The reformed liturgy, 50 years later

Fifty years ago, on November 30, 1969, the Catholic Church marked the First Sunday of Advent with the universal implementation of the revised Roman Rite of the Mass, approved by Pope Paul VI in response to the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

And the liturgy wars broke out in earnest.

They have not abated since. If anything, they’ve intensified in recent years.

As these debates continue, it will be helpful to remember that the Liturgical Movement of the mid-20th century, which led to “the changes” approved by Pope Pius XII before it led to “the changes” approved by Pope Paul VI, believed that the renewal of the Church’s worship would foster both sanctity and mission, including the Church’s social witness. For leading liturgical reformers like Father Virgil Michel, OSB, of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, liturgical renewal, evangelical zeal and a commitment to living Catholic social doctrine went hand-in-hand. The bishops of Vatican II (who adopted the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy by a vote of 2,174 to 4) agreed.  If I may quote myself in a passage from my new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History:

“…the Council, building on and developing the teaching of Pius XII’s encyclical, Mediator Dei, sought to recover an understanding of the liturgy as the entire Church’s participation in the mystery of God’s presence through the sacraments, after a period in which ‘liturgy’ meant, primarily, the performance of rites at which the laity were spectators who attend because of legal obligation. That participation, both the Liturgical Movement and the Council fathers hoped, would be an energizer of mission, for at the center of the liturgy is Christ, and it is Christ who sends his people out as heralds of the Gospel. Or, as the Council fathers began [the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy], ‘the sacred Council has set out to impart an ever-increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful…[and] to strengthen whatever can help call mankind into the Church’s fold’.”

That was the intention; the results, to date, have been decidedly mixed.

It’s a basic error of logic to think that everything that happened after Vatican II happened because of Vatican II. But even proponents of the reformed liturgy, among whom I count myself, must posit some sort of connection between what happened 50 years ago and two disturbing phenomena: decreasing weekly Mass attendance, and a lack of conviction that, in the Eucharist, Catholics encounter the real presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, body and blood, soul and divinity. Perhaps it was inevitable that the cultural acids of late modernity would cause too many 21st-century Catholics to think of Sunday Mass as a weekend recreational option rather than a privileged moment of encounter with the Lord, in which worship equips us spiritually for mission. But even if that’s true, proponents of the reformed liturgy must concede that “the changes” did not stem the Catholic exodus from Sunday worship. Nor did they mitigate Catholic ignorance of the reality of the Eucharist.

But then there’s the other side of the coin. I grew up with the pre-conciliar liturgy. It was not a Mozart Missa Brevis and sonorous Latin every Sunday; it was more often badly pronounced (and often mumbled) Latin, and execrable, pietistic music (when there was any). Of course, there were dignified, beautiful celebrations of what we now know as the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, and living in a cathedral parish, I was privileged to participate in them as an altar boy and choirboy. But they were hardly the norm in American Catholicism. Nostalgia for an imaginary past is not a reliable guide to the future.

A few weeks ago, I was discussing the latest twists and turns in the liturgy wars with a wise observer of Christian affairs in the United States, a convert to Catholicism from confessional Lutheranism. When I asked her what she thought millennial traditionalists were seeking in the “old Mass,” she immediately replied, “the awe.” That’s likely true. It’s also true that the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite can be celebrated so that the awe and wonder of the divine presence is palpable.

For an example, go to smcgvl.org and click on “Mass Video” to experience the beauty of the reformed liturgy at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville, South Carolina: a parish that is also a thriving example of the New Evangelization, embodying the hope that the liturgical reform, reformed, can energize mission and empower missionary disciples.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash