Loving the Post-Vatican II Mass
Cambridge, MA. You may have read Kenneth Wolfe’s Op-Ed piece in Sunday’s New York Times (Week in Review), Latin Mass Appeal. Mr Wolfe’s argument has to do with what he considers the undue and ill-considered influence of Father (and later Archbishop) Annibale Bugnini on the reform – or deform – of the Eucharistic liturgy of the Church in the years before Vatican II. Mr Wolfe laments the movement away from the Latin Mass, the turning around of the altar to face the people, and an array of later changes including altar girls, communion in the hand, etc.
I am not sure why the Times chose to publish this piece — because it was the First Sunday of Advent? — but I found it unconvincing, not as a liturgist or liturgical historian or Vatican-watcher (I am none of these), but as a Catholic who is old enough to have served Mass in Latin as an altar boy, young enough to had no say about the changes in the liturgy, but nevertheless privileged to serve as a priest for more than 30 years thus far in the parishes and campuses of our Church, here and abroad. So here’s what I think:
First, we’ve been taught for centuries to trust the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Many a time the Vatican has called to work in the Vatican men without any particular training or experience that would justify their appointment; many a time, Popes have trusted such individuals with very important roles in shaping the theology and practice of the Church; and many a time, God has worked through such men. Archbishop Bugnini is one such person, and I see no reason to think that the Spirit, and intention of the Church, did not work through his sincere and humble efforts.
Second, while as a child I found the liturgy of the pre-Vatican II Church deeply satisfying and loved the ritual, the Latin, the mystery of this worship, I have never found it the case that the conciliar changes were a mistake or a loss. The typical Eucharistic celebration is no less holy or sacred now than it was in 1960. Many of the reforms were intended to restore practices of the Church far older than Trent, and it is good that we were — and are — reminded that neither Latin nor particular forms of music and piety are essential to the effective celebration of the Eucharist or to the grace that is the real presence of Christ in our midst through it.
Third, Mr Wolfe notes that Archbishop Bugnini sought to reform the liturgy to remove barriers dividing us from our Christian neighbors in Protestant traditions. I gather that he sees this as a fatal mistake, but I think it was a very good thing to remove, for many good reasons including the ecumenical one, barriers that made the Eucharist needlessly different or divisive. It is not a good thing when we Christians are divided to no good purpose; and when there are real differences, such as different theologies of the Mass (as meal, as sacrifice), we can still seek, as did Archbishop Bugnini, to show in our practice that such differences can be signaled in various ways. There is nothing essential or unchanging about receiving communion on the tongue, for instance, or faddish about welcoming girls as well as boys to serve at the altar — and if some of Archbishop Bugnini’s changes meant that our worship would become more like Protestant worship, that seems to have been for the better. (Yet even today, I doubt very much that even newcomers will confuse Catholic and Protestant Sunday worship.)
Fourth, Mr Wolfe finds it particularly disappointing that the altar was turned around to face the people; he cites Pope Benedict that externally at least, when the priest faces the people, this signifies a community “closed in on itself.” But this is unfair, just as it would be to complain that in the old liturgy the priest kept turning his back on the community. If there is deep meaning to the community and priest facing forward together, in worship, so too there is deep meaning in a community context where priest and people face one another: in my 30+ years of presiding at the Eucharist, I have always found it a grace that in this way we gather around the sacrificial gifts, face to face, and in attentiveness and vulnerability stand together before our Lord, around the altar. Given the rich and beautiful and deep commitments and faith that people bring to a parish Mass on Sunday morning, there is nothing merely “closed in on itself” in our way of worship, and I am sorry that Mr Wolfe has found it to be so.
Perhaps in an Advent mode of expectation, Mr Wolfe concludes with a visionary look foward: the Pope, and good Catholics, are doing away with the reforms and putting things back the way they were, and should be. But I think he has not seen deeply enough: God does bless us in the way we worship today, Christ is present in the Eucharist as we celebrate it, the Spirit touches our minds and hearts as we stand, hands outstretched, to receive the Body of Christ, and then proceed to drink his Blood from the cup.
Even the English language serves very well as the language of prayer. Thanks be to God, Deo Gratias.
As always, I welcome reader comments.