The Mass: Attention to Detail
McDonald, Allan, Sacred Music
When many older people nostalgically recall the Tridentine Latin Mass of yester-year, the greatest impression that often remains is the precision with which the rites were carried out. From the priest's well-rehearsed and solemn reverence, all the way to the altar servers' disciplined, choreographed movement in their flowing cassocks and gleaming surplices, one knew something important and awe-inspiring was taking place. The choir added its embellishing panoply to the liturgy with majestic polyphony and solemn Gregorian chant both of which evoked inspiration, contemplation, and piety. There were "bells and smells" and this was not understood in a derogatory way. After all, Catholic worship is "sensual" making use of all our senses of sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing.
As compared with today, there were few complaints about the quality of the liturgy in this milieu. Few would dare critique the sacred, because they had a deep and abiding respect for the sacred and the purpose of their participation in the Mass. Their participation in the Mass united them to Jesus Christ, the second person of the Blessed Trinity and his one sacrifice on the cross. It also united them to Holy Mother Church, and her pastors. This was a big deal!
But in the decades that followed the Second Vatican Council, complaints and criticism about the renewed liturgy soared to unprecedented volume. Many felt that what was once a fully loaded Cadillac had been stripped to a rear-engine Volkswagen. The caricatures were not without foundation.
Today we hear young people, who never experienced the Tridentine Mass asking for its celebration. Is it just to be obstinate or rebellious? Or has their experience of the renewed liturgy left them uninspired and starving for awe and reverence? Is it more a commentary on how we have carried out the renewal of the liturgy rather than a vote against the renewed liturgy altogether?
In an effort to promote the new liturgy, many in the post-conciliar era often used the technique of denigrating the old liturgy in order to establish in the hearts and minds of the faithful what was called the "new and improved" liturgy. Along with this trend, there was an undue emphasis placed upon the humanity of Jesus Christ to the neglect of his sovereign divinity. The "ordinary" was emphasized as the place where God could be found. And the ordinary slowly but surely crept into the life of the liturgy, architecture, art, and technique. Combined with this was a pernicious mindset which mistakenly equated attention to detail and neatness with a pathological scrupulosity.
For the first time, priests felt it was okay to improvise during Mass, not only with fixed greetings, such as "The Lord be with you" which was changed by some to "The Lord is with you," or worse yet, banal, secular "Good morning," or "How are you?" but also to improvising the prayers of Mass, in particular the Eucharistic Prayer. The spirit of narcissism was consuming some celebrant-priests, as though their spirituality, personality, and personal prayer were at the heart of the liturgy.
Together with this, came the beginning of the dark ages of liturgical music in the vernacular that combined a banal, screeching style that ballyhooed a guitar strumming ensemble with a cadre of in-your-face vocalists. Narcissism and an "it's showtime" attitude of performance, as well, crept into those leading the assembly in music. The organ was deemed outdated and overpowering. Fortunately, modern liturgical music is maturer today, but remnants of the "Glory and Praise" generation still rear their ugly head.
With all the trendiness of the late 1960s and 70s, the church had to contend also with the charismatic movement. Guitars, drums, piano, and tambourine reigned there also. Solemn Catholic devotion, which was outwardly passive prior to the Second Vatican Council, was replaced by unfettered emotion, spontaneous prayer, speaking in tongues, hands upraised, and handholding. The Sign of Peace became a liturgy unto itself! The same was true with the General Intercessions. They became open to everyone, spontaneous, personal, and very particular, even to the point being classified as gossip. Those who promoted these liturgical novelties felt it was of the "spirit of Vatican II" and the work of the Holy Spirit.
Evaluation some thirty years later would indicate it was also the work of the "assembly of God" theology and mentality that won the hearts of many Catholics of that period. Pentecostal worship by nature is less structured and more spontaneous than Catholic worship. Its music is more praise and inspiration than liturgy. It relies heavily on the movement of the spirit, emotions, and feeling good because it lacks the sacramentality of the Catholic Church and our rich liturgical history, prayer, and spirituality.
The renewal of the Mass after the Second Vatican Council was not meant to break continuity with what had preceded it. But it was meant to advance the church in her worship by maintaining a continuity between the previous style of worship through the implementation of a "noble simplicity" marked by active participation of the laity in the church's worship. The outward form of the Mass was in transition, but its underlying doctrines and dogmas remained intact. New ways of showing reverence were institutionalized, but not without roots in an earlier tradition of the church. For example, standing to receive Holy Communion as a sign of being raised up in Christ was taken from the tradition of the Eastern Church and an earlier tradition of our own. Receiving Holy Communion on the tongue or in the hand both had long-standing traditions as well. Now Catholics had the option of either.
