Liturgy Wars

The Liturgy Wars are back, although I suspect they never really left. Yesterday, Pope Benedict celebrated Mass in the Sistine Chapel where the altar faces the great mural of the "Last Judgment" by Michelangelo. That is, the Pope presided ad orientem or facing away from the people.

The liturgy in the Sistine Chapel is of a piece with an effort in this pontificate to restore some of the majesty and mystery of the pro-conciliar Church to the life of the post-conciliar Church. To many liberals, this amounts to a betrayal of Vatican II. To many conservatives, what has passed since the close of Vatican II has been the betrayal.


Some truth lives in both perspectives. Some liberals rightly insist on the achievements of Vatican II, starting with the significant fact that the people of God better understand what they are doing at Mass. They worry that the nostalgia for a pre-Vatican II liturgy reflects a kind of inchoate fear of the modern world that is at odds with both the spirit and the letter of Vatican II. Conservatives rightly see the break in liturgical norms as part of a greater break, what the Pope has called an "hermeneutic of discontinuity" that sometimes threw the baby out with the bathwater while implementing Vatican II.

Some silliness, too, lives in both perspectives. For example, in a post at First Things, that Father Martin noted below, the Anchoress writes, "there is an increasing trend among Catholics -- particularly young Catholics, who got a taste of a fuller, more solemn liturgy with the funeral mass of Pope John Paul II -- to seek out the so-called Old Latin Rite." Of course, John Paul II’s funeral was in the new rite, not the old, so it is hard to see how that experience motivated young Catholics to see the solemnity of a rite they were not watching, but that is not the first time that First Things, in reaching for grandeur, has made the facts fit a theory rather than the other way round. More worrisome, of course, are the Lefebvrists, who not only pine for a more transcendental liturgy but also for the days when Dreyfuss could be sent to Devil’s Island and pogroms were considered normal. I commend Pope Benedict for reaching out to any alienated Catholics including the Lefebvrists, but he will regret his dealings with these anti-Semitic monarchists who have been disloyal to every Pope since Leo XIII called upon them to rally to the Third Republic.

Silliness exists on the Left as well. While the story of a "pizza and beer" Mass at a noted seminary in the early 1970s is apparently apocryphal, there were some avant-garde, theologically ill-informed liturgies in the past few decades. Much of the music written for the post-conciliar liturgy is unbeautiful and pedestrian in the extreme. The architecture of post-Vatican II churches usually leaves much to be desired with churches that could easily be mistaken for barns and electric organs that fill these barns with their tinny sounds. Our Episcopalian brothers and sisters, in 1984, actually did unveil a crucifix with "Christa" on the cross at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, but I am sure some Catholics thought of that approvingly.

Horror stories do not make history, however. Most people enjoy the rite of Pope Paul VI. Most people enjoy the liturgy in the vernacular and can’t conceive of a liturgy in Latin. Most people also understand intuitively that there is a limit to their understanding of the mysteries of God, that there is, after all, something ineffable about our liturgy that has been understated or lost in the rush towards easy accessibility and democratic mores and tastes. Most people appreciate beauty and respond to it with the kind of praise and wonder that disposes one towards an embrace of the liturgy that is deeper and more truly participatory than merely joining in the third verse of "Gather us in, the trolls and the cretins."

There is a place for a war about liturgy, but the Sistine Chapel is not it. Every pastor and every parish that pay little attention to planning their liturgies are cause for battle. Every pastor who delivers a slipshod sermon, or who never uses the Roman Canon, or who never takes the time to explain the meaning of the symbols and seasons of the Church, that is cause for battle. Every bishop who does not insist that his clergy focus on the one hour of the week when they spend the most time with the most people in their parish is a cause for battle.

