The Catholic Thing
The Liturgical Cliff Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Sunday, 06 January 2013

Advocates for a more dignified and reverent celebration of the Mass – this author among them –continue to pine for this or that reform that will refocus the liturgy, in the words of Father Richard John Neuhaus, back to the Real Presence of God and away from God’s Really Awesome People.

As helpful as individual or wholesale reforms may be, they will be of little avail unless the overall ethos of the Mass first shifts in the manner wryly described by Father Neuhaus. But re-centering this ethos on the solemn worship of God prompts fears of a “liturgical cliff” beyond which precious few pastors are willing to push.

For over forty years, the vast majority of Catholic parishes have tilted the celebration of the Mass in a manner that was thought to stimulate God’s Really Awesome People. The Church, according to cultural trends, needed to be a more welcoming and friendly place. So we placed greeters at the doors, and, just in case we were not welcomed enough the first time, we are then invited by the lector to greet our fellow pew-mates before Mass begins. The music melody and attendant instruments are also intended to appeal to us, not God, so that the celebration may feel meaningful for us, the worshippers. Whether God, the object of worship, will be satisfied by our selections is not even given a thought.

But a far deeper – and more dangerous – ingredient to this people-centered approach is the relationship that has developed within the Mass between the priest and the people. Catholics in the pews expect the priest to engage them both by his manner of celebrating the Mass and by his homily. And it is on these two criteria, rightly or wrongly, that every priest is judged. A priest, by definition, is a mediator whose role is to bring people to God. Now in the contemporary view, the priest has been reduced to the “presider” or “facilitator” of religious entertainment for the people, forming what Pope Benedict has called a “self-enclosed circle.”

Priests, conscious of this precarious dynamic, feel as though they have no choice but to give people what they have come to expect – a Mass catered to their needs, or at least their needs as prescribed by liturgists over the last forty years. Change risks alienation, and alienation risks empty pews. And even if a priest is willing to take the risk, other factors – the choir, his fellow priests in the parish, expectations for extraordinary ministers and altar girls – are often even more difficult to combat.

      Benedict XVI celebrates a Mass ad orientem

In this situation, reorienting the Mass back towards God presents a liturgical cliff – a negative backlash from a large portion of the faithful who feel disengaged by a liturgy not wholly focused on them. And the liturgical cliff is made steeper and more sobering because these Catholics bear no blame for their people-centered Mass preference. They were thrust into this manner of worship by a precious few who held the reins with full force, and this is all they know – and, therefore, all they want.

Two actions in particular, the use of Latin and the priest facing east toward God rather than the people, bring instant threats of the liturgical cliff from the typical Sunday church-goer. The sad irony here – and the sign of just how people-centered the liturgy has become – is that Vatican II calls for the faithful to know and sing the ordinary parts of the Mass in Latin. It says nothing about turning the altar so the priest may face the people. In fact, it assumes that the priest and people are facing the same direction as they had for nearly two millennia.

How can the Mass be returned to its proper God-centered orientation without pushing the faithful over the liturgical cliff? There is no easy answer. Pope Benedict has recognized the dangers inherent in making such a transition: “Nothing is more harmful to the liturgy than a constant activism, even if it seems to be for the sake of genuine renewal.”

The Liturgical Movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century sought to awaken the faithful to the sublime splendor of the Mass, and Vatican II was supposed to be its pinnacle. But with the Novus Ordo Missae that followed the Council, the Liturgical Movement collapsed, its goal never realized. If before the Council the essence of the Mass was obscured from the faithful by overladen rules and external devotions, as Benedict has stated, now this same essence has been obscured by a cult of the self.

A new liturgical movement, as called for by Benedict in his magisterial The Spirit of the Liturgy, is necessary to restore the sacred element of the Mass. The new English translation of the Mass was a first stroke, and a masterful one, in this direction. It restored sacred language without altering the people-centered ethos to which we have grown accustomed – avoiding the liturgical cliff.

The next step is to return this people-centered ethos to a God-centered one. It begins with a whole series of homilies and lessons with a simple theme: Mass is not about us, it is about God.

Only if we grasp this simple theme can we avoid the complexities and unpleasantness of the liturgical cliff. Only then can meaningful reforms of rubrics take place. And only then will God’s people see that their awesomeness depends entirely on the Real Presence of God.

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David G. Bonagura, Jr.
is an adjunct professor of theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, New York.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (17)Add Comment
written by Ib, January 05, 2013
A very important column which clarifies and applies much of the most recent thinking on how we ended up where we are today with the Novus Ordo Missae. Thank you, Dr. Bonagura!

