The Preconciliar Rite in Our Time

The parish schola to which I belong had signed a man’s spiritual will that requested a full Requiem High Mass in the extraordinary form upon his death. The time came much sooner than it should have. He was only 57 when he died.

We had only three days between hearing of his death and the scheduled date of the Mass. We practiced for a total of 5 hours, and this was pushing it. The schola sings the chants from the Graduale Romanum every week at an ordinary form Mass but the elaborate form of the extraordinary form makes special demands on the schola, with very few options. There was a Gradual Psalm and Tract, plus offertory and verses, plus the Sequence, as well as Libera Me and the chants for the final exit, in addition to the chanted sections that we already knew from the ordinary form Requiem.

We knew that it had to be beautiful. There was more at stake here than met the eye. The parish in which we sang was in a town where there had not been this form of funeral Mass in at least half a century and perhaps even longer. Even before the Council, it is likely that the Requiem adhered to the convention of the time, which was a low Mass with vernacular hymnody. The high Masses tended to use Psalm tone propers and not the propers from the Roman Gradual. So this presentation was highly unusual, perhaps never heard in this parish or even in this town.

The celebrant, who did an outstanding job, had never said this particular Mass before. The servers and MC had to come from across the state. Our schola was imported. As for the congregation, it was split between Baptists — the faith tradition of the deceased’s family — and Catholics of the parish who are used to the common form of funeral Mass seen today. In other words, we had something here that was completely artificial from a human point of view, not part of a known tradition or experience in any way.

There were very few hooks to help people. We could have printed an encyclopedia of explanations and people would have still be lost. They expect a hymn and they get a chant in a language that is not their own. They expect readings in English but get them in Latin. They expect a Psalm but get a long melismatic piece. No Catholic in the pews today has even heard of the tract. The Sequence is known from movies but not real life. Not even the Angus Dei follows the same familiar text. The Pater Noster might have been known but it is said by the priest alone. From my observation from the loft, it struck me that the only familiar moment in the entire Mass was the Sanctus; we used the Requiem ferial setting that has become standard in many parishes and the only bit of Gregorian chant heard at all in most places.

So you can imagine that I had a full expectation of a sociological disaster. That did not happen. We did sing beautifully. The celebrant was amazing. There were moments of breath-taking beauty at the altar. The liturgy in general moved at a clip, taking in total about 80 minutes. It was absolutely wonderful, and well received. How and why did it work? No matter how much we work or how much all the actors believed that it was up to us to make this happen, we did not make this happen. The Divine took over. We merely needed the will to be guided by the spirit.

The Divine took over from the perspective of the pew as well. I heard reports of how people were enormously impressed at the solemnity and beauty, the quiet and the seriousness. No, people could not follow along despite the aids we handed out, and that’s fine. Remoteness is a feature of mystery and mystery is a feature of the liturgy. Immediate cognition is not the point. The penetration of the heart and soul, areas of our being we try to avoid on a daily basis, is made possible with the remarkable voice of the purest form of the Roman Rite.

The experience led me to some additional thoughts. Did this liturgy work as some kind of advertisement for the proliferation of the extraordinary form? Maybe and maybe not. People were very pleased to be part of the history and the significance of the occasion. But it did not and will not cause a clamor to have this form of the ritual become the mainstream much less the exclusive way that funerals take place. This cannot and will not happen. Not one person in attendance walked away thinking: all Catholic funerals should be required to be this way.

The periodic appearance of this rite in the mainstream of Catholic life is to be valued. But its continued life in our culture is ironically dependent on the the ordinary form as a means of bringing the liturgy to the people in the most direct way, as a teacher and guide. The ordinary form is and will remain the liturgy that Catholic culture knows best, and through it Catholics can grow to develop a special appreciation for the magnificence of what came before.

Pope Benedict XVI was extremely wise in institutionalizing these names: ordinary and extraordinary form. We can take these terms literally and use them in the modern sense to understand what the future holds as regards the two forms of the Roman Rite. I can foresee no circumstances under which this will change in our lifetimes.

To be sure, there are some changes that could be made to the extraordinary form that might give it a welcome boost in Catholic life, small changes that could cause it to become more integrated with the Catholic experience. Please understand that in saying this, and naming these changes, that I am not actually advocating these changes; that is the job of the Church, not laypeople who are writing articles. I would never presume to say that I know exactly what needs to take place to make the extraordinary form more accessible and prevalent in the modern world.

But based on my experience so far, the introductions of some options could make a big difference. If the readings could be in English, not during the homily but during the liturgy itself, that would dramatically increase the engagement of the congregation in the liturgical action. If some vernacular motets or hymns were permitted, and the music were not strictly limited to Psalm tones and Gregorian melodies in Latin, people would not have such a sense of being outside spectators of what is happening. I might further suggest that permitting English sung propers as options could advance the cause of the extraordinary form as well.

These are three very small options that could be introduced that would make a giant difference. If we look at the spirit of Vatican II’s mandate for change, I’m imagining that these are the types of changes that Sacrosanctum Concilium suggested should take place. The idea was not a wholesale revolution but the introduction of options that would fulfill the hopes and desires of the liturgical movement.

It is one of the great tragedies of Catholic history that in the six years after the close of the Council the cause of liturgical reform fell into the hands of a small cadre of rationalistic intellectuals and activists who used the opportunity for change as a time for exercising their wits and trying out their experimental ideology on the Church. We are still working to recover from this disaster.

For forty-five years, we have faced the choice between a reformed rite that often seemed to have nothing to do with our history, on the one hand, and, on the other, going back to repeat that history as if it had to be frozen to an absolute standstill in 1962 and the Council’s desire for marginal improvement completely ignored.

It is the task of this generation to carefully work toward bringing about a Catholic liturgical culture that is not so divided between old and new. There must be give and take on both sides of this spectrum, and the resistance is proportionally strong in both directions.

But let me mention something that gives hope here. Five years ago, no one would have believed that we would have a new Missal with such elegant language and music that is part of the Missal itself. It seemed like an impossible dream, and it too was doggedly opposed by the extremes on both sides. And yet here it is. It exists. It is beautiful.

There is still a long way to go, but so long as we have the example of the extraordinary form before us, and we are willing to consider that the ordinary form does have things to teach us, there is no reason to lose hope for a more integrated Roman Rite in the Catholic liturgical world in the future.