Liturgy: What Is The Question?

Shawn Tribe at The New Liturgical Movement asks a question and gets a good discussion response. In speaking of an author, this notion strikes me as reasonable in theory:

Fr. (Jonathan) Robinson is dedicated to the idea that understanding this intellectual climate is fundamentally necessary to seeking a resolution and antidote for the problems facing the liturgy. He’s probably quite right, for a physician must know the cause of the sickness if he is to attack it most effectively.

The premise of the reform of the reform, as NLM proposes, however, is itself a basic fault, a misdiagnosis, if you will. What reform2 people seem to be doing is acting under some false notions:

1. The problems of liturgy can be traced to post-1963, rather than pre-1963.

2. Addressing the post-1963 situation will get us closer to the ideal situation, which if I might paraphrase: celebrating a Roman Catholic liturgy with beauty, reverence, and loyalty to the Roman tradition. (Do I have that right?)

As is often the case, the situation is far from an either/or or black/white situation as the extremists paint the picture. Let me suggest that the Church is probably not at a point at which large-scale liturgical reform is a prudent idea. The bishops have lost credibility across the board. And there is enough distrust of liberal or conservative liturgical leaders from the followers of the opposite camps that I suspect only local changes are likely to be permitted, and only then will they take root if the leaders are able to muster pastoral skills on a par with the musical skills of a Mozart or Ellington.

This would be my sense of the overall liturgical situation:

1. There was a near-universal sense of dissatisfaction with pre-conciliar liturgy. All of the world’s bishops agreed that the Roman Rite should be streamlined and the various European liturgical experiments of the 20th century should be brought to bear.

2. The Patristics and the East, as well as lost Rites of the West would be good places to reexamine the Roman Rite, but that pastoral need, as underscored by many council documents, was to provide direction. In other words, scholarship was to be employed for pastoral ends, not for its own. Sometimes, this failed. Reform was implemented for its own sake, and without regard for universal or local tradition.

3. There was not a concern about the principles of organic development of liturgy. The Roman Rite was sick, and in some cases radical treatment was required. Most of the liturgical changes were welcomed by the laity, and in the US, probably staved off a greater Church exodus that what we might have experienced in light of Humanae Vitae. I suspect that somewhat more conservatives than liberals left the Church in most US venues. And we must concede that reform was well done in too many places to discount it as an authentic movement of the Holy Spirit.

4. Most parish changes were implemented by pastors, or at least endorsed by them. This pattern continues to this day. If there is a sense of disconnect from the pew, I’d suggest it happens in parishes that have seen pastors of varying liturgical temperament come and go. One priest hires a music director. The next guy fires the person. The guy after that brings someone in again. Various lay groups in a parish: choirs, folk groups, art/environment committees, liturgy committees wax and wane primarily due to the pastor’s attention, inattention, or direct opposition. Secondarily, lay members come and go. This will affect the overall ability of such groups to maintain good work, especially in small to medium-sized parishes. As a result, liturgy on the parish level is even more at the whim of a pastor.

5. In the US, our approach to parish music is deeply affected by the cultural attitude toward music. We’ve moved from playing music in our homes, to listening to it, to watching it. Final result: far fewer people trained to play instruments, especially the piano or organ. You can’t blame Vatican II for that. Music has moved from being a vehicle for personal growth and home entertainment to being mass media entertainment.

6. In the US, our approach to our new church buildings in the suburbs has been driven by the concerns of suburban culture more than religious sensibilities. Even conservative bishops endorse the erection of schools before churches, giving in to the mentalities of materialism (higher property values), elitism (prep school considerations), economics (giving the people a budget they will readily buy into) and the triumph of entertainment (really, the school’s sports programs) over the uplifting of the spirit.

When Shawn asks, Merger or Co-Existence, I’d suggest a totally different approach, one that takes into account the secular culture of the parishes. In my thinking, the biggest threat to good worship might not be glass chalices or Tridentine rubricism. Addressing the core issues together: encouraging kids to sing in choirs and play the piano and organ, realigning parish budgets from the football field to the choir loft, bringing in accomplished artists as easily as we implement DARE or have the FBI talk to us about internet safety–this is where the effort should be.

We know there are differences of opinion among church musicians. Rather than continue to harp on aspects which have been delineated and explained by others ad nauseam, we should instead be joining on common ground to address the cultural factors that prevent us from living up to the ideals of improved, artistic, and beautiful liturgy.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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