Liturgy is not only, or even primarily, a thing that distinguishes us from Protestants, a sociological manifestation of tribal identity, the religious equivalent of reading the Sunday Times at Starbucks for our non-religious friends. Liturgy, especially the Mass, is at once an anthropological, theological and existential statement, and not only a statement, but a deeper reality for liturgy not only says who we claim to be, the liturgy actually turns us into who we claim to be. Mass is not something Catholics do; Mass is what makes us Catholics. If our spread-eagle, consumerist, capitalist culture reduces us to homo economicus on Monday thru Friday, the most important teaching of Vatican II is that as baptized we are more properly considered homo liturgicus, that the Mass is a source of our very identity as well as the fullest expression of that identity. That is what it means when we say that the Mass is the "source and summit" of the Christian life.

The Pope can say Mass ad orientem or ad occidentam, I don’t care. I care that our Pope, our bishops, our pastors and our people take greater care to make sure that our liturgies are oriented to Christ, that we find fitting ways to praise him, that we embrace the wonder of the Incarnation and the truth of the Incarnation, making sure our liturgy is both accessibly human and yet touched with the divine. That is worth a battle, a battle to define what it means to be Catholic. Whether this priest or that Pontiff says Mass wearing lace and facing east is not worth a thought. That we all draw closer to Christ in our sacramental life, making His presence and grace real and felt anew, that is the most vital work a Christian can do.

