Thursday, July 19, 2012

Does the Ordinary Form Have a Distinctive Voice?

Does the ordinary form of the Roman Rite have a distinctive voice from that of the extraordinary form? One one level, the answer seems obvious. You go to the extraordinary form (EF from hereon) and you hear Latin, chant, silence, and the rubrics, worked out over many centuries, yield a result that can be stunningly beautiful. Happen onto one of many EF Masses that has been instituted over the last ten years, and this is what you experience.

The archetype of the ordinary form (OF from hereon) is very different. You hear the vernacular. There is popular music. The rubrics are loose. The atmosphere is casual. It can often be difficult to tell the difference between laxity, approved improvisation, parish tradition, and outright abuse. It all gets mixed up in what often ends up as a liturgical stew that, if observed from preconciliar point of view, would not look like the Roman Rite at all.

So, from the point of view of real-world experience, the question is easy to answer. But at the Sacred Music Colloquium of the Church Music Association of America, we’ve all attempted to show another side to the OF. We adhere to the General Instruction and attempted to present the Mass in light of the larger historical experience of the Roman Rite. We use Mass propers, whether in Latin or English. The celebrant has said the Mass ad orientem, that is, not facing the people. The celebrant is not front-and-center; the sacrifice on the altar is the focus.

We employ silence. The Mass parts are chanted. The dialogues are chanted. The readings are chanted. Vestments are beautiful. We’ve used polyphonic ordinary settings. We do not neglect the Kyrie. The creed is sung. Optional prayers are eliminated as unnecessary innovations. Instead of the Responsorial Psalm, we have typically sung the Gradual chant from the Graduale Romanum. The use of hymns is generally restricted to the recessional. There are lots of other “smells and bells.”

The result is something spectacular, something rarely if ever seen in the Catholic world. It is solemn and dignified. It is moving and spiritually fulfilling. Older Catholics who have attended these Masses say that it is easily recognizable as the Roman Rite that they knew from their childhood. Even sophisticated observers are unable to distinguish this OF from the EF. I had people insist to me that this was certainly the Tridentine Rite. Yes, it is missing the prayers at the foot of the altar, the last Gospel, and other pieces of the puzzle, but unless you are specially looking for those, you could easily mistake what you experience for the older form of Mass.

It is a beautiful thing to behold.

I’ve never really questioned this approach. It strikes me as an obvious proposition that the OF when done properly should look and feel like the EF of Catholic history.

And yet, some comments by one of our faculty do give me pause and cause me to wonder whether this is the whole of the answer to our liturgical problem. Paul Ford, author of the first English simple Gradual called By Flowing Waters, wrote on the blog PrayTell that we really went too far with this methodology. The OF does have a distinctive voice and all our efforts to dignify the celebration have managed to mute that voice.

Here is what he wrote:

This CMAA Colloquium was the perfect venue for experiencing the reform of the reform at its most exemplary. Readers of this blog will know that I am not convinced that the ordinary form of the Mass can be enriched (let alone needs to be enriched) by the extraordinary form in ecclesiology, sacramental theology, or pneumatology, although the latter can contribute to the former its ars celebrandi and its standard of musical composition and music making.... Although the extraordinary form’s ars celebrandi and its standard of musical composition and music making were august, I am not convinced that we need to celebrate the ordinary form ad orientem. The wise presider gets himself out of the way by directing his attention to the assembly, to the word, to what he is doing, and to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Professor Ford offers other comments along these lines. He wanted the congregation to sing the propers. He wanted to hear the prayer of the faithful. He wanted more integration between the sanctuary and the nave, and he desired more active participation from the people.

One can argue with his specifics, and the chaplain of the CMAA did so, defending ad orientem and the elimination of the sign of the peace by the people. These defenses were persuasive, in my view, and I remain unconvinced by the specifics that Paul Ford offered.

And yet that leaves the larger question. Is the only path through the reform of the reform to make the OF like the EF as much as possible? Maybe not. The OF certainly does have some merit on its own: the intelligibility of the readings, the openness and audibility of the some prayers, the unavoidable emphasis on deeper involvement of the people in the pews.

Had the postconciliar reforms been conducted with more caution, we might have ended up with all the benefits of reform without experiencing the radical remake that the rite of Paul VI ended up being.

But that’s all water under the bridge at this point. The vernacular exists. The OF exists. The calendar was changed. So let us put the question a different way. Does the OF, as it exists in the liturgical books (as distinct from how it exists in the real world) have anything unique about it that needs to be protected from being absorbed by the history of the Roman Rite? I find this question intriguing and the answers not entirely settled.

In general, I think the answer is yes. The Of does offer some uniquely meritorious features that I would not want to see entirely go away. The vernacular is a gift, as Msgr. Schuler used to say. The wider range of readings is a good thing. I can even see that there is a point to the Responsorial Psalm when done well. To my mind, these must be considered against what I find to be regrettable aspects of the OF: its linearity, its lack of quiet prayers, its reductionism, and, above all, its overemphasis on choices and options.

Nonetheless, Ford does raise interesting points. It is undeniable that, for example, polyphonic settings of the Mass ordinary, enjoy a happier existence in the EF than the OF framework (for distinct reasons). Even from the point of view of the liturgical books, the OF does seem to call forth a distinct treatment, and I do believe that Ford might be onto something here. The problem of the reform of the reform might not so easily be addressed with the one standard that the EF provides.