I was looking around youtube and found a nine-part epic on the new translation of the Missal. It turned out to be a round-table discussion with some top players in a diocesan office. The moderator would ask one broad question and then the microphone would be passed from person to person, and you know how this groupthink works. They all pretty much said what the last person said. There were dozens of questions, and I could detect no substance at all. I lasted about eight minutes and had to bail for fear of passing out from boredom. I didn't even look at the other seven parts
Why are these films being made? The tedium of this Missal rollout is on the verge of making me crazy. There are gazillion pamphlets, films, commissions, meetings, speakers, monographs. The USCCB hasn't gone door-to-door yet but maybe that is next. Nor can I tell that average Catholics care in the slightest about this new Missal. I was drafted to give two talks at a parish recently and I spoke to an audience of two and three. I tried to be as lively as possible in talking about the changes in the people’s parts, but this is rather difficult since a total of like seven words are changing.
To be sure, the Missal is actually a landmark but the changes are within the deeper structure: the music in the Missal (if it is used), the priest’s parts, the elimination of bad options that were never really in the Latin edition, the depreciation of regrettable options, and more. It will have a gigantic effect over time but this will not be obvious on the first-time hearing. For most people, the First Sunday of Advent will be just another Sunday.
So how can we account for the frenzied educational campaign that seems to mask some grave but hidden fear? The answer was given to me by an older man who came to a seminar I was giving. So few were that that we had time to talk about his life as a Catholic. He told me a story that I’ve heard a hundred times but I still listen in astonishment. It concerned that fateful year of 1969. He was in a small parish that was relatively unaffected by anything that had happened at or after Vatican II. The Mass was the Mass. The priest said it, the schola sang it, and the Catholic Church was the great refuge from all the nonsense going on in the world.
Then one day a package arrived. It was a book with the new Mass. It was mandatory. Starting now.
He was probably 40 years old. The structure that he had grown up with and had lived his whole life was suddenly gone. The prayers of the foot of the altar were gone. The beloved Latin language was gone. The schola had no idea what to sing. All the old liturgical books, beautiful and beloved, were suddenly useless.
This man tried his best to adapt to the new. His friends all drifted away, but he stuck it out. He saw the vestments change. The focal point of the entire sanctuary shifted from the high altar to a new table that was moved closer so that the people could somehow identify with what was going on. The choir melted. A guitar group took its place, and they sang pop songs.
And the priest became Mr. Personality and seemed to never stop talking to everyone and right at everyone from the first “good morning” to the last “go and serve others.” The Catholic ritual that had been defined by its precision and careful adherence to form, for longer than a thousand years, and which had shaped countless generations, had clearly been displaced by something like looked and felt strangely improvisatory.
It is interesting to talk to faithful Catholics of a certain age about this, people who were settled in life with children and with good careers and communities during the time when this upheaval took place. They speak about it only with a painful sense, still not sure if they were actually betrayed or if there was some wisdom in all this that they were missing. It is a bit like extracting war stories from veterans. They don’t talk easily.
We know what happened in the United States and Europe. The story is in the data. Where as many as 80% of Catholis went to Mass, now only 17% or so do. Religious orders collapsed. Schools collapsed. The priesthood was gutted. Moral life changed. Everything changed. The surprise is not that people drifted away but that a few stuck around. I’m always curious about these survivors and their perspective on the world. What they experienced can only be described as a shattering of a world they once knew and believed would last forever.
So after I finished my presentation, the old man in front of me summarized his view: “As I understand what you are saying, this Missal takes us back before all this stuff happened. If so, I think I’m going to like this change better than the last one.”
Of course that’s not really what I was saying, and this Missal does not take us back to the preconciliar rite. But it does capture some of the solemnity and seriousness that was so carelessly disregarded, so there was some truth in what he said.
The narrative that I provided above is still capable of inciting vast argument in the Catholic world. People protest that the loss of people was due to demographic and not ritual shifts, that the seeming meltdown would have been worse without the new Mass, and that, in any case, the old had to go away because it was stern, dark, dreary, confining, insular, and incompatible with the needs of modern people, and you can filled in the rest because we’ve all heard it a thousand times.
And yet, I would suggest that the extreme caution with which this current reform is taking place suggests a confirmation that the narrative is not only true; it is the conventional one. What that upheaval did was produce a Catholic people who are incredibly resistant to change and conservative beyond what they should be. Every change for the last fifty years has come at the expense of stable piety, solid doctrine, and reliable solemnity. Why would anyone want more of that? Why would they risk change at all? The Bishops, of all people, know this and hence the caution.
It is going to take another generation before Catholics start truly trusting again. Bugnini has left his mark on the world, and it one that makes progress incredibly difficult and popularly terrifying. We were supposed to be ushered into a new age of hyper flexibility and we all ended up becoming as implacably resistant to the new as any stick in the mud of centuries gone by.
And yet we must embrace, we must risk, change insofar as that change leads us to recapture what we’ve lost. Embracing the truths that were lost along the way is the only really means for helping us truly believe again.