Monday, November 28, 2011

An old coot's memories of a change in the Mass

You know you are old when your nieces start looking to you as a source of living history. Of course I feed that impression with statements like, "It was cold that winter at Valley Forge... damned cold."
Today I received a few questions from Catie, my youngest niece, which dealt with my memories of the implementation of the liturgical changes following Vatican II.
I thought I would share those questions and my responses.

1. Was it weird having the priest face you after the change in Vatican II?

Anytime you have a change from what had been standard practice for centuries it is safe to say that the change might seem “weird,” and so it was for me. Prior to that time we all faced the same way (note that I don’t put it that the priest had his back to us he didn’t, he stood in front of his flock as a shepherd would his sheep. He was leading us and facing the Lord just we were). It was particularly strange for me because I had spent a couple of years serving as an altar boy and had to change everything I did as well. So I really had a front row seat for all the changes.
By the way – Vatican II never said the priest was to face the people although it did allow for that possibility. Furthermore, if one were to read the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (the GIRM or rule book for the Mass), one would realize that it is clearly envisioned that the priest and the people would still be facing the same way for much of the Mass. Indeed, Bishop Slattery of Tulsa has now made it his practice whenever he is celebrating Mass at his cathedral that he will celebrate Ad Orientem, that is facing east (in this case liturgical east which means facing the same way as the people). For a bit more info check:, or a few thoughts I put down here:

2. Before the change, did you understand what was occurring during mass?

Yes, in part because I think there was better training of the people (what we call catechesis now days) but mainly because everyone used a missal which had the Latin on the left side and the English translation on the right. If you ever attend a Mass celebrated according to the Extraordinary form (the old Latin or Tridentine Mass) you will note how much silence there is in the Mass. Many of the priest’s prayers were to be said quietly. Even so, people would be following along in their missals and the prayers always speak to what the actions signified. There was a greater sense of mystery to the Mass, but that is in the sense of the Greek origin of the word not indicating that we don’t know what is going on, but rather that this is something sacred, something special, something available only to the initiates – i.e. the baptized. These are things of Heaven and not of the world.

3. (yes or no) Did you know any Latin?

You expect a yes or no answer from me!!?? I never studied Latin but had much of it ingrained in me from the Mass itself (especially while following along in my missal) and from training as an altar boy. So the answer is a qualified “no”, I mean "yes," well maybe "some".

4. Were you told in advance that there were going to be changes in the mass, or did you go to mass one day and it was completely different?

Yes to both. We knew that changes were to take place and generally what they would be, even so the reality of the changes were sudden (and as I indicated earlier many of the changes were not actually mandated by the documents of Vatican II but rather by a group of “liturgists” with their own agenda.)

5. If you knew that there were going to be changes, how long before the change did you have?

It’s hard to recall how much advance preparation we actually had, but it wasn’t much. As an altar boy who had to facilitate the changes, I got a bit more training than most but, all in all, the reasons for the changes weren’t very well communicated.

6. How did you find out about the changes?

I was in Catholic grade school, so we got some information in the classroom, I got a bit more as an altar server, and some information was in the secular press as well. We received laminated cards which had the new prayers and responses – much as my parish this Sunday had in the pews laminated cards with the revised translation of the people’s part. The change in the Mass following the Council was a radical change so it was news in both the church and secular worlds.

7. Was it hard getting used to the changes?

Hard – not really. I was a kid and as a kid it was like getting a new toy and having fun with finding out how it worked. Unfortunately there were some church professionals who approached it in the same childlike manner and failed to adhere to the rubrics. There were things I missed from the Latin Mass, but this was an exciting time and change seemed like fun.

8. How did your parents handle it?

They accepted the changes with an obedient spirit as did the majority of people. It was so different from the way they had prayed all their lives it had to be hard, but we were told that this is what the Vatican Council had decided and that this is the way it was to be done. The head of the local church is the bishop. The bishop said to make the changes and we followed his instructions. In essence my parents and those of the generations before me recognized the authority of the bishops but also recognized in the new liturgy those core elements of the sacrifice of the Mass and an underlying theology that remained the same. In the end it was about trusting the Holy Spirit, following the bishop and worshiping God.

9. Is there one memory you have about Vatican II that you would like to share?

Throughout the period of the council, the church was in the news. There was a sense that this was something new and exciting. Ecumenical Councils were and are a rarity. After Pope John XXIII died we weren’t sure what would happen, then Pope Paul VI continued with the council. The death of Pope John was a significant moment; we didn’t know what would happen from there.

10. Do/did you like the mass before or after Vatican II better? Why?

Ask your parents which of their children they love more. It sounds cliché, but I love both liturgies. I attend the Latin Mass about once a month and I really admire the sense of the sacred that permeates that form of the Mass. It invites a fully-embodied participation. You watch what is going on, hear the choir, join in the responses, smell the incense, sit, stand, kneel; and all is directed toward God. It is a communal sacrifice that is intensely personal. One can also enter into the silence – “Be still and know that I am God.” Ps 46:10
One of the things I like most about the old form of the Mass is the reception of communion by kneeling at the altar rail. Too much of the sense of the sacred is lost when communion is distributed as if handing out cookies to a conga line of people. Granted, many recipients are deeply devout and approach communion with reverence – but it takes a much greater act of the will to attain and maintain that reverence. When one kneels at a communion rail (which serves as does the iconostasis in an Orthodox or Eastern Rite church as a visible symbol demarking the place where Heaven meets earth; the sacred meets the profane) one’s mind focuses much more readily on the sacred character of the reception of communion. Furthermore you can tell by the look on the face of the young children when they see their parents on their knees to receive the Eucharist that this is a tremendous form of catechesis – these kids recognize something special, something very out of the ordinary is taking place.
But I really love the post-Vatican II ordinary form of the mass as it heightens the sense of communal action while (when done properly) retaining a large amount of the sacred. The horizontal and the vertical elements are both in place. This sense is enhanced when the rubrics are followed and the liturgy is not used to by priest, liturgist or music minister to have the Mass serve as the mechanism for them to express their inner poet. Personally, it allows me as a deacon to have a significant role in the liturgy that is not available in the extraordinary form except as part of a solemn high Mass.
Whether it is the ordinary form or the extraordinary form, the important thing is that the Mass is the Mass is the Mass. There is, was, and has been only one Mass throughout history. Each time at Mass we are transported and join the communion of saints in the upper room on Maundy Thursday as Christ institutes this memorial feast. Each time we place ourselves at the foot of the cross on Calvary with the Blessed Mother, St. John and the others and watch as the Lamb of God is sacrificed and His blood poured out on the earth, marking the home of those redeemed by His sacrifice ─ just as the blood of lambs marked the lintels of the homes of the Hebrew slaves redeemed in Egypt during that first Passover. I think it sometimes takes greater effort of will to experience this in the ordinary form because that is a liturgy designed for a very holy priest and a holy people, but the essentials are the same be it the old Latin Mass or the Mass that has been normative for the past 45+ years. Now that we are using a language that is less banal, truer to the scripture and the theology and letter of the original Latin, this loftier language may serve to recapture more of the sense of the sacred that had been left behind.

On a side note, a few months back I attended a Latin Mass and brought along my old missal. In that missal I still had the laminated card with the (then new) English translation of the Mass into English from 1964. That translation is almost exactly the same as the translation implemented with the beginning of Advent this year. We do not have a new translation so much as a more accurate one.