(This is Neil.) I have had a chance to read the motu proprio and the accompanying letter. I was very moved to read Pope Benedict say, “I think of a sentence in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, where Paul writes: ‘Our mouth is open to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return … widen your hearts also!’ (2 Cor 6:11-13).”
Of course, as with any short document and letter, I found myself wishing for a bit more elaboration. When the Holy Father speaks of a post-conciliar “creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear,” I don’t that that many of us could disagree. But this destructive “creativity” needs, I think, to be sharply distinguished from the sort of creativity required for genuine inculturation. (John Paul II’s post-apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Asia, for instance, said that the more recently established Churches there “need to ensure that the liturgy becomes an ever greater source of nourishment for their peoples through a wise and effective use of elements drawn from the local cultures.”)
When the Pope speaks of “the sacrality which attracts many people to the former usage,” I would have liked to read a description of this “sacrality.”
And I found myself returning to the sentence, “In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture.” Clearly rupture is pastorally undesirable and should never be welcomed save for the sake of the Gospel. But surely we would want to use (at least) the language of tragedy when describing certain episodes in liturgical history – the phrase “Horresce Jusaicam perfidiam, respue Hebraicam superstitionem” was removed from the rite of baptism for Jewish catechumens after the Second World War. And it would seem that a community incapable of self-correction is one that is especially prone to rupture (perhaps a secular analogue would be ancien regime France). What do we mean when we speak of this “growth and progress” in contrast to “rupture”?
This is all meant to say that I will be eager to read the future works of the Pope. Perhaps I am an inattentive reader. Whatever the case, right now, we should take care to, in the Pope’s words, “generously open our hearts and make room for everything that the faith itself allows.” I suspect that most of my readers here (myself included) will continue attending the Novus Ordo (and, like the Pope, are “very grateful for the new Missal”).
The question for us is: What should we learn from the “Tridentine” Mass?
Let me begin the conversation by quoting from a part of the fourth article in a series by the chant historian Peter Jeffery published in Worship in 2004 (Jeffery will apparently post his reflections on the motu proprio soon). Here, without dismissing the post-conciliar emphasis on hearing or suggesting an uncritical reception of the emphases of pre-conciliar liturgy, Jeffery writes that the “Tridentine” Mass (and pre-conciliar liturgical forms more generally) can help us consider “the non-textual parts of the tradition”:
…For example, if anyone will take a deep, calming breath and actually attend some celebrations that follow the pre-Vatican II Roman Missal (or at least buy a video from one of those “Tridentine Mass” groups), she or he will observe that quite a lot of its “message” is expressed without words at all. There is a language of kinesics or movement: gestures and positions of the hands and the eyes, graded degrees of bowing and genuflecting, turning to the people and turning east. There is a language of proxemics, or the use of space, as the ministers stand, kneel, and sit in a sequence of positions, expressing both their hierarchical relationships to each other and their reverence for the altar, the relics, the crucifix, the Gospels, the eucharistic vessels, and above all the consecrated bread and wine. And there is a paralanguage of non-verbal sound, with the trembling of bells at the approach of the tremendum, wooden clappers suggesting the dryness of the Lenten fast, three levels of speech volume, longer and shorter silences, music that aims to be meditative more than emotive. In short the traditional Roman rite made ingenious use of the knowledge that “liturgy is not just information or teaching, whose only importance is its content. It is also symbolic action” (Gelineau).
At the time of Vatican II … the dynamic of nonverbal communication was not well appreciated. People became liturgical experts by studying authoritative texts that had been established by methods of textual criticism. The proudest boast of the liturgical reformers was that their agenda was rooted in scholarly knowledge of these historical sources, privileging verbal understanding over any other kind, favoring practices that were mentioned in early texts over practices that were not, declaring that the correct meaning of any liturgical act was whatever research had determined to be its original function, with all subsequent understandings discredited. After the Council, the massive effort required to convert everything into vernacular only seemed to confirm the impression that liturgy is essentially text.
It is not surprising then, that most of what was not textual was expected to wither away. The liturgists of the time thought that all the bowing and genuflecting and “liturgical T-formations,” the kissing of vessels and tracing of crosses in the air, had developed merely as a poor substitute for the textual intelligibility that was lost at whatever date Latin ceased to be understood by the laity (we still do not know when that was!). These things would scarcely be missed, they were sure, once intelligibility had been restored. This impression seemed to be confirmed by the fact that many liturgical actions had acquired allegorical interpretations over the centuries that were provably at variance with their original functions. Not having studied the rituals of other world religions, the liturgical experts of those days did not know that bodily actions frequently appear more stable and resistant to change over time than the verbal explanations that emerge to account for them. They thought the vernacular would render the meaning of the few remaining gestures self-evident, and that that would be enough.
What really happened, I submit, was that the reformers simply discarded what the only training available at the time had not taught them to appreciate. The ordinary clergy and people deferred to the experts, and the classically-trained musicians, who had an intuitive sense of liturgy-as-performance but were unable to articulate it in Vatican II terms, found themselves ostracized as part of the problem. The result is that even the non-verbal elements that remain in the new liturgy have been reshaped to fit verbal explanations of what they are supposed to mean or accomplish. A simple example: it was once the practice to genuflect on one knee when one knew the Blessed Sacrament to be present (in the tabernacle, say), but to kneel on two knees when one could actually see the host, at the consecration during Mass or when exposed in a monstrance. However, since the 1973 document, “Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist outside Mass,” one is to genuflect on one knee whether the Sacrament is reserved or exposed. At the level of verbal understanding this is entirely sensible, since the spiritual reality is the same: Christ is not “more present” in the exposed sacrament than in the reserved host. But the unintended consequence is that the experience of seeing no longer has any spiritual value, since one reacts the same way whether one sees or not. A hundred similar decisions, each reasonable in itself, have the cumulative effect of degrading all non-verbal behaviors that were once deeply experienced, creating a liturgy in which the people are fully participating only if they sing “Taste and see” – but not if they simply taste or see.
In my experience, one reason some people are attracted to the pre-Conciliar liturgy, or bored by the new one, is that they are particularly sensitive to what I once heard a preacher call “that Catholic wisdom that actions speak louder than words.” It may seem absurd that liturgically sensitive people should feel alienated from a liturgy that tries so hard to reach out to people through everyday language and popular music. But that is because the renewal embodies the stated assumption of many intellectuals that culture, including liturgy, is primarily verbal and linguistic – the same assumption that underlies much serious and scholarly writing on jazz, popular music, and folk song, which discusses only the words as if there isn’t anything else. Yet a visit to any suburban mall will reveal how much time people choose to spend seeing and tasting, and how much of popular culture – sports, fashion, dance, diet and health fads, cinema and TV – is visual and bodily.
Thus the old pre-Conciliar rite of Benediction, despite being mostly in Latin, may have been as close to popular culture as a 60s folk Mass with tunes from Godspell, though in a completely different way. By emphasizing what was visual, Benediction offered “the actual immediate experience of seeing and responding” that one pioneering critic (Warshow) identified as central to modern film, a reality that too many intellectuals, “caught in the conflict between ‘high culture’ and ‘popular culture,’ have too often sought to evade.” And it promised to fulfill the “very definite expectations” of the people who went to it, expectations that had been nurtured not by their daily “experiences of reality” but by “previous experience of the [rite] itself: it creates its own field of reference.” Indeed the crass popular accretions that horrified the liturgically-informed of those days were unabashedly cinematic: brightening and dimming the lights to mark emotional crescendos and decrescendos, singing a lullaby to the Christ child as the host was lovingly put to bed in the tabernacle.