Thursday, June 7, 2012

What’s the Next Stage of Liturgical Renewal?


We are now eight months into the liturgical year using the third edition of the Roman Missal. The people have not fled. The priests have not collapsed in exhaustion from learning something new. Choirs have not disbanded. The expected liturgical apocalypse from a Missal text more faithful to the Latin original has not materialized. All the many months of seminars, workshops, sales pitches, preparation materials, and all-out-frenzy seems crazily overwrought now.

As many friends of mine said at the time, the release of the new Missal was a non-event analogous to the great computer scare of Y2K. The experts expected some kind of calamity. But when the time came, it was barely a blip on the radar screen. Yes, people did have to stop saying “and also with you” and start saying “and with your spirit.” There were a few differences here and there in other parts of the Mass. But mostly, it is hard to recall what all the near-panic was about.

On the other hand, the elegant language and sound theology of the new Missal has rooted the liturgical experience more in Catholic tradition and teaching. There is no longer a disconnect between what is heard from the sanctuary and what you can read in the Catechism.

I’m not sure how to describe my own response other than to say, in a way that might sound but is not intended to be condescending, I’m annoyed far less during liturgy than I’ve been in the past. I think people who attend the ordinary form know what I mean here. The previous Missal had a culturally jarring quality about it. I felt like I was being lectured to by people with an agenda, one that dated from the 1970s. Several times each week, I would hear some words that just grated in some way.

This is no longer true. All the Eucharistic prayers are beautiful but especially the Roman Canon stands out for its sheer elegance. The Gloria and the Creed are much improved. But mostly, what I love are the spoken propers of the new translation: the collects, prefaces, and post communions. Every week I prepare and listen carefully. It’s just such a pleasure to look forward to something like this. And then we when words are spoken, I am invariably touched and impressed.

And yet I know that I’m speaking for myself here. Most people haven’t cognitively noticed much change at all. There was such a fuss made over the momentous change coming and yet, from the perspective of the people in the pews, not much changed at all. Everything pretty sounded and looked like it always had. I certainly had the impression despite the attempt to generate widespread awareness had completely failed. Most people knew and cared nothing about the change, and their instincts proved correct.

In some ways, an opportunity was wasted. Of course I can’t be sure about that. Maybe a go-slow approach is the right thing. Certainly many in authority are of that opinion. Given the cataclysm that happened from 1963 to 1975, when revolutionary change seemed like a weekly and daily reality, one that emptied the pews and demoralized an entire generation, I can understand the grave reluctance to usher in any substantial change at all.

And truly, the improvements of the new Missal are very obvious to me. The integration of the music with the text is primary here. Among those using the actual chants of the Missal, we now have an aesthetically integrated package of sung prayer, one that works for weekdays or sundays. To sing this movie requires no special musical talent or training. It is just text with a simple but dignified melody that has some precedent in the Gregorian repertories.

Among those who had prepared for dramatic change, the results of the third edition of the Roman Missal are certainly left wanting. Most people are not careful listeners and would not take careful note of the better translations of the propers and Eucharistic prayers. But those same people are very much attentive to a change in the style of music used at Mass. Changing a Mass setting from peppy and toe tapping to dignified plainsong will mean the difference between a silly and solemn liturgy.

The International Commission on English in the Liturgy did absolutely everything it possibly could do to wed the Missal chants to the experience of the text in the liturgy. It gave away the music for free. It wrote accompaniments. There were countless seminars. The music was printed in every physical edition of the book.

In the end, however, there were two gigantic obstacles: the comfort of the status quo and publishers that were there to accommodate it. Looking back at the whole preparation period, it seems clear: the marketing plan of the publishers was to encourage the musicians to change as little as possible, to learn and adapt as little as possible.

The publishers pushed ICEL to be as liberal as possible with the rules but ICEL stuck to principle. The USCCB, however, took the idea of liberality further than it should have. As a result, the refrain/verse version of the Gloria that does absolute violence to the text ended up surviving. And the tunes of many of the over-familiar settings that have been beaten into the ground from overuse ended up surviving too. Even troped versions of the Angus Dei ended up making it through. Oh yes, and we seem to be stuck forever with the Snow version of the Our Father.

In many ways, the implementation of the new Missal was seriously compromised and even subverted by the publishers, who worked hand-in-hand with known personnel within the archdiocesan liturgy structures. There were mandates that new music must come from the publishers. In the name of unity, diocese actually mandated published settings with the implication that Missal chants were not to be used.

The whole thing was rather brutal. And yet not all was lost. More parishes are singing chant than ever before. Many pastors who were long ago fed up with cheesy music at Mass used the occasion of the new Missal to push toward new music as well. I have no firm data on this but my intuition is that the chanting parishes have moved from 5% to perhaps 20% today. Given the way things work in the Catholic Church, this is actually a big wave of change.

What’s next? There are two things that absolutely must change at the next stage. There needs to be an absolute focus on the need for the sung propers at Mass never to be replaced by random hymns. We now have the resources to make sure that this new emphasis can be realized in any parish. In addition, the taboo about Mass facing the people needs to be broken. The orientation of the priest and the people needs to be the same: toward the East and the risen Christ.

These two changes, together with a continued spread of chant, will get us father in the direction we need to go. The experience of the third edition of the Roman Missal taught us that people are ready for change. They can handle it. They welcome it. Let’s push for more.