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Marc Monmouth
9 years 2 months ago
Excellent article!  Thank you, MSW. 
9 years 2 months ago
I found this at the new blog called " Pray Tell ": What is the differenc between a terrorist and a Liturgist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.
9 years 2 months ago
Nice article!  One error: I don't believe the pope has ever used the words "hermenutic of discontinuity".  Can you give a cite for that?  I believe the terms are "reform" and "rupture".
Brian Thompson
9 years 2 months ago
I like this article. I am one of those young Catholics (indeed, young seminarians) who long for ineffble beauty in liturgy while still comprehending the content of the rite. I can attend an Extraordinary Form Mass, a Divine liturgy, or an Ordinary Form Mass with equal ease and devotion (though my participation varies a great deal as does my mentality between rites).
Still, there are babies we definitetly did throw out with the bathwater when we rearticulated our faith at the Council. I am coming more and more to see that the present reforms and suggestions of our Holy Father and his chosen associates are earnest and valuable attempts at recovering what was lost or partially forgotten without succumbing to blind nostalgia. I think many of Pope Benedict's ideas about how to accomlish this are also great.
For example, I especially like the so-called Benedictine arrangement as a way to emphasise the common focus of the Mass on Jesus without having to endure the headache of liturgical warfare over true ad orientam worship. Indeed, for better or worse, I think the contra populum orientation is here to stay at least in some form. However, we cannot lose the value inherent in common orientation; perhaps we could use the benedictine arrangement as the stock setup, and ad orientam (or at least common orientation if your church is not built oriented) as an option for extreme progressive solemnity. How wonderfully striking would it be to attend the Easter Vigil or Chrismas Mass and see everyone turing to the east, anticipating the physical dawning of the sun, which symbolizes the Return of the Lord. I am very concerned that we maintain a strong vertical link to and focus on God in our liturgy, and contextualise our horizontal unity in reference to that. That is, our horizontal sense of community should be percieved as our common vertical focus on God.
But, regardless, I will do what the Church asks. If she-be it on the Vatican, Diocisean, or Parochial level-says to abandon contra populum in favor of ad orientam, very well. If she mandates that contra populum will be the one and only acceptable orientation, very well. If she decides to consciously arearticulate the symbolic meaning of this or that orientation, very well.
Pearce Shea
9 years 2 months ago
Joe C,
 The Pope first used the phrase in his 2005 Christmas address (link below, if America permits), put has used reform/rupture more frequently (and used them in the same address as he first used discontinuity.
I am whole-heartedly with you on this one, MSM. As a younger Catholic, I think that Card. George's take on the traditionalism of many young Catholics as spot on: many of us, though not all, see a lot of beauty in the older forms with seeing a lot of the political baggage that attends them for many others. It is not hard to be politically liberal and a liturgical conservative. Indeed, more young Catholics than not that I know are of this sort.
Pearce Shea
9 years 2 months ago
erm "put" should be "but" and "with seeing" should be "without seeing"
Brian Thompson
9 years 2 months ago
I should clarify, after reading my post I realized there was an ambiguity. The proverbial babies were not thrown out with the bathwater BY the council, of course, but by individuals in the aftermath period of (understandable but ultimately over-hasty) zeal.
Eric Stoltz
9 years 2 months ago
"Mass is not something Catholics do; Mass is what makes us Catholics."
Hmmm. I think my friends who are Episcopal priests and Lutheran pastors would disagree. They don't list "services," they list times of Sunday Mass. And aside from scattered instances of different wording, the casual worshipper would be hard-pressed to find the differences from a Catholic lturgy.
James Dominic James
9 years 2 months ago
Sure, this is a nice piece, and measured in tone for the most part. But what about this:
''More worrisome, of course, are the Lefebvrists, who not only pine for a more transcendental liturgy but also for the days when Dreyfuss could be sent to Devil’s Island and pogroms were considered normal.”
and this:
''... these anti-Semitic monarchists ...''
Just imagine thousands of people, many of whom are not anti-Semitic, don't support monarchy, and don't even know what a pogrom is, losing their apartments, their jobs, and maybe even their children, all because they’ve been fingered as “Lefebvrists”. It would be a catastrophe. All that can avoided, and accuracy enhanced, just by changing a few words.
Here is a suggested re-write:
''More worrisome, of course, are _____, __­­­___, and ­­­­______  [use however many blanks you need to name accurately only the guilty Lefebvrists, if any, followed by the proof], Lefebvrists who not only pine for a more transcendental liturgy but also for the days when Dreyfuss could be sent to Devil’s Island and pogroms were considered normal.”
and this:
... these Louis Billot SJ manual-sniffin', Sacred Heart-on-a-tri-color lovin' eccentrics ...
Not bad, eh? And your act of distancing yourself from the Lefebvrists would still retain all its rhetorical weight, and because of that last crack, might make you seem even tougher. The risk that your taking a stand on liturgy would get you labeled ''Lefebvrist'' is low, trust me. The way I see it, you can't lose. By all means delete my post afterwards.
William Hamant
9 years 2 months ago
Thank you for a good and balanced article. A quick comment on your closing, however: ''The Pope can say Mass ad orientem or ad occidentam, I don’t care. I care that our Pope, our bishops, our pastors and our people take greater care to make sure that our liturgies are oriented to Christ...'' You are right, of course, that the liturgy is supposed to be oriented to Christ. Benedict agrees with you completely, and this is the reason why he has suggested that crucifixes be placed at the center of the altar: so that it is clear to priest and congregation that they are not ''facing each other,'' but together, turned towards the Lord. But to my mind, the tenor of ''I don't care'' is misguided. Benedict has written beautifully on the cosmic symbolism of facing east while celebrating Mass, a symbolism that has been employed throughout the Church's history. One of the most important reasons why Benedict emphasizes the environment as much as he does is that the universe is meant to be a symbol to us of the glory of God and His action in human history. This symbolism is not secondary; it is one of the distinctive features of Catholicism, and is the ground of the very possibility of the sacraments - and for this reason, it makes a great deal of difference whether, in our interaction with the cosmos, this symbolism is honored. Obviously, there are many, many circumstances where it is not practical to face east, and Benedict acknowledges and accepts this. The most important thing is facing Christ. But facing Christ is precisely what facing east is meant to symbolize, and we shouldn't dismiss such symbolism so readily.
Jim McCrea
9 years 2 months ago
Maria:  "What is the differenc between a terrorist and a Liturgist? You can negotiate with a terrorist" is truly almost as old as I.
It not longer gets much of a giggle.
Brad Roberts
9 years 2 months ago
This is by far the most gentle and friendly discussion on liturgy I've witnessed so far - these always seem to get so hot! I think this is great, as someone who's new to the Church and very much on the fence about the reforms. I like to see both sides of the discussion without it turning nasty.

And PS I agree with you on the ease with which one can be politically liberal and liturgically conservative. I would probably describe myself as both (I'm 34 and will leave it to others to decide if the "young" part applies ;) ).


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