Posts Tagged ‘Liturgy’

Douglas: Natural Symbols

August 29, 2022

Natural Symbols
Mary Douglas
(Penguin, 1973) [1970]
216 p.

When, in the course of my reading, a particular book is cited by a number of different authors, I begin to think about peering into it, and such was the case with Mary Douglas’ Natural Symbols, a work of anthropology that develops a framework for understanding how social restraints and social roles are interrelated. I think. She said the book was “an attempt to develop Durkheim’s programme for a comparative sociology of religion,” which doesn’t sound like the same thing, and is probably why I was baffled much of the time.

The title sounds contradictory; aren’t symbols, almost by definition, conventional signs that vary with social context? She argues that certain basic features of human life, however, such as our bodily reality and our fundamental social relationships (to children; parents, friend, authority, etc.) provide a basis for a fundamental set of natural — that is, based on these basic features of life — symbols that govern human societies. That’s an interesting argument that I’m not in a position to evaluate.

My primary reason for interest in the book turned out to be somewhat peripheral to its main lines of argument. In her discussion of social controls she argues that certain social contexts give rise to anti-ritualism, and one of her case studies for anti-ritualism is the tide of reforms that overtook the Catholic world after Vatican II. She argues that the clerical and academic class were driving the anti-ritualist push, often against the grain of the ordinary churchgoer. The anti-ritualist reforms were promoted as a means of heightening commitment to the faith, but Douglas points out that an attachment to ritual is itself a form of commitment, and that a precipitous effort to undo the ritual risked undoing the commitment as well, which is indeed what happened, at least in some cases.

Ritualism is not a shining word for us; indeed, our leading churchmen sometimes use it as a term of abuse, but for Douglas ritualism is a positive capacity, “a heightened appreciation of symbolic action”. Ritualism, she argues, is absolutely essential for a sacramental religion, which relies on symbolic (and more than symbolic) acts throughout. Lose the ritual, and a strong sense of symbolic power, and you will start to lose the sacramental sense too.

Where ritualism is strong, and symbols are valued, external actions are considered important, and, for instance, what counts as a sin is specified clearly in terms of acts; but where ritualism withers everything moves to the interior, and people will talk instead about internal dispositions and intentions. This internal focus has arisen every time I have asked a priest about the difference between mortal and venial sins.

She identifies three phases in the migration from ritualism in religion: first, a contempt for ritual forms; then, an internalization of religious experience; and finally, a move to humanist philanthropy. On bad days I worry that Pope Francis is already in phase three, but I hope I’m wrong about that.

A main idea of the book, which I’m skirting around here, is that the degree of ritualism in a society is closely tied, by mutual influence, to the structure of social groups in that society, and in particular to the strength of social ties. She gives various arguments for this, and presents various case studies drawn from the anthropology literature to support the claim; all of that is too complicated for me to go into here.

An interesting and provocative corollary of her theory is that anti-ritualism, and indeed outright irreligion, is not at all a disposition unique to modernity, but arises whenever certain social conditions obtain:

Secularization is often treated as a modern trend, attributable to the growth of cities or to the prestige of science, or just to the breakdown of social forms. But we shall see that it is an age-old cosmological type, a product of a definable social experience, which need have nothing to do with urban life or modern science… The contrast of secular with religious has nothing whatsoever to do with the contrast of modern with traditional or primitive. The idea that primitive man is by nature deeply religious is nonsense. The truth is that all of the varieties of skepticism, materialism, and spiritual fervor are found in the range of tribal societies. They vary as much from one another on these lines as any chosen segment of London life.

In a similar way, she sees our contemporary anti-ritualism — a general preference for casualness and a sense that formality is foreign or fake — as a consequence of larger social forces that have weakened social roles and social stability.

Interestingly, she argues that anti-ritualism is typically a posture of protest, raised against a prevailing symbolic order, and that, when it is successful at weakening or overthrowing that order, anti-ritualism fades out as a new set of symbols and rituals assert themselves. Were I adept at thinking, and seeing, like an anthropologist, I might be able to assess whether this is likely to happen, or has already happened, to us.

She argues also that anti-ritualism is usually accompanied by a heightening of ethical sensitivity. In religion it has not been at all uncommon that churches in which dogma and doctrine soften adopt instead a commitment to social reform, etc., so there may be something to this idea. It is consistent with the notion that ritualism tends to focus on external actions, and its negation to involve an inward turn toward motivation, intention, and so forth. A ritualist can find purpose in life through conscientious performance of set practices, but an anti-ritualist feels a burden of conscience and must do something in the world.

Moreover, a trend to anti-ritualism affects religion in other ways as well. For an anti-ritualist, for instance, the person’s relationship to God is conceived as an intimate, inward one, rather than as an objective one governed by rituals. But at the same time the idea of God, because it is captured in the orbit of “friendship” or “personal relationship”, tends to be drained of glory and power. One doesn’t typically find the Pantocrator in an evangelical revival church.

As a case study in the decline of ritualism, or the attack on ritualism, she takes the Catholic custom of abstinence from meat on Fridays. After Vatican II this obligation was nuanced: no longer a strict obligation, Catholics were given the option to replace the long-standing practice with a personal act of charity. It sounds harmless enough, perhaps, but the result was the wholesale collapse of the custom. Why did that happen? She argues that it was foisted on ritual-oriented Catholics by well-meaning but symbol-blind clergy, who did not understand what they were doing. The clergy wanted their people to deepen their faith, and considered the Friday fast to be “mere externals”, mere habit, without the religious depth that they thought preferable. But Douglas argues that any custom strongly adhered to is serving some important purpose, and can be tampered with only by the bold or careless. As Chesterton said, a fence should not be taken down until you understand why it is there. Undermining the symbolic order tied to the Friday fast, whatever it was, sowed confusion that reverberated in that space where Catholics related to the Church, and to one another. The Friday fast disappeared, but not because everybody was conscientiously doing good deeds. It was just gone. But even if they had been conscientiously carrying out acts of charity, something basic would have nonetheless changed:

Friday no longer rings the great cosmic symbols of expiation and atonement: it is not symbolic at all, but a practical day for the organization of charity. Now the English Catholics are like everyone else.

