What's Wrong with the Liturgy?

The state of the liturgy is on the minds of many Catholics these days. There is a general sense that things are not quite right. Some complain about the music, others complain about priests who act like stand-up comedians, still others look at the Latin of the New Rite and wish that the English version were more accurate and elevating.

It can be a shock to read the actual conciliar and post-conciliar documents of Vatican II on the liturgy. There is not a word about altar tables, guitar Masses, liturgical dances, pastoral voice-overs, handholding or popular jingles. Nor was there ever a demand for these things from the laity; these changes were initiated by a sector of the clergy and its retinue of liturgists. Their stated reason for these changes is that Vatican II wanted the laity to more fully “participate” in the sacrifice of the Mass. This is true, but not in the sense that these liturgists suggest.

The Tridentine liturgy prior to the Council had many strengths and beauties. A problem — not intrinsic to it, but an abuse nonetheless, which the Council addressed — was the non-participation of many of the faithful. People in the pews would say their rosaries or do private devotions during the Mass. The Council Fathers wanted to change this; they wanted “full, conscious and active participation” in the sacrifice of the Mass.

What did the Council mean by “participation”? The Instruction on Music in the Liturgy, issued to implement the Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, states that participation should “be above all internal, in the sense that by it the faithful join their mind to what they pronounce or hear, and cooperate with heavenly grace.” Secondarily, participation should be “external … to show the internal participation by gestures and bodily attitudes, by the acclamations, responses and singing.”

Many liturgists (and pastors) seem to forget that participation by the congregation is supposed to be mainly internal. And for this to happen there has to be an envelope of silence and not constant commotion. Speaking for myself, I find this internal participation disrupted when the celebrant makes a running personal commentary on the sacred rite or I am asked to sing hymns like On Eagle's Wings that make me feel I am stuck inside a Delta Airlines commercial. On the other hand, if I am lucky enough to be in a parish with a good choir and a music director who appreciates the rich musical patrimony of the Church, I find that listening to beautiful music helps elevate my mind to God.

The Instruction on Music in the Liturgy confirms that this is the way the liturgy ought to be. It reiterates the Council's decree that pride of place be given to Gregorian chant; it also encourages polyphony and the use of the “heritage of sacred music, written in previous centuries for Latin texts.” This more sophisticated (and beautiful) music must, perforce, be reserved for the choir.

While the choir is singing, the document goes on, “all should reserve a reverent silence.

Through it the faithful are not only not considered as extraneous or dumb spectators at the liturgical service, but are associated more intimately in the mystery that is being celebrated, thanks to that interior disposition which derives from the word of God that they have heard.” Modern liturgists do not seem to favor this form of worship. Do they realize that their disagreement is not so much with “Tridentine restorationists” as with the directives of the Second Vatican Council?

What the conciliar and post-conciliar documents clearly call for is a hierarchy of services on Sunday in which the more difficult and traditional music is reserved for the sung or solemn Mass. Accordingly, the balance of active singing at High Mass is in the direction of the choir and not the congregation. At the other Masses the musical balance is clearly supposed to be in the direction of the congregation. This arrangement accommodates those who like to sing and those who value interior silence and the Church's “musical heritage of inestimable value.”

The liturgical experiments in the American Church since the Council, done under the guidance of “experts” who paid precious little attention to what the Second Vatican Council actually decreed, have not been entirely successful. Many would agree with Father Avery Dulles that these experiments — especially the banal music — were a step backward. He writes: “It was difficult for me to accept the virtual banishment of Latin from the liturgy and the substitution of new popular tunes for the imposing Gregorian chant or the mellifluous Renaissance polyphony. It might be necessary, I concluded, to live through a barren season of slovenly improvisation until the Church could experience some kind of cultural revival.”

Interestingly, younger Catholics seem to agree with Father Dulles. A few years ago, the liturgical committee in my parish did a survey of younger people attending the Sunday Masses and discovered that they liked the more traditional music. This finding would seem to be supported by the millions of CD's of Gregorian chant which young people have snapped up in recent years. Maybe the liturgical establishment should try being genuinely “populist” and pay attention to what many young (and older) parishioners actually want.

George Sim Johnston, a New York-based writer, is author of Did Darwin Get It Right?