Editor’s note: The following address delivered to the Baltimore Chapter of Legatus on March 14, 2018.
I told an archbishop-friend of mine that I was going to address business people about liturgical concerns. He was slightly bemused and said, “With all the problems in the Church and the world, you’re going to talk about liturgy?” He went on: “Of all the clergy I know, you and Cardinal Sarah are at the top of my list, but I don’t get the stress on liturgy.” I replied: “The principal reason for the existence of the Church is to offer fitting praise and worship to Almighty God. There is nothing more important. If we can’t get that right, we can’t get anything else right, either. Indeed, every other good thing we may want to accomplish flows from our life of worship.” He seemed to “get it,” although I am not sure if it will stick with him long-term. I hope I can have a more lasting effect on you.
When people talk about liturgy in the contemporary Church, they tend to begin with the Second Vatican Council, which is about a century too late. Sacrosanctum Concilium, the conciliar Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy did not emerge full-blown from the brow of Zeus; rather, it was the culmination of a century-long liturgical movement, “canonized” by Pope St. Pius X and especially by Pope Pius XII in Mediator Dei. I was the beneficiary of that process, having had an intensely strong liturgical formation as a boy: I never attended a Mass without full congregational participation; we had a full-time director of liturgical music for our school, so that by fourth grade, we had learned seven Gregorian chant Masses. I realize that was not a universal phenomenon, but it was surely the clearly stated goal of all the popes leading up to Vatican II.
Sacrosanctum Concilium did not come up with a new vision of divine worship; it merely solidified the aspirations of liturgical scholars and the Magisterium of the previous hundred years. Very often when Vatican II is mentioned, especially in regard to liturgy, people start to talk about “the changes” effected there. Truth be told, that document was not about “changes,” which is why we read the following:
That sound tradition may be retained, and yet the way remain open to legitimate progress careful investigation is always to be made into each part of the liturgy which is to be revised. This investigation should be theological, historical, and pastoral. Also the general laws governing the structure and meaning of the liturgy must be studied in conjunction with the experience derived from recent liturgical reforms and from the indults conceded to various places. Finally, there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing. (n. 23)
In other words, no “changes” were to be made, unless they were manifestly necessary. And so, the Council Fathers insisted on the maintenance of Latin, except for the readings and homily; called for the restoration of the prayer of the faithful and offertory procession, and for an expanded lectionary, so that the faithful might receive a greater exposure to the Word of God. That’s it. At the conclusion of the Council in 1965, the bishops returned to their respective dioceses, leaving the work of liturgical reform to a commission in Rome. Little by little, like Chinese water torture, change after change was mandated, obviously heedless of the Council’s clear statement to the contrary. Indeed, what Sacrosanctum Concilium expressed was an echo of what Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman enunciated more than a century earlier, while still a Protestant: “Rites which the Church has appointed, and with reason, – for the Church’s authority is from Christ, – being long used, cannot be disused without harm to souls.”
In the list of items I delineated for you a few minutes ago, I trust you noticed that there was no mention of: Mass facing the people; altar girls; extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion; Communion in the hand; a total vernacular liturgy. In most instances, these practices were introduced by would-be reformers in direct defiance of existing liturgical norms. When corrected, these “reformers” continued on their merry way, absent discipline from bishops. In other words, disobedience was rewarded. Some time back, I asked a bishop who had been a Council Father for all four sessions of the synod, what his confreres would think of these changes not authorized by the Council. He gave the stark reply: “They would be horrified.”
Truth be told, by 1968 – that annus horribilis – the Sacred Liturgy was in a shambles, and the worst changes had not even yet been made. The chief architect of these machinations was Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, who had gotten the ear of Pope Paul VI, convincing him that this was all necessary if the Church were to be a vital force in the lives of the faithful. Of course, “the faithful” were never consulted about any of this. When the bulk of the damage had been done, Pope Paul finally came to see the evil wrought by Bugnini and followed an ancient principle of ecclesiastical maneuvering, promoveatur ut removeatur (let him be promoted, so that he can be removed). In 1976, the Pope named Bugnini pro-nuncio, exiling him to Iran and thus placing him there at the time of the hostage crisis at the United States embassy.