It might be worth noting that many Catholics whom I know, myself included, have returned to the Friday fast, albeit without much encouragement from our pastors and bishops. I won’t try to specify exactly what purpose it is serving, but that there is one I do not doubt.


There is a great deal more to this book than these notes would indicate. As I said, I didn’t understand most of it. I suppose what I take from the book are a few things. First, as a general observation, the way anthropologists see things is quite intriguing; the conceptual framework, and the habit of perception it makes possible, was unfamiliar and felt kind of exciting and kind of dubious at once. Second, I was surprised by her claim that the drift from religious sensibility to irreligious isn’t at all a peculiarly modern one, but rather a commonplace in the anthropological literature in all sorts of contexts. Third, the specific association she makes between formality, ritualism, religion, hierarchy, and strong social structures on one hand, and anti-ritualism, irreligiosity, and weak social structures on the other looks, in retrospect, rather plausible and even obvious, but it’s an association I hadn’t seen fully made before. Finally, I found that the application of her ideas to the post-Vatican II Catholic Church valuable insofar as they cast new light on a much-mulled phenomenon.

I also learned two new words from this book: cachinnation and eleemosynary. Perhaps you already knew them, but let’s not have any cachinnation, even in an eleemosynary spirit, on that account.

Mosebach: The Heresy of Formlessness

April 15, 2020

The Heresy of Formlessness
The Roman Liturgy and its Enemy
Martin Mosebach
(Angelico, 2018) Second edition.
xviii + 199 p.

“I admit quite openly that I am one of those naive folk who look at the surface, the external appearance of things, in order to judge their inner nature, their truth, or their spuriousness.”

So says Martin Mosebach early in this gentle and appreciative meditation on the traditional Roman Rite — what is today, following Pope Benedict XVI, called the “extraordinary form” of the liturgy for Latin-rite Catholics. It is one thing to listen to what theologians or liturgists say about the public worship of the Church, and another to see what they do. One sometimes belies the other, or at least the connection between the two is not always obvious.

“Liturgy wars” have waxed and waned for the last fifty years in the Church, since the radical changes introduced in the wake of the Second Vatican Council: the Latin abandoned, the altar turned around, the altar rails removed, the music changed, and so forth. For a long time the pre-Council rite was broadly forbidden — or was thought to be so. Benedict XVI liberalized its celebration in 2007, but today it is nonetheless the case that the vast majority of parishes worldwide celebrate the Mass in the new, “ordinary” form, and most Catholics have never attended, and most priests have never celebrated, a Mass in the older, “extraordinary” form.

Mosebach’s love is for the older form, and his book is a thoughtful account of why. It’s not a polemical book. Apart from a few paragraphs here and there, the new Mass hardly gets a mention.

His instinct to judge on appearances is, he believes, the natural attitude of “people of aesthetic sensibility”; those sensitive to artistic unity, to beauty, and to form are, in his experience, less inclined to admit, or at least to tolerate with equanimity, a putative division of form and content, which he calls “the German vice”. A loss of form, he argues, almost always entails a loss of content. To be sure, the Mass is not merely a work of art, but surely it is at least that.

The argument, which I have heard myself, that the form of the Mass, its aesthetic face, is irrelevant to the underlying reality and meaning of the Mass, he finds unconvincing. It has a certain validity, of course, for the gracious Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not dependant on the celebration of the Mass being beautiful or alluring. But surely the Mass, if by it Christ truly becomes present to us, ought to be surrounded with as much beauty, honour, and glory that we can muster. Our liturgy should, insofar as is possible, make that reality tangible to our senses. That would be fitting. That should be our aspiration. We are human creatures, after all, who know what we know through our senses. And so, when, decade after decade, this does not happen, when the liturgy is tawdry or banal, something is awry. The defect of form may possibly begin to affect our understanding, and even our apprehension, of the truths the Mass celebrates and enacts. The true reality of the Mass is not determined by its form, but neither is the latter irrelevant to the former.

Among the most fruitful observations Mosebach makes in the course of his reflections is that liturgy is a kind of revelation: it makes God known to us. We therefore ought to treat it with the reverence we own to other sources of revelation, like Scripture:

“Even in the earliest Christian times Basil the Great, one of the eastern Church Fathers, taught that the liturgy was revelation, like Holy Scripture itself, and should never be interfered with. And so it was, until the pontificate of Paul VI [that is, Vatican II]. Naturally this attitude did not prevent essential modifications, but such changes as occurred took place organically, unconsciously, unintentionally, and without a theological plan. They grew out of the practice of liturgy, just as a landscape is altered over centuries by wind and water.”

The reforms of the liturgy that occurred to create the new Mass were not of this organic kind; this was a consistent theme of Pope Benedict XVI’s extensive theological reflections on the liturgy. The Mass has been subjected to all manner of experiment in the meantime, pushed here, and pulled there, and sometimes treated as something that we make for ourselves according to our own perceived needs. (Mosebach cannily draws a connection between liturgical reformers and historico-critical exegetes of Scripture, both of whom he sees as tempted to make themselves masters of revelation rather than allowing revelation to master them.)

But this is quite at odds with the understanding that Mosebach (and Benedict) think proper. Liturgy, as with any revelation, is to be received as a gift, and it is a great advantage of the old rite that it comes to us in this way: not authored by anyone, not flexible enough to suit all tastes, not requiring the priest to be spiritually gifted in order to render it reverent. It is “begotten, not made”, to echo Mosebach’s wittiest appropriation.

