In Praise of Conformity: Why Priests Should Stop Fooling Around with the Liturgy

The theologian Brian Daley, S.J., has suggested that the Eucharist serves as an “ikon” of the Church. That is, it both represents the mystical body of Christ in symbolic terms and re-enacts the central event of salvation history. In this view, there is no detail concerning the celebration of the Eucharist which can be termed trivial or unimportant, for there is no aspect of our gathering for Mass which cannot acquire a meaning larger than itself, and hence become a source of edification or corruption. It is idle to pretend that the Eucharist is not a battleground: every Christian disagreement — theological, ethical, or ecclesial — will be fought symbolically in the arena of liturgy as well as discursively in the arena of the academy. For a man to claim he is “indifferent” about liturgy is to admit he is indifferent about the faith.

In my experience, such indifference is rare among churchgoers, regardless of their level of theological awareness. For steamfitters as well as for the clerical professoriat, it matters whether or not a priest uses the lavabo; it matters whether or not he crosses himself when he begins Mass. In the diction he chooses, in the rubrics he follows or omits, in his gestures and dress, every celebrant connects himself doctrinally with some believers and signals a doctrinal distance with others. The degree of offense each worshiper takes when a distance is signaled varies in direct proportion to the seriousness with which he invests his own hopes for the Church.

I have lived in a house of religious where the “trivial obedience” of commingling water and wine at the Offertory would cause two contrary reactions: one man would go white with indignation and stiffen as the veins bulged on his forehead. His brother priest would nod in approval and satisfaction. These men were exact contemporaries. Of course, the lines are seldom drawn quite so sharply, and not all reactions are so blatant as a consequence. There is a great deal of pseudo-naiveté used to paper over the cracks in the integrity of the liturgy whereby expedience and not disagreement is proffered as the reason for innovation.

Is it ever convincing? Surely it is disingenuous to pretend that the reception of communion by the people before the celebrant (to take an example at random) is a simple convenience and not also a doctrinal statement. No doubt it is possible, in theory, consciously to depart from approved liturgical usages without intending to give notice of some underlying doctrinal disparity, but in the real world it almost never happens that way.

I have often heard my seniors engage in wry reminiscence about the number of mortal sins a priest was liable to commit when saying Mass “in the old days” by the tiniest violation of a single rubric — and indeed it seems that a rather morbid imagination was at work in some of the theology then. On the other hand, it is beyond question today that a priest has 201 ways of saying “In yo’ face!” to his brother while celebrating the Eucharist. Perhaps the old count wasn’t so far-fetched after all, even though the fulcrum of sinfulness is different from that envisioned by the manualists. The currents run deep.

Guitar Theology

A cultural anthropologist-turned-cartoonist might say that the prime emotive thrust which powered pre-Vatican H liturgical practice was a distrust of spontaneity. Mass was “by the book.” The people stood, knelt, and genuflected on cue. Hymns had a somewhat exaggerated gravity. While the Latin of the liturgy was never so obscure to the people as later polemicists have made it out to be, it was still mysterious, remote, and formal. It’s almost impossible to be “down to earth” in Latin. All the trappings of religion were invested with the same tidiness, the same relentless adulthood. If a magazine publisher needed to add an ecclesiastical tone to a headline, he printed it in elaborate “Old English” letters, since this most formal, most adult typeface became synonymous with things churchy. One can still find older churches today where the fire-signs over the doors are painted in large latinate uncials. Behind this rigidity, perhaps, was the assumption that anything freer, anything more spontaneous, would somehow smirch the dignity of the Church; perhaps deeper still was the suspicion that if the shackles were taken off, the sentiments released would certainly be heterodox.

As a Church we are still eddying in the backwash from the wave of reaction precipitated by Vatican II—or better, from that picture of Vatican II which was given to us by the apparatchiks in the liturgical commissions, for it is quite clear that fraud was perpetrated in the “selling” of the Council to the laity. (Whether the fraud was benevolent or injurious depends on the value one assigns to continuity.) Mere allowances made by the Council were proclaimed to be directives, exceptions were said to be rules, chinks in the windows were taken to be doors. In Eucharistic practice as in doctrine proper there is more than a grain of truth in the joke that a “pre-Vatican II Catholic” is one who reads the Documents of Vatican II without a commentary.

