Semper reformanda

Blessed Pope John XXIII

Blessed Pope John XXIII.

Today is the liturgical celebration of Blessed Pope John XXIII (1881-1963, r. 1958-1963). I note that the date of his celebration is not the day of his death, but that of his historic opening of the Second Vatican Council on 11 October 1962. I don’t remember “Good Pope John,” but from all that I’ve read he was indeed a good and beloved man.

As a newcomer to the Church, I don’t know what to make of Vatican II. I feel like I’ve walked into the room in the middle of a conversation. Most of what I hear about Vatican II is filtered through the media from disgruntled Traditionalist Catholics. Lately, I have heard some more mixed criticism among friends at church, and on the one Catholic blog I have been reading regularly (recommended by both Audrey and Brad), New Liturgical Movement.

My basic understanding of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II comes from Dr. G, my undergraduate mentor and doctor in Latin and history, who is not Catholic but Lutheran in background. According to him, Vatican II allowed (or ordered?) the Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular. This, to me, seems a good thing, in encouraging the participation and understanding of the Mass by the lay faithful. It also, I understand, simplified the liturgy of the Mass considerably. Also, according to Dr. G, it required Mass to be celebrated versus populum (toward the people) rather than ad orientem (toward the East), resulting in some awkward and unattractive arrangements in the grand churches of Rome — tables set up in front of the altars, since the altars themselves were built for ad orientem. This prescription, apparently, is a part of the 1970 Roman Missal, rather than Vatican II proper. (The 1970 Missal must be what I’ve seen referred to by an author on NLM as “the great mistake of 1970.”) Personally, I like the versus populum Mass, but also respect and value ad orientem, especially in the grand old churches. Father Joe celebrates the evening Sunday Mass ad orientem; this was the first time I’d ever seen an ad orientem Mass, or even realized that it was still allowed. Is my understanding of the changes correct? What is it that has Traditionalists so upset?

NLM ran a piece the other day that provoked a lot of thought about this for me, an interview with Dr. Alcuin Reid entitled “The Council, Organic Development, Rupture, and Continuity.” This introduced me to some of topics of the ongoing debate, especially the idea of whether Vatican II represents continuity or rupture with tradition, in terms of liturgical development:

3. Continuity or Rupture? Could one say that “traditionalist” Catholics agree with the thesis of a rupture?

I am not a “traditionalist”. I am a Catholic. I am also a liturgical historian. As the latter I can say that there is evidence that those responsible for the reform intended rupture – ritual and also theological. They did not want what was handed on in tradition. They did not want to develop that. They wanted something new, something that would reflect ‘modern man’ in the 1960’s and what they thought he needed.

This is an historical reality, not an ecclesio-political position. Liturgists from ‘both sides’ agree that the reform was radical and a rupture. As a Catholic I regard this as a significant problem, because it is unprecedented in liturgical history and it is not what the Council, out of respect for liturgical tradition, called for.

This troubles me. Certainly, one of my primary affinities for the Catholic Church is the sense that it represents liturgical and theological continuity. Has there been a rupture? More important, can it be repaired? I have gotten the sense that the present pope, Benedict XVI, has been working, cautiously but deliberately, to return the Church to her traditions, to recover what may have been lost at Vatican II. Am I right in this understanding?

I have been trying to do some research — which has been difficult, since views on this controversy are so wide-ranging, from Traditionalists to Liberals, and I don’t know who to listen to. I trust, on its face, NLM, based on the recommendations of my friends, and on my agreement so far with the views and attitudes it has espoused. I trust, perhaps naïvely, Wikipedia, on the belief that on such controversial subjects, the Wikipedians do well to police themselves and find a middle ground.

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI.

I trust the pope. The more I read of Benedict’s writings, the more I admire him and am glad for a Holy Father of such deep intelligence and erudition, and of such thoroughgoing conservatism and commitment to the faith of the Church. In his 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, he spoke of how to interpret Vatican II, in either a “hermeneutic of continuity” or a “hermeneutic of rupture.” He explained the reasons for the council, its challenges and issues, and its outcomes:

The Second Vatican Council, with its new definition of the relationship between the faith of the Church and certain essential elements of modern thought, has reviewed or even corrected certain historical decisions, but in this apparent discontinuity it has actually preserved and deepened her inmost nature and true identity.

The Church, both before and after the Council, was and is the same Church, one, holy, catholic and apostolic, journeying on through time; she continues “her pilgrimage amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God”, proclaiming the death of the Lord until he comes. . . .

This dialogue must now be developed with great openmindedness but also with that clear discernment that the world rightly expects of us in this very moment. Thus, today we can look with gratitude at the Second Vatican Council:  if we interpret and implement it guided by a right hermeneutic, it can be and can become increasingly powerful for the ever necessary renewal of the Church.

