Notes on liturgical maximalism

30 04 2019

Just some unconnected thoughts I’ve had recently.

As you may know, I was connected to the Society of St. Pius X for a number of years in my youth. This experience was quite formative to me. My experience of the traditional liturgy was thus somewhat minimalistic and combative. Back in the late 1990’s, you were lucky to find the old Latin Mass anywhere. It was either relegated to the basement, to a time that was equivalent to the basement, or it could be found in little chapels or in groups that were considered “schismatic”. In the SSPX in particular, it was made clear to us that the liturgy was just the tip of the iceberg. Ecumenism, religious liberty, the New Theology, really it was opposing these things that brought me into the traditionalist sphere in the first place, at least initially. Later I would become much softer on these issues (wishy-washy?) but I never forgot that all of this was connected. The modernists also grew up in and celebrated the traditional liturgy for years before they got to change it. The traditional liturgy was thus never a panacea for me.

This came to mind last week when people were posting pictures of the pre-1955 Holy Week now celebrated in “approved” Latin Mass venues. For me, this seems like overcompensation. I do think the unreformed pre-Bugnini Holy Week is preferable, even the supposedly nonsensical celebration of the Paschal Vigil the morning of Holy Saturday. I still think that the concession to celebrate the unreformed Holy Week is bought at the price of acknowledging the legitimacy of the Vatican II liturgy. I knew this would happen when Summorum Pontificum was published in 2007. The Catholic Church is adopting the “Anglo-Catholic / High Church / Low Church” model of the early 20th century Anglican Communion. Instead of liturgy being an expression of communion, it is a personal preference that is rubber stamped and approved by the institution. The only thing holding it all together is bureaucracy. You can thus have a Mass that is essentially a reconstruction from the 11th century, with a rood screen and music by Hildegard von Bignen, and it’s okay as long as you also deem the bland liturgy down the street equally valid. Maybe others could live with that, but part of me cannot.

Another point: I stated recently that current obsession about liturgy has to do with the near total extinction of Catholic culture in the West. I think I can say with confidence that what made people Catholic in the past had little to do with what happened between the four walls of the church and more to do with what happened outside of them. What I most remember from various parts of Latin America is not the Masses, but the torch-lit processions through the streets, las posadas, the road side shrines, the little devotional altars in restaurants, etc. Obsessing about the rituals that take place within the sanctuary seems to be missing the point. If that’s all you have, you have a pretty poor religion. I am not saying that anything can be done about it, just that it’s rather unfortunate.

Imagine being in a small village church in Mexico during Holy Week in the late 19th century. While the unreformed Holy Week liturgies were going on with minimal interest inside the church, this sort of thing was going on outside:

If you were a child there, what do you think you would remember?

Some might argue that the rise of para-liturgical rituals in the West was the result of decadence in Church thinking, an over-clericalization of liturgy aimed at protecting the sacred. And in trying to protect the sacred, the clergy alienated the vast majority of people from it. This is the line of thinking of Louis Bouyer, for example, in his book, Liturgical Piety. This observation led to the reform of the liturgy, including the abolition of the old Holy Week to make a more “user-friendly” one. I suppose it’s understandable that, as Catholic culture becomes a faint memory of the past, people seek to recuperate whatever is left of the old ways, even if traditionally most people probably didn’t attend a five hour Paschal Vigil on Holy Saturday morning: it was mainly something that the clergy had to get through as quickly as possible because the Church ordained it.

In that sense, I have thought for some time how unnatural it is for the laity to bury their head in a missal during Mass to try to figure out what Father is mumbling in Latin on the altar. There is a wider point to this. Liturgy was formed in an ancient mentality that was hieratic. That’s just a fancy way of indicating that it was hierarchical: that which was received was received according to the mode of the receiver (quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur). You see this in the Patristic explanations of the liturgy for example: St. Maximus Confessor’s Mystagogy seems to be told from the point of the view of the person in the nave and not on the altar. There is often little to no commentary concerning the priest’s prayers or actions precisely because these are the concern of the priest. For unqualified laypeople living in the world to obsess about these clerical activities seems like overstepping a necessary boundary. Honestly, I feel the same way about lay Catholic theologians: What gives you the right to comment about the Sacred Mysteries if you live exactly the way I do? Sacred really means “set apart”. If we have an opinion about what is going on at the altar, we are probably seeing too much at that point. Are we really qualified for this, and is it even appropriate?

I admit that times have changed and liturgy is often all some people have. But judging from the state of the Catholic Church, and the many people leaving, it probably isn’t enough. For me personally, I can’t be angrier about the state of the liturgy than God himself is. If he wants it to change, it will change. If not, oh well.

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