Regardless of how one accounts for the changes, their impact can hardly be exaggerated. If the term “relentlessly adult” characterized the old Mass, the term “remorselessly infantile” might stand for the new. Spontaneity became the desideratum, and the place where Catholics chiefly chose to look for spontaneity was in the lives of children. The sugary hymns of Dan Schutte, Ray Repp, and Sebastian Temple are part of this legacy, and the general thrust of liturgical music reflects the change.

In the first place, “negative” feelings are almost wholly excluded from the modem corpus, or when they do appear are given such a banal and frothy treatment as to become unrecognizable. Whole portions of Scripture simply cannot make it into this genre because they can never be assimilated into the contrived bounciness and bonhomie through which its reality is filtered.

The use of the guitar is no less significant. It is primarily (in America) a teenager’s instrument, the kind of thing that conjures up the beach bonfire and raggedy sweatshirts. It is, of course, the very antithesis of the concert organ, that grand and pompous engine of Johnsonian pietas. The guitar can be pawed by just about anybody. Obviously you can’t really be spontaneous with it, but many people wished very much that you could, and we are still living, as a Church, with this fond daydream.

Nor is it an accident that contemporary Church music is scored in a high register. The new pretense is that ours is a young persons’ Church; in the view of the major impresarios, there would be something fundamentally unwholesome, almost Republican, about introducing a choir of basses and baritones into a contemporary liturgy. Of course, you can sing “Yahweh the Faithful One” in a baritone, just as you can sing “Old Man River” in a falsetto, but it’s clear in each case that you’d be missing the point. And the point is that youth — spontaneous youth, uninhibited youth, bonhomous youth, joyous gregarious coyly androgynous youth—is the Prime Icon in the Catholic Church of Camelot. Some of the more sensitive liturgy coordinators will toss in a “traditional” hymn now and then as a kind of milk-bone for the rheumatoid Faithful, but the picture is no less clear that such music belongs to the past.

Disenfranchised Believers

A side-effect of this emphasis is that Catholic culture has become much more haute-bourgeois, more suburban, than ever before. In effect the new liturgists disenfranchised working-class Catholics, and in particular working men, from reasonably wholehearted participation in the Mass. Say what you will, you cannot get a congregation of plumbers and foundry-workers to join in Ray Repp’s hit “Al-lelu! Allelu! Ev’body sing Allelu!” and mean it. It might come off in Lake Forest but not in Gary. One of the main reasons the Church got fewer vocations from blue-collar families after the Council is the precious tone set by the parish liturgy. Few fathers who earn their living with their hands and shoulders are going to smile on the prospect of their sons’ leading a congregation in “Eagle’s Wings.”

What I say about liturgical music applies a fortiori to dance and “movement.” Unless the Church consciously decides that it is in her best interests to further distance herself from humble working people, I cannot imagine why she continues to flirt with these diversions. I do not think it impossible that liturgical dance may have a limited place in certain peripheral, para-liturgical situations, but I would doubt the canniness or the sincerity of anyone who claimed that it should be part of the liturgical life of the conventional parish.

Once again this is more than simply a question of taste; a vision of the Church is at stake. One of the moments of most acute embarrassment for me as a religious occurred during a weekend gathering, as part of which we were formed in a circle and led in a Shaker “movement exercise.” We bobbed and bowed and raised our hands like toy puppets as we sang:

When true simplicity is gained

To bend and to bow we won’t be ashamed.

So we’ll turn to the left and turn to the right

And turn and turn ’till we come ’round right.

I wince as I remember the sight of the faces of grown men — whom I had come to admire in office and classroom and chapel — freeze in obedience as they shuffled back and forth in their Docksiders. And for what? For “true simplicity”? Hardly. No authentic simplicity requires a man to lay aside the benign dignity of adulthood. No, it was for the image of a New Church.

