Saturday, July 25, 2015

"From Silence to Participation": The liturgical movement

I'm reading a recent gift (thanks, Bill Tighe), the book From Silence to Participation: An Insider's View of Liturgical Renewal, the 1972 memoir of Dom Bernard Botte, a monk of Mont César Abbey in Louvain (he died in 1980). A fast and fun read for non-scholars who generally know about the legitimate Catholic liturgical movement in the 40-50 years before Vatican II.

When you're a traditionalist after the council it's easy to fall into an echo chamber of your fellows and romanticize the past. That's a reason I value the fact that we're still a living tradition: people I call living links to before the council help us keep it real.

You'd think that seminarians and theologians have long studied liturgical texts and their history but according to Dom Bernard you couldn't be more wrong. He and others, including Anglo-Catholic emulators before the council (the late Fr. Ivan Clutterbuck in Marginal Catholics; shame he didn't come into the church), have written that the liturgy was sort of taken for granted, while being treated practically like a sacred text; it was just something you did as you received it, so the only liturgy course was to learn the rubrics. That has its good points but was also a wasted opportunity for the clergy and laity alike.

(But wasn't part of the charm of Anglo-Catholicism that Oxford dons and other "amateur Catholics" fell in love with the liturgy and its history? Did they study the liturgy like they did the church fathers, so many/most traded the Book of Common Prayer for the Roman Rite? As many of you know, in the beginning it wasn't about liturgy or ceremonial; the Tractarians used the liturgy they were told to, as Catholics did theirs, and "high church" originally meant church authority, as in a high ecclesiology and a high view of the episcopate.)

Dom Bernard starts interestingly with a portrait of Catholic life in his Belgium as he remembered it in 1910, untouched by the movement. You have to factor out liberal bias (he was orthodox like his old movement but enthused over the changes after the council) but you have to admit there was a need for reform, for those who might benefit from it. As in centuries past there were no hand missals for the laity (at one point in the church they were banned, but he doesn't say that); the movement came up with those. You had lots of Low Masses in slurred, mumbled Latin, at which the Bible was neither really heard nor sermonized about, leaving the laity to an unliturgical, devotional (me: even voodoo-ey) Catholicism or just bored and tuned out. The laity's knowledge of the liturgy or directly of the Bible was zilch, according to him. Communion and Mass were viewed and done separately: something I've never seen, Communion (for the few who were prepared, rightly) every 15 minutes on Sunday, interrupting Masses to have a priest in cotta and stole open the tabernacle and commune people at the rail. Not just non-communicating High Masses; people didn't receive at the part of the Mass where we do it now. Instead of going to the sources, the Bible and the rite, priests and laity got most of their religion from theology manuals (me: copies of copies of St. Thomas Aquinas?) and devotions, a copy of a copy. And rather than the ideal of a devout community being edified by the Bible and the liturgy, you had an individualistic faith about avoiding mortal sin, true but one-sided. (Small-o orthodoxy, well-rounded Catholicism: "the old religion" and the emphasis on community are not mutually exclusive.) Some priests (Dom Bernard mentions a Jesuit) pushed that individualism as the modern way (like the devotio moderna and St. Thérèse's Little Way, not liturgically based?) and the best way to compete with Protestantism.

Counter-points: there was a community, Catholicism in its national and ethnic forms. It was orthodox though not ideal. Not ideal because most people aren't that bright or religious. If you're like that, some lower level of "participation" is still open to you.

But for those who were interested, the ressourcement and liturgical movements in pre-conciliar Catholicism were of course good: unlocking the liturgy's treasures. Dom Bernard notes it got no support from Rome for many years but it wasn't condemned either. Naturally, pioneering in that movement were men dedicated to living in Christian communities and to praying the rite, knowing the texts well: Benedictines. The ideals included more High Masses and teaching ordinary parishioners Gregorian chant. And that was great.

Thanks to Rome's strong hand, and probably because a lot of movement priests were orthodox as well as honest scholars, the movement was about teaching people to love the Roman Rite as it had been handed down (still like the unself-conscious, pre-modern way in that respect: compatible with modern study?), with more enrichment from studying the Eastern rites. (Here the Catholic reformers ended up being hypocrites, because wholesale rewrites of liturgy are un-Eastern, even anti-Eastern. The Novus Ordo is "a harsh and even offensive condemnation" of Eastern Christian practices, as Michael Davies wrote, deacons, concelebration, "both kinds," and descending epicleses notwithstanding. Un-ecumenical!) I know the Mass and got better acquainted with the New Testament thanks to the movement (if I want to follow along on Sunday I have my Maryknoll Missal from 1957 with Cardinal Cushing's imprimatur). The questions are how much liturgical change is desirable and how do you implement it? Going back to Dom Bernard's description of 1910 Belgium, I'm reminded of a traditionalist writer from Australia in the '90s: the old form of the rite is inefficient, but bad? No. Anyway, like the old litniks such as Dom Bernard, learned traditionalists know that liturgy can and does change, but ideally organically, so slowly as to be almost imperceptible, and we know that Quo primum tempore didn't set the Roman Rite in stone; rubrics are tweaked all the time. Even more than the Mass, the office, the breviary, was reformed a few times before Vatican II. As Peter Robinson (an Anglican) says, the liturgical movement started to go pear-shaped (off the rails as we'd say in America) just before mid-century 1900s, prompting Pius XII to criticize parts of it in Mediator Dei. (Want to play early church by stripping the rite, assuming the Protestants are right that simple is older and more authentic? OK, game on. Public confession of sins! Years of excommunication and hard penances! The sexes stand separately, and no pews! Hello? By the way, "facing the people" is based on faulty scholarship.)

