Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Reform of the Reform: It is Happening

Much to my own delight and, to some extent, shock, the reform of the reform has become the most exciting and operative movement in the liturgical world today. After having been in the planning stages for longer than a decade, and even several, the reality has swept upon us with an astounding speed. The most conspicuous sign is the new translation that is to be implemented this coming Advent, but there is even more to it than this. The reform is touching every aspect of the liturgical face of the Roman Rite.

Let me take a step back and explain why this has come as quite the shock and why it represents the fulfillment of something seemingly impossible.

Since the first days of the first liturgical reform, the reaction has been mixed and contentious. Some were happy, some so disgusted that they walked away, some were indifferent, and there was a last group that stuck around but has been very disgruntled. Among those in the last group, there were two warring tribes: those who believed that it was possible to do better within the context of the reformed liturgy and those who saw no choice but to completely revert to the previous release from 1962.

These two sectors of people who saw the profound problems associated with the first reform were seriously at odds. Within Catholic punditry throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it was a complete war zone. You had to choose sides, landing firmly in one camp or another. The split occurred down family lines, and Catholic magazines and institutions had to decide one way or another. Very few in those days had the vision of Benedict XVI, who imagined a peaceful coexistence between the camps, which is the vision embodied in Summorum Pontificum. Such a possibility was just not an option in those days.

For my own part, living in what is now called the ordinary form world, I was pretty sure that the traditionalists were correct, and my judgement was based on personal experience with the way bureaucracies work. For years I had heard arguments about how the reform of the reform should take place. Some imagined the re-institution of the Last Gospel while others say that portion of the liturgy to be completely unneeded. Others surmised that the real problem was just that celebrants were improvising too much; if they would just stick to the books, all would be well. That same time of argument persisted in nearly every aspect of the reform, from the choice of language to the choice of vestments.

Given this situation, I figured that a consensus would never arrive. I imagined a room of liturgists arguing about these finer points and never coming to any kind of agreement. The result would be deadlock and a decision to just keep the current structure and also translation in place as is, simply because the status quo is always the result of bureaucratic deadlock. To my way of thinking, the reform opened the can of worms and they multiplied to the point that no one would ever get them back in again. Hence, the only way forward was the way backward: straight to 1962 as the goal.

I can recall the moment when my thinking began to shift. It was about eight years ago when I first sat down with William Mahrt who asked me a very pointed question. “Is it your view,” he asked, “that Gregorian chant and polyphony can never be restored within the reformed liturgy?” I said, yes that is my view and cited a host of sociological and structural reasons. He paused. Then he said bluntly: I disagree. That got my attention! He proceeded to explain how had had managed to do this in his own parish and how he sings the full propers of the Graduale Romanum with his choir in a regular parish, and how the congregation sings from the Kyriale, and how he also uses full Mass settings in Latin from the Renaissance. And he showed me his repertoire list to prove it.

That one conversation made realize something important. As I had become more “hard core” on issues of liturgical politics, I had become gradually less able to envision opportunities for reform within the reformed liturgy. Maybe I had been making excuses for myself to do nothing? For all the differences in the new rite, it is still the Roman Rite and hence it embeds a sensibility that is crying out to be united with its native music. The relationship had been broken asunder mostly due to cultural convention and convenience; we had a job to do in going forward. I gradually began to see the light here and began the hard work of making some contribution to the effort.

Also, I began to realize something about any long-standing choice with regard to reform: dreaming of some idyllic past can be easily coupled with a casual despair to create a kind of gloss on lethargy. The real hard work comes with embracing a realistic hope and committing time and energy to make it happen.

Apparently much smarter minds than mine had been thinking along the same lines and for a much longer time, and I thank God for this. For in our own time, we are about to experience the biggest upgrade to the reform yet. The new translation is absolutely thorough and pervasive from the first words to Mass to the end. It is dazzling to compare what we’ve lived with for so long with what we are about to experience.

For one thing, if you look through the critiques of the reformed rite of 1969/70 - some profoundly sensible and some unnecessarily vitriolic - you find that a major portion of them deal with the language that is about to be abandoned in favor of a translation that actually reflects the content of the Latin. Whole libraries of criticisms of the Novus Ordo Missae are about to be made defunct with this one action. That’s not to say that there are not remaining problems in the Latin or the forthcoming English Missal. It is only to say that the most dreadful issues of all are on the verge of being eliminated.

About the current translation of the Missal, I’ve long been a critic, some would say bitter critic. But let me say this. There is a way in which the current translation it is brilliant. It likes the active voice. The sentences are short. It eliminates repetition. It speaks very plainly and is always to the point. It is also humane and connected to our lives. This is good writing, excellent writing. It is perfect for novels, newspapers, scripts, and advertising. Would that more people would write this way. However, as a method of liturgy, it doesn’t work. The idea was to make the liturgy more directly communicative; but the approach did not stand the test of time and, in the end, managed only to make the liturgy tedious. It was a brilliant but colossal error.

The adoption of a new framework for language has already given life to a new approach to imaging new and beautiful things within the ritual structure. I’ve received countless notes from directors of music who are planning dramatic changes with the new Missal, starting with the adoption of the Missal chants themselves. The Simple Propers Projects fits in nicely here. Many priests have written with great excitement about how the new Missal will give them a fresh start with their musicians, liturgy teams, and every manner of lay volunteers. In my own parish, many people have given money specially earmarked to make this transition possible.

In short, one way to look at the current moment is that the reformed liturgy is being given another chance to succeed, and this time it is happening at a time when the ritual of 1962 is more pervasive in the lives of Catholics than it has been in 45 years. Traditionalists have always been correct on this point: the Mass of the Ages must be the guiding framework, the bedrock from whence all reform must flow. In liturgy, there is no such thing as starting from scratch. Many people apparently forgot that somewhere along the way.

Thus are we experiencing the reform of the reform even as we are seeing a flourishing of the old rite. The ordinary and extraordinary rites are living side by side in a way that hardly anyone really imagined could happen back in the 1980s. More than that, the ordinary form is on its way to being worthy of being held up as a legitimate expression of the Roman Rite, and recognizable as such to any generation. As to people like myself who doubted that this could ever happen: we should all take note of our onetime lack of faith and observe that glorious things are possible with work and prayer.