In recent years, I have found myself increasingly exhausted by discussions surrounding the current state of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. This sense of exhaustion has been significantly relieved by the fact that my family and I have become members of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.
Perhaps what has been most striking in becoming a parishioner at an Ordinariate parish is that the parishioners and the priests almost never talk about liturgy. Such a statement may sound strange. It might even be unsettling to hear. Hopefully in what follows, we may come to see why this is a tremendous relief.
The notion of “liturgy wars” has its most proximate origins in the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. In one respect, reading Sacrosanctum Concilium (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) is quite illuminating. At the same time, one cannot read the document in isolation. The document must be read alongside the promulgated 1969 Missal Romanum of Pope Paul VI, as well as the various post-conciliar liturgical documents issued out of Rome. Observing what the Council calls for, and the reforms implemented in the name of the Council, it is striking how often they tend to refute each other.
The tension of this reality suggests rather strongly that the language and actuality of “liturgical reform” has not merely run its course. Rather, it is self-defeating. A helpful way to further illustrate this claim is to compare and contrast two different “expressions” of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. The first is from St. Sabina Catholic Community, and the second is from St. John Cantius, which is run by the Canon Regulars of St. John Cantius. Anyone watching these could come away with a plethora of commentary. While there is certainly a heterodox aura to the liturgical expression at St. Sabina’s parish, it would be misleading to see doctrinal heterodoxy as the principle cause. Similar types of liturgical expressions in doctrinally orthodox parishes are easily found and readily available.
Being attentive to the Mass offered at St. John Cantius, a salient feature of the common liturgical expression of the Ordinary Form becomes manifest. This feature was recently articulated succinctly by Fr. Leon F. Strieder, a seminary professor of liturgy and sacraments. Attempting to offer a complete account for why Catholics would seek a more ancient or traditional liturgy, Fr. Streider, in a 2021 essay titled “Poor Historical Methodology in Traditionalist Liturgical Studies” (Worship 95), makes the following judgment:
As we look ahead, we can only hope that these desires to revive and promote uses from the past will be seen for what they are, assertions based upon poor theology, even poorer history, and most sadly, fear of what the future may hold. (Emphasis added)
There are many challenges in the Church today, and it would be fallacious to reduce the varied causes of disintegration down to one. There is, nevertheless, a systemic and over-arching principle whose black smoke has fumigated the modus vivendi of the church. For lack of a better term, we can call this black smoke liturgical historicism.
There are two aspects of liturgical historicism. The first would argue that what is true and good liturgically could not have been possible in past ages. In the second way, the liturgical historicist would say that “what was true in the past liturgically is now not so for us.”
When we consider the moral and philosophical historicism that pervades the present culture, we can see that its analog resides in the church. The fact that many Catholics have been formed by a liturgy that is roughly 60 years old gives us a glimpse into this fact. Our liturgical practices have become so far removed from the past that it is difficult to see why someone might be drawn to a liturgy older than the Ordinary Form. Historicism, be it philosophical or liturgical, is not understood or lived as a development; it ushers in an all together new paradigm. A paradigm shift is, by definition, a break, the passing away of one world and the coming-to-be of another.
In his November 30, 1969, address prior to the promulgation of the new Missale Romanum, Pope Paul VI readily admits that historicism has shaped the conciliar liturgical reform:
We may notice that pious persons will be the ones most disturbed [by the changes], because, having their respectable way of listening to Mass, they will feel distracted from their customary thoughts and forced to follow those of others. Not Latin, but the spoken [vernacular] language, will be the main language of the Mass. To those who know the beauty, the power, the expressive sacrality of Latin, its replacement by the vulgar language is a great sacrifice: we lose the discourse of the Christian centuries, we become almost intruders and desecrators in the literary space of sacred expression, and we will thus lose a great portion of that stupendous and incomparable artistic and spiritual fact that is the Gregorian Chant. We will thus have, indeed, reason for being sad, and almost for feeling lost: with what will we replace this angelic language? It is a sacrifice of inestimable price.
This is a stunning admittance. Out of “pastoral need,” a new liturgy was inaugurated for a new type of creature, namely, modern man.
And yet, due to this supposed pastoral need, we should rightly wonder whether matters are as dire as I seem to be arguing. One would be remiss to negate the abundant fruits of a parish such as St. John Cantius, or others like it. Offering both forms of the Roman Rite is certainly something that could bring about much good for the common diocesan parish.
Additionally, we would be negligent if we did not laud the noble efforts of those wanting to return to the liturgical documents that layout the theoretical principles and practical applications of the 20th-century liturgical reform movement. Good fruit has certainly come from such efforts and should be encouraged to continue.
And while we should see the good of these endeavors, the shadow of liturgical historicism still looms rather large, almost insurmountable. Interestingly enough, the challenge is posed quite well by the General Instruction to the Roman Missal, wherein the proper sources for how Mass is to be offered are drawn out:
The gestures and posture of the priest, the deacon, and the ministers, as well as those of the people, ought to contribute to making the entire celebration resplendent with beauty and noble simplicity, so that the true and full meaning of the different parts of the celebration is evident and that the participation of all is fostered. Therefore, attention should be paid to what is determined by this General Instruction and the traditional practice of the Roman Rite and to what serves the common spiritual good of the People of God, rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice. (#42; Emphasis added)
If the traditional practices of the Roman Rite are going to be removed (as we saw above with Pope Paul VI’s judgment), and these very practices, at the same time, are meant to be a pillar for liturgical praxis, then we are caught in an endless loop. It is this such circularity, I believe, that leaves us wounded and exhausted as liturgical historicists.
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