Yesterday, the Chaldean Catholic Church enthroned a new patriarch, who, taking the occasion to set the course for his reign, remarked, “Liturgical reform has never occurred in our church. We celebrate the Mass according to an ancient missal, and each diocese has its own missal. We need to update our liturgy so that it speaks to man today, so that it gives meaning and much hope.”
That kind of talk saddens me. It has always saddened me. It deprives the world of much meaning and leaves me with meagre hopes.
It saddened me when the Ruthenian liturgy was retranslated last decade, its majestic Odes reduced to single verses, shells of their former selves, its eloquent appeal to the “good God and the Lover of all mankind” emasculated into bland invocation of the God ”who loves us all.”
That title for Our Lord in particular had touched me and remained with me when, as a boy of 13, I first encountered the rare beauty of Byzantine Christianity in a Ruthenian parish; it was pure poetry to my soul. To this day I derive great comfort from meditating upon it. Now it is gone, its un-inclusive language having been judged too jarring for the modern ear.
It saddened me when I first discovered how much of the Roman rite had fallen to the cutting-room floor. I remember that once, when I was about 14, I was sitting in a car waiting for my parents to conclude some quick transaction, listening to what I would now consider a rather mediocre CD of old Latin hymns. My parents returned to find me in tears, and they asked me what was the matter. I told them that I was sad because so much had been lost. The more I learn, the sadder I become.
I know that I am a Classics major, and therefore that my particular gift (and particular curse) is an ability to derive meaning and enjoyment from what much of the world considers indecipherable and dreadfully boring. Even so, I don’t think that my gut is wrong here: a real impoverishment occurs, necessarily, when the external form of prayers are changed, especially when that alteration is comprehensive and abrupt. As a pithy paraphrase of St. Thomas goes, “All change, even change for the better, is for the worse.”
A friend of mine, who had long resisted some of my more liturgically conservative opinions, called me shortly after the Third Edition of the Roman Missal came into use, conceding my points unilaterally. She had been jarred by the new words, her sense of home, of continuity, having been shaken by the changes. The little stumbles, the changes in phrasing, the unfamiliarity of it all mattered to her a great deal. After that point she avoided Mass in English for some time, preferring to attend Mass in German or in Latin, so much did the changes upset her.
The reason for her concession was obviously, then, not a love for the usus antiquior; rather, she had finally understood what it must have been like for many who were very devoted to the Mass to undergo the enormous liturgical reforms undertaken by Paul VI. Indeed, as that Pope himself observed in a General Audience of November 26, 1969, held on the eve of the promulgation of the 1970 Missale Romanum, “We shall notice that pious persons are disturbed most [by the changes in the Rite, or, as he called it, 'a new rite of the Mass'], because they have their own respectable way of hearing Mass, and they will feel shaken out of their usual thoughts and obliged to follow those of others.”
Why, in light of this observation, undertake such a project? To the Holy Father’s mind, the changes were necessary in order “to interest each one of those present, to draw them out of their customary personal devotions or their usual torpor.”
Ritual reform is often justified by such appeals. Modern man is judged incapable of engaging with a liturgy that is not immediately accessible to him, that is not varied and constantly changing, stimulating and vernacular. Liturgy is supposed to be a thing of the people, something that is their own. And to that end, the reformers constantly demand liturgy conform to popular music and idiomatic speech, that it continually abandon itself to reach the people, who are ever distant from it.
In abandoning itself, however, in losing all but its essential identity, liturgy becomes a thing formed almost entirely by the people’s extremely secular predilections, and so it fails symbolically to become the source and summit of their Christian lives. Of itself, it never captures their imagination, never draws them deeper and deeper into itself and the reality that it contains, but instead it attempts to goad them into the pews by (poorly) aping those things in the world that have already captured their imagination and captivated their hearts, and to form by echoing dully those things which they already understand. It keeps the heart of the liturgy distant from the people, and locks it even father away.
Perhaps this is why it has been my experience that traditionalist congregations and individuals, who should in theory be caught up in personal devotions and torpor, devoid as they are of the benefits of the reformed rites, actually tend to take greater ownership of the liturgy than non-traditionalists, making it a real source of their identity and a focal point of their lives.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated, for me, than in the ability of several groups of traditionalists I have encountered (most of whom lead perfectly normal, functional lives free of monomania), to Make Liturgy Happen, anytime, anywhere. Lay men and women, ordinary members of the congregation, and more often than not an extremely high proportion of them, cultivate the arts of singing, of serving, of vestment-making, of sacred art, of candle-making, of incense-blending, and a variety of other skills, all with the aim of beautifying their community’s celebration of the Sacred Mysteries. Their knowledge of Latin may be meagre, but they have educated themselves on the content of the Missal, are deeply aware of and madly in love with what is going on at the altar, and make it their business to help in any way that they can.
This is an ability I have seen mirrored in the East. I have seen Byzantine parishes in strip malls. Tireless effort on the part of the parishioners had turned these plain storefronts into bafflingly beautiful spaces, generously adorned with hand-painted ikons, well-stocked with splendid vestments, and filled with the enthusiastic singing of the congregation, led by well-rehearsed and dedicated choirs of amateurs.
In all of these congregations, it was not the language, length, or novelty of the rite that mattered; the key was rather a twofold process of identification and iteration. The congregations had all identified with their liturgical heritage, and they had a deep love and respect for, and a desire to understand, the meaning that even the smallest part of the adornment of God’s temple had held for His people over generations. This identification had brought them deeper into the heart of the liturgy, and it had led them to appreciate it more and more in its minutiae and so to pray it more richly.
The fruit of this prayer, combined in the East with a generous response to Vatican II’s call for the Oriental Churches to cultivate their own traditions, and in the West with a strong desire to preserve what was being so unilaterally lost (and perhaps in this way the reforms did spur them from their torpor), was a widespread cultivation of the skills necessary to reiterate these ancient traditions in our own time and place.
Such liturgies are truly the congregation’s own. When the priest ascends the altar for the Sunday High Mass, no traditionalist congregation could ever feel that they are mere spectators to the whole affair. They have, after all, put him there with their time, their dedication, and their effort, and they now support him there with their prayers. They are a source of identity, of unity, and of common life for the parish: the font of friendships, of effort shared and joy.
From such identity, unity, and common life first came the spark that once set a tired and dying civilization ablaze. It can happen again.