Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Three Worlds of Catholic Liturgy

Twenty years ago, there were three main worlds of Catholic liturgy.

First, there was the mainstream that had virtually no interest in tradition, solemnity, rubrics, or any rooted ideas concerning the historic integrity of the Roman Rite. The only concern of these people was in the unending process of reforming the ritual away from its tradition toward something that made people feel good about themselves and their faith communities.

Second, there was the group was made up of traditionalists who rejected the everything postconciliar and saw no liturgical salvation outside a purely restorative agenda of bringing back the preconciliar rite. It was a very small movement with no official voice. They were largely outsiders who were made to feel that way by anyone with the power to do so.

Third, there was the “reform the reform” camp -- sometimes just called conservatives as distinct from traditionalists. They also had low influence and no seeming hope for shaping the future. This was certainly my judgement. I doubted that this group could ever really decide a way forward. Their position seemed fuzzy and lukewarm, wedded to the postconciliar framework but having no viable plan to see it realized in any solemn way.

This is the way things stood for a very long time. Summorum Pontificum of 2007 changed that. It liberalized the liturgical environment by permitting the celebration of the old form of the Roman Rite. Many brilliant thinkers, musicians, and clerics who regarded themselves as traditionalists suddenly found that they were safe in admitting their aspirations.

As part of that, the reform of the reform camp began to work with the traditionalists, and a mutual understanding began to grow. The fights between the camps began to go away. New parishes offering both forms opened up. More young priests learned the old form and this informed their reform agenda for the new form of the rite. Gradually over the last five years, we seen an emerging consensus among both camps. They more and more celebrate successes in both the forms.

Let me mention what I find to be an extremely telling example: English chant. I know I’ve written about this for years but it signifies something extremely important. There is no question in my mind that many of the best minds at Vatican II imagined that there was a future for the chant vernacular liturgy. The first efforts at composition after the close of the Council introduced some elements of this.

But of course it never happen. Or didn’t happen for forty years. There were some editions floating around here and there but they were not published and not circulated. There was no support for the idea from either the “progressive” camp or the traditionalists. What might have seemed to be a normal, natural, inevitable answer to the great problem of postconciliar music was left on the shelf.

Now, consider the following astonishing fact. The monastery of Solesmes in France, which has been the great guardian of the Church’s chant tradition for 150 years, and which has published all the postconciliar Latin chant books, has a new book out. It is called Singing the Mass. Here is the compiler's website. It has four-line staffs as you would expect in any chant book. But there is a different this time. The entire book is Latin on the left and English on the right. The English is not just text. It is music. It is English chant, as published by the official chant guardian of the faith.

This is the first time in its entire history that Solesmes has published a book of chant in any language besides Latin. This book came out and began to be distributed and, so far as I know, this article is the first one to appear that draws attention to the remarkable fact that vernacular chant has been given an official role in Church music from the universal publisher of the Catholic Church. This is huge, even if hardly noticed

To be sure, I would be perfectly content for the rest of my days to sing and listen to Latin chant. I wish that we lived in a world where Latin was the normative and practical language of Catholic music. I have no desire to tear down this tradition and replace it with something else. That, however, is not our world. The Latin chant has been replaced. In its place came a Catholic hit parade of songs with a beat and with words that have essentially nothing to do with the liturgy. That description pretty much sums up the Catholic experience of music since about 1968.

Going from that straight back to the Latin has clearly and indisputably proven to be too large a leap from any but the most rarified and determined parish environment. So long as there have been no English-language bridges to a solemn and dignified future, this situation would persist. To put the matter as plainly as possible, there have been only two choices: the Liber Usualis or one or another version of non-liturgical song singing.

Only in this last year has this changed in a way that affected Catholics in the pews. English chant went online. Then it went to print. Then recordings came out. More and more books came out. And now we suddenly find Solesmes actually publishing English chant. This is all within 12 months. Out of nowhere, seemingly, the reform the reform agenda of Catholic liturgical music when from a distant dream to a sudden and universal reality.

Hardly anyone would have believed it. I didn’t believe it could happened. There was a time when I sniffed dismissively of these efforts. I was wrong. Most everyone was wrong. Change took a direction that hardly anyone expected and it happened with astonishing speed and conviction. And this shift was due to the prayers of millions and the courage of a great Pope.

If you ever despair about the situation in your local parish, please consider this as a case in point. The reform is closer than you think. It can happen tomorrow or next week or next month. In fact, at this point, we can say for sure that change is coming. It is not a matter of if but when.

But what of the first camp, those self-described progressives who want no part of traditionalism or any reform efforts at all? They make for an interesting study in isolation and denial. I read their blogs and their newspapers and they strike me as hopelessly wedded to an old paradigm that is not long for this world. How blessed it is to live in an age where the improvement is all around us and those who would hold it back are losing heart and numbers.
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