Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Liturgical Piety and the Scourge of the Arbitrary

The second of the FIUV Papers on the Liturgy does a super job of discussing the notion of "liturgical piety" so dear to the Liturgical Movement which preceded the Second Vatican Council. Here's a quote from that paper, explaining the rightness and the priority of promoting a truly liturgical piety among the faithful:

"2. The desire for a more liturgical piety arose naturally from two observations. First, 
that the Catholic liturgy is an enormously rich source for the devotional life. As the 
English Cardinal Wiseman exclaimed as early as 1842: 
Why there is not a place, or a thing, used in the worship which [the Catholic] 
attends, upon which there has not been lavished, so to speak, more rich poetry 
and more solemn prayers, than all our modern books put together.

3. Secondly, the liturgy, and in particular the Eucharist, is of its very nature the 
privileged opportunity for the Christian to communicate with God. The liturgy is the 
public prayer of the Church, and the Mass is the re-presentation of Christ’s Sacrifice 
on the Cross: in joining themselves to the first, the faithful can take part in the 
perfect prayer offered to God by His spotless Bride; in joining themselves to the 
second, the faithful can associate their own offerings with the perfect Sacrifice 
offered to the Father, that of the spotless Victim."

To say that, in striving to develop among God's People a truly liturgical piety to sustain them in their life of faith, we are talking of a good is evident. No matter what the person's stance in favor or against one or the other form of the Roman Rite, I would dare to say that no one zealous for the Lord's House would not want Catholic people first and foremost to be nourished in their faith by a genuine liturgical piety. Even so, this is not yet to say that how best to further this good is self-evident. In the last century and up until the present mistakes have been made or we could say that wrong has been done in the name of fostering liturgical piety, more often than not also at the expense of a solid and well-rounded devotional life (Catholic life in the last decades has many times been stripped of all but Sunday Mass). Nor does affirming the principle that a liturgical piety is to be striven for necessarily open the path to each and every effort which has been made in the past under the mantle of the Liturgical Movement. Nor does it necessarily give evidence of what is at play or at risk in arguing in favor of liturgical reform, ostensibly in the hope of promoting and rooting popular piety more firmly in the liturgy. 

These lessons and many more I learned from a truly valuable book, which I had somehow missed to date, but which caught my attention in a footnote from another of the FIUV Papers on the Liturgy (don't ask me which one!):

The Organic Development of the Liturgy 
The Principles of Liturgical Reform and Their Relation to the Twentieth-Century Liturgical Movement 
Prior to the Second Vatican Council 
(2010-09-24).  Kindle Edition.

Think me a dingbat if you will, but what Reid describes as the comings and goings within and around the Liturgical Movement, especially during the 1950's, frightened me and inspired in my head images of a fully loaded freight train barreling along at top speed, which hit the Council and kept on going. What came to be both in the 1970 Missal and as a result of the opening of those liturgical reform "floodgates", reminded me of one of the grand old men of the avantgarde of the Liturgical Movement, our old Dutch Jesuit liturgy professor in the 1970's, who still hadn't slowed down, having achieved all he ever dreamed about back in the 1950's and almost 20 years later was still desperately panting after novelty, synonymous seemingly for him with relevance. How do you slow such a runaway freight train?

Father Reid does a masterful job in relatively few pages of documenting over the centuries the vagaries of the organic development of the Liturgy, especially of the authoritative interventions over time to promote a flourishing liturgical life within the Church. He registers clearly various times in history, especially since the Council of Trent, when Popes, the supreme legislators in the Church, have overstepped their bounds and deformed this ever living and growing edifice. Pope St. Pius X comes off badly in the book for certain of his decisions regarding the Breviary and, of course, the Holy Week Reform of Pope Pius XII is not spared in the least. Reid's thesis is that the Liturgy stands over even the Pope:

"These limits were articulated by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger: The pope’s authority is bound to the Tradition of faith, and that also applies to the liturgy. It is not “manufactured” by the authorities. Even the pope can only be a humble servant of its lawful development and abiding integrity and identity. . . .  The authority of the pope is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition. And they are clearly taught by the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Even the supreme authority in the Church may not change the liturgy arbitrarily, but only in the obedience of faith and with religious respect for the mystery of the liturgy.” (Kindle Locations 4937-4943).