As we know, the wrong people from the movement won: Annibale Bugnini, for example. The church is still the church of course but they did much harm.

Dom Bernard, a scholar and orthodox, was smart enough to criticize some things after the council, and he said that he didn't expect his reforms to turn everybody into saints overnight, but while the orthodox reformers' intentions were good (let's turn the parishes into lively communities energized by the Bible and the liturgy, and the church will get even bigger and better, winning the world for Christ!), the scores of closed parishes, schools, and convents, empty seminaries, ex-Catholics, and American ethnics who aren't Catholic tell the story: "How's that 'renewal' working out for youse?" American Catholicism was a Christian community to be reckoned with in 1960, not now.

The movement wanted a change from Low Masses junked up with sappy hymns to High Mass and the office, even chanted by ordinary laity, with everybody studying the texts and their history, knowing what they mean. Instead, for all the movement's scholarship (as Dom Bernard notes), you ended up with ... Low Masses junked up with sappy hymns (only now with guitars) AND dumbed down so, until Benedict XVI's reform in English, you didn't learn Catholicism from the text. At least the devotional Catholicism and catechisms in 1910 got that job done, and for average slobs, not just the goody-goody pious. (Traditional Catholicism, "the Christian community": here comes everybody.)

"It's Not About Latin™": Latin is useful as a template so meanings are clear; I'm fine with the vernacular. All we needed was an option to translate everything but keep the old forms, just slightly tweaked. The Orthodox Church in America (OCA), then the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church in the USA, among other Eastern churches in America, handled the Sixties just right: just translate and tweak the old religion. (They're failing too, losing their ethnics by the third generation in America for cultural reasons plus Orthodoxy's inadequacy, but Protestantization still isn't the answer.) For all the good intentions of the Dom Bernards and the bishops and experts at Vatican II, we f*cked up.

(Interestingly the book's cover seems to depict a ruined English abbey. The Benedictines and their movement self-destructed, Dom Bernard's assertions notwithstanding.)

Dom Bernard was nice but for a good explanation minus the self-congratulation read Thomas Day, the great interpreter of American Catholicism, faults and all, past and present, for Anglo-Catholic alumni ("Why's it so low-church?").

I actually don't dislike modern stuff before the council, because it still had to serve the old religion. Of course it doesn't have to be baroque or Victorian to be Catholic (just like Byzantium's not the whole church), but those are good things.


  1. What an excellent post! On the "Little Way" of St. THerese, it should be known that her spiritual life was fed by the liturgy and the Gospels. In her family The Liturgical Year by the great Abbot Gueranger was read every day so that the spirit of the liturgical cycle could be lived at home. In her letters and in her autobiography it is clear that so much of her spiritual journey was guided by the feasts of the Church. While she never had a complete Bible, not considered proper for young ladies, she had a New Testament and had copied out portions of the Old Testament for her meditations. Other than that she relied on her missal and breviary for inspiration.

    1. Thanks including for answering my question about St. Thérèse. Her family's story is different from Dom Bernard's bleak picture of Catholic life in Europe at the time!

  2. Dude, you mention ad nauseam that the OCA and other Orthodox parishes are losing the third generation "too", as if you really want that to be the case and take gleeful joy in the alleged decline to ameliorate that of your own communion. Do you have stats or some census that you could share? Because I travel an awful lot, and just don't see it. Sure, you have parishes declining in some places, but in others there's a lot of growth. Now, my view is anecdotal, so I'm open to evidence that says I'm wrong, so have at it. But give up the shadenfreude. It's just so po white.

    1. No stats or census right now, but the Orthodox denominations in America infamously lie about their numbers, and the Byzantine Rite's failure in America isn't just an Orthodox problem: the Ukrainian and Ruthenian Catholic churches suffer the same loss by the their third generations here. I've been told that in the South both Catholics and Orthodox (convert boomlet, which I don't think will last beyond two generations and is already waning) are doing well, but overall both are cratering in this country, Catholic numbers kept artificially high by counting Mexican immigrants. The Catholic Church used to be so big here that we will survive as a remnant; Orthodoxy here might too, remaining essentially a Greek immigrant chaplaincy (their Slavic numbers here being too small to matter demographically).


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