One quibble is the choice of metaphor: liturgical "cliff." I suppose this stems from all the talk about the "fiscal cliff," and so is meant as a kind of hook to garner a casual reader's attention. But it's not a very apt metaphor.

If we were really facing a liturgical cliff, then trying to move beyond our present state would be perilous and so inadvisable. No one in his or her right mind would advise going over the cliff. We may be stuck with weak, fumbling liturgy, but it can't be helped. To change would be to end up dead at the bottom.

What we are actually facing is a "liturgical chasm". The farther side has a richness and promise which can be seen and appreciated from where we are on this side. Moreover, it can - with difficulty - be crossed and the liturgy can emerge more convicting and powerful. It will be hard to cross this chasm, but as Dr. Bonagura notes, the Roman Catholic Church was forced to cross a previous liturgical chasm "under the lash" by the assortment of good-intentioned liturgical scholars back in the 60s.

written by Ryan, January 06, 2013
Just wondering your thoughts on altar girls. Doesn't opening this responsibility to girls broaden the exposure of the majesty of the Mass? I understand many of your other points, but don't see the threat of girls serving in the Mass. The Holy See approved this step as an option for priests, understanding altar boys to be a Church tradition and not an Apostolic (divine) tradition.
written by Manfred, January 06, 2013
"...fabricated liturgy...a banal on-the-spot product" Cdl Ratzinger, 1992 Preface comments for: The Reform of the Roman Liturgy." by Msgr. Klaus Gamber

"To abandon a liturgical tradition which for four centuries was both the sign and pledge of unity of worship (and to replace it with another which cannot but be a sign of division by virtue of the countless liberties implicitly authorized, and which teems with insinuations or manifest errors against the integrity of the Catholic religion) is, we feel in conscience bound to proclaim, an incalculable error." Cdl Ottaviani, 1969

The Church went over the cliff decades ago. Some of us knew it even then. Now do we know why the Blessed Mother asked that the Third Secret of Fatima be released no later than 1960?
written by Dave, January 06, 2013
This is a beautiful article, Dr. Bonagura, and thank you very much. There had been talk prior to the usage of the new (correct) translation as to a possible backlash, but that never really materialized: from what I've read, and from what I can see, Masses now are quieter and more God-centered than they were under the prior translation, and it doesn't appear that fewer people assist. I wonder if a good step would be to offer among the Sunday Masses one in which the priest celebrates ad orientem and one in which he celebrates ad orientem and the Ordinary of the Mass is conducted in Latin. I know from some experience that the faithful who encounter the Novus Ordo with the ordinary in Latin and the priest ad orientam are often deeply touched by the reverence and solemnity; and that younger people are the ones flocking to the Traditional Latin Mass: both pieces of data, and the pacific acceptance of the revised (corrected) language, may suggest that we might well be happily surprised by the number of people who would assist at Masses celebrated ad orientam and using the Latin for the Ordinary of the Mass. I suspect, too, that as times get harder, especially for those who practice the Faith, the hunger for the Transcendent is likely to grow and people will turn to those Masses where they are led to encounter the Transcendent God and Lord of Glory, who gives us strength, light, and courage. The Solesmes Gregorian Missal is a treasure still waiting to be widely discovered and used.
written by Dave, January 06, 2013
May I also add that a goodly number of people still await the broader availability of the Traditional Latin Mass that Summorum Pontificum (2007) was meant to facilitate.
written by Maggie-Louise, January 06, 2013
Re: altar girls
It may be a function of physiology or it may be a function of the age at which young people serve at the altar, but, speaking as a woman, I can offer my opinion that girls do not have the bearing or the gait or decorum or dignity that boys do through those years and, therefore, cannot (do not, will not?) exhibit the dignity and solemnity that come naturally to young boys. Pony tails flapping as they bounce across the sanctuary, they are unable to overcome this deficiency. And then, when a Latin Rite is offered, how do you tell them "sorry"? Our altar boys are well known throughout the region and are called upon to serve every time a combined service or devotion is offered.
In my humble opinion.

I have yet to discern any great improvement in the new N.O. rite. It is just as banal and infantile (infantile is too strong a word but heads in the right direction) as the old one. I don't know how much solemnity the translators expected the word "dewfall" to carry, but it doesn't carry very far.