This “impersonal” nature of the liturgy, its given-ness, its just-being-there, he connects to the sacramental nature of Catholicism. But the intelligibility of the whole sacramental system is contingent on its being of divine, not human, origin. “For this reason these sacraments and rites must be most strictly kept aloof from all subjectivism and all private and personal inspiration.” So with the liturgy, and for the same reasons.


I have said that the book is not polemical, and that is true. It nonetheless has a certain melancholy air, for Mosebach knows that the liturgy which he loves, that gift which he has received from God, has been nearly destroyed. He is conscious of living in the long, sad aftermath of something beautiful befouled and ruined. The respect which he instinctively feels is owed to sacred rites long inhabited has gone unheeded:

We must admit, with no beating about the bush, that the Roman liturgy’s fifteen-hundred-year tradition has been breached, and breached irretrievably. Dismayed and speechless, we had to watch as the supreme Catholic authority bent its whole might — a might that has grown over the centuries — to the task of eradicating the very shape of the Church, the liturgy, and replacing it with something else.

He understands the reasons given for undertaking a reform, and is doubtful of them, but emphasizes the disconnect between what the Council fathers intended and what was actually perpetrated after the Council:

Disastrously, the implementation of the conciliar decrees was caught up in the cultural revolution of 1968, which had broken out all over the world. That was certainly the work of a spirit — if only of a very impure one. The political subversion of every kind of authority, the aesthetic vulgarity, the philosophical demolition of tradition not only laid waste universities and schools and poisoned the public atmosphere but at the same time took possession of broad circles within the Church.

This is an old story, hardly original observations, but stated with a certain panache.


The book is not like Jesus’ tunic, without seam, woven from the top throughout, but instead consists of essays and occasional pieces gathered together on account of their shared interest in things liturgical. This leads to a certain amount of repetition, and also promotes the introduction of themes and ideas that are slightly digressive relative to the main argument, eddies in the stream, but intriguing ones.

He takes up the question, for instance, whether there is something anti-ritualist in the bones of Christianity, a religion that has, after all, been periodically wracked by iconoclasm. His own father was a Protestant who worshipped alone with a small black prayer book and nothing else. But he thinks ritualism is proper to Christianity, on the grounds that Christianity is founded on the person of Jesus, a physical presence then and now, not an abstraction, and he argues that ritual is a natural way of honouring his presence and making it tangible to the senses.

Likewise he touches on the role of music in the liturgy (a much travelled theme!), the value of our Eastern liturgies as a foil for seeing what is right and wrong with our Western liturgies, and the meaning of the much-disputed Vatican II phrase “active participation” vis-a-vis liturgy. There is a wonderful essay about his visit to Fontgombault, where the monks continue to celebrate the liturgy in its old form.


The writing in the book is graceful and often striking in its formulations. Mosebach is a well-regarded novelist in his native Germany, and it shows. (Indeed, the last selection in this book is actually an excerpt from one of his novels.) Writing this articulate and pleasant to read is rare in any context, much less in the realm of meta-liturgical literature, where polemics have long ago calcified along partisan lines.


My own experience of the liturgy answers in some respects to Mosebach’s, but not in all. I am, in general, a Novus Ordo Mass-goer, like the vast majority of Catholics today. This is partly because opportunities to attend the older rite are rarer, partly because I often feel like I’m making an especially big disruption when I attend the traditional rite with my children, and partly because I myself prefer certain aspects of the new rite, such as the vernacular readings.

I’ve been lucky, though, in my experience with the Novus Ordo Mass. The number of really awful experiments I’ve seen and heard have been few in number, and haven’t been as bad as the train wrecks Mosebach describes witnessing in Germany. Of course I’ve been to many Masses that were aesthetic horrors, but generally we’ve attended parishes where the Mass is celebrated in a way that is beautiful and even glorious. Sacred music sounds. Incense billows. The vestments are beautiful. The Mass is often celebrated ad orientem (in which the priest spends much of the Mass with his back turned to the antics of my children in the aisles). The atmosphere is reverent and prayerful.

That said, I do make an effort to attend the traditional Latin rite when I can. Perhaps I go once a month or so, usually not on a Sunday, but for an evening Mass or a special feast. I love this Mass. I especially love to go alone, when I can have the freedom to sink into the silence and remain there. (I have learned from this rite the value of simply being present, which has been a boon to my child-chasing adventures at the new Mass also.) At this form of the Mass I feel especially close to the heart of our tradition, and close to the saints (especially, for some reason, to the post-Reformation English saints), for this is the form of the Mass that they knew.

I have friends who have had strong negative reactions to the traditional Mass; I don’t share those feelings at all, but I sort of understand them. They support the troubling claim that the two forms of the rite are quite dissimilar. When Pope Benedict liberalized the old Mass he did so in part in the hopes that the two forms of the rite would mutually inform one another, drawing them closer together. And I have attended Novus Ordo Masses which were very close to what I experience at the traditional Mass, so I know the dissimilarity of form is not unbridgeable. To a first approximation, I see the older form as the standard to which the newer form should aspire, generally speaking. In the meantime, I am not interested in taking sides in any contest. My desire is that both forms be celebrated as beautifully and lovingly as possible, and that I know and love both.

In the end I appreciated Mosebach’s measured and personal approach to his theme. The book is a love letter, of sorts. Agree with him or not, I think a reader with an interest in these matters would appreciate the manner in which he makes his case.

Rutler: A Crisis of Saints

September 11, 2013

A Crisis of Saints
The Call to Heroic Faith in an Unheroic World
George W. Rutler
(Crossroad, 2009)
217 p.

