Liturgy: Back to the Future

“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. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.