Is the new English translation of the Roman Missal a part of that continuing renewal? I have read some critics of the changes, calling them awkward or even promoting theological confusion, but others, such as the writers on NLM, have praised them for their accuracy and dignity.

If my understanding is correct — if Pope Benedict, and other forces within the Church, are working to restore the continuity and dignity of our liturgy, where it may have been compromised — then this is an exciting time to be entering the Church. I look forward to the full transition to the new Missal in a few weeks. I also look forward to Brad’s and Father Joe’s take on Vatican II when it is taught in RCIA. The Church moves at a glacial pace; but I pray that it is moving in the right direction.

Update: See my follow-up to this post, after getting some answers: “Semper reformanda: The Continuity of Vatican II with Catholic Tradition.”

12 thoughts on “Semper reformanda

  1. It’s a tricky situation. For most serious Catholics, especially converts (who tend to be serious) it’s like avoiding both Scylla and Charybdis. There is in the West (in the US and Europe) a “side” that is more liberal or ‘progressive’, definitely liturgically and sometimes doctrinally. [The doctrinally-heterodox is a much smaller portion, but it does exist, and since it aligns itself with the “liberal” areas of the rest of the culture, it has a certain power. I’m talking about certain ideas from liberation theology that go too far towards Marxism, and so on. If you count the social doctrines, especially on sexual practices, there is much more disagreement with the Church.] Some of these people go so far as to disobey the Pope or the bishops and some groups — like groups that ordain women, or do truly crazy things at Mass — are in schism.

    On the other hand, you have capital-T Traditionalists. Some of these go so far as to say that Vatican II was SUCH a rupture with the Church’s tradition that the Popes since then have not been legitimate, and other complicated things I haven’t bothered to remember in detail. I’ve known some of them, and to be honest, I often see this theological/liturgical position as a function of personality traits. But either way, there are Traditionalist groups that have been basically in schism for a number of years, for various reasons. The Society of St Pius X, or the SSPX, is the most famous.

    Most serious young Catholics now value older liturgical traditions, even though (obviously) not all of them know very much about it or pursue it and go all-out by switching to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (used to be called Tridentine Rite, until Pope Benedict put out an address basically welcoming back this rite as an equal part of our liturgical heritage). Many older Catholics, who are wonderful people and not at all heterodox, seem attached to the style and sound and feel of the 70s and 80s Mass, and keep on trying to do things that way. Meanwhile, during these years, influences from the whole range of Protestant musical experimentation have found their way in to certain places. You’ll get more of a feel for this the more you attend different places for Mass, prayer, Benediction and Adoration, etc. It becomes glaringly obvious (well, if you are someone who notices these things).

    I’ve never become an expert in this, but I believe I learned (from a trustworthy source) that Vatican II encouraged certain parts of the Mass to be in the vernacular, but it was still optional to keep certain parts (of the Ordinary, mostly) in Latin. So my first regular parish, the Cathedral Basilica in St Louis, often had the Kyrie in Greek, the Gloria and Sanctus and Agnus Dei and so on in Latin, and the rest in English. (The general improvement and “heightening” of the liturgy had happened only recently there, when Archbishop (now Cardinal) Raymond Burke became the bishop there. He is a strong supporter of traditional liturgy. He also baptized me…) Whereas, usually, at your basic suburban Catholic parish, everything will be in English, and they’ll probably be using a hymnbook with songs by Oregon Catholic Press, the St Louis Jesuits, and some other big-name Catholic composers whose music I think is basically bad across the board. If you’re lucky, you’ll occasionally get to sing an old Catholic hymn in Latin instead of in a cruddy English translation, or they’ll sing a litany in Latin on special occasions, etc.

    I don’t know why I’m explaining all this — but my point is, what I was told by all the Catholics I knew when I was converting: The Mass is still the Mass. You can worship at Mass because of what it is, even in a physical or musical setting that you have to sort of block out. (Ironically, the “simple” and “welcoming” spirit in the musical and decorative style is the most distracting for me.) What I find the most difficult distraction to overcome is a priest who is too “showy” or personable. It’s a fine line between enacting, performing, praying the Mass and performing one’s own charisma. And it might take a while to become more attuned to this, because Protestant churches across the board, but particularly evangelical and charismatic ones, have COMPLETELY bought into personality-preaching, and it takes a while for that to wear out of you. Now I find it SUPER grating and disrespectful, whereas I used to genuinely find it comfortable and sincere. But the Mass is NOT actually a time or place to settle back, make friends with the priest, or chill with your mocha on a Sunday morning while you soak it in. It is properly much more solemn and exacting than that. So a priest who can reveal the solemnity of the liturgy is really essential to me.