If ever I should have opportunity to pass a few days in New York City, I want to attend Mass at St. Michael’s parish on West 34th Street, where Fr. George Rutler is pastor. Fr. Rutler is something of a national treasure, beloved (by those whom his wit does not wither) not only for his service to the Church, but for his avocation as an erudite essayist and author. He brings to his writing a sharp intellect, dry humour, and a profound love of Catholic tradition. This book collects a half-dozen long-form essays on various aspects of Catholicism, ranging from reflections on the state of the Church since Vatican II and the nature of Catholic tradition and authority to the knowledge of God and the character of Christian faith. Though the essays do not feel especially well integrated, the book’s subtitle is a fair summary of their general thrust.

For me two essays were of greatest interest. The first was an appraisal of the state of liturgy in the Church since Vatican II. Those who know something of Fr. Rutler will not be surprised to learn that he views most of what went under the banner of reform as ranging, according to the case, from merely unfortunate to downright disgusting. Not that he contests the authority of the Church to make reforms, of course, but he asks hard questions about their timing, the wisdom (or the witlessness) with which they were carried out, and the permissiveness of Church authorities as it was happening. The implementation of the reforms “marks the first time in history that the Church has been an agent, however unintentionally, in the deprivation of culture, from the uprooting of classical language and sensibility to wanton depreciation of the arts,” he writes. His concern is not merely (though perhaps partly) that of a cultural elitist, but of a pastor of souls:

It is immensely saddening to see so many elements of the Church, in her capacity as Mother of Western Culture, compliant in the promotion of ugliness. There may be no deterrent more formidable to countless potential converts than the low estate of the Church’s liturgical life, for the liturgy is the Church’s prime means of evangelism. Gone as into a primeval mist are the days not long ago when apologists regularly had to warn against being distracted by, or superficially attracted to, the beauty of the Church’s rites. And the plodding and static nature of the revised rites could not have been more ill-timed for a media culture so attuned to color and form and action. Edification is no substitute for inspiration.

He pointedly remarks on the general defense of the reforms by Church authorities occurring alongside a stream of alarming announcements about the declining state of religious and sacramental life: “It was a bit like the town crier calling, “Six o’clock and all is well. Bring out your dead.””

The essay goes on to compare the reforms of the liturgy in the past fifty years to what occurred in England after the Reformation, when Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth promulgated a series of reforms intended to disrupt the Catholic tradition. It is not, of course, that Fr. Rutler believes that Church authorities in our own day have intentionally set out to deface or disrupt our tradition, but he does want to point out that there are certain similarities in the reform programmes in the two cases, and he wants to explore the plight of those English Catholics who were affected by the disruptions, as an aid to a better understanding of our own situation and how best to respond to it: “In ruined vaults old voices may still sigh for what saddened the houses of God in their day, and such sounds are a parable.”

The second essay is adapted from (or perhaps simply cut and pasted from) Fr. Rutler’s introduction to More Quotable Chesterton, and it is a very fine reflection on why Chesterton has a claim on our attention. Consider, for example, this assessment of Chesterton’s humour: “By cultivating humility instead of a sense of superiority, he avoided condescension in his indulgence of the human comedy. He suffered fools gladly, even deliciously, because his one target was the cant that makes the grand comedy a farce.” Clearly, Fr. Rutler knows his Chesterton. Or there is this, about Chesterton’s (oft lamented) literary style:

His diction is loud, as befits one who loved the very sight of Fleet Street and who hymned to “the great lights burning on through darkness to dawn and the roar of the printing wheels”. The Ciceronianisms of Newman were attributed to his habit of playing a violin before composition; Chesterton seems to have tuned up on a bugle. On a bugle, that is, and a set of chimes; for there is a crystalline cut in every declaration such as intimidates the modern essayist accustomed to muddy sentences flaccid with subjunctives.

(That last phrase is an apt description of most of what one finds on this web log.)

But more than his personality or his style, Fr. Rutler sees that Chesterton had an intellectual and moral depth belied by his populist manner. “He was more than a Renaissance man,” he writes, “[for] his reference is positively deep, and deep enough to dig beneath anything so occasional as a renaissance until he strikes the radical birth of order and truth.” Writing in particular about Chesterton’s columns in the Illustrated London News, which he contributed weekly for thirty years, Fr. Rutler points out how deeply Chesterton knew and understood our cultural roots:

Chesterton did not plagiarize in the despicable and low sense; his was an inspired plagiarism that forsakes incidental sources for the Source. It pillages the treasury of the saints. Such heavenly theft marks the genius from the hack. The procedure was according to high dogma, blushing through the pallor of civil events which are the incidental subjects of his journalistic essays. It makes each of his columns in The Illustrated London News, for instance, a flickering votive light to the orthodox creeds. I cannot imagine Schopenhauer getting his ideas through elegies to local cheeses, the shape of men’s noses, snails and The Mikado. But this is precisely what Chesterton did to reach the truth each week. He was a foremost example of Quintillian’s vir bonus docendi peritus: the good man who speaks from practical knowledge. And he was not content to pass on interesting bits of information as isolated items; as surely as the whole Mediterranean had once washed well within the circumference of Virgil’s fine skull, and the Brooklyn Bridge spanned the lobes of Roebling’s brain, the whole experience of Christian humanism cavorted in the head of Chesterton at his weekly dictation.

This is wonderful writing, and it could hardly be lavished on a better subject.

(Incidentally, if you’d like to read some selections from the Illustrated London News columns Fr. Rutler praises, you are invited to look here.)

Saint Antoine Daniel Kyriale

September 29, 2011

Last week, as I was searching for some notated Gregorian chant online, I discovered an impressive site that I think deserves notice. It is the Saint Antoine Daniel Kyriale, named for the Canadian Jesuit martyr.

