(This is Neil)
My first conviction is this: Liturgy is never my own possession, or my creation. It is something we are given, from the Father. Therefore my own tastes, my own preferences, my own personality, my own view of ecclesiology, are marginal, of little importance, when it comes to the celebration of the Mass. We don vestments to minimise our personal preferences, not to express or emphasise them. Liturgy is not ours. It is never to be used as a form of self-expression. Indeed the opposite is the truth. … I once heard that Blessed Pope John Paul never commented on a Mass he had celebrated. It’s the Mass.
– Archbishop Vincent Nichols, Homily, Celebration of Priesthood, Diocese of Westminster, June 7
I suppose that most Catholics will be in broad agreement with the Archbishop’s words. He is espousing what we might call “liturgical impersonality.” Of course, there will be disagreement about just when liturgy descends into mere self-expression. Furthermore, we might want to raise a few questions about the priest’s need to renounce “my own personality” – a need which seems to have shaped seminary formation before the 1970s with its discouragement of particularity, including particular friendships (see here). This renunciation of self can create space for God to act through the priest. Or it might mean that the priest replaces his own personality with an “ecclesiastical self” devoted solely to the church’s power, influence and reputation. It happens.
But, like I said, I think that most Catholics will generally agree with the idea of “liturgical impersonality.” “Liturgical impersonality,” though, isn’t something that many of our Protestant brothers and sisters might immediately recognize. I would argue that it is recognizable during the singing of traditional hymns. Still, when attending – say – a Methodist service, one usually is very aware of the minister’s presence and his or her guiding hand behind the planning of the liturgy. For most of the Methodists, the very thought of the minister facing away or using an “impersonal” chant will sound strange.
So, why might “liturgical impersonality” be a good thing? And, if it is, what might that mean?
I’d like to look at part of an older article (sub. required) on liturgy published by Fergus Kerr, OP, in New Blackfriars in 1971. (The article’s description of liturgical controversy might convince you that nothing ever really changes.) Kerr first quotes from Willa Muir’s study Living with Ballads (my emphasis):
Harry sang his ballad as if sure of understanding and sympathy from his audience. There was no need for personal invitation, emphasis, or deprecation from him. Consequently, he himself faded out of the song as he sang it. The ballad needed only to sing itself.
(In contrast, a singer of a less familiar ballad had to self-consciously “invite people to listen.”)
Now, someone might say, “Fine, the ballad needed only to sing itself. Who cares?” Kerr argues that, when “the ballad needed only to sing itself,” the song had access to a “strata of experience far deeper than the conscious and rational and civilized.” He likens these strata to “chthonic or ancestral memory.”
Later, Kerr quotes F.R. Leavis on tragic drama, which establishes:
[A] kind of profound impersonality in which experience matters, not because it is mine – because it is to me it belongs or happens, or because it subserves or issues in purpose of will, but because it is what it is, the “mine” mattering only in so far as the individual sentience is the indispensable focus on experience.
The broad similarity between Leavis’ “it is what it is” and the Catholic ex opere operato (Nichols’ “It’s the Mass”) is fairly evident. Kerr says that the point of tragic drama is to make us face “something essential about human life.”
Thus, like the ballad which “sings itself,” the tragic drama that “is what it is” has the capacity to move us at levels “deeper than conscious will,” a process that we can liken to conversion – “a steady re-direction of the personality as a whole.” Presumably, if the liturgy doesn’t “sing itself” or isn’t “what it is” – if it is in part about the priest’s personality – then it might teach us something or lead us to moments of emotional intensity, but it will be shut out from these deeper levels.
But, practically speaking, what does this mean? I think – and I continue to draw from Kerr – that we can say one thing that will seem “conservative” and two things that will seem “liberal.”
First, liturgy depends on a “feel” or “a whole atmosphere of reverence.” There is a significance – more than conscious and rational – that only comes through proper enactment or performance. This means that liturgy must be celebrated with care and objectivity, that gestures and tone of delivery are really quite important.
Second, “liturgical impersonality,” like the ballad or tragic drama, depends on a “community of feeling.” When this ceases to exist, a liturgy, no matter how traditional or meaningful for a past generation, really no longer works in the same way. “The priest who has to celebrate the Eucharist for people who are for the most part (as he too may be) groping and skeptical in faith cannot leave the rite to speak for itself but must intervene personally to commend it.” “Liturgical impersonality” can’t serve as a thoroughgoing argument for traditionalism.
Third, Kerr draws on the Benedictine theologian Sebastian Moore to argue that, if the liturgy is meant to reach us at deep levels, we can’t focus on the “empirical level.” For the liturgy to access the deeper levels, there has to be a degree of “light-heartedness” at the top level. “Holy fuss at the level where all should be ease and decent practicality prevents people from making their own highly personal equation of the bread and win with Christ’s body and his blood.” We can say, then, that “liturgical impersonality” demands rubrics, but dies at the hands of anxiety over rubrics.
So, the claim that liturgy should be “impersonal,” like the ballad that “sings itself” or the tragic drama that “is what it is,” might have rather surprising consequences. What do you think?
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