One of the features of the liturgical reforms following Vatican II is the abundance of liturgical options available. The calendar, the rubrics and the readings and prayers from the Missal had been completely fixed for some time, and as times have changed, and as the Church has moved into new mission territory, it seemed sensible to offer bishops and priests more flexibility in the celebration of the liturgy.
I never gave this much thought until I became a religious superior and was responsible not only for my own choices, but that of the priests under my authority. There were several difficulties that I began to encounter. One was that when we change parts of the liturgy on a regular basis, those celebrating it become unnecessarily self-aware, focused too much on correct execution (or, frequently enough, stewing over lame execution). To use an analogy from my musician days, every liturgy feels like debuting a newly composed song, and it might come off pretty well for the audience, but the performers are sweating, counting, wracking brains to remember transitions, agreed-upon dynamic changes and the like. I recall one great compliment my old band received from a friend who drummed in another band. After we recorded our first CD, he noted that we began to play our old songs as if they were covers (familiar old songs learned from someone else’s recordings). He meant this as high praise: we were relaxed enough to mean what we playing because we weren’t thinking about it, we weren’t watching ourselves. Our songs had become old friends. We were comfortable with them. He was a perceptive enough musician to hear this difference.
It has taken me eleven years as a superior to feel as if the Easter Vigil were natural. Some things can’t be rushed and can only be learned by repetition through time. The liturgy is a bit like good wine: it improves with age…so long as you don’t grab the fermenting barrel and stir up the lees constantly.
So we had already been desiring a more stable liturgy when I became Prior. Then a new question arose. Given the number of options available, what principles should guide our selection of one option versus another? The temptation is just to have confidence in oneself and one’s pastoral instincts. But there were a few problems with this approach. First of all, I had only been a priest for three months when I started in office, and I had no pastoral experience of any reasonable kind. Second, for any argument one could make for one sort of choice, an equally compelling argument could be made for the opposite choice. My own study of the liturgy, mainly through Gregorian chant and other musical questions, led me to be wary of assuming that I understood the reasons that old customs and phrases existed in the liturgy. A restless progressivism infects most modern persons, and it would be foolish to imagine that I’m immune to this self-serving ideology that makes our own time the pinnacle of human intellectual and cultural achievement. I was suspicious of this anyway as a musician. Can it reasonably be argued that our liturgical music has progressed since the composition of chant? Since Palestrina? Since Mozart?
As he has so often in our community’s history, Pope Benedict XVI (formerly as Cardinal Ratzinger) gave us a key for thinking through this dilemma. His ‘hermeneutic of continuity‘, which proposes that we see the One Catholic Church on both sides of the council reforms offered a first principle. Where options exist, choose the one that is in continuity with the 1962 Missal, unless there are compelling reasons otherwise. This is harder than it might sound, mostly because the lectionary has been so radically changed. But it has helped to stabilize our liturgy, and also helped us to have a greater appreciation of the Extraordinary Form.
The second major influence was the late musicologist Laszlo Dobszay. Note again the fact that he was actually a musicologist and not a liturgist. I think there are advantages to being outside of the liturgical studies establishment and in the fast-evolving world of historical studies in music. In any case, his final book argues that we will eventually probably return to the ‘old Mass’ (with certain needed, but less drastic, reforms) and admit that the new was a mistake. Perhaps. I think that this is too radical itself. I personally suspect that there will be a conscious reform of the reform in maybe another two generations, once my generation is gone at least. But also it will happen at a time when critical lessons will have been learned and some agreement will have been reached about what to fix and how. In the meantime, I’ve taken it as my goal to come at this from the other direction. My question is, “To what extent does the Church’s law permit me to adopt the forms of the previous Missal so that our present celebration is more continuous with the preconciliar Mass?” Note the importance of acting within the law. Pope Benedict XVI explicitly ruled out confusing to the two forms. On the other hand, we have found that an historically-informed study of the whole of the liturgy offers all kinds of opportunities for recovering older practices that were illegitimately suppressed or just forgotten. At Kevin’s suggestion, I will write about them from time to time. But you can experience them at virtually any liturgy you attend at the Monastery of the Holy Cross, especially for Mass, but including the Divine Office and other celebrations. We have found the results to be eye-opening and prayerful, and we hope that this will make some small contribution to the strengthening of liturgical observance throughout the Church.