The purpose of the site is straightforward: to provide the Gregorian chant for the Latin Kyriale, including all eighteen Gregorian settings of the Mass Ordinary, plus a few other commonly used chants. It is all laid out very clearly, and deserves special praise for the sheer beauty of its presentation. I strongly encourage everyone to take a look at it.

In addition to providing the scores for the various chants, the site also streams the music itself in mp3 format, and there is a YouTube channel on which one can both see and hear the music. It is a terrific resource for choirs trying to learn the core Gregorian repertoire. And so beautiful to look at!

The site is supported by Corpus Christi Watershed, which has been behind a number of impressive initiatives in recent years.

Thoughts on music and the forthcoming Missal

September 20, 2011

It is time, once again, for me to climb atop one of my favourite hobby-horses. Bear with me.

Sacrosanctum concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy from Vatican II, is the most authoritative recent statement on the Church’s liturgy that we have. As has often been noted, it states:

The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.

It goes on to say that, in certain circumstances, allowance may be made for other music, such as polyphony or the music native to a particular region, but, nonetheless, a clear ideal has been presented. Gregorian chant is the music of the Latin rite; it has no other reason to exist.

In practice, we almost never hear Gregorian chant during the liturgy. The reasons are many, but, arguably, at least part of the blame may be assigned to the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, the authoritative practical guide to the celebration of the liturgy. The version in force in the United States, for instance (most recently revised in 2002), says, in reference to the Introit, or Entrance Chant:

In the dioceses of the United States of America there are four options for the Entrance Chant: (1) the antiphon from The Roman Missal or the Psalm from the Roman Gradual as set to music there or in another musical setting; (2) the seasonal antiphon and Psalm of the Simple Gradual; (3) a song from another collection of psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the diocesan Bishop, including psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) a suitable liturgical song similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the diocesan Bishop. [my emphasis]

Analogous guidelines are given for the other Mass Propers. Note that little word “song”, which has provided a justification for those who wished to ditch the chant in favour of something else. Something with guitar accompaniment. And drums. Something with an ethos quite different from that proper to the Latin rite. “Song” became a weasel word.

The forthcoming new translation of the Mass (due in parishes this Advent) has been an occasion for hope to those of us who love the Church’s liturgy and her heritage of liturgical chant. Because the new translation will affect even the Mass Ordinary, much of the sub-standard music that has been composed since Vatican II may be joyfully tossed out the Church’s open windows, and we have, in a real sense, an opportunity to try again to faithfully implement the intentions of the Council Fathers, as least insofar as the music of the liturgy is concerned. As stated in Sacrosanctum concilium, the basic objective should be: more chant, sung competently and prayerfully. We should do our best to restore the resounding glory of our worship, using the music that the Church herself gives us.

Furthermore, the new translation of the liturgical texts is being accompanied by a new translation of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, and in the new translation the weasel word “song” has been replaced by the clarificatory “chant” (see, for instance, Paragraph 48 of the linked document), thus, one would think, removing that one slender reed that has supported so many ill-advised liturgical experiments.

So far, so good.

Enter the Canadian Bishops’ Conference (and I will focus now on the Canadian situation, since that is where I am). If one searches their site for resources related to the forthcoming new translation, one finds that they are publishing a book called Celebrate in Song intended for the pews of parish churches in order to promote “a seamless transition to the new translation of the Roman Missal in your community!” Celebrate in Song includes something called “ICEL Chants”, plus three new musical settings of the Mass Ordinary. Audio of the new settings can be streamed from the same site. Listen if you dare. Two of the three settings are essentially pop music; the third is not quite as bad, being somewhat closer to a sacred music aesthetic, but it is (and without wishing to impugn the motives of the composer in any way) still pretty mediocre to my ears. This is distressing.

And what of those cryptically named “ICEL Chants” packaged with them? Here things begin to brighten again: the ICEL Chants, it turns out, are English-language chants from the Roman Missal, very much in the style of Gregorian chant! They include music for the Mass Ordinary, Prefaces for the feasts, Eucharistic prayers, some hymns, blessings, and much else. The Mass Propers are apparently missing, but that lacuna could be conveniently filled with the Simple English Propers. Together these two sources would provide, I believe, a complete, simplified, English-language chant for the celebration of Mass in the new translation.

In some cases the music of the “ICEL chants” is clearly based directly on the Gregorian models: compare the Sanctus for Eucharistic Prayer IV to the Gregorian Sanctus XVIII “Deus Genitor alme”, for instance.

As is evident, in this case the music is actually the same. In other cases, the English-language chant has been streamlined and simplified relative to its Gregorian counterpart, but it is clearly cut from the same cloth. This is tremendous.

Why these Missal chants have been saddled with an alienating bureaucratic title — “ICEL” stands for International Commision on English in the Liturgy, which is the body responsible for the new Missal translation — I have no idea, and it is rather unfortunate, but their inclusion in Celebrate in Song can only be an occasion for rejoicing.

What shall we make of this situation? I am of two minds about it. On the one hand, I fear that many parishes will ignore the quasi-Gregorian Missal chants and adopt one of the pop music settings, either from Celebrate in Song or from some other source. On the other hand, it is barely possible that our Catholic Bishops are cunning in their tactics: perhaps the Missal chants have been bundled with mediocre alternatives in the expectation that the chant will thereby appear all the more alluring? If that were the case, however, why include the pop music at all? It does seem to be tempting fate.

I do not know how our situation in Canada compares to that in the United States and in other English-speaking countries. We are all getting the new translation, but how it will fall out is not clear. It is probably going to be a rough ride all around, but I do think we have a good opportunity here to bring the manner in which we celebrate the Mass into closer congruity with the intentions and wishes of the Council Fathers, and into greater continuity with our own tradition. It appears that in Canada, at least, our resources for doing so are only equivocally suitable for the purpose. We can but do our best.

