HE LITURGICAL reformers of the 1960s and 1970s claimed that their decisions were motivated by a desire to recover elements of Christian antiquity and the worship of the “early Church.” I am continually surprised that their claims are taken seriously.
First, there is the simple problem that we know relatively little about worship in the apostolic period. Scripture gives us some precious insights, but rich detail on liturgical praxis comes much later on, when a significant amount of development had already taken palce. Second, the very fact that development occurred, and occurred with the approval of the Church’s leaders and people, should be enough to convince us that liturgy, too, is part of that “fullness of truth” into which Jesus promises we will be led by the working of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Third, the particular ways in which the liturgy slowly grew in reverence, solemnity, and symbolism are no less in God’s Providence than the original institution of the Most Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper. Hence, it is prima facie illegitimate to suggest that stripping away developments (called “accretions” by the scholars) is a path back to a liturgy that is somehow more perfectly what the Lord intended. This is a colossal begging of the question. It has been necessary from time to time to gently prune or carefully reorganize certain aspects of the Church’s liturgy, but the structure, ritual, major prayers, and chants have tended to be left intact, because of a humble spirit of reverence for what has been handed down, that is, tradition as such.
THE OTHER THING that should tip us off to the dissembling of the liturgical reformers is that they were highly selective in the ancient elements they retrieved, ignoring anything they didn’t happen to agree with. If the liturgical reformers had sincerely wanted to make the liturgy more like what they might have viewed as the liturgy’s “high period,” they would, for instance, have re-introduced majestic processions and have preserved or re-established the custom of preaching from the elevated pulpit.
Let me take up that last example, since it is rarely considered nowadays.
In Europe’s churches, it is pathetic to see the priest at Mass reading from an insubstantial lectern with a piece of unremarkable cloth or felt draped over it, when twenty feet above him to the side is a beautifully carved, mighty-looking perch from which the Word of God can be worthily proclaimed and a homily preached. Nowadays these pulpits collect dust and are barely noticed except by students of art history. In America, only older, European-derived churches had such pulpits, and even so, the “re-ordering” of the sanctuaries after Vatican II meant the destruction of many such pulpits along with the sanctuaries.
What is the secret fear of the appearance of solemnity, authority, majesty? Have we entirely lost confidence in the splendor of truth, the glory of religion, the beauty of God’s house, the thunder of God’s voice, the nobility of Christ’s priesthood? Are we afraid of giving a “triumphalist” impression? Do we want to reduce everything Christ said and did to a calm, comfortable living room soirée? Proclamation, dear friends, is not the same as either reading aloud or conversing pleasantly to pass the time!
If one wishes the “common people” to participate actively in the liturgy, then one will respect the most elementary facts of human psychology: a slowly processing line of beautifully vested ministers gracefully approaching the altar, to the accompaniment of the mighty sound of the pipe organ or the heavenly melody of chant, engages the senses and the soul with a deeper and more lasting effect than an ill-clad priest shyly stepping out of the sacristy door and beginning Mass at a toothpick lectern (as I often saw happen in Europe).
If any element or aspect of the liturgy does not effectively convey to a young child that this activity in which we are participating is different and special, then it has, at some level, failed. The bowing priest reciting the Confiteor, the acolyte swinging a censer, the subdeacon, deacon, and priest aligned hierarchically during solemn Mass, the awesome stillness of the Roman Canon—all of these things speak directly to the heart, to the heart even of a little child who has managed to sit still and watch.