    The funny thing is that, here in Germany, where I can’t understand the homilies or the extra parts some priests add to the introductory prayers and so on, it is SO MUCH easier for me not to get annoyed. I am probably too sensitive about it anyway. But still, I can tune out the chatter, focus on what I know is happening and what I know he is saying (because I already know the Mass in English), and worship with much more focus. I still think the vernacular Mass is a great thing (though the translation has sucked, and I do think the new one will improve things.)

    Did I also link you to NLM? It’s a great blog.

    • I have read a little bit about the Traditionalists, but didn’t want to give them much of a spotlight. There was a guy in my Latin class (2003) who was learning Latin so he could more fully understand the Latin liturgy, which his family celebrated in a private chapel they had built (presumably without a formally ordained priest). I haven’t talked to the guy in years, but know he’s now on the Spanish faculty at my alma mater. I wonder if he has “returned to the fold” since there is now an Extraordinary Mass every week at one of the local parishes? I have never been to it, but would like to go sometime.

      In our parish here, when I first started attending Mass last year, we had the loveliest liturgy. The Kyrie, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei, and the Salve Regina, were all sung in Latin, in traditional plainchant forms (even not knowing much about tradition, I know they are traditional because I hear the same forms sung on my early music CDs!). I especially loved the Kyrie. It had such a haunting and ancient feel; I felt I was in touch with all the Christians of all the ages. We sang the Gloria in English, but to music I’m to understand was traditional or at least old and widely used. A few months ago, we started using new musical settings prescribed by our bishop for the new English translation. So now we still sing the Kyrie in Greek, but have to use the bishop’s music (not nearly as moving); we now sing the Sanctus in English, to music which is not that bad, but not traditional; the Agnus Dei has stayed pretty much exactly the same (even the same, traditional music, thanks); and we continue to do our same old thing with the Salve Regina, which I guess isn’t part of the Ordinary. I am pretty much okay with the new musical settings. Even if I don’t prefer them, it is still the same Mass. My biggest gripe, as I griped a couple of week ago, is about singing the “Great Amen”.

      Brad is an outstanding leader of our music. He and Father Joe found a hymnal that had the prescribed plainchant hymns for every week set to dignified, traditional-sounding music (I think it may actually be the tunes of traditional hymns). And Ms. Betty is an outstanding pianist and organist. We often sing even the finer Protestant, especially Wesleyan hymns as offertories. I like that we can draw from the treasury of that tradition, too, as it suits us (but I also like that we don’t do it too much). There is not much “contemporary” here — which, though I haven’t witnessed it myself, I’ve heard has really taken root in some places. I visited the parish back home when I was home over Labor Day, and I think it is what you would describe as “Eighties style” — as contemporary as your grandpa is contemporary; but not contemporary as guitars and drums and keyboards and “upbeat” rhythms.

      One of my absolute favorite things about Catholicism — and I hope to write about this sometime — is that the Mass is designed to focus entirely on God, not on the man celebrating it. I have only observed a few celebrants — I reckon if a man is really determined to insert himself into the Mass and be showy, he’ll do it no matter what — but so far, even the priest or two whose personality rubbed me the wrong way wasn’t overly distracting to me. The cult of personality so inherent in evangelicalism and especially charismaticism is something I want to run away from as fast as my legs will carry me.

    • Also, no, I don’t think you did link me to NLM. But I am pleased to find that the awesomest people in my life all read the same awesome blogs. 😀 Can you recommend some other cool Catholic blogs? I am trying to do better at managing (and not being overwhelmed by) my feed reader.

    • By the way, have you seen the like of this (conspiracy theories that Pope Paul VI was replaced by a liberal imposter)? I stumbled upon it years ago and thought it was freakish but amusing even then. 😀

  2. Oh, and also, it was supposedly not specified that the priest should celebrate versus populum. In fact, there’s a part in the original rubrics that says he should then “turn back toward the people,” or something, implying that he was still facing east. I’m like 75% sure, so you might wanna look it up if you’re curious. But it’s something that absolutely everyone started to do. I had an elderly priest tell me once how difficult it was to make that transition. He was used to feeling that he was praying to God, by facing the East, and facing a crucifix, and usually also the tabernacle. Then he had to turn around and attempt to make the same prayers while looking out over a sea of people’s faces. The human instinct to relate to another human face took over, and he couldn’t HELP but feel like he was being more of an entertainer, instead of someone standing in for the people before God and standing in for God before the people (the essential function of a priest during Mass).

    Aannnyway. Something that WAS for sure just spontaneously invented is holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer. I CANNOT STAAAAND IT. Luckily that doesn’t happen everywhere.