Ab missalis novi

January 21, 2011

This post may be of interest to Catholic readers, and probably not to others.

I don’t know how many English-speaking Catholics are aware that a new translation of the Missal has been completed, and is going to be introduced into parishes beginning, I believe, in Advent 2011. The new translation will replace the one first issued after Vatican II, and it aims to provide a more faithful translation of the Latin original. The changes will affect much of what we hear and pray at Mass.

Excerpts from the new Missal have been leaking out here and there over the past few months. I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen so far. The new translation are not only more accurate, but they mount a splendid assault on the drab prose that dominates the translations currently in use. The tone of the new prayers that I have seen is more elevated, and elevating, than we have been accustomed to, and the sheer proliferation of dependent clauses, making a triumphant return from exile, is surely an occasion for rejoicing.

At The Chant Café they have been making a few tête-à-tête comparisons, much to the advantage of the new translation. You can find such comparisons here, here, and here, for instance. This one is especially interesting.

The reason for this post, today, is simply to note that the entire new Missal has finally been posted online. I myself haven’t had time to look through it in much detail, but maybe someone else can do so, and report back. In any case, those with an interest in these matters can take a good, long look.


A note on the title of this post: I am not at all sure that my Latin is sound. I cannot find missale in a Latin dictionary, but based on its form I surmise that it is a third declension noun. According to this etymology, its gender is neuter.  I have then put it, and its adjective, into the genitive case. Should I have used ablative case? I am happy to be corrected on any or all of these points.

Nichols: Looking at the Liturgy

July 15, 2010

Looking at the Liturgy
A Critical View of its Contemporary Form

Aidan Nichols, O.P. (Ignatius, 1995)
129 p. First reading.

Aidan Nichols is the prolific Dominican scholar of Blackfriars, Oxford.  This little book is a good introduction to the roots of the liturgical reform movement that influenced the theory and practice of the liturgical reforms that followed Vatican II.  It is also a critique — temperate, but firm — of those changes.  He argues that although some good has come from the reforms, it has been at the cost of a general cheapening and uglification of Catholic music, architecture, and ritual, and that these outcomes were the predictable results of the dominant principles of reform.

Although liturgical reform began to have significant tangible effects at the parish level only after Vatican II, Nichols reminds us that the liturgical reform movements — for there was more than one school of thought — had histories that pre-dated the Council.  One school, for instance, rooted in the inter-war period, set forth a set of basic ideas to guide reform, which Nichols summarizes as follows: the mystery of the mystical body of Christ, theocentrism, ‘glad awareness’ of redemption, the objectivity of the liturgy, and the need for ritual actions to be symbolically appropriate.  A second school, rooted in Romanticism, laid stress on the importance of piety rather than dogma, on self-expression, on aesthetics and the experience of the sublime, and on the overwhelming majesty of God.

A third school argued that reform ought to strive for simplicity and intelligibility of the language and the rites.  They argued that local pastors should have the right to alter the liturgy to suit local preferences, downplayed the special role of the priest, discouraged the use of language about ‘sacrifice’ when describing the meaning of the Mass, and emphasized the role of the community of believers. They advocated use of the vernacular languages rather than Latin. At times they were associated with opposition to certain devotional practices, such as pilgrimages, relics, veneration of saints, and so forth.

Now, anyone who knows much about the reforms that were actually carried out after Vatican II will conclude that it was this third school that carried the day, but this is not actually true.  In fact, the program for reform I have sketched in the previous paragraph dates from the eighteenth-century, from a school strongly influenced by the Enlightenment.  At the time their ideas did not gain traction, and were mostly forgotten.

It was after the Second World War that a fourth school of liturgical reform grew up. Apparently without being aware of it, this group laid out a program for reform that echoed, with surprising fidelity, the Enlightenment ideas from two centuries earlier.  It is possible, I suppose, to view this as a coincidence, but a more likely explanation is simply this: that by the twentieth-century the influence of the Enlightenment was felt throughout Western culture, especially secular culture, and when the Church ‘opened her windows’ to the world, it was the wind of Enlightenment that blew in.  When Vatican II gave them authority to do so, this group of liturgists emerged to public prominence, and their influence can be felt today in nearly every parish one visits.

A consequence of this historical development, and especially of the rather sudden elevation of these reforming ideas, was that they were never really tested against the critical insights of other disciplines, nor against the sense of the Catholic faithful.  The reforms were, as we know, jarring for many ordinary Catholics — I personally know several people who have never recovered from the sense of dislocation they experienced at the time — and in the subsequent decades voices have been raised in criticism of the results. Voices have been raised in praise of the results too, of course. The debate has been at times heated and uncharitable, earning it the unhappy epithet ‘liturgy wars’.

Nichols, thankfully, is not interested in needlessly stoking those martial flames, and he generates more light than heat. Yet he does have critical comments to make. Following the slightly ironic historical introduction sketched above, he mounts a critique of most of the leading ideas that dominated the Vatican II reforms, principally ‘simplicity’, ‘intelligibility’, ‘community’, and ‘participation’.

Let’s take the first two together, since they are two aspects of a single objective: to make the liturgy more straight-forward, more comfortable, more comprehensible, more contemporary.  Or, from another angle, it has meant making it less mysterious, less laden with historical baggage, less ritualistic.  Nichols challenges this plan head-on:

It is by no means self-evident that brief, clear rites have greater transformative potential than complex, abundant, lavish, rich, long rites, furnished with elaborate ceremonial.