The new liturgy has likewise decorated itself with the artistic concomitants appropriate to its status. Sister Corita taught us to expect bold daubs of bright sunny colors — again, we were to escape the stained-glass formalities of the past and trust in the naïve good taste of the child and his paintbox. Corita’s influence is palpable to this hour in nearly every banner, every embroidered vestment, every illustrated publication which finds its way into our churches. This involves a disservice to real children (by sentimentalizing their experience we render ourselves less able to attend to the darker questions they have), yet it did provide Catholics with a crude “alphabet” with which they might spell out those hopes so long petrified by the solemnity of the ancien regime.

Once I came upon a missalette (important word!) which featured on the cover a photo of a plump suburban child clutching a patently fraudulent watercolor which read, “Never underestimate the power of a rainbow.” This was the philosophy, of course, not of the child, but of his tender-hearted schoolmarm; the image has remained with me. Real children are at once too canny and too cruel, too innocent and too wise, to come up with this Snoopy rendition of Kraft durch Freude, so the adult had to become the child herself: a synecdoche of American Catholicism.

I mentioned above the Latin uncials on the fire-signs; they need now to be replaced. We have moved from the unfree to the free, from the predictable to the impulsive. Signs once lettered needlessly in Gothic are now lettered needlessly in imitation of graffiti: it is the scrawl, the spray-painted splash, which is today’s ecclesiastical type-face par excellence. We have come half circle.

Missing Gravitas

C.S. Lewis once wrote of Christian liturgy that even if the celebrant’s vestments are not in fact heavy, they should look heavy. That is, they should make it clear to the worshippers that his part in the service is not an extension of his own personality but is a munus, a responsibility laid on his shoulders the way a chain-of-office was laid around the shoulders of a mayor. The priest as celebrant should appear obedient to that hoc age in virtue of which he is the presider. This notion opens up into the wider question of the relation between obedience and freedom in liturgy. A deft treatment of this problem is found in Cardinal Ratzinger’s book Feast of Faith:

Liturgy has a cosmic and universal dimension. The community does not become a community by mutual interaction. It receives its being as a gift from an already existing completeness, totality. . .  This is why liturgy cannot be “made.” This is why it has to be simply received as a given reality and continually revitalized. This is why its universality is expressed in a form binding on the whole Church, committed to the local congregation in the form of the “rite.”

. . . It is a guarantee, testifying to the fact that some-thing greater is taking place here than can be brought about by any individual community or group of people. It expresses the gift of joy, the gift of participation in the cosmic drama of Christ’s Resurrection, by which the liturgy stands or falls.

Moreover the obligatory character of the essential parts of the liturgy also guarantees the true freedom of the faithful: it makes sure that they are not victims of something fabricated by an individual or a group, that they are sharing in the same liturgy that binds the priest, the bishops, and the pope. In the liturgy, we are all given the freedom to appropriate, in our own personal way, the mystery which addresses us.

While admitting the need for constant revitalization, Ratzinger views the liturgy as imposing an obligatory form on priest and people — not to curtail their spiritual freedom, but to protect it.

It is doubtless the case that not all interpolations are equally bad, yet I hazard two generalizations concerning them: First, departure from the text or rubrics is almost never really necessary. Second, even the most innocent innovations upon more careful reflection turn out to be theologically obtuse and manifestly inferior to what is printed in the Sacramentary. Two examples should suffice.

“May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our weaknesses, and lead us to everlasting life.” This is unlikely to have the faithful sprinting for the exits, but ultimately it’s just plain dumb. It makes sense to ask God to forgive us our sins, for sins are voluntary and avoidable acts and we can feel genuine remorse for them. But our creative celebrant feels queasy at the mention of sin and so uses the gentler word weaknesses. But weaknesses, like talents, are among those things for which we’re not responsible. Weaknesses are part of the hand we were dealt—by God. What logic is there in asking God to “forgive” what He has granted or withheld? None whatever. The clumsy urge to innovate has replaced a solid with a surd.