Perhaps the greatest thing that the Second Vatican Council recovered, was the need for the assembly, including the laity, to take their rightful place in the celebration of the Mass. The entire assembly, not just the priest, altar boys, and choir, have an important role in making beautiful, inspiring liturgy that is pleasing to God and gives him glory and worship. The liturgical renewal of the 1950s had already begun this renewal within the Tridentine Mass. The Second Vatican Council simply took it many steps forward.
The laity accomplish their important role by arriving at church early, being hospitable to each other and robust in their spoken and sung responses. They are the ones who must help to create silence and stillness for active listening to prayers and scripture and the contemplation of them. Screaming, unruly, misbehaving infants and small children do not enhance the liturgy, nor does passive indifference to the singing and praying. The way the laity dress for Mass may also indicate either an attitude of awe and wonder or one of indifference for the sacred.
The clergy and those who have liturgical roles such as altar servers, choir, lectors, Communion ministers, and ushers must pay close and strict attention to their outward appearance and abilities. These obviously must be inspired and motivated by an inner spirituality and reverence. The roles of each of these ministries during Mass must be choreographed to look and sound good. It must be an art form that is pleasing to the eyes and ears. Attention to the details of choreography and movements will greatly enhance the post-Vatican-II Mass. We can learn important lessons from the Tridentine Mass in this regard, for this area was a major strength of the Tridentine Mass and something that should indeed be recovered!
Tied into this attention to detail should be a concern for the environment of worship. Do our churches invite active participation, devotion, and contemplation? If the priests and the laity understand the nature of liturgy, active participation and energy can be just as satisfying and edifying in a church designed prior to the Second Vatican Council, with communion railing and high altar, as in a contemporary church building in the round. In fact the pre-Vatican II design may be more conducive since it does not exaggerate the need to see each other's faces in worship as though that is of equal or more importance than seeing God in the Sacrament. The sacramental presence of Jesus Christ still has a position of greatest importance in the liturgy without denigrating the liturgical presence of Jesus Christ in the assembly, the word proclaimed, and the presider!
We must also use the talents of true artists and artisans to enhance the entire abode where we worship. When a beautifully crafted statue or crucifix is removed in favor of a homemade, burlap and felt banner filled with slogans and other symbols, we do a disservice to our liturgy, environment, and people.
Vesture for priests and servers should be beautiful and becoming. Certainly all vesture from vestments to altar linens should be clean and ironed!
Catholics are hungering for the sacred in their lives which are otherwise filled with the profane. The profane is neither needed nor desirable in the celebration of the church's liturgy. Someone once said that when we begin to rediscover and prefer the sacred to the profane, our liturgies will be such that if the Parousia were to occur during Mass, we wouldn't know it! Concomitant with this rediscovery of the sacred is a deep reverence and appreciation for the divine presence of God. This indeed is encountered in those who assemble for Mass, in God's Word, and in the sacred signs and symbols of all the sacraments. Particularly, in the sacred species of Holy Communion, bread and wine consecrated and shared which are the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ and his one sacrifice renewed for us, do we share God's divine and redeeming presence.
When people long for the pre-Vatican II liturgy, is it really that liturgy they long for, or is it a liturgy that is sacred, awe-inspiring, and dignified? The post-Vatican II liturgy can satisfy the hungry heart just as well, if the attention to detail is present and an appreciation for the sacred is paramount. Liturgy celebrated well, says the USCCB document Sing to the Lord, will "foster and nourish faith; poor celebrations may weaken and destroy it." Let our liturgical celebrations be the best they can be and in continuity with the best of our liturgical tradition gained from the pre-Vatican II days!
Fr. McDonald is pastor of St. Joseph Church, Macon. He was the vocation director for the diocese from 1986 to 1997 and Diocesan Master of Ceremonies and Director of Liturgy from 1985 through 1991.…
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Publication information: Article title: The Mass: Attention to Detail. Contributors: McDonald, Allan - Author. Journal title: Sacred Music. Volume: 137. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2010. Page number: 65+. © 2009 Church Music Association of America. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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