In Praise of (the Right Kind) of Change

“The Lord be with you.”

“And with your spirit.”

We hear this exchange between the celebrant and the congregation at every Mass now. It happens as a matter of course. Hardly anyone thinks a thing about it. It’s just what Catholics do. Fading into the memory of only those who were intensely interested at the time is the odd fact that these words in Catholic Mass have only been spoken by people in the pews for about 18 months.

Before that time, there were grave warnings that these changes would never stick. They would drive people away. Years of debate and discussion preceded the change. There were warnings that this change would end badly. And yet, the change happened, and, today, hardly anyone thinks a thing about it. I would venture a guess that there is no one in my parish who sits and seethes, thinking “we should bring back the old words ‘and also with you’.”

Why is this? Why were the changes that followed the Second Vatican Council accompanied by grave upheaval, factions, drops in Mass attendance, and widespread frenzy wheres the changes adopted just last year have been generally met with widespread acceptance? The experience of the 1960s and 1970s made Catholics generally fearful of changing anything at all. It drove the Catholic world into a paradoxical state of rigid conservatism. But the recent experience of the new Missal illustrates something very important: change can be wonderful provided it is change in the right direction.

It is true that the new Mass was a much more dramatic change. The liturgical traditions of many centuries were thrown out for something radically unfamiliar. Even so, the changes enacted by the new Missal were not trivial. They changed the whole tenor and linguistic/cultural framework of the liturgical language, taking us away from the “dressed down” feel of 1969 to a much more formal and poetic mode of expression, one that departs from the cultural sensibility of our time.

My own theory is this: if the change is directed toward making the liturgy more true to itself, it will be accepted and even embraced. If it goes the opposite direction of making the liturgy less authentic and more decidedly “with the times” it will be met with opposition and rancor.

This principle has governed the changes we’ve made in our own liturgical experience with music at my parish — and our experience parallels that of hundreds of other parishes.

Just like week, our choir sang the entrance antiphon from the Simple English Propers plus one verse. We repeated the antiphon, and, by that time, the procession was over and Mass began. We sang Vidi Aquam for the sprinkling rite. We sang the Gloria in Latin (from Mass XV). The Psalm came from the Parish Book of Psalms. The Offertory antiphon came from a chanted English version from Fr. Samuel Weber. The Sanctus and Agnus were in Latin. The Communion antiphon was the authentic Gregorian, and we sang 4 verses of Psalms with it. We also sang a Latin motet by Victoria and an English motet by Tallis. The recessional hymn was in English and the only hymn that day.

We do some version of this lineup every week in my parish. The resources we are using are mostly newly available. There were no readily accessible and comprehensive book of antiphons and Psalms even available five years ago. Ten years ago, hardly any ordinary form parish sang the authentic communion chant from the Gregorian books. Now this is common all over the English-speaking world and the world generally.

What we did last week and what we will do this week seems completely normal and even predictable. It is something people expect as part of their Mass experience. No one is “against” what we are doing. Neither are people jumping up and down with celebration. It is just something natural and normal, the way the liturgy expresses itself in song. The sheer normalcy of it all is something that completely thrills me.

You see, if we had dropped this program on people ten years ago, it would have been a radical undertaking. In fact, we would have been reluctant to do it. Actually, we wouldn’t have been able to do it. The resources were available. The awareness of Mass propers was in its infancy, or maybe it didn’t exist at all outside a small circle. English versions were nowhere in sight. They certainly weren’t accessible. Instead, we spent all our time digging around second-rate hymnbook trying to find material that seemed vaguely acceptable.

A vast experiential chasm separate 10 years ago from what is common today. In fact, there is no comparing the two. What we did 10 years ago was fine and inoffensive but we were not singing the actual liturgy, and that made us uncomfortable, and created the nagging feeling that something just wasn’t right. We worked and worked endless hours to make it right but we ultimately lacked in that crucial thing: a vision for what could and should be.

Once the ideal clicked, we had a plan which we implemented slowly, piece by piece. The final result is really something spectacular. The way we do the propers changes each week. Sometimes we sing them in a choral style. Sometimes we do pure Gregorian. Sometimes we do English, variously choosing to add Psalms or not depending on what other motets we have prepared. There is a glorious stability about the whole thing. Mostly, we can feel like we are making a contribution to the liturgy because our role as singers is beautiful integrated into the liturgy itself.

When you back away and look at it, the swift from ten years ago today is absolutely revolutionary. It amounts to a radical change. But no one feels it. It just seems like the liturgy is doing what it is supposed to do: invite the whole community in a meeting with eternity.

Why did it succeed? The reason it worked is the same reason that the new translation has worked out really well. The liturgy is now permitted to be truer to what it wants to be. This is the kind of change we need — not change for its own sake but change toward truth and beauty. That’s what the the “sense of the faith” emerges from the experience of the people at Mass. It goes with the grain rather than against it. Everyone is happier for it.

Nearly every day, I hear of new projects from major Catholic music publishers for chanted propers or new settings of the actual text of the Mass. This is a great thing. It is happening after nearly 50 years of wandering in the desert but it is still a much-welcome thing. I would expect that as these new editions hit the market, they will proliferate more and more, because choirs and priests will discover what we discovered. If we just stop trying to substitute our own judgement for the judgement of the Church, and instead let the words of the Mass become our liturgical song, wonderful things start happening.