The sum-total of both authorized and rogue changes was a manifest loss of the sense of the sacred, causing hundreds of thousands of Catholics to decide to vote with their feet, resulting in the abysmal figures of Mass attendance now found almost universally. I met one such individual on a plane a number of years ago. After ascertaining that I was indeed a Catholic priest (and not a Protestant minister), the man informed me that he had quit Sunday Mass very early on in the experimental era. He said that he returned about thirty years later for the first time to attend his mother’s funeral. “I was shocked,” he said. “Finances must have gotten really bad. I supposed that the old altar was broken and they couldn’t afford to repair it because the priest was saying Mass on an ironing board. There was also some woman helping him give out the bread.” How’s that for a Rip Van Winkle experience?
Fifty years into this morass, many are calling for an objective assessment, leading to a “reform of the reform.” I count myself among that number. Sometimes, someone will say: “Do you want to turn back the clock? You can never go back.” I have a stock response: If you go for your annual physical and the doctor tells you that you have to lose fifty pounds or you won’t be around for next year’s visit, he is telling you that you have to “go back” to the weight you carried perhaps thirty or forty years ago. Survival often requires retrenchment.
One of the most consistent voices for this kind of honest introspection was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger for decades before he became Pope Benedict XVI. In book after book and lecture after lecture, Ratzinger bemoaned the liturgical chaos and confusion into which we had descended. Sanity and maturity require us to admit that serious mistakes were made and, unfortunately, done in a time of civil and social unrest which only exasperated the problem. Upon acceding to the Chair of Peter, Benedict made some efforts at reform, however, the difficulties are so great and the abuses so ingrained that it’s like trying to turn around a Mack truck on a single-lane road.
In the past few years, Ratzinger’s mantle of reform has been assumed by the Guinean Robert Cardinal Sarah. Two works of his are particularly valuable: God or Nothing and The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. He was appointed by Pope Francis in 2014 to serve as the prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Although Francis does not have much of a liturgical sense or appreciation, it is interesting that he told Sarah he wanted him to pursue the vision sketched out by Ratzinger. Which he has done – in spades. He has spoken forcefully and convincingly about the need: to return to the celebration of Holy Mass with priest and people facing the same direction – liturgical East; to restore generous amounts of Latin; for Holy Communion to be administered on the tongue to one kneeling.
Permit me to comment on a few of these issues.
1. Cardinal Sarah has weighed in heavily on the importance of re-establishing the traditional mode of offering Holy Mass ad orientem, that is, priest and people facing East. Not infrequently, we hear an inaccurate and nasty description of this posture as the priest “turning his back on the people.” In the Early Church, all Eucharistic celebrations were offered facing East because of a two-fold belief: that Christ would come again during the Sacred Liturgy and that He – the Orient from on High – would come from the East. Thus, churches were constructed with the apse (or sanctuary) toward the East; interestingly, St. Peter’s Basilica was built facing west, with the result that the Pope faced the people, however, in the ancient practice at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer, the people “turned their backs” on the Pope and faced the door of the Basilica, so as to greet Christ, should He appear!
Why is this so important? Because when the priest faces the people, through no fault of his own, the liturgy becomes a conversation between the priest and the congregation and, often enough, a very priest-centered personality cult develops. It may surprise you to learn that the current edition of the Roman Missal (like all before it) presumes that at least from the Liturgy of the Eucharist forward, the priest is not facing the people, hence, the rubric which directs him to “turn and face the people” to give various greetings and blessings. Of course, it makes absolutely no sense for the priest to face the congregation during the Eucharistic Prayer, which is addressed to God the Father! For the first half of the Mass, which is generally directed to the faithful, facing them makes perfect sense. However, when speaking to God, face God, no?
2. The banishment of Latin from the Roman rite is especially woeful for a variety of reasons. In almost every world religion, public worship is carried on in a sacral language. Even Reform Jews (the most liberal branch of Judaism) conduct significant portions of their services in Hebrew. Over and above that, for a universal Church (in an age of high mobility), the ability to worship in a common language is most important. How many of you have gone on a business trip to Tokyo, for example, finding yourself attending Sunday Mass in Japanese (which I presume most of you do not know)? Furthermore, the great patrimony of liturgical music from Gregorian chant (hailed by Vatican II as holding “pride of place” [SC, n. 116]) to Renaissance polyphony is unknown to most Catholics for the past fifty years. Ironically and sadly, there is a better chance of hearing Latin sung in an Anglican or Lutheran church than in a Catholic parish today.