The danger is that too great an emphasis on simplicity and comprehensibility in liturgical rites has the effect of trivializing them, making it difficult for deeper meanings to be read into them.  But liturgy is supposed to be, at least in part, a window — an icon — through which we encounter and perceive deeper realities.  Liturgy which stresses the ceremonious, formal, allegorical, and even (within limits) ambiguous nature of its symbols and actions provides a greater latitude and depth for such perception.

There is such a thing as ‘noble simplicity’ — one finds it in monastic houses — which cultivates a bracing austerity and economy, a heightening of experience by concentration upon essentials, but in the wrong hands simplicity can easily degenerate into mere ordinariness.  The effort, for example, to simplify the language of the liturgy, which was one of the principal objectives of the Vatican II reforms, was born from this pursuit of simplicity, and the results were often perfectly dreadful, as though the prayers were written in a modern newsroom.  Ritual, however, should rightly make use of elevated language (which in English may often mean archaic language) as a means of honouring the sacred action, and of conveying beauty. Nichols remarks that studies of early Christian rites indicate that already, at the beginning, the language used in Church prayers and liturgies was distinguished by its use of elevated or archaic syntax and diction.  This makes perfect sense, for in liturgy we should want to be raised up, so as to be less unworthy of the object of our worship, not to drag that object of worship down to the quotidian.

The ideal of ‘intelligibility’ is also open to criticism.  Needless to say, a critique along this line is necessarily moderate, for a wholly unintelligible liturgy is definitely undesirable.  Yet there is good reason to believe that too great a stress on comprehensibility, on making plain the meaning of the liturgical actions, harms the work that liturgy is to accomplish.

There are different ways to approach the question.  One is to recall John Henry Cardinal Newman’s remark — I forget where — about Scripture: that the literal interpretation of Scripture is insufficient because God’s speech is so fertile and abundant that it rarely means only one thing.  This richness is also a quality of Catholic theology: the doctrines are woven together in such an intricate manner that it is difficult to speak of one part without bringing in others, and each part can be construed under various aspects.  To take an example: the Blessed Virgin is called the Mother of God because she was the mother of Jesus, in whom the nature of God and the nature of man were united; she is also, of course, the mother of the body of Christ; and since the body of Christ is the Church, she is Mother of the Church, and she represents, in a particularly concentrated way, the Church herself, which is the bride of Christ; so she is both bride and mother to Christ, though not in the same sense; she is also the handmaiden of the Lord, the woman of humility whose greatness in the order of grace is unsurpassed by any creature; she is called the Ark of the Covenant, in whom the Word of God resided as in a safe refuge, and she gave birth to the Word by whom all things were made.  I don’t know if I should go on.  The point is that Mary means many things, and it is a real possibility that by trying to make her meaning clear and simple we fail to do her justice.  The same is true of many other aspects of Catholic theology and liturgy.

There is also an aesthetic reason to be wary of ‘intelligibility’.  Liturgy — and not, pace Wagner, music-drama — is the great and original Gesamtkunstwerk: the total, all-encompassing art-form.  At its best, it addresses itself not only, or even principally, to the intellect, but to all of the senses and to the whole person.  Nichols approvingly quotes a statement, from 1967, by one Irenee-Henri Dalmais, who said: ‘Liturgy belongs in the order of doing (ergon) not of knowing (logos).  Logical thought cannot get far with it; liturgical actions yield their intelligibility in their performance. . .’  In this respect liturgy is similar to other forms of art, such as poetry or music: it is a simple mistake to suppose that one can distill from a great poem its univocal meaning, as though the poet’s work consisted in cloaking a theme or moral in fancy garb, only so that the reader can again uncloak it.  The idea that one can ‘peel back’ the complexity and texture and symbolism to reveal the underlying thing is sometimes tempting, but illusory, for by doing so one destroys the thing.  We should not wish to render symbols, such as those encountered and enacted in liturgy, transparent and univocal, for so doing drains them of their potency.

In this respect I think it is helpful to recall one of C.S. Lewis’ essays, called ‘Meditation in a Toolshed’.  In his toolshed Lewis is contemplating a shaft of light that cuts through the darkness from an open chink in the roof.  There is a fundamental difference, says Lewis, between looking at the beam of light, in which one sees dancing motes of dust, and looking along the beam, by which one sees the dancing leaves of the trees and the blue sky.  The same reasoning applies more generally: there is a difference between seeing a thing, as if from outside it, and seeing by means of it, as if from inside it. In liturgy we want to see along the beam.  But one can be provoked from seeing along the beam to seeing the beam, and didacticism provokes in just this way.  It knocks one out of the beam because it awakens self-consciousness in relation to the beam.  In liturgy, when ‘the point’ is presented too obviously, or with too great an emphasis, it draws attention to itself, and thereby divides itself from the worshipper.  Liturgy benefits from a tactful reticence.  The bride is veiled for a reason.

Let me put this another way: there is in liturgy, as in literature, an element called ‘atmosphere’.  It is impossible to say exactly where it comes from — it arises from tone and style as well as content — but an emphasis on plain intelligibility tends to destroy it, which is why it is not found in newspapers.   Atmosphere is communicated indirectly and subconsciously, by suggestion and association, and, crucially, it is atmosphere that possesses the imagination and the heart.  It is by such possession that we are able to see along the beam.  As Lewis said in another essay (‘The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version’), ‘that which cannot evade our consciousness will not go very deep’.  That is the most succinct argument against the ideal of ‘intelligibility’ that one is likely to find.

