The Catholic Thing
Liturgy: Back to the Future Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Sunday, 29 November 2009

"There are as many opinions as there are men,” wrote the ancient Roman playwright Terence. Such is the case with views of the Novus Ordo Missae, the new rite of the Mass that was born on the first Sunday of Advent, 30 November 1969. Forty years later, the Sunday Night Liturgist – the Catholic counterpart to the Monday Morning Quarterback – still does not shy away from pronouncing judgments on the Mass he attended earlier that day: homily too long, music too buoyant, readers too monotone, greeters too obtrusive, and so on. On the ritual itself, opinions stretch from the illogical (“the new Mass is invalid”) to the absurd (“let the clown bring up the gifts”), and everywhere in between.

No less an authority than Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger expressed his opinion of the new Mass in a number of interviews and publications. He has praised certain elements – the new prayers and prefaces, the new readings available for weekdays, the vernacular – and has questioned and criticized others – the tendency towards desacralization, the rise of excessive creativity, the manner in which the new missal came into existence. Because of these criticisms, some have awaited a “reform of the reform” since Ratzinger was elected to the see of St. Peter. And while a minor tinkering to the new Mass is not unthinkable, Benedict XVI reasserted in Sacramentum Caritatis the Church’s unwavering support of the initial reform:

[T]he Synod Fathers acknowledged and reaffirmed the beneficial influence on the Church’s life of the liturgical renewal which began with the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. . . .The difficulties and even occasional abuses [in the process of liturgical renewal] which were noted, it was affirmed, cannot overshadow the benefits and the validity of the liturgical renewal, whose riches are yet to be fully explored.

Among those who are delighted to hear Benedict’s reaffirmation of the new liturgy are Catholics who recoil at nearly any mention of the Church and the liturgy before the Second Vatican Council. For them the old Latin Mass most vividly exemplifies a pre-conciliar repression of the people’s true role and dignity. By contrast, they believe the new Mass, with its infinite options and anthropocentric inclination, manifests a preferred decentralized ecclesiology that exalts the individual and the neighborhood parish vis-à-vis Roman uniformity and conformity. For them the reformed liturgy represents all the hope and excitement of the Council’s intended renewal, the very embodiment of “the spirit of Vatican II.” Forty years later, the very identity of these Catholics is so inextricably bound to the new Mass that any possible changes to it are perceived as attacks against the Council and against themselves. This is what makes this particular anniversary so noteworthy.

Earlier this month the US bishops gave final approval to the first major change in the new Mass in English since 1969: new translations of all the prayers will soon be introduced, while the ritual itself will remain unchanged. The new translations are a clear sign that the reformed liturgy – and what it represents for some – was not perfect or invincible. For this reason the aforementioned adherents to the new Mass opposed the new translations to the end.

Among the most fervent supporters of the new translations are Catholics who see the liturgy principally as the worship and glorification of God, an action that includes exalted language in order to render praise worthy of our Creator. Not incidentally, this view is shared by many Catholics born since the promulgation of the new Mass, a fact noted by Benedict in his accompanying letter to Summorum Pontificum. Finding the reformed liturgy too fixated on the immanent, these young people strive to identify themselves with the ritualized worship of the transcendent. As Cardinal Ratzinger explained in The Spirit of the Liturgy, “life only becomes real life when it receives its form from looking toward God.”

There is a strange irony in this liturgical anniversary in light of the translation controversy. To paint with a broad brush, it tends to straddle generational lines. On the one hand, there is an older generation of Catholics who, having first experienced the old Latin Mass and found it distant, have embraced the reformed liturgy as the ideal expression of Vatican II. On the other hand, there is a younger generation of Catholics who, having first experienced the new Mass in the vernacular and found it lacking, have sought more reverent celebrations of the new Mass and/or have discovered the old Latin Mass to encounter God. And in keeping with the maxim lex orandi, lex credenda – the law of praying is the law of believing – entirely different ecclesiological models are attached to each position.

Is this fortieth anniversary, then, the beginning of the end for the new Mass? Is the liturgy merely a generational football? The word “catholic” means universal, and universality, in practice, can never mean uniformity or competing dualities. Cardinal Ratzinger said in 2001 that “the goal we are all aiming for in the end – it seems to me – is liturgical reconciliation, and not uniformity.” Reconciliation is not the blending of rites; it is the acceptance of legitimate liturgical pluralism that allows Church approved rites, the two forms of the Roman rite of the Mass, in all parishes and seminaries. Authentic Catholic unity is this diverse expression of the one true faith. The last forty years have taught us that liturgy should be dictated not by the experiences of the Sunday Night Liturgist, but by the Church herself.


David G. Bonagura, Jr. is associate editor of The University Bookman.