    • Wow, interesting. That explains so much. In our parish, I have observed a lot of people raising their hands to either side of them during the Our Father — and then I’ve observed other people, like Audrey, not doing it at all. Audrey was usually who I looked at when I was first learning to Act Catholic, but being a hand-raising, charismatic kind of guy, I started raising my hands, too, along with everybody else. But it’s not really a charismatic kind of hand-raising. It’s kind of a half-raising, bending only at the elbow, like they’re reaching for something that’s not there. Maybe they’re just the ones who are used to holding hands? I had no idea anybody did that. Anyway, I’ve developed my own tradition here now and like my hand-raising, the one time I have an excuse to do it in a Catholic church. 😀

      I believe you are correct about versus populum not actually being prescribed in the Missal — I gathered as much from Wikipedia. I wonder why everybody started doing it? Especially in the grand old churches? Why would they do that if it wasn’t prescribed? When you explain it like you did above — and I’ve heard that before, but tend to forget — ad orientem makes a lot more sense, and I find it easier to embrace. Versus populum feels more comfortable for me, no doubt because I’m used to the preacher looking at me — but that may be exactly the problem. I’m trying to get away from religion that is about “feeling,” about “comfort,” and most of all about me.

      • Hahahaha, I love that you noticed that weird hand-hovering gesture. I think it’s a mix of influences from (a) the hand-holding and (b) the way that some people mimic the priest’s gestures during the responses. Have you noticed that? The priest says, “The Lord be with you,” and raises his hands, and when we say “and also with you,”* some people also raise their hands. I haven’t researched it, but I seriously doubt this has any real backing. It’s either something some liturgical “reformer” started to make people feel “more included,” or it just sprang up instinctively. It’s funny how things like that spread. People can’t help developing gestures during Mass. Another instance is how certain priests will incline their head slightly whenever the prayer includes “Lord Jesus Christ”– and I never INTENDED to start doing that, but after a while my head started bowing when I felt those words coming. And the instinct to kneel at certain parts is an even stronger pull.

        Everywhere I went to Mass in St Louis, we would kneel from the end of the Sanctus, through the Consecration, and to the Great Amen. Then we stood for the Our Father, but knelt again right after the Agnus Dei. We then knelt the whole time until our line went up to communion (only in the US do Catholics do the whole queue-up and file-through thing), and then we knelt afterward, too. But apparently in my archdiocese at home, the bishops have said that we should ONLY kneel during that first period, the Consecration, and stand the rest of the time, until everybody has finished the communion procession (supposedly to show unity with the whole congregation as they receive communion — dumb). This drives me CRAZY, because when I’m standing during that time I find it way too distracting and counterproductive. Plus my body just WANTS to kneel. They do it automatically as the Agnus Dei finishes. So I do it anyway, bishops be… darned. But they kneel in the same way here in Germany, so I’m just going to assume the bishop in Seattle is the aberrant one. They do stand at different this point in the Eastern Rites, but I just don’t think it works here, and certainly not with people who are accustomed to kneeling.

        *This, if you weren’t already aware, is one of the bad translations that’s going to change. The Latin is “et cum spiritu tuo,” and the English will soon be “and with your spirit.” The German has always been correct – “und mit deinem Geiste.” Actually, though, while I’m glad for the change, I sort of wish it were “and with THY spirit.” I REALLY notice in the English liturgy how awkward the words “you” and “your” are. They are actually hard to say, and not as pleasing to the ear, at least to me. Of course this has nothing to do with modern usage exactly — you is just as old as thou, but thou just fell out of use — but still. I also don’t think it would be a TERRIBLE INFRINGEMENT ON THE RIGHT OF MODERN PEOPLE TO PRAY IN AUTHENTIC WAYS, or whatever the casual-vernacular argument is, because Catholics today often pray traditional prayers like the Ave Maria or Salve Regina and use thee-thou. Using “your” in the Our Father is similarly clunky for me. When I learned it as an evangelical we used thou’s. So that’s a disappointment. I love the sh’s and th’s of English – such a wonderfully slushy, sibilanty language – and especially since our pronunciation of words like “your” tend to slip into “yur” and stuff, it just sounds icky.

  3. Yes, your Seattle bishop is the aberrant one (I bet he’s Canadian). Here in the South, we kneel at the same times you did in St. Louis. I love it. It’s such a deep and contemplative time, kneeling while we’re waiting for the Eucharist (or at least, in my case, waiting to be near it), and then kneeling again after we’ve received it (or not), in thanksgiving. I want to kneel in the presence of the Real Presence, from consecration to the time it goes it the tabernacle. I thought that was the idea.

    And yes, I know about the “and with your spirit” translation. We’ve already been practicing/getting used to it in daily Mass. I think it’s a great improvement. Also, finally appreciating the proper context of “I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed” versus “I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” I didn’t even realize where in Scripture that came from, under the old translation, until I looked it up.

    I’ve noticed some weird gesture-mimicking, too. I kind of like miming the lifting up of my heart when we say “We lift them [our hearts] up to the Lord.”

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