Three Hard Facts about the Liturgy

When I hear or see people arguing about liturgy, either on-line or in person, I tend to run the other way. This is not for lack of an opinion, or out of some sense of not wanting to be “controversial”; I run because even people who think they know about liturgy are really quite uninformed about it. This is due to the fact that modern Catholics tend to have a bad sense of memory. They remember things as they would have liked them to have been, and not how they actually were.

Conversations about the liturgy often produce more heat than light. To that end, I want to present here three hard facts about the liturgy, insights that I hope will get people’s minds out of simplistic categories of what they like or dislike.

1. Most people who talk about liturgy lack any real perspective. You can no more pretend to be a liturgist knowing about only one liturgy than you can pretend to be a sports writer knowing about only one sport. The liturgy of the Roman rite of the Catholic Church underwent such profound changes in the recent past that it would be good to look at other liturgies and people’s experience of them to get some perspective as to what a liturgy tends to look like.

Walking into your average Greek, Russian, or Coptic church, visitors are often struck by the relatively passive behavior of most worshippers with regard to what is going on at the altar. This was very similar to the behavior of the average “bump on a log,” pre-Vatican II worshipper of modern-day liturgical lore. The extent of the congregation’s participation is limited to lighting a candle, making frequents signs of the cross, and singing at selected times. In these cultures, “Mass facing the people” would make no sense; in many places in medieval Europe (in England, with the rood screen, for example), people frequently did not see the altar for much of the service. In the Ethiopian church, the altar is in another room altogether. The experiences of the liturgy by those on the altar and those away from it are entirely different.

Thus, all of the bad things that people accuse the old Latin liturgy of being (non-participatory, overly complicated, repetitive) are characteristic of all of the liturgies that have developed organically since the time of the apostles. Even such supposed restorations of “ancient practices” that the 1960s brought about have rather flimsy justifications behind them. For example, Msgr. Klaus Gamber showed in his book, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy, that Mass “facing the people” in the basilicas of early Christian Rome had nothing to do with “facing the people” per se, but rather were concerned with facing the doors that faced East. The fact that the altar was also facing the people was inconsequential, as later practice in other parts of Europe would clearly demonstrate. The idea of Mass facing the people, as we know it today, is a Protestant invention, and not even one practiced by many Protestants, as High Church Anglicans and traditional Lutherans would rightly point out.

2. By 1962, the liturgy had already changed quite a bit. For those who have studied the question, Vatican II was not the “revolution” in the liturgy that many traditionalists make it out to be, but the culmination of a process of liturgical and devotional change starting at the end of the French Revolution. While most people who call themselves traditionalists bury their noses in a hand missal to follow along with the priest’s prayers at an old Latin Mass, they fail to realize that such missals were nearly banned a little more than a hundred years ago. The argument went that a layperson had no business having in his hands the same prayers that the priest was saying. It was only with the publication of such works as Dom Gueranger’s Liturgical Year in the late 1800s that the idea of following the prayers of the liturgy became popular.

In fact, it was St. Pius X who really got the ball rolling in terms of changing the liturgy. The old breviary that some have fond memories of Monsignor So-and-So speeding through before the Second Vatican Council was entirely the invention of Pius’s papal court. In that reform, the order of the Psalms was entirely reworked and many of the rubrics for saying the office changed. Of course, no one noticed or particularly cared. Such a “restoration” was also accomplished by the “traditionalist” Pope Pope Pius XII in the reform of Holy Week. The ceremonies to celebrate the Holy Triduum that most traditionalists will fight to the death over are not even 20 years older than the ceremonies celebrated in an average Catholic parish.

Even the Gregorian chant in which many hear the voice of the apostolic church is in some ways a scholarly recreation of the monks of Solesmes, and they were not without controversy when “restored” in the early 20th century. Before, even in the papal court of Leo XIII, one was far more likely during services to have heard some piece of Italian bel canto lovingly belted by a castrato. It is at least arguable that a Mozart Mass is far more traditional than a Mass taken out of the official Gregorian chant book, the Liber Usualis.

3. Liturgy will not save the Church. In 1794, Pope Pius VI condemned the Jansenist Synod of Pistoia’s suggestions for liturgical innovation in the bull Auctorem Fidei. These innovations — such as the reading of the Scriptures in the vernacular during services, the return of an offertory procession, and the general simplification of rubrics — became the law of the Church only a century and a half later. One can ask what happened, but the real answer is quite complex. What had primarily changed was the influence of the Church over society. In most places, Christian kingdoms were replaced by secular (and often anti-religious) governments; there was a mass movement of population from countryside to city; and general literacy and education increased among all social classes.

Because of all of these social phenomena, the influence of the Church in the daily lives of her faithful diminished greatly. No longer was the rhythm of life determined by the Church calendar, no longer were feasts publicly celebrated, and ecclesiastical authority was not the only voice competing for the ears and hearts of the masses. What other recourse did the Church have but to make use of that hour on a Sunday, that precious little time during an otherwise secularized week, to try to catechize and make an impression on the Church Militant? By the mid-20th century, it could be said that the Church no longer had the luxury of talking at her sheep in a language that they didn’t understand, in terms that were totally alien to the egalitarian, secular societies in which her faithful now found themselves.

Whether one likes the reforms or not, whether one wants to delve into the nitty-gritty of the theological arguments, one cannot dispute that such reforms have done little to help the Church, at least in the West. The Mass is indeed important for supernatural reasons that we, as good Catholics, can recite from the Catechism. But all of this still fails to answer the question: Can reforming or restoring the order and flavor of what Catholics do for 50 minutes on a Sunday morning really determine the fate of the Church? Will it be enough to fend off the onslaught of secularism so that we can pass on the Catholic Faith to our children as a significant part of their lives? I do not pretend to know the answer, but wishful thinking about the issues involved is not part of the solution.

Arturo Vasquez


Arturo Vasquez is a writer and independent researcher in New Orleans. He blogs regularly at Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity.

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