E ARE FINALLY entering a period in the life of the Church where many canards that became popular (universal?) after the Second Vatican Council are finally going the way of the 1970’s leisure suit. It almost seems superfluous to mention them by name, since we’ve all heard them repeated a billion times. One of the more popular ones went something like this:
In the bad old days before Vatican II, all the emphasis was on externals, rather than what was in one’s heart. For instance, altar boys were taught to focus on folding their hands at a perfect 45 degree angle during Mass. How wonderful that Modern Man has evolved past such nonsense! How wonderful that such things are in the past!
For myself, I remember that we had terrific Seminarians who taught us altar boys how to hold our hands during Mass. For instance, when we sat, we were to place our hands right above our knees. When we held an object, the other hand was to be placed on one’s chest, and so on.
As a matter of fact, it turns out that all these externals were (and still are!) incredibly important, no matter how much these things were derided by some following the Council. It really does help me pray at Mass when all the servers, Sacred ministers, and everyone present take Mass very seriously. After all, we are not pure spirit: we are composed of both body & soul. Seeing other humans act respectfully and reverently during Mass absolutely does inspire me to praise God during Mass with my full attention. Seeing my brothers and sisters focused devoutly on the Sacrifice helps me focus on the awesome action that is happening before my eyes. These actions of reverence are very natural, if we truly believe what we claim to believe. As far as I’m concerned there can be no dispute over this. My prayer is that our Masses will become more and more reverent, with great throngs of fervent Catholics who are not embarrassed to give God their full attention at Mass.
Lest the reader worry I have erected a “straw man” only to knock him down, let me share a short paragraph that was brought to my attention via a recent Email. This appears in a fairly popular publication for priests whose author seems to be very much against the Holy Father’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, and, incidentally, contains numerous basic errors (for instance, regarding the Graduale Romanum). I’d rather not cite the author, because I have absolutely no interest in stirring up controvery or hard feelings. Here is the complete paragraph (I quote verbatim and leave nothing out, to be fair to the author):
People should avoid arriving late. In the past, Catholics were taught that they could arrive as late as the offertory and still fulfill their obligation. The liturgical documents issued since the Second Vatican Council never make such an allowance. “The intimate connection between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist in the Mass should prompt the faithful to be present right from the beginning of the celebration” (LM 48).
What a dishonest paragraph! How unfair of the author to pretend that “Catholics were taught” it was fine to arrive late to Mass. As a matter of fact, Catholics were taught to come early to Mass (to prepare) and stay afterward (for thanksgiving). They were also encouraged to come to Church for the Divine Office. To bring up the question of whether Catholics can fulfill their obligation if they are late to Mass is absurd. By the way, I am pretty sure no Theologian worth his salt would claim a Catholic who arrives a little late for Mass does not fulfill his obligation.
Alas, this is the standard “post-Conciliar” line. It basically implies that only “enlightened” Catholics after the Council realize that we ought not skip parts of the Mass. This notion is, of course, ludicrous and wrong.
We have to be honest. We are called to be honest. We cannot keep lying to ourselves, and that’s why I’m so glad these canards are finally dying (as I mentioned at the beginning of this Blog entry). It reminds me of a dear Franciscan friend of mine who was ordained a priest in the 1950’s. Currently, the size of his Franciscan Province is something like 14% of what it was in the 1950’s. There are no young vocations, and most of the priests have died or left the priesthood. I asked my friend if he saw any hope for his Province. He replied, “Jeff, I don’t expect to see any progress made until my fellow Franciscans stop talking about how wonderful everything is now, compared to before the Council.”
We have to be honest. We cannot sit around pretending everything is great now, and everything before the Council was horrible. Nor ought we publish books that imply that Catholics were taught they should come to Mass late until the Second Vatican Council declared this was wrong.
Getting back to my initial point, how admirable a thing it is for Catholics to give themselves body and soul to the worship of Almighty God! How magnificent it is for Catholics to “wear themselves out” in the Church liturgies, not only by prayer, meditation, and contemplation, but also by singing, bowing, genuflecting, serving at Mass, and performing all the actions required by the Sacred services! I spoke of some of these beautiful gestures in a recent Blog entry. However, in the final analysis we must be careful to realize that the minutiae are not ends in and of themselves. When it comes to Liturgy, I agree with Fr. Adrian Fortescue, who took the liturgy very seriously, and spent many hours carefully training his altar servers, especially for the Holy Week services. He was an expert on the Liturgy and knew the history of the Rites better than anyone. However, Fortescue was not a “rubrician.” He did not believe in obsessing over unimportant details excessively. Perhaps an excerpt from a letter will help make this clear.
N.B. I hope the reader will pardon some of the crude expressions Fr. Fortescue uses. It is actually motivated by his great respect for the Liturgy. Remember, this was a private correspondence, published recently by Fr. Aidon Nichols.
Fr. Adrian Fortescue, Letter to Stanley Morison, 24 November 1919:
“To them it is not the history nor the development of rites that matter a bit, it is the latest decision of the Congregation of Rites. These decisions are always made by a crowd of dirty little Monsignori at Rome in utter ignorance of the meaning or reason of anything. To the historian their decisions are simply disgusting nonsense, that people of my kind want simply to ignore. It is a queer type of mind that actually is interested in knowing whether the deacon should stand at the right or the left of someone else at some moment.”
We ought to make great efforts to do everything with great care, extreme reverence, and an orderly, edifying manner. That being said, we should not worry excessively about whether the Deacon stands “on the right or the left.”
As time goes on, I hope to quote more letters from the brilliant Fortescue (a triple doctorate!) and also comment on the level of communication that should exist between pastors and parish musicians.