Sunday, May 10, 2015

When Waves of Nostalgia Come Crashing Ashore

Today I came across something I haven't seen in some time. It lay there, waiting for someone to pick it up, feel the heft in their hands, glide their fingers down the supple red leather before taking one of the silk ribbons between thumbs and forefinger. It waited to have its cover opened, hands wading past the first few gilded pages, before coming to those words, <<...INSTAURATUM AUCTORITATE PAULI PP. VI PROMULGATUM>>

I have only seen this particular binding (genuine red leather and gilded pages) of the Pauline Missal twice in my life (counting today). The first time I ever read those words on the title page was approximately 14 or 15 years ago at the theology library of my alma mater. I had finally seen a copy of the Latin edition of Paul VI's missal. I turned to the first Sunday of Advent and found solace in the Ad te levavi... and at that moment, I must admit there was suddenly something familiar about the Pauline liturgy.

I have, generally speaking, lost much of the concern over fortune and misfortune of the Roman liturgy. In part because I'm never regularly involved with it, in greater part because both the history of the original liturgical movement and the praxis of Orthodoxy have provided some perspective on a few of the aims of the Concilium's reforms. Read enough of the liturgical movement and one discovers, even among the members of the Concilium, certain aspects of the Orthodox liturgy had an influence on their thought. Certainly, Orthodox liturgy has resulted in a new appreciation of the liturgical reform in the Roman Church. There are times when one makes a connection and begins to think one understands what the Roman reform may have been after. Bare minimum, one grows to appreciate liturgy in a language other than Latin.

At that time, however, detachment leading to any sort of perspective was not possible. There was something familiar and yet strange with Paul VI's missal and I have to think there was a similar reaction to it upon its promulgation. A number of pages into it, and it was easy to imagine how their could have been a niche of priests or liturgists who were brimming with excitement over the Missale Romanum of 1970. It is hard not to sense the somewhat contemporary feel of the Pauline missal. So streamlined in its liturgy, the Latin mass suddenly acquires the ability to keep abreast with the set pace of the post modern world. Again, if one stops and thinks what perhaps less disgruntled voices may have said upon the promulgation of the Pauline missal, one can appreciate how, in some respects, the liturgical reform may have elicited excitement roughly forty years ago.

Certainly by the time I had encountered the Latin text, it was window into another liturgical world. A Latin liturgy was indeed possible with the Pauline liturgy. The books existed, they were real, they were waiting. What remained was the will to attempt such a liturgy on a regular basis.

Of course, shortly thereafter Liturgiam Authenticam was issued, ICEL was reorganized from the top-down and the focus was placed upon re-translating the English edition, with a eye toward other vernacular editions as well.  It remains to be seen if this was the cure to ills afflicting the Roman liturgy or if it was placebo for a clinical condition. What became very apparent, however, was that the question of re-examining the priority of Latin for the revised Roman liturgy was a dead issue, both among progressive deconstructionists and conservative authoritarians, both of whom haggled over the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council and how the vernacular ought to be implemented.

I eventually came to the conclusion that the better step for the Roman liturgical tradition would be to establish celebration of the Pauline liturgy in Latin as the norm. Over time I tempered this a bit. English speaking countries seem more appropriate for such steps. Latin liturgy would, ideally, be the norm in monastic communities, regardless if laity are in attendance. Finally, it doesn't seem like Latin would contribute much to the African Church. Nevertheless, I continue to think the basic premise ought to be tried, if only to lend weight towards transforming the Missale Romanum of 1970 from a produced liturgy to a received liturgy. It would be the difference from a mindset that sees liturgy as predominately something to be created and controlled and liturgy as something to be prayed and revered.

In sum, years later, it seems to me that, if accepted as a received liturgy, the revised Roman liturgy is capable of transmitting the Tradition. True, at times it bears the watermarks of its age. This is true of any liturgy, Latin or Byzantine. What defines a liturgy, however, is not so much the marks of its age, as it is the presence of the perennial qualities of religion. Liturgies devoid of these qualities are quickly consigned to their age and go defunct, more often than not being the products of sectarian impulses which rarely translate well when taken outside of the immediate cultural context that produced them. To this extent, the perennial qualities of religion are present in the revised Roman liturgy, outnumbering the moments when the quality of the times left its mark. It remains an open issue whether responsibility for the institutional collapse of the Roman Church in the Western world (and the rampant heterodoxy in the Western Church in recent history) properly belongs to the liturgical reform or to the culture and church that was its recipient. Without denying Western Christianity lost much during the later stages of 20th century liturgical reform, it is the responsibility of any honest observer to raise this point.


  1. Back in the nineties I was attending the vigil of Pentecost at HT Monastery near Boston when one of the monks started chanting the conclusion of one of the Mattins' litanies in Latin. I was so shocked but pleased to hear Latin at this most Hellenic place. Not unlike seeing Latin inscriptions at Delphi I should think.

    Perhaps you miss Latin in your Orthodox milieu too.

    1. Difficult to say.

      I suppose, for better or worse, Latin was grafted into my bones. Certainly, there are occasions when a given hymn, text, or prayer just seems to make the most sense in Latin. So, perhaps.

      This said, those were some exciting times. It was fun to finally see the Latin edition of the modern Roman liturgy. I have many a fond memory searching for the history of its euchological corpus - there is a voluminous amount of information out there on the sources of the modern Roman Missal.