This piece was written by Dr. Bruce Morill of Vanderbilt University for another website. Dr. Morrill has granted me permission to post it here on my blog in its entirety. While much of what is contained below may be for a specifically Catholic audience, I do believe that the Second Vatican Council and all subsequent writings and reflections out to drive us to closer ecumenical efforts and study. Vatican II and the Liturgical Renewal Movement of the 20th century deserve deeper study and understanding in our current context.
May we heed our Lord’s prayer in John 17 and strive to be one as He and the Father are one.
Positives and Negatives in the Liturgy Today
Bruce T. Morrill, S.J., Edward A. Malloy Professor of Catholic Studies, Vanderbilt University
At Pierre Hegy’s invitation, I offer these brief remarks about what I perceive to be positive and negative conditions in the ongoing reform and renewal of the liturgy in the wake of Vatican II.
A singular achievement in the reformed Roman Rite is the installation of the proclaimed word of God—readings of Scripture, homilies, responsorial psalms and general intercessions—as integral to each and all of the rites, not only the seven sacraments but the full surfeit of related rites and prayers (as in, e.g., the Order of Christian Funerals, Pastoral Care of the Sick, Order of Christian Initiation of Adults). By mandating “more ample, more varied, and more suitable reading from sacred scripture” for all “sacred celebrations” (SC 35) and most explicitly and in detail concerning the Mass (cf. SC 51-53), the Council finally set a course for the Roman Catholic Church positively to embrace one of the most positive instincts and arguments of the Protestant Reformers.
With the Sunday celebration retaining and even increasing its predominant role in the church’s post-conciliar liturgical life, the creation and implementation of the Lectionary for Mass has had a singular impact on the faith and imaginations of the people in the pews, as well as many of the clergy. The people’s hearing (in the vernacular) the full expanse of each of the four gospels over repeated three-year cycles (the three synoptic gospels through Ordinary Time, the fourth gospel in each Lenten-Easter cycle and as a supplement to Mark) has over time shaped how they encounter Christ in the liturgy of the Eucharist. The goal of ample liturgies of the word is to enrich and expand people’s images of the Christ they gather around, worship, and receive in holy communion, a Christ not reduced merely to a static figure of tortured death for undeserving sinners but, rather, a uniquely divine-Spirit-filled person sharing a fierce but tender life-giving love for poor humanity unto death.
In practice, of course, the quality of the proclaiming has varied widely: Many parishes work hard at forming lectors as effective conveyers of the living biblical word, while one still comes upon not a few places where the readings are rushed or poorly audible or compromised in other ways. And people, young and old, are often distracted from or even poorly attuned to the snippets of Old Testament and epistolary texts coming at them. But such is the real human scene, and such is the kenotic character of the God who works redemption from within our flawed humanity. But then, also, there is the seemingly intractable, persistent malaise in the clergy’s preaching, albeit again with numerous, occasionally stellar, exceptions. The resurgent disease of clericalism (about which, more below) has played no small part in the ever-decreasing percentage of U.S. Catholics choosing to participate weekly (or even monthly) in the Sunday celebration. Still, as a pastoral minister and theological educator, I have been consoled over the years by people’s pointed questions about why their non-Catholic Christian spouse cannot receive holy communion or why canon law or other disciplines severely restrict sharing at the Eucharistic table. They protest that the Jesus they have come to know and love in the gospel stories at Mass is notable (and rebuked by religious leaders and other self-righteous characters) for his dining with sinners and telling parables about what a world ruled by a merciful and just God looks like.
Giving ourselves over to the mystery (including messiness) of the Gospel requires humble faith and constantly hungry perseverance, for sure. No wonder Tridentine Roman Catholicism, even as late as the early twentieth-century, forbad the laity from reading the Bible. The word of God quickly spins religious institutionalism out of control. Not that the laity are somehow pure or perfect in their readings and hearings of the word; cultural pressures such as consumerism, individualism, nationalism, chauvinisms, etc., readily wound the body of Christ in its members—both clerical and lay. The clergy’s pastoral charge, nonetheless, is to listen to the world in which they would speak the word. They must “smell of the sheep,” in the pithy admonitory phrase of Pope Francis. Seminaries, he has likewise averred, must stop “inflicting little monsters on the people of God.”
The sad negative fact about the state of liturgical reform and renewal fifty years on is that it has been hobbled and, as of the 1980s, curtailed by the persistence of clericalism in the leadership and ranks of those ordained to preside over and preach at the rites. The lamentable outcome of the 1970 synod of bishops concerning the priesthood arguably clipped the wings of the liturgical reform from the start. However high the quality of much liturgical scholarship and wise the judicious proposals of many pastoral liturgists, these have proven largely impotent in the face of the ideology of the priesthood (including the way the crucified and risen Christ Jesus is portrayed as priest and, accordingly, the contemporary Roman Catholic priest as acting in persona Christi). The debacle of the process and official result of the current English-language Roman Missal provides the latest evidence, while revisiting the Vatican’s detailed, “abuse”-obsessed instruction on the celebration of the Mass, Redemptionis sacramentum (2004), provides all the insights one needs into why and how clerical ideology rules the liturgy.
Liturgy, however divinely inspired, is nonetheless human ritual. Human ritual evades reasonable arguments. After all, we humans ritualize precisely in all those circumstances wherein we cannot rationalize, cannot clearly explain. Ambiguity is at the heart of all ritualizing; thus, I have slowly come to learn not to be surprised at how readily Roman Catholics—left and right, radical-traditionalist and progressive, clerical and lay—become upset when trying to explain or defend or advocate change in the Mass (and to lesser degrees of interest, the other rites of the church). Would that all “sides” of the church might get a fair hearing in this continued era of reform, such that renewal might yet begin again.
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