The Mass: Attention to Detail

By McDonald, Allan | Sacred Music, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

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. …

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