(c) 2009 The Catholic Thing. All right reserved. For reprint rights write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (13)Add Comment
written by William H. Phelan, November 30, 2009
While the article is well done, I found its point unclear. In the pre-Vatican Church there existed Original Sin , mortal sin and Heaven or Hell. These do not exist in any degree in the Vatican II Church. They are never preached. I believe what dictates is education and intelligence, a sort of high church/low church results to which the different groups are drawn. The Novus Ordo, it is now being admitted, was designed to attract Protestants.back to the Church. I hope they enjoy it.
Mass of confusion
written by Joseph, November 30, 2009
David, diversity or conformity, which is it? I found much ambivalence in your piece, perhaps a reflection of the mixed messages sent by Vatican II and the Pope himself. I'm 67 so I can relate to the old Latin mass better than the modern rites that have substituted the vernacular for the mysterious, and the mundane (Beatles music) from the lofty (Gregorian hymns). Which is why I stay out of the church, but remain in the Church. Better, as Jesus said, to go into your room and pray by yourself.
English Refinement
written by Willie, November 30, 2009
The Catholic Church is not unfamiliar with vernacular liturgy. The first liturgy was probably Aramaic, followed by Greek. Latinization occurred much later. In the effort of creating uniformity the Church of the Roman Empire wanted Latin. The Irish were the last to conform and if it weren't for Charlemagne Latin would not be the Church's language. The Eastern Church never used Latin except by force. The forthcoming liturgical changes are not a repudiation of the Novus Ordo but a sanctification.
Thoughts to Ponder
written by Ars Artium, November 30, 2009
This post offers points to ponder. What it proposes, if I understand it correctly, is that the Church through Her teaching office has proposed two liturgical ways of expressing the one Faith. Problems arise only when and if one of these ways seems more concerned with faith in the goodness of human beings rather than with God, the source of any and all human goodness.
Liturgical Chaos
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., November 30, 2009
One may speak of the Novus Ordo itself as the issue, but the fact is that Mass is often celebrated in ways that deviate substanially from the mandated rubrics. That liturgical chaos has led to doctrinal and moral chaos. Those who embrace that chaos shrink from any mention of the Extraordinary Rite like Draculas shrinking before a crucifix because they embrace that chaos, which they call feedom and modernity. They fear mention of Hell more that Hell itself.
Going Back?
written by Deacon Sean Smith, November 30, 2009
At a workshop on the new translation a few weeks ago, I heard people commenting that we are "going back" to the way things used to be, "pre Vatican II". That seems to be most inaccurate, since no one "back then" would have ever heard these prayers in English, only Latin. There was never any experience of these prayers in English. So, there really is no "going back" at all. If these had been the translations when first using the vernacular, no one would have said a bad word about them.
Legitimate Diversity
written by David Bonagura, November 30, 2009
Summorum Pontificum sums up the mind of Joseph Ratzinger, who has consistently favored different liturgical rites (Roman, Dominican, etc) that all express the one true faith. Now, with "two forms of the one Roman rite" we have legitimate pluralism within the Roman rite, so we should have both forms in our parishes and seminaries. It seems to be the practice of many of those in charge only to allow the form they prefer (the new Mass). The Church wisely allows both. We should follow her lead.
written by Liz, November 30, 2009
After Vat II the Mass added the Protestant ending to the Our Father; our sacred Catholic Music was replaced by Protestant hymns, Shaker tunes and sometimes I feel like I am at a Baptist service. I have not seen our Protestant brethren reach out to us - only us to them and in ways that disrespect our religion. Lets be Roman Catholic again. If this is a start I welcome it. Now do something about the music.
written by William H. Phelan, November 30, 2009
Deacon Smith, you have put your finger right on it. If the terminology was kept as it existed fifty years ago, there would have been no reason for the Novus Ordo Mass. Its purpose was to establish a new religion! "There was never any experience of these prayers in English"? Wrong! I pray the English in my 1962 missal as the priest prays in Latin, word for word, just as I did 45, 50 and 65 years ago. See my piece below. There are no permanent deacons or altar girls in my Catholicism.
Liz is right on the money
written by Terence, November 30, 2009
Well said.
Contra Liz
written by Tom, December 01, 2009
In our thoroughly orthodox parish, for the Wed. night mass, we'll sing significant parts in Latin and then do an old 19th century evangelical hymn - IF IT FITS with the readings or the homily.
The striking thing is how our pastor ties the music to the liturgy - and from growing up as a distinct minority among Protestants, he calls upon a deep repertoire of great old Protestant hymns (and Catholic - have you sung anything by, say, Fr. Faber recently?).
It works - we don't have "incidental music".
Same Problem
written by Deacon Sean Smith, December 01, 2009
"My Catholicism", Mr. Phelan? Sounds like the same, possessive, "made in my image" way of thinking being assigned to others, just on the other end of the spectrum.

Too often "your Catholicism" and "my Catholicism" are but are own poor images of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church. We might all do well to pray more fervently that we might know and love the Church as she truly is.
Controlling the dial
written by Dave, December 01, 2009
Our Lord Jesus was nailed to a cross, died and rose again on the 3rd day for our salvation. I love that Truth.

Are we really bickering over what genre of hymn we should sing in praise of this Truth? Does it lessen this Truth if 5% or 95% of the mass is said in Latin or English or Spanish? We are one family on this road trip; let's stop bickering over the radio station and focus on the journey.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author