N SACROSANCTUM CONCILIUM 34 we read: “The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation.” In the new climate of a sincere, open, and honest discussion of the documents of Vatican II, we might genuinely wonder about the legitimacy of that last idea―“and normally should not require much explanation.”
First, there is no such thing as a born Christian, nor a man naturally attuned to symbolism, especially in our age of asymbolic emptiness, when the most elementary religious instincts have been lost or perverted. Everyone needs to learn the meaning of symbols and symbolic gestures. Indeed, one of the most important elements of catechesis is to inculcate the Christian mystagogy, the meaning of all the aspects of Christian worship. Once a layman has learned the meaning of the rituals, gestures, prayers of the ancient rite, he never needs to have them explained again; they remain deeply lodged in the heart, fecundating his spiritual life.
Thus, turning the Council’s statement on its head, the liturgy in absolutely every respect MUST be explained if it is to have and retain any meaning at all. The statement that nothing should need to be explained refutes itself from the very definition of symbol and ritual, which are interpretive motions towards God and cannot be absent from worship unless it degenerates completely into no more than an organized social gathering where greetings and handshakes are exchanged. This kind of formal coffee hour, of course, would need no explaining; but it is also not worship in any sense of the word, much less the renewal of the Sacrifice of Calvary.
To go further, the Council’s statement is strange, for the simple reason that anything profound requires explanation, inculcation, catechesis―the liturgy above all, as testified in Romano Guardini’s masterful sermons on the liturgy, which he preached to an appreciative congregation. To say that the liturgy should somehow be “transparent” in the sense of requiring no prior formation―something quite contrary to the elaborate initiatory practice of the early Church, which prepared her catechumens with such care (how ironic in this age of supposed “return to antiquity”!)―is to set up not only an impossible but an anti-liturgical goal.
To go further still, the traditional Roman liturgy is, in a way, far more transparent, far more immediately understandable, because it is more attentive to the majesty and solemnity of the sacrifice and does not attempt to simplify (and thereby cheapen) the contents of worship. Quietly ignoring the question of audience response, it is nonetheless capable of eliciting an immediate response of a far deeper quality. This is why good-hearted Catholics who attend the ancient liturgy may come away perhaps a bit confused as to the details but still filled with a sense of mystery and majesty, aware of the sublime and unique nature of true Christian worship. Provided that they understand the rudiments of Catholic doctrine, they have seen and heard the mystery of the word of God and the Holy Eucharist; they do not need an immediate explanation of every detail. They will grow into the details over time, especially if the priest does his job by judicious explanations in sermons, as any good traditional priest would do.
The real crisis at the time of the Council was that priests were no longer devoted to, and no longer cared to preach about, the mysteries, the rituals, the symbols. Thus the Consilium of Paul VI thought to solve the problem by fabricating a symbolically “obvious” ritual, and succeeded, as Catherine Pickstock argues, in giving us something nearly totally devoid of symbolic richness, subtlety, and depth. In a sort of inversion of Catholic incarnational spirituality, they surrendered to the anti-symbolic, anti-sacral carnality of the modern world, where obsession with the flesh―that is, the palpable, immediate, obvious, no-need-to-be-explained environment of daily experience―clouds over the apprehension of invisible spiritual realities.
Yet another reason for Summorum Pontificum, which has inaugurated the liturgical renewal that the Council attempted but, thanks to the snares of ideology, failed to achieve.