Jimmy Mac forwarded me Abbot Cuthbert Johnson‘s piece in The Tablet on translation, “A place for mystery and formality.” Abbot Johnson turns to a number of Benedictine and/or British liturgists and their post-conciliar observations on the liturgy. Though informative, I cannot say I’m impressed with the essay. I’m not at liberty to offer more than a few quotes for observation, first about Dom Henry Ashworth:
In June 1966 Dom Henry attended a meeting of the National Liturgical Commission and came away severely disappointed. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, promulgated barely 18 months previously, had underlined the need for organic growth in the development of the liturgy. Dom Henry already saw the dangers of what would be described today as the failure of a hermeneutic of continuity. He expressed it explicitly when he wrote to the ICEL secretariat: “There is a movement which wants to throw everything overboard and start from scratch.”
To begin with, one mention in the constitution is hardly an underlined principle. Other principles were far more in the forefront of the minds of the bishops as they grappled with liturgical reform. For one, the ceaseless mention of “active participation” and the hope this principle would involve and engage the laity not only in the rites, but also in their Christian witness to the world.
The greater context of reform, not the careful attachment to the past, guided the council bishops. And while certainly the value (not to mention the marshalling of energy) afforded by not “starting from scratch” clearly guided early reform. We still have the Mass. We still have the other sacraments, the Liturgy of the Hours, the saints, and the treasury of devotions. All the things that “worked” for preconciliar Catholics–all the essentials–emerged officially intact. One might argue that misguided liturgists and pastors messed things up in particular communities–I wouldn’t disagree. But these people did not act with the mind of the Church. Likewise, I don’t see the so-called “hermeneutic of continuity” as being in the forefront of the mind of the Church either.
On the other hand, a good quote from Dom Henry Ashworth:
Our liturgical texts were the work of men steeped in the Bible and what is now called patristic theology. Neither the Bible nor the theology of the Fathers is out of date. The crux of the whole problem is that the people are ignorant of the Bible, a good many of the clergy also; that Vatican II has urged the study of salvation history as given by the Bible and the Fathers; that the liturgical texts have to be explained to the people. In other words that a biblical and liturgical catechesis has to be given. The answer is not to eliminate the texts which cause difficulty, but to study them and explain them to the people.” (25 June 1966).
I would agree with Johnson there is indeed a temptation to minimize or eliminate the more involved liturgical/biblical connections at Mass. I remember a priest friend who preached about “Paul, in his letter to the Hebrews,” who, when I asked him about his throwaway reference (it had nothing to do with his homily) responded that the people weren’t current in who actually wrote what in the Bible, and that it didn’t matter. Could be true, but still, a wholly unnecessary smoothing over, if not falsehood.
In principle, it is contemporary liturgical music, and less the “treasury” that satisfies this great need. But perhaps it would lead Abbot Johnson and other reform2 folks on a path they wouldn’t care to tread.
Among others, the St Louis Jesuits addressed one aspect of Catholic biblical illiteracy in the songs they composed for Mass. Consider the texts of their most popular titles from the 70′s: “For You Are My God,” Psalm 16; “You Are Near,” Psalm 139; “Sing A New Song,” Psalm 98; “Sing to the Mountains,” Psalm 118. And if the psalms one would expect to see (literally!) in the antiphon + verses format weren’t enough, an expansion to other biblical texts not employed for the Mass propers, but still Scriptural: from Saint Paul, “Earthen Vessels” and “Dwelling Place,” and from the prophets “Come to the Water” and “Be Not Afraid.” Even the Didache (“One Bread One Body”) and the saints (Ignatius of Loyola, “Take Lord, Receive”) were part of the tradition handed on not to those looking for continuity, but for those more interested in tackling the issues that would actually improve liturgy and literacy and making the needful connections between tradition and the actual living of the faith.
I have yet to be convinced the Mass propers are always a superior choice. For a thoughtful and discerning parish, the wealth of songs and hymns that draw on Scripture and tradition may well be a better way. While I revere the Psalter both as the core of my own prayer and the prayer of the Church, perhaps we limit ourselves when we sing only these psalms. The Liturgy of the Hours is the locus for this. Why shouldn’t the Eucharist be enriched with a repertoire that includes Isaiah 43 (“You Are Mine”) or Philippians 3 (“The Love of the Lord”) or something vaguely suggestive of Hosea or Isaiah 6, or even a blending of many scriptural sources in a single piece like Steve Janco’s “We Shall Rise Again”?
You and I all have our bones to pick with most all of the songs I’ve mentioned above, especially musically. But my point is with Abbot Johnson’s accurate discernment: a lack of biblical literacy in both the clergy and the laity. Composers after the council, probably and especially the contemporary ones, addressed this issue more directly and more effectively than pretty much anyone else.
It was Bob Dufford who put the Easter text “This is the day the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice” in our mouth. Not Tallis. Not Palestrina. It was John Foley who got people singing from the texts of the early Patristic Era. Not Monteverdi. Not Tavener.
I think Abbot Johnson and the more thoughtful of the reform2 advocates are indeed on the right track. The mindless and uninformed criticism of aspects of Catholic liturgy doesn’t do their cause justice. But it’s undeniable that Catholic liturgy enjoys a greater continuity with the past than many suspect. And if Liturgiam Authenticam is somehow seen as a vital corrective in this regard, I’d say that analysis suffers a great disconnect from what’s actually happening in many parishes.
That’s enough for today on this topic. Feel free to offer comments and observations. I’ll continue with more of Abbot Johnson later this weekend.