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.