UST YESTERDAY we recalled the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. That anniversary brought back to mind a little conversation that occurred 8 years ago.
One day, after attending Divine Liturgy, my son said to me (it was only a couple of months after his sixth birthday): “The Greeks are the ones who started the divine liturgy, right? I mean, they were the first to do it so beautifully, with all that singing and stuff?”
His question pierced me to the heart, because it showed that he experienced the Byzantine liturgy as primordially beautiful and the Latin rite as a second-best. In the forms he had seen most often, either the Novus Ordo or the Tridentine Low Mass, it had a minimum of beauty of chant and ritual. Ex ore infantium: surely we could take a cue from a child, and reinstate some of the beauty and solemnity that was once also ours?
At Stift Heiligenkreuz, a magnificent Cistercian monastery not far from Vienna, although the liturgy is the Novus Ordo (in Latin), still the massive resonance of the prayers in the huge Romanesque church, the soaring voices of the monks singing the Gregorian chant they never abandoned, and the overall ethos of the community are so evidently focused on the Lord that when members of Eastern Orthodox churches visit, they feel quite at home. They can see it’s the real thing, not a substitute.
Alas, the way in which the Ordinary Form is celebrated at Heiligenkreuz is rare indeed; one might find comparable examples in the chapels of the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius, the chapels of some of the Oratories (like Oxford and London), and the Monastero di San Benedetto in Norcia, and while the numbers of such places are slowly increasing, it is still something one has to look around extensively to find. That celebrations of the revised Roman Rite with fitting splendor and solemnity have been so rare for the past forty-odd years says much, far too much, about how Church authorities have seen fit, or not seen fit, to regulate the liturgy since the late sixties.
One Sunday years ago, I took a bunch of students with me to a Solemn High Mass in the usus antiquior. A Greek Catholic seminarian from Ukraine, who is now a priest in his own rite, reacted with open-eyed wonder at the beauty of this Mass (he had never seen anything like it in all his years of friendship with Roman Catholics), and said to me afterwards, incredulously: “Why did they have to change that liturgy?”
Once the Mass was changed—or as long as it seemed to people that the Mass had indeed been made over from head to toe and that it could suffer infinite permutation—the foundation of our faith was shaken, and in practice the faith has never recovered the lost ground. On the contrary, it lost far more ground than most people are close to realizing, let alone admitting. We are still officially in the phase of denial; witness the many Vatican documents that still, to this day, praise the reform as a great success whose “riches” only need to be further unfolded, while a few “shadows” have to be corrected. Those shadows were already pointed out in the seventies and eighties, yet most of them remain uncorrected in the majority of dioceses around the world.
Consider this passage from John Paul II’s Dominicae Cenae of 1990:
It is therefore very opportune and necessary to continue to actuate a new and intense education, in order to discover all the richness contained in the new liturgy. Indeed, the liturgical renewal that has taken place since the Second Vatican Council has given, so to speak, greater visibility to the Eucharistic Sacrifice. One factor contributing to this is that the words of the Eucharistic Prayer are said aloud by the celebrant, particularly the words of consecration, with the acclamation of the assembly immediately after the elevation.
As those who are familiar with it know, the ancient Roman rite gives far greater prominence and visibility to the Eucharistic sacrifice: it expresses the sacrificial character of the Mass with an unambiguous clarity of text and ritual. Not surprisingly, there was no crisis before the Council in regard to faith in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and faith in the Mass as a true and proper sacrifice. There were plenty of other problems, to be sure, but this did not seem to be at the top of the list. And yet, how often will we find Catholics today, brought up on the Novus Ordo, who have heard, let alone believe, that the Eucharist is the unbloody renewal of the Sacrifice of Calvary, and that it is, in reality, in truth, in substance, His very Body and Blood—to receive which we must be purified and properly disposed lest we commit an unspeakable offense? Would the liturgy, as these Catholics have experienced it, successfully convey those saving truths—or would the defined dogmas about the Mass and the Eucharist sound strange, perhaps even absurd to him?
“The Greeks are the ones who started the divine liturgy, right? I mean, they were the first to do it so beautifully, with all that singing and stuff?”
“No, son, our Roman Mass is actually, at its heart, the most ancient of all the liturgical rites in the world, more ancient even than the Byzantine liturgy we just attended. But the East kept their tradition alive while we, for a time, have put ours away in a closet. We are trying to bring it out into the light again, and I’m sure the East won’t mind if we take some inspiration from them.”