Old practices and new rites must meld to deliver a heartening and enriching Catholic liturgy

Father John A. Kiley

The Little Sisters of the Poor offer tasty meals to their residents at the Jeanne Jugan Residence in Pawtucket. While recently taking advantage of their hospitality, I sat at table with a young man who was visiting his grandmother. When I inquired about the young adult’s home parish, he informed me that he attended the Latin Mass at St. Mary’s Church on Broadway, Providence. He then volunteered, “I have no idea what is going on, but it makes me feel very close to God.” A young nurse who was tending a patient whom I visited at a local hospital informed me that she was a Catholic and that she had enjoyed attending the Latin Mass at her previous neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. She recalled that there was something “otherworldly” about the Latin Mass which the Mass in English today clearly lacked. Woonsocket is fortunate to have three Byzantine rite parishes, one Catholic and two Orthodox. Local residents who occasionally attend these churches at a funeral or a wedding speak warmly of the air of “mystery” that pervades these opaque liturgies.

Prayer, by definition, is “the raising of one’s mind and heart to God.” An effective liturgy should indeed elevate the worshipper from worldly pre-occupations into divine considerations. Rightly does the celebrant at every Mass urge the congregation to “Life up your hearts!” Mysterious, otherworldly and heavenly Church ceremonies have an understandable appeal and render a genuine service to the serious believer. After all, the curtain in the Temple was rent apart centuries ago. Mankind is now invited into the very presence of God Himself.

Alas, the new order of the Roman Catholic Mass in effect for the past half-century has often been anything but otherworldly. Polyester cloth replaced silk robes. Ceramic cups supplanted gold chalices. The guitar replaced the organ. The pulpit was forsaken for a stroll down the middle aisle.  Folk Masses and home Masses were deliberately casual. The introduction of basketballs, text books, and canned goods at the presentation of gifts hardly raised the mind from the secular to the sacred. The vernacular readings sometimes rendered in less than sonorous tones were hardly edifying. The sign of peace was often somewhat unrestrained. Such an over-the-top transition of the Roman liturgy from all sacrifice to all banquet has been lamentable and, for the most part, is gradually being corrected. Parish Masses today are happily more sober than those ceremonies that parishioners endured in the first decades after the Mass passed into the vernacular and onto a free-standing altar. But sober is not necessarily solemn; and bland is certainly not breathtaking.

The liturgical reforms of the mid-twentieth century were a classic case of the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. Latin went. Chant went. Tabernacles went. Statues went. Incense went. Bells went. Kneeling fell into disfavor. Eucharistic fast was often ignored. Uplifting motets were neglected. Silence was forgotten. These finer elements of the Medieval and Baroque Church that had inspired generations of Catholics were forsaken and some aspects of the Protestant Reformation were subtly adopted. The priest became a presider; the altar became a table; the church became a meeting house.

The authentic liturgical renewal wisely and insightfully decreed by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council introduced — or re-introduced — elements vital to the worthy celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  The spoken dialogue between celebrant and congregation befits a community enterprise.  The complete overhaul of the Service of the Word — expanded readings, regular homilies, lay involvement — is certainly correct. The general intersessions highlighting local and international needs make prayerful sense. The formal presentation by the laity of the elements to be consecrated at the altar draws the faithful into the Eucharistic action. Solemn rites celebrated in the language common to all participants are certainly reasonable. Communion in the hand is a subtle recognition of the dignity of the Catholic laity.

This Sunday’s report on Phillip’s visit to Samaria reads: “Now there was much joy in that city.” Joy is just as much an element of true liturgy as is mystery. Old practices and new rites must meld to deliver a heartening and enriching Catholic liturgy. The “Kyrie Eleison” in Greek and the “Sanctus” and “Agnus Dei” in Latin can easily join the Hebrew “Alleluias” and “Hosannas”  at any Mass. Lectors should be well-trained. Pauses and bows can be decorously observed. Vestments and furnishings can be worthy. Genuflections, incense, holy water, bells, and candles all have their place. There is certainly room for choirs and solos. The Mass, even back to the Upper Room, has been appropriately a banquet as well as a sacrifice. Both elements need celebrating!