Worse yet, the translators (probably all educated in the '60s) completely eliminated the future imperative tense, probably thinking that the use of "shall" in the third person was incorrect. Such an error completely undercuts the, well, future imperative from the text, and we are left flapping in the breeze wondering whether it (the subject of the sentence) will happen or not. Will He or Shall He come to judge the living and the dead? I think that, with the new translation, the emperor has no clothes but nobody will say it.

Don't mind me. I experienced four consecutive days of the Latin Rite last summer--from Solemn High Mass to Low Mass, and I haven't gotten over it yet. I simply cannot reconcile the two rites (the Latin Rite and the N.O rite) as serving the same spiritual purposes and I am hanging on by my fingertips--some days more successfully than others.
written by Subvet, January 06, 2013
Personally I think praying out loud to God in a language I'm not fluent in only makes me an ignorant showoff. Those Latin Masses were a real pain back pre Vat II if you didn't have any sort of translation handy. As a former altar boy I spied more than one parishoner just dozing in their seats and I've thought that must have been part of the reason why.

What's the big deal with facing East anyway? God is everywhere and He is more concerned with whats in our hearts than how the furniture is arranged.

Altar girls? Why not? In my own parish they do quite well and have proven no detriment for young men seeking vocations (a "problem" often cited by the detractors of girls on the altar). Since in the next life we'll all be spirit, that argues for a recognition of our equality in the eyes of God. No, I'm not pushing for female priests, thats a dead issue once the Magisterium killed it. But when my five year old daughter gets old enough to serve on the altar I hope she'll choose to do so.

Music? The Bible tells us to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, I don't recall any further requirements. My wife, a convert from Methodism, appreciates familiar songs. Personally I always thought too many of the hymns pre Vat II sounded like dirges.

As for actually greeting our fellow Catholics prior to and during the Mass, well it might be a bit smarmy but it sure beats the old days when you could sit by the same people every Sunday and have no idea who they might be.

Don't mind me, I'm just a 60 yr. old man who left the Church shortly after the 60's and returned several years ago. FWIW I left due to the elitist mentality of too many fellow fisheaters. One of the benefits of Vat II seems to be a diminishing of that mindset. It still shows up at times but with nothing like the frequency of my younger days.
written by Maggie-Louise, January 06, 2013
Mr. Subvet said, "Don't mind me, I'm just a 60 yr. old man."

And I am an almost-80-year-old second-time convert. The first time fizzled out after 10 years, followed by a 20-year hiatus. I have been back about 10 years. I probably don't have another 20 years in which to wander around for a second time, so I have to make the best of it.

BTW, when a priest is praying aloud in Latin, he's not speaking or praying to you or to me, so it doesn't matter what language he is praying in. God understands his words and we silently concur. When I visited Russia, I couldn't understand a word, but that didn't stop my active participation in the Mass--to use the current phrase. If it had been in Latin, I could have followed in my missal and not missed a beat.

written by Briana, January 06, 2013
I once had a priest at my parish who was very Orthodox and very God-centered. He was not afraid at all of talking about fire and brimstone, and denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following Jesus. Those were constant themes in his homilies. And people packed the pews for his Masses. I guess there are still people out there who want the real Christianity and not the watered-down version.
written by Sir Louis, January 06, 2013
Perhaps the way to start is at the center. Let us have deep and prolonged catechesis on the Real Presence. Due reverence and a focus on God should follow naturally and easily.
written by DS, January 07, 2013
The phrase like "God's Really Awesome People" oversimplifies the matter.

The intent of Vatican II was not to turn the liturgy into a people-centered activity. It was to bring the people into more fully into the liturgy that is mediated or presided over by the priest, and to turn them from spectators into participants. This recognizes the reality that God is both transcendent and immanent. His Real Presence is both in the Eucharistic elements and in the community of the faithful.

The liturgical implementation of this went off the rails, to be sure. But the solution is not to return to 1962 and this is certainly not what Benedict is trying to accomplish. His innovation of "cafeteria" Mass rites (Tridentine and N.O.) is evidence that he is at once traditional and progressive.

Certainly, the Tridentine Latin Mass, when celebrated properly and when the congregation participates, captures the proper spirit of Vatican II. And Benedict's restoration of its regular use has healed the cultural rupture that occurred in the 1960s.

But the Tridentine Mass does not have a monopoly on true and valid worship of the divine. The N.O. Mass, the rites of the Eastern Catholic Churches and the recently recognized rites of the Anglican ordinariate (whose Mass was partially authored by 16th century English Protestant Reformers) can all glorify God and recognize His transcendance and immanence.