Father Reid's great service, if you will, is in giving evidence of times past, where a later Pontiff had to retrace a Predecessor's steps and restore the Liturgy, reversing well-intended reforms. About the only exception to a hands-off policy regarding Divine Worship on Reid's part would be his cautious allowance for calendar reform. Particularly convincing is Father Reid's adamant defense of the Roman Canon from all intervention or trimming. It would be hard to escape his judgment of arbitrariness and justify liturgical change mindful of the limits thereto laid down by the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "but only in the obedience of faith and with religious respect for the mystery of the liturgy.” So the stance of Father Alcuin Reid, OSB!

In banning the "Arbitrary", the point would be not just to exclude the modernist view that anything goes in the name of promoting liturgical piety, but to make a convincing case for excluding most any liturgical change as liable to the accusation of arbitrariness and hence detrimental to the edifice of worship as such. The arbitrary undermines liturgical piety because it takes away from Liturgy itself. We see this on a parish level day in and day out in the case of countless youth and young adults, who do not feel bound to a liturgical praxis which is shot through with what are arbitrary choices and simply caprice on the part of the parish priest, church musicians or liturgical committee. It is very hard for a parent to counter the objection of a son or daughter to going to a Mass which Father makes up as he is going along anyway. Father Reid would have us understand that this hands-off policy goes for everyone in the Church; not even the supreme legislator can escape the accusation of being arbitrary if he changes a jot or tittle of something beyond him as well.

They tell me that the pipe organ of its very nature is made for improvising; the same cannot be said for the liturgy. The point as such is not whether the old wine is better, but rather that regardless of whether or not the present crisis could have been averted had the Vatican Council not been followed by a period of free-wheeling experimentation and innovation with liturgy, the point is that you can't simply overhaul what constitutes our rule of prayer and life.

Am I saying, the sooner we shelve the Novus Ordo and get back to "square one" the better? Not at all! When the Tridentine Missal was made obligatory for the Universal Church following that great Council, those recognized and long-standing (200 years) liturgical traditions existing at the time were exempted; they could and did live on. For all practical purposes today, the Novus Ordo is not only recognized but for all but a few Catholics it is the only liturgical experience within memory. Novus is a misnomer in most people's perception; speaking of Ordinary Form is generally more comprehensible. It is herein that I find the wisdom of the Holy Father's directive to let the two forms grow together, mutually enrich one another. The approach forestalls another arbitrary, if you will, intervention, which would cause scandal and do nothing to disclaim many people's impression that the whole business is all too human, too arbitrary and not necessarily that food  which strengthens us for the trek to the mountain of God, Horeb.

The new English translation of the 3rd Edition of the Latin Roman Missal has contributed enormously to casting out the arbitrary; the chant revival and the new awareness that liturgical music must be sacred in character is progressing as well. The arts are beginning to show signs of recovery and a new/old aesthetic sense is blossoming and bearing fruit. The lessons many have learned in the Perpetual Adoration Chapels are starting here and there to transfer back to the main body of the church. They need to be fostered and reinforced.

Father Reid does not discount altogether the Liturgical Movement of the first half of the 20th Century; he lauds its values and denounces its excesses with consummate self-restraint. Ultimately, it would be the universal will that the Liturgy carry us in faith. We seek a liturgy which nourishes us because as an integral part of the Tradition it comes to us vibrant and substantially unchanged from Christ Himself through His Church. 


  1. A very interesting post!

    Also very good on the Liturgical Movement (though much shorter), is its treatment in Aidan Nichols' book 'Looking at the Liturgy'.

    Nb Alcuin Reid is not in fact a priest, though he has been ordained deacon.

    1. Thank you!

      Reid's treatment of the Liturgical Movement reads a bit like a crime novel, and I'd be interested to see if others would stand with him and to what extent in terms of his history of the 1950's especially in and around the Liturgical Movement.

      While it would be wrong to take anything away from the crucial importance of fostering liturgical piety for Catholic life,my own lifetime has been marked by a purportedly protagonistic stance in favor of liturgical piety, which has ignored all those things which made worship accessible to me as a child in the 1950's.

      To say the same thing in another way, thanks to my home life, as a child, and the parochial school environment, my liturgical life as a child in the 1950's (pre-reform, if you will) was richer than that of younger generations (in the 70's or 80's up until the present). It is questionable whether the actual shape of the liturgy or language is what is decisive for its role in fostering Catholic life.

      Beware of the arbitrary where ever it comes from!


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