Liturgical Differences

Once again, the church is entering a critical period of renewal and reform of liturgical language and practice. In March 2003, the translation and application for the United States of the 2001 edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal was approved by the Holy See, and a translation of the same edition of the Roman Missal approved for use in the dioceses of the United States is expected shortly.

Most Catholics who are now middle-aged typically embraced the liturgical changes that followed the Second Vatican Council—vernacular language, new musical idioms, presiders facing the assembly, the simplification and relative informality of the rubrics, the variety of lay liturgical ministries and on and on. It was a joyous revolution, running alongside a number of other revolutions of culture and consciousness occurring during those turbulent years. Our elders at the time typically found this a painful period in which the precious and comfortable worship habits of a lifetime were swept away in favor of what appeared to be consummate novelty. Now we find in our midst—sometimes to the chagrin of us middle-aged people—a new generation that appears to long for the return of sublimity, transcendence, the utter uniqueness of word and action and the uniformity that characterized Catholic liturgy before the council.


Do we remember the “liturgy wars” of the late 1960’s and early 70’s? For every pastor or parish congregation that readily adopted the changes—sometimes going beyond what was authorized or intended—there was another that stubbornly refused to change or begrudgingly dragged its feet. Today it is not uncommon to find parishes that maintain two or more distinct worship communities with differing liturgical styles. One of the things that just about everybody agrees on—and almost nobody likes—is that the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical renewal led to a great deal of variance.

These “wars” produced many “refugees,” Catholics who wander from one parish to another in search of a liturgical style with which they feel comfortable. Once settled, they often invest themselves personally in that particular liturgical practice and strongly resist efforts to change it—especially if the change seems to be toward that from which they had fled. This liturgical consumerism can and does turn into a sort of unintended congregationalism. Today many parish congregations base their parochial identity not so much on neighborhood or ethnicity, but on liturgical style and practice.

Are we now poised to begin another era of liturgical warfare? The liturgical changes being contemplated today are nowhere near as drastic as those that began in 1965. On the other hand, the climate for division and dissension in the church is clearly more intense today than 35 years ago. Some of the changes will surely be painful for many communities. They affect biblical and liturgical language that uses (putatively) male nouns and pronouns where the intent is inclusive, the role of lay persons in the Communion rite, posture during the eucharistic prayer and the “suppression” of the third form of the Rite of Penance. Over the years, many parish communities have made serious investments in liturgical language and rubrics that are now being more assertively discouraged. Reversal will not be easy.

What have we learned from the last 35 years that might help us avoid some unnecessary pain during this liturgical renewal? I would suggest the following:

Patience. If we have learned anything, it is that individuals become very attached to their habits of prayer. This is even more true of communities. Precipitous or rapid change is guaranteed to result in conflict, resistance and resentment, no matter how worthy or liturgically correct it may be.

Consultation. The current crisis over the hierarchy’s handling of cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests has laid open what appears to be a more general wound in the relationship between hierarchy and laity. Increasingly, the laity’s perception is that the hierarchy has little or no regard for their interests, wisdom, experience or even well-being in making decisions affecting their lives in the church. Will this be a further exacerbation? Or can bishops and pastors systematically involve the laity in deciding just how to implement the universal norms in particular circumstances?

Preparation. Probably the greatest failure of the former wave of liturgical change was the failure to prepare people for the changes, starting with the clergy. Priests, people and even professional liturgists will need to understand clearly the reasons behind mandated changes. They will need convincing reasons why they should change at all. In addition, they will need time, repeated instruction and gentle persuasion before the changes can be implemented gracefully.

Tolerance for diversity. Certainly, uniformity of liturgical practice is a high value. It expresses and deepens the unity of faith of the universal church. But uniformity is a means to unity and not an end in itself. Too great an insistence on uniformity may well have the opposite effect, causing the church to be more divided rather than more unified.

It has often been said, “Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.” Will this be said again about Liturgical Reform 2004?

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