The solution is not turning back the clock. The keys to sound liturgy are education, preparation and participation.
written by Harold Ullenberg, January 07, 2013
Perhaps this season in which we ponder, revere and celebrate the Incarnation is the best time to put to rest this mistaken notion that the liturgy as reformed by the Second Vatican Council is "people-centered" and not "God-centered." How does one know God, praise and thank and adore God, if not "through [Christ], with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit"? And who is Christ if not God and man--fully divine, fully human? Who is Christ if not the head of his body, the Church? Who are we if not members grafted on to Christ, members of his sacred, mystical body? To disrespect, even jokingly, the body of Christ--"God's Really Awesome People" is to disrespect Christ, who, in order to save us, assumed our human condition even to the point of suffering and dying to make us holy. (Our sisters and brothers in the Eastern churches go so far as to say that the liturgy "divinizes" its human participants--perfects us human beings and makes us holy, makes us "of God," unites us to God to the point that we can never separated again from God. Try taking the water out of the wine once it has been added! Christ is present in the assembling of the baptized people for liturgy, in the person of the ordained ministers, in the Word, and in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. To nourish a sense of church as community, as those chosen and called together and commissioned by God himself; to emphasize the importance of our understanding, living by, and giving thanks to God for the knowledge of who we truly are--members of Christ's sacred body; to take seriously the liturgy as "the participation of the people of God in the work of God," is in no way to make the liturgy "people-centered" instead of "God-centered." Christ has erased this dichotomy. to paraphrase the letter of John: "How can you claim to love the God that you cannot see if you do not know how to love the sister or the brother that you do see?"
written by Tom, January 07, 2013
Our parish (which is to say, our pastor) does several things well in this area.
A simple symbolic action is a liberal use of incense; THAT is clearly not for the benefit of Really Awesome People.

More important is using music that is focused on worship, both by the hymns chosen and by describing how they fit into the particular service; we rarely have "incidental" music.

Which provides the entry for Latin: we use it because it is reverent and beautiful (so beautiful) and because it connects us in worship with the universal Church across time and space. The more attentive pre-schoolers in our parish know how to chant their Agnus and Sanctus (in at least two settings), as well as, eg, the Salve Regina and O Sanctissima.

Finally, altar boys: our small parish has the best practice I've ever seen. Their numbers range from one or two on Saturday mornings, to eightish for most Sunday masses, up to 16 for Wednesday nights when the seminarians are home visiting. They range in age from first communion to college age. All in the traditional (and sharp!) black-and-white; self-managed, with just a little occasional guidance from our pastor; there is no schedule, and no mom-in-charge (though, obviously, plenty of family support). The boys, directed by the older boys, all find roles throughout the mass.

I've watched these altar boys over the years, and I think the answer to "why?" is clear enough: altar girls are OK, but they are a luxury (or an emergency fill-in) that we can afford to use when our seminaries are full and directing good candidates away to other orders. Almost no one becomes a priest who hasn't been an altar boy; these boys can all see themselves participating in the liturgy, whether that will be clerical or, for most of them, lay role.

And, despite all these strengths of our parish, I also see that ours is a fragile, little barque, under assault on all sides, and that much prayer has been and will be needed to keep it aright. Only by the grace of Christ!
written by DaveP, January 08, 2013
Rather than Latin which no one understands, I'd recommend a Mass more like the one the Anglican Ordinarite uses.
written by Jaime, January 08, 2013
My parish manages to have mass in all forms except the silly: the Extraordinary form every Sunday and Holy Day; Ordinary Form in Latin and English every Sunday; and ordinary form both facing the congregation and ad Orientem on Sundays. None of this seems to have driven people away or caused puzzled looks on the faces of visitors (we are in the middle of a popular tourist destination so we have a lot of out of towners). I doubt that most observant Catholics would be shocked or turned off by a return to the basics, or as Father Z says, "say the black, do the red." It can work.
written by Benjamin in SoCal, January 08, 2013
I am currently on the fence between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. I am a cradle Catholic, but I have had many issues with the Church.

Nonetheless, recent steps have given me comfort. One has been the increase of good and faithful bishops and clergy, especially in the wake of the horrifying sex abuse crisis, and the other is this semi counter-cultural revision of the Mass. I have walked out of Mass several times in the past because of the terirble "pop" music accompanying the liturgy. Hopefully now we can focus on the liturgical tunes as a means of change.
written by Hen, January 09, 2013
It's been four years now since he became as in gone away. Thanks for the reminder. We pray to and for him now

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