One need not be a dyed-in-the-wool enthusiast of the old Latin Mass to recognize its liturgical genius or to inveigh against the rite that replaced it. The old rite exuded mystery and transcendence and induced, in all but the dullest souls, reverence and humility before the Divine Presence. Would that the same could be said of what is now called “the liturgical celebration of the people of God.”
At its best—which is to say, at the hands of a reverent priest in a setting that evokes a proper sense of the sacred—the new rite can be a lovely thing. At its worst—alas, a species of endless and deplorable variety—it focuses our attention not on God but on ourselves. That effect is massively reinforced by foolish architectural innovations that remove the tabernacle and convert the sanctuary into a vast playing field on which assorted members of the congregation compete for a piece of the liturgical action. In such settings, the new Mass evokes many moods, but reverence is not the first one that comes to mind.
The new rite draws its inspiration from Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy, which called for “full, conscious, and active participation” on the part of the congregation. An admirable goal indeed, but in common practice, the spiritual dimension of fully conscious participation is defeated by self-important congregational busy-ness. Whereas the measured pace of the old rite allowed for, indeed invited, contemplative prayer, the kinetic activity of the new virtually forbids it. The old Mass built slowly and reverently toward the denouement of Our Lord’s redemptive sacrifice. The new Mass, by contrast, lacks any apparent sense of dramatic movement or unity. Its now-this-now-that quality has the feel of a committee report that couldn’t reach true consensus and in lieu thereof decided to include, seriatim, a bit of everything in more or less equal proportions.
Catholics never exposed to anything else can hardly be faulted for thinking that the high point of the liturgy is not the Eucharist, but the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and the greeting of peace. In many parishes, the enthusiasms generated by those actions necessarily convert the communion that follows into a kind of anticlimax. Is anyone surprised that large numbers of Catholics no longer believe the Eucharist to be the actual body and blood of Our Savior? Once again we confront the truth of the ancient maxim, lex orandi, lex credendi—roughly translated, “As a people worships, so they will believe.”
Many bishops are rightly alarmed by liturgical novelty. It has already bred and will continue to nourish doctrinal and devotional disunity, especially in regard to the Blessed Sacrament. Some modest corrective steps have been taken in various dioceses through the reintroduction of Benediction and Nocturnal Adoration. Similar, though again modest, success has been achieved in the revised Roman Missal and its accompanying instructions. But correcting bad habits of 30 years’ duration will not be an easy task.
Consider, for example, the running battle over the proper posture to be assumed during the Eucharistic Prayer. Some ordinaries, including, alas, those who oversee a number of our largest dioceses, have decreed that standing will be the norm. As our age is not exactly known for reverence, much less its penitential disposition, one might suppose that bishops would, to a man, welcome any opportunity to inculcate such virtues. Kneeling for the Eucharistic Prayer is little to ask but a powerful instructor. What is it about kneeling that is so offensive?
The same must be asked of those bishops who have moved in draconian fashion to discourage kneeling to receive the Sacrament. Many of us have heard of or witnessed priests who have refused communion to those who kneel. Contrary to what these clerical fools may believe, no priest is authorized to deny communion under such circumstances. But rather than chastising their errant priests, many bishops instead chastise the devout, suggesting that although one has a right to kneel, exercising that right amounts to an act of disobedience. These bishops cannot have it both ways: One either does or does not have a right to kneel, and if one does, then kneeling cannot be disobedient.
The important issue, however, is not about some legalistic interpretation of liturgical “norms.” The issue, rather, is why any bishop, anywhere, should ever wish to discourage special reverence for the Blessed Sacrament.