Three months ago, if someone had told me I would get all fired up about liturgy in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, I would have had to give them a wry smile and shake my head at them. I had been there, done that, I would have said. I burnt out, and I no longer had the emotional energy to get entangled in that morass.
And then I started my Christian Liturgy course. When speaking of activists (and terrorists), the term “radicalized” is often used: something — some event, or some encounter, or some experience, or some increase of inequality, something — pushes an individual over the line between resentment and the willingness to do something about it. By the end of the second class meeting, I could tell that this course was going to be my radicalizing experience.
I haven’t spoken up much in this class. Of course, I am typically reserved, and seldom throw my hand in the air unless I am really confident in whatever it is I am about to say. And in this class I have an added factor that keeps me pretty mum: I am so aghast and seething on the inside that I don’t trust myself to start something in a pedagogical context that I am not equipped to finish.
I grew up into a passionate love of the Roman Rite, in all its “noble simplicity” and in all its solemn grandeur. I loved the Latin language, I loved the elaborate and careful ceremony, and every Sunday as a boy I longed to be up there, in the sanctuary, where the sacred action was taking place.
And eventually I got my wish. I was fourteen when I first served as an altar boy in our new parish (most boys started in third grade, but we had been moving around a lot). I was extremely nervous, fretful that I would forget what I was supposed to do next in the intricate dance of the Mass (and I often did). But I was intensely engaged in what I was about, and it was not long before I was one of the top servers, and when we moved parishes again shortly after I turned sixteen, I was fast-tracked to elite altar serving rôles. And, especially with a pastor who was as fond of the sacred pageantry as I was, the step from top-notch altar boy to seminarian was not such a big one.
But after four years of bitterly-partisan intramural conflict, almost all of which centered on some aspect of the liturgy or another, I left seminary tired to death of it all. How could something so beautiful, so powerful, so sacred, be the cause of so much strife? I didn’t know what the answer was, but I knew I was done with it. Not that I didn’t care anymore: I still cared intensely. But I deliberately pushed such feelings down every time they arose, and it slowly, painfully got easier to slide along as a practical Catholic, taking the Sunday Mass as it came, closing my eyes (literally) whenever I thought some innovative practice or lack of rubrical fidelity was likely to irk me.
But now I am done with that. My Leuven-educated liturgy professor has opened my eyes (though probably not in the way she intended) and I am ready to wade into the battle once more. But if you know me, or knew me ten years ago, and think you know which “side” I am on, you are probably going to be wrong about that.
I am radically sure of two things right now regarding the eucharistic liturgy of the Roman Rite. First: the reforms carried out over the course of the twentieth century, while indisputably necessary, went wild like privileged suburban girls on spring break, and lost all their dignity in the process. Second: the increasingly-widespread return to the usus antiquior — the 1962 Missal, the pre-Vatican II “Tridentine” Mass, whatever you like to call it — is a deeply-misguided and ecclesiologically-blind effort to turn back the clock, and it is an effort in which I see next to no merit. There is tremendous solemnity possible with the Mass of Paul VI, and while I agree with the writings of our current pope regarding the many failings of the reformed liturgy, it is clear that those failings are more often in the area of application than in the liturgical books themselves. There is a middle way here, but it has been lost between the poles of antipathy that dominate the Catholic Church today.