“This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the World. Fortunate are those who are called to his supper.” Once again, few garments will rend at these words, but they’re entirely pointless. Theologically it is correct to say that they are truly blessed, beati, who are called to share in the meal of our redemption. But are they fortunate? “Fortunate” means aided by fortuna, i.e., by sheer luck, by chance. Is this what we really want to say about those who receive the Eucharist, that they’re lucky, that they’ve pulled the ace they needed out of the deck? Is there any room whatsoever in a theological view of the universe for “luck”? Can it ever be part of an alert theological vocabulary?

Both these turns of phrase would be quite venial if they were part of an impromptu address in which the speaker under the stress of the moment reached for the right term, missed it, and simply hit on an infelicitous expression. We all do it. But such changes are not of that sort. They are deliberate departures, conscious deviations from the text. With the best will in the world, it is difficult to see the point of substitution in the first place; it is doubly painful to have to rub one’s temples and pretend not to have heard Father’s “improvement.” The examples cited above are among the blandest and most innocuous I could muster. The real-life situation is, I fear, much worse.

Fair Warning

I have yet to be in a situation where liturgical deviation was a matter laid before the whole of the “worshipping community.” I have never, for example, seen a celebrant address the congregation in these terms, “Before we begin Mass, I thought it only fair to let you folks know that I will be introducing several departures from the Sacramentary into today’s liturgy. I intend to omit the words ‘Do this in memory of me’ after the consecration; I intend not to genuflect; I intend to use gender-neutral language during the Preface. If anyone here might find any of these changes offensive, let me urge him or her to find a more comfortable occasion of worship than the present one.”

It doesn’t happen, does it? Precisely among those whom we might expect to be most alert to the notion of covenant, we find that liturgy is rarely “covenanted” between presider and faithful. Even in those situations (such as weddings) where the preferences of a large number of people are consulted, the ordinary member of the congregation has little idea about what variations will actually take place when he walks through the church doors.

Liturgical deviation is essentially manipulative. It trades on the docility of the community of the faithful (who, it must be remembered, have come primarily to worship) by assuming that in almost every case considerations of good will and respect for the clergy will overcome any bafflement or uneasiness occasioned by novelty. The game is to present the Church with a fait accompli, and then wait for doctrine and practice to catch up at their own pace. Now it occasionally happens in a given setting that a certain set of innovations are employed so consistently as to acquire (for that particular setting) the status of a “received liturgy” in Ratzinger’s sense. This may be the case in certain monastic houses. Spiritual freedom might thus be regained for the happy few. But it is precisely this kind of freedom which, it seems to me, most dissenters are out to destroy.

Liturgical conformity, by its very nature, tends to build up the Church, the Body of Christ. It is essentially edifying. The obedience of the universal Christian community to the rite committed to it strengthens the Church, and — this is the point — it strengthens the Church as the Church understands herself. However, it is news to no one that there are groups even within the Church who find her self-understanding extremely offensive. For these, the very notion of the Church as an “edifice” is repellent. Their (often explicit) aim is to deconstruct the Church, i.e., to “disedify” it. They speak of Church “structures” as inherently and irredeemably oppressive. It stands to reason, then, that manipulation of the liturgy will be a prime tactic of these groups, since there is surely no more effective way to “disedify” the faithful.

Am I therefore claiming that every priest who omits the lavabo is in league with Rosemary Ruether to bring the institutional Church to its knees? I am not. On the other hand, it is hardly news that the Catholics who are most anxious for liturgical variation have very deep sympathies with dissenting movements. Personally, I know of no priest who would style himself a “dissenter” who is not also a deviationist as a celebrant.

What About Vatican II?

I anticipate an objection to my remarks along the following lines: You give a picture of liturgical conformity with minimal allowance for change, but this runs counter to the intention of the Second Vatican Council that the Mass be adapted to the needs of different regions and peoples. This objection involves a red herring which must be disposed of.

