to remember who we are and from whence we have come.
Since it is perfectly licit liturgy, Catholics who want a Tridentine Rite should be able to find one without having to travel seventy miles. Soon enough, many Catholics will be seeking out the Anglican Rite, too, and if that is how they want to worship, and it is licit, then why should they not? I have no negative feelings for a Novus Ordo Rite prayed ad orientem, either. I’ve spoken with too many priests and deacons who have said they would be relieved if they could stop performing and simply get on with worshiping, to ever fear their facing East.
Winters might wish to read the moving essay “My Second First Mass” by Fr. Michael Kerper, published in America, in 2007, in which the priest essays his first Latin Mass, thus:
As I studied the Latin texts and intricate rituals I had never noticed as a boy, I discovered that the old rite’s priestly spirituality and theology were exactly the opposite of what I had expected. Whereas I had looked for the “high priest/king of the parish” spirituality, I found instead a spirituality of “unworthy instrument for the sake of the people.”
The old Missal’s rubrical micromanagement made me feel like a mere machine, devoid of personality; but, I wondered, is that really so bad? I actually felt liberated from a persistent need to perform, to engage, to be forever a friendly celebrant. When I saw a photo of the old Latin Mass in our local newspaper, I suddenly recognized the rite’s ingenious ability to shrink the priest. Shot from the choir loft, I was a mere speck of green, dwarfed by the high altar. The focal point was not the priest but the gathering of the people. And isn’t that a valid image of the church, the people of God?
It is worth noting that just about a year ago, Benedict XVI prayed ad orientem in the Sistine Chapel, and the world did not end; the Novus Ordo was not brought to its knees. I do not believe that Benedict means to wrestle the modern liturgy to the ground; I do not believe he is an enemy requiring an engagement of war, either.
There is, in fact, something downright liberal and inclusive about Benedict's attempts to broaden our options for licit Catholic worship. One would think the generation that has decried conformity and applauded inclusion would be the first to appreciate it.
Come on, Michael, don’t fear the liturgy.
Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer for First Things. She blogs at The Anchoress.