The third ideal that Nichols criticizes is ‘community’.  Liturgical reformers have often advanced, under the banner of ‘community’, things that are at odds with the proper spirit of Christian worship.  At the worst, worship is itself apparently forgotten, replaced by a ‘community meal’ around a ‘table’.  Thus we have churches built ‘in the round’, altars pulled out from the back wall so that priests may celebrate the Mass versus populum, and the tabernacle removed from its place of honour at the focal point of the church structure and relegated to some unassuming niche off to the side.  So too, when ‘community’ is the focus, the particular personalities of the members of the community receive greater attention, and this is especially true of the priest.  It has been often remarked that the personality of the priest — his face, his manner, the particular way he ‘personalizes’ (that is, tampers with) the liturgical texts — is often a distraction to the congregation, but Nichols makes an additional, insightful point: when the priest’s personality eclipses his role as a ritual actor he is himself prevented from entering into the forgetfulness of self that is one of the principal gifts of ritual.  Finally, the stress on the importance of ‘community’ puts destructive pressure on ritual forms per se, for liturgy comes to be seen as a means for the community’s self-expression, an object suitable for manipulation, an instrument, perhaps, in the hands of warring liturgical factions, and this, as Benedict XVI has often said, is an assault upon the very nature of liturgy.

Lastly, Nichols turns to the ideal of ‘participation’.  Perhaps nothing has so inflamed the liturgy wars as this word has. The documents of Vatican II called for greater participatio actuoso on the part of the congregation, which has been translated into English as ‘active participation’.  This has often been interpreted to mean that the congregation must be ‘doing something’ during the liturgy: they must sing, they must be engaged, they must not be left alone in silence.  But there is a distinction to be made between interior and exterior participation.  Interior participation is the more important; exterior action is rightly judged by the quality of the interior involvement that it reflects and cultivates.  Too much exterior action can be an impediment to interior engagement.  There’s the rub.  The old rite — now the Extraordinary Form of the rite — does leave the congregation in silence for extended periods, and to that extent violates the simple-minded imperative to promote ‘active participation’, but in my experience it more effectively encourages interior involvement.  Not everyone, I know, feels the same way, but, speaking for myself, I find that in ‘high’ liturgy, dominated by a formal rite, the focus is taken off the surface detail and an inner space opens up beneath, which one can explore to the extent that one is able. Paradoxically, perhaps, the more ceremonious and impersonal the rite, the more personal and meaningful is my experience of it.

All of these points of criticism of the liturgical reforms of the past forty years are, by their nature, measured.  No-one wants a liturgy that is overly complex, largely unintelligible, or cold and alienating.  There is therefore something good to be said for ‘simplicity’, ‘intelligibility’, ‘community’, and ‘participation’ as genuine goods.  But there can be too much of a good thing, and the challenge is always to keep the various goods in balance, so that a subset does not overwhelm the rest, and that is the spirit in which Nichols’ critique is offered.  Most of the problems that have afflicted the liturgy since Vatican II have been due, I believe, not so much to the decisions and directives of the Council but to their implementation.  In part the fault lies with the poor (to choose a word that is probably too mild) judgement of those who undertook the practical business of reform, and in part with the bishops, who failed to guide and discipline the process.  As a result, much of what issued from the liturgical publishing houses was clearly at odds, and continues to be at odds, with the wishes of the Council Fathers.

We live in a culture that is reflexively anti-ritualistic. As such, Catholics should be especially conscious of our responsibility to protect and stabilize the ritual heart of our faith, for without special protection it will fall prey to the powerful forces around it.  All too often, we have been derelict in this duty.  The remedy, Nichols writes, is, first, to strive mightily to prevent any further erosion of our liturgical patrimony, and, second, the ‘prayerful, dignified, correct, and, where appropriate, solemn celebration of the Novus Ordo‘ (and, we may now add, the Usus Antiquior).  Slowly, with the encouragement and example of the Holy Father, we can try to recover what has been lost.

On the spirit of the liturgy

January 7, 2010

This evening I have spent some time reading an address given yesterday in Rome by Msgr. Guido Marini, the Pontifical Master of Liturgical Ceremonies at the Vatican.  It is an excellent speech about “the spirit of the liturgy”, using Pope Benedict’s book on that theme as a launching point, and touching on a variety of relevant topics: the nature of Catholic liturgy, the importance of Eucharistic adoration, the role of liturgical music, and others.

I am impressed by both the tone and the content of the address.  It gently but firmly reminds us that the liturgy is a great mystery, in which God meets us, and we Him, and that this orientation to the transcendent must always be defended and encouraged:

The liturgy is a gift which precedes us, a precious treasure which has been delivered by the age-old prayer of the Church, the place in which the faith has found its form in time and its expression in prayer. It is not made available to us in order to be subjected to our personal interpretation; rather, the liturgy is made available so as to be fully at the disposal of all, yesterday just as today and also tomorrow.

I sincerely recommend the entire address to those who care about such things.

(Hat-tip: NLM by way of Ignatius Insight)

Jogues Chant

January 5, 2010

I have recently discovered a great site called Jogues Chant.  Named for St. Isaac Jogues, one of the North American Jesuit martyrs, and run by a group called Corpus Christi Watershed, the site is evidently intended to encourage Catholic parishes to incorporate Gregorian chant into their liturgies.

I believe that one — and, admittedly, it is only one — of the obstacles to the renewal of Gregorian chant in the Church’s liturgy is the complexity of the huge body of chant that exists.  Specific prayers and acclamations are intended for each Sunday and feast day of the Church year, and each of them has been set to music.  For some, I expect, it is a daunting prospect to even figure out what music is meant for what day.

The great thing about Jogues Chant is that it solves all those difficulties.  The site provides all of the music for the liturgical year, neatly laid out in a well organized way, with links not only to downloadable PDFs containing the music for each Sunday and feast day (with texts and English translations), but often also to downloadable audio files to help with learning the music.  These resources are provided for both the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Mass.  It is all available for free, which removes another of those oft-quoted obstacles to the re-introduction of liturgical chant — namely, the cost of buying all the books.

To me, this looks like a terrific resource.  If you’re interested, take a look, and then let your parish’s music director know about it.  I’m going to do the same.