3. In 1973, Pope Paul VI promulgated Immensae Caritatis, which permitted the use of the non-ordained to distribute Holy Communion in extraordinary circumstances. I recall once visiting a parish to find someone identifying herself as the “ordinary” minister of Holy Communion. When I corrected her to say “extraordinary,” she replied, “How can that be? I do it every week!” In another parish, where I was substituting for the parish priest, I celebrated the school Mass every day for a week. A fourth-grade boy had served the whole week, at the end of which I said, “Gus, you are a really fine server. Perhaps you will be a priest some day.” “Oh, no, Father. I thought about it but I don’t want to be a priest any more.” “Why is that,” asked I. “Well, I checked it out: You have to study a really long time, you don’t get much money, and my grandmother already gives out Communion!” How’s that for vocation promotion? More to the point: I have spoken in over eighty dioceses of the United States and more than a dozen abroad. In almost every situation, I found myself with so-called “extraordinary” ministers of Holy Communion. In not a single instance were the norms of Pope Paul verified. Recourse to such ministers undermines at one and the same time the Sacrament of the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Holy Order. St. Thomas Aquinas put it succinctly in Sacris Solemniis (one of his musical compositions for the feast of Corpus Christi): As only a priest can consecrate, so only a priest can distribute. Very logical.
4. In 1969, Pope Paul promulgated Memoriale Domini, in response to bishops of certain countries – against all liturgical law and tradition – allowing the laity to receive Holy Communion in the hand, rather than on the tongue. The Pope expressed his dismay at this development and indicated that he had surveyed the bishops of the world on this matter. Two-thirds of the worldwide episcopate disapproved of the practice. Paul then tried to play Solomon by forbidding the practice – except in the few countries where it had been done illicitly (namely, Germany, Belgium, Holland and France). Needless to say, it makes no sense to give approval to actions that were clearly acts of disobedience. At any rate, if the document had been taken at face value, the illegitimate practice would have been legitimized in only four nations. Instead, other episcopal conferences began to petition the Holy See for the indult (which, canonically, is a grudging permission); all who asked for it, received it.
On at least three occasions, the bishops of the United States voted against introducing the practice. Only after gross machinations did it finally pass in 1977. Since then, priests (even those supporting the practice) report that consecrated Hosts are regularly found in pews, in missalettes and even in toilets; we also know that Hosts are taken from church and used in Satanic Masses.
Proponents of Communion in the hand counter that “this was how Communion was distributed in the Early Church.” Well, yes and no. There are certainly indications that this was done in some places. However, by the time the Christological controversies of the first centuries were settled and when Eucharistic theology was firmly in place, the practice either died out or was suppressed.
So, when did it get revived? At the Protestant Reformation. Martin Bucer, one of the most radical of the would-be Reformers, insisted on the necessity of disallowing Communion on the tongue and mandating Communion in the hand because, he said, this would obliterate belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and, simultaneously, would denigrate the ministerial priesthood. I am sure many of you have seen the famous Gallup Poll which revealed that less than a third of Catholics who receive Holy Communion each Sunday hold to the orthodox understanding of the Sacrament, that is, that the Holy Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is no accident that the traditional Catholic language speaks of “receiving” Holy Communion, while an alternative verb now competes with it, so that some speak of “taking” Holy Communion – which is, yes, the Protestant manner of speaking.
Receiving on the hand also has another perhaps unforeseen consequence: it places the recipient in the role of intermediary. When someone is baptized, he doesn’t take the water from the minister and pour it on himself; when someone is receiving the Anointing of the Sick, he doesn’t take the oil and daub it on himself. In this instance, the recipient takes the Body of the Lord from the minister and administers it to himself, which changes him from being a humble recipient to that of an active minister.
5. During Pope Benedict’s pontificate, he determined that those receiving Holy Communion from him should do by receiving on the tongue and kneeling (it may surprise some to learn that Pope Francis has never given Communion in the hand as Pope). Benedict said he was doing this by way of example, hoping that priests would follow his lead. What is the significance of kneeling? It is at one and the same time the posture of humility and adoration. Benedict was fond of quoting St. Augustine who declared: “Let no one receive who has not first adored.” The external sign of kneeling helps to safeguard the sacrality of the action of receiving. Admittedly, the Churches of the East (both Catholic and Orthodox) receive standing, however, so much else in their liturgies emphasizes the transcendent that there is little danger of obscuring that dimension.