Liturgy “embodies” doctrine. Even in its non-verbal aspects, Eucharistic celebration proclaims those beliefs which we as a Church hold to be true. Now by “adapting” the liturgy to different regions it seems to me beyond dispute that the Council Fathers meant that there are occasions in which we must adapt in order to proclaim the same truth. They did not intend adaptation to mean acknowledgment of the particular doctrinal convictions voiced by some part of the Church. To speak of “the tensions of unity and diversity in the Church” is to obscure the real point. The tension is that between doctrinal unity amid cultural diversity. Inasmuch as a given celebration of the Eucharist acknowledges some conviction not held by the Universal Church, it is not a liturgy at all but an imposture, a coup de theatre.

For example, a priest may find himself chaplain to a university community where many members are offended by any reference to God as “Father.” Yet the acknowledgment of God as Father is an essential part of Christian kerygma; it is unarguably the belief of the Catholic Church. The priest may responsibly take prudent measures not to give casual offense, but if he “adapts” the wording to “Parent” or “Mother/Father,” he has forsaken that very doctrine which he was entrusted to pass on in the liturgy. He blesses a fissure in the Church; he promotes disunity.

It is a common rebuke leveled at those who plead for The Book in preference to liturgical innovation that they are guilty of exclusivity, whereas a truly inclusive Church would adapt her rites and usages so as to embrace the largest possible number. There is a truth here, but it is obscured by a widespread confusion.

I say in effect, “Let’s worship as one because our faith is one. If you believe x, y, and z, let us sit at the table of the One Lord.” De facto this is enormously inclusive. I take my stand with objective forms of worship (or, to be more precise, with “received liturgy” in Ratzinger’s phrase) because doctrinal exclusivism is most truly catholic, most color-blind to differences of culture, race, social class, and political conviction.

On the other hand, if one is willing to “temper the wind to the shorn lamb” by anticipating occasions of offense in the liturgy and altering it accordingly, he is obliged to face three consequences: (1) He has given feelings of ressentiment a theological status with the Christian community. (2) He makes himself and his fellows prey to the more articulate, better educated, and more influential part of the community, and so opens the door to manipulation of the liturgy by those whose purposes are not shared by the Church Universal and whose principles are least likely to be those of the “little ones” towards whom the Church has special guardianship. (3) He encourages a kind of congregationalism by which vague notions of “comfort” or “feeling at home” are given primacy over the more truly catholic esteem for the bedrock of shared faith.

The paradox is that liturgical and doctrinal “openness” (by which I mean a flexibility born of the desire not to exclude) inevitably allies itself with the attitudes and aspirations of one particular part of the Church community. By gradual degrees the congregation separates itself from the larger body of Christians — not because it closes its doors to anyone, but because its own style of openness will necessarily appeal to an ever smaller and more inward-looking population. The “exclusivity” of the Roman Rite is joyfully embraced by Christians all over the world; the “openness” of the Church of Joliette won’t even play in Peoria; in ten years, it won’t play in Joliette.

The liturgy belongs to the Church — to all of us, living and dead — as the emblem of our common faith and the enactment of that sacrifice once-for-all by which we are redeemed. No one has any license to rob us of our rightful patrimony. Taken together, all the visions of the de- constructionist, all the resentments of the disaffected, all the personal quirks and daydreams of the individual minister, all the globally-contextualized inclusivities of the professorial hierophant, do not add up to a single reason to deprive the faithful of the Mass, the Mass in its full integrity. Those who come into our midst mouthing the sweet words of compassion and openness are, very often, trying to wheedle us out of our birthright. Perhaps the time has come to resist.

  • Paul Mankowski

    Paul Mankowski, SJ, is a scholar of Scripture and Hebrew from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. He has published widely in the field of philology, including his book Akkadian Loanwords in Biblical Hebrew. He received a BA from the University of Chicago, an MA in classics and philosophy from Oxford, and a PhD in Semitic philology from Harvard.

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