There are many other issues I could bring to your attention, but I have limited myself to those directly concerned with a proper understanding of the Holy Eucharist and the Sacred Priesthood. If any of what I have said makes sense, it might be well to start a study group to delve into the works of the “grandpas” of the original liturgical movement, like Josef Jungmann, Pius Parsch, Prosper Gueranger, Louis Bouyer, Klaus Gamber, and Odo Casel. These were the “giants.” Those of them who lived to see the aftermath of the post-Vatican II reform uniformly expressed dismay. So, I would suggest we need to go back to the sources and frankly admit the need for a “reform of the reform.”
In October of 1774, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, reflecting on his visit to a Catholic church in Philadelphia. It should be noted that he was no fan of Catholicism, but listen to this description:
This afternoon, led by curiosity and good company, I strolled away to mother church, or rather grandmother church. I mean the Romish chapel. I heard a good, short moral essay upon the duty of parents to their children, founded in justice and charity, to take care of their interests, temporal and spiritual. This afternoon’s entertainment was to me most awful and affecting; the poor wretches fingering their beads, chanting Latin, not a word of which they understood; their pater nosters and ave Marias; their holy water; their crossing themselves perpetually; their bowing to the name of Jesus, whenever they hear it; their bowings, kneelings and genuflections before the altar. The dress of the priest was rich white lace. His pulpit was velvet and gold. The altar-piece was very rich, little images and crucifixes about; wax candles lighted up. But how shall I describe the picture of our Savior in a frame of marble over the altar, at full length, upon the cross in the agonies, and the blood dropping and streaming from his wounds! The music, consisting of an organ and a choir of singers, went all the afternoon except sermon time, and the assembly chanted most sweetly and exquisitely.
Here is everything which can lay hold of the eye, ear, and imagination–everything which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell.
Not bad from one who despised what he called “priestcraft.”
Almost 150 years later, Thomas Merton in his Seven Storey Mountain rhapsodizes on his First Holy Communion the day of his conversion:
I saw the raised Host – the silence and simplicity with which Christ once again triumphed, raised up, drawing all things to Himself – drawing me to Himself. . . . I was the only one at the altar rail. Heaven was entirely mine – that Heaven in which sharing makes no division or diminution. But this solitariness was a kind of reminder of the singleness with which this Christ, hidden in the small Host, was giving Himself for me, and to me, and, with Himself, the entire Godhead and Trinity – a great new increase of the power and grasp of their indwelling that had begun [in me] only a few minutes before at the [baptismal] font . . . . In the Temple of God that I had just become, the One Eternal and Pure Sacrifice was offered up to the God dwelling in me: The sacrifice of God to God, and me sacrificed together with God, incorporated in His incarnation. Christ born in me, a new Bethlehem, and sacrificed in me, His new Calvary, and risen in me: Offering me to the Father, in Himself, asking the Father, my Father and His, to receive me into His infinite and special love. . . .
Do first communicants today have such experiences? I am afraid not.
Both Merton and Adams highlight the “other-worldly” dimension of the Sacred Liturgy. I submit that the loss of the sense of the sacred is the primary reason why we have lost millions of Catholics to faithful worship. After all, if anyone can give Holy Communion to anyone in any position, what’s it all worth? Most conclude that the Eucharist is no more than a symbol. When that grande dame of the South, Flannery O’Connor, was confronted by a Protestant lady-friend’s description of the Eucharist as a “symbol,” the redoubtable Flannery replied, “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.”
So, why have I spoken on these concerns with you, even at the risk of upsetting some of you? Because I believe – along with Pope Benedict and Cardinal Sarah – that we have gotten off course and we have to make a course correction. I am convinced that Vatican II was on-target in asserting that the Sacred Liturgy is truly “the source and summit” of the Christian life. And so, I would like to encourage you to encourage priests to follow the aspirations of Cardinal Sarah and to encourage especially the young priests who have probably already moved in this direction by offering them your support.
The fundamental posture of the human person before God is that of humble adoration, exemplified by St. John Paul II even in his weak and dying days. How instructive and inspiring to see him, Sovereign Pontiff and Vicar of Christ, in his crippled state kneel to receive the Body of his Lord on his tongue like the humblest of Catholics. May his memory inspire us to imitate him, to the glory of God and the edification of every member of the Church.
I hope this also helps my archbishop-friend see why this is all so critically important.