Thursday, December 29, 2005

The following post is a lengthy summary of a chapter of Peter Steinfels' book A PEOPLE ADRIFT. Steinfels was the senior religion correspondent for the New York Times from 1988 to 1997, holds a Ph.D from Columbia and is a contributor to many periodicals. Along with his wife, Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, he received the 2003 Laetare Medal from Notre Dame University, its highest award recognizing service to the church and society.
Speaking for myself as a professional practicioner of musical leadership in the Catholic Church for thirty-five years, I rejoice at the clarity with which Dr. Steinfels examines the liturgical issues that are often provided harsh lip service in the debates in public and cyber-forums.
I also, perhaps prematurely, believe that Steinfels' contentions are not dissonant with the well-known and equally passionate examinations of worship by our Holy Father, Benedict XVI. You, the reader (should you slog through the blog) will likely beg to differ. But as long as we strive to build and not to tear apart, these writings should be of value to those of us laboring in the vineyard of the Lord.
By Peter Steinfels
A summary by Charles Culbreth
An Overview of American Catholic Liturgical Issues and Practices in the Modern Era

Lex orandi lex credendi- “the law of prayer is the law of belief.” Worship precedes theology. Or better, the two realities are intimately and inextricably entwined.

Eucharist is source and summit of the Christian life.

Consequences of Sunday worship for the institutional church is the fact that at no other time are Catholics met together with clergy and themselves. Corporate existence is acknowledged via faith and knowledge, which is expressed and deepened; strangers welcomed, prayers expressed for those who suffer or who’ve died, to prepare for charitable action.

Since 1980’s RC/American liturgy has been (radically) reshaped. Perhaps one third to one half of nominal Catholics attend Sunday mass. Are these two facts related? Not directly- evidence exists that the reshaping did not cause decline. But attendance future cannot improve if the reshaping of liturgy is not successfully initiated.

VII reforms concerning liturgy were the most immediately “felt” effects upon laity. The disruption of formerly familiar words and gestures were wrenching. But the changes went much further than the “form” of pre-VII liturgy. These changes were not wholesale rejections of previously held traditions, the break with the past wasn’t total: the world’s bishops desired a return to the essence of worship that had become obscured by “centuries of accretions.” The new rites incorporated an altered understanding of God, church, priesthood, and salvation. Lex orandi…..


Disruption of familiar words/gestures…..but changes were like a “Copernican Revolution”-all the basic truths (earth, sun, planets, stars) were “still there, but they were strikingly reconfigured. V2 changes weren’t intended to design something new, but to rediscover the essence of liturgy that “had become obscured by centuries of accretions.”

*Sanctuary clearly defined by communion rail. Altar at the back of sanctuary, whole area was elevated; the tabernacle was center and ornamented deeply.
*Priest ad orientem, occasionally turning to the side for collects with the servers.
*Side altars; Pedagogical/didactic stained glass windows; statues and icons; stations of the cross.

P169 The whole church was clearly “sacred space”….via subdued light, array of images, flickering candles and the red lamp indicating Christ’s presence. The tabernacle served as kind of a throne for the enshrined Blessed Sacrament.
Sunday worship for the individual congregant and assembled was at its core internal and silent, and though it would be mistaken automatically to equate those characteristics with passivity, it was easy enough to become a passive audience to the priest’s actions.

Communion rails removed (area’s less defined) ; altars relocated to free-standing positions, squared…..result = no longer felt like a divine abode, though the intent was the idea that Mass and sacraments, rather than a host of private devotions, would be focal.


Modified churches manifested physically and spatially a reconsidered faith: priest among faithful, not above/beyond and near the tabernacle; mass was now more egalitarian in concept, sharing a common baptism and common public prayer. God’s presence was felt as much temporally as spatially within the church building.

These changes were accentuated by the first translations into English (among hundreds of other vernaculars) which strove for the familiarity of ordinary speech and avoided the kind of archaic or solemn language that typically lives on in ritual when it had expired in other semantic venues.

The “Old Mass” could be basically defined as “offertory, consecration, and Communion.” The “New Mass” by contrast held the Liturgy of the Word, the Gathering of the Assembly as just as integral to the mass as the eucharist.
This new balance placed the otherwise isolated “miracle” of the Eucharist in the broad context of God’s dealings with Israel, the message of Jesus, and the witness of the early church.
The paradigm shift: from a chiefly visual rite, with inaudible prayers but dramatic gestures to one both seen and heard. Liturgy ceased to be private, passive, otherworldly, a-historical; the readings, the homily and intentions reminded worshipers they were part of a chosen people-disciples, light and salt of the earth. Thus was it in Theory.

Assessing the impact of changes:
In some respects still unknown, but answers are immensely complicated.

What explains decline in Sunday Mass attendance? Steinfels states “it had little to do with the alterations in the liturgy: Catholics stopped thinking of the Eucharist as their Sunday obligation, under penalty of mortal sin. Somewhere along the dialectic line church leaders stopped preaching about obligation, mortal sin and eternal damnation and church members stopped believing it.
In Dies Domini, even JPII devoted only one of 87 sections to the “Sunday obligation,” and even it was oblique: “This legislation has normally been understood as entailing a grave obligation.”
The standard for liturgy and ritual thus became higher to continue drawing people. Steinfels posits that “if requiring people to worship under threat of eternal punishment now strikes many Catholics as reflecting badly on the god who would enforce such a threat, at least the requirement sent a message about the importance of Sunday worship- a message that must be signaled by the liturgy itself.”

The popularity ascribed to traits of the revised mass by critics can rightly be viewed as a symptom of the church’s decline, of a general dulling of Catholic belief and sensibility, a collapse in banality characteristic of the (prevailing) culture at large.
Conservative and schismatic critics objected to a “dumbing-down” of the rites. By striving for intelligibility and familiarity, the translations from Latin to English achieved only banality. Solemnity and silence were replaced by stand up, sit/kneel down, sing along, shake hands and the like. Liberated from Latin and old rubrics, priests became “emcees” and music leaders like martinets.

P175 Thomas Day
In Why Catholics Can’t Sing Day skewered the sentimental Irish-American musical heritage that he claims found new life in “contemporary church music.” Narcissistic texts, crooning cantors who became Mr. Caruso’s with PA systems were the new norms. But Day also decries “de-ritualization.” Examples and characterizations he cites includes:
*charm, folksiness, dramatics; the personality of the priest becomes central
*ego-renewal of the musical leader “me” in center of liturgical landscape

Other criticism stemmed from distorted nostalgia, ie. “lost sense of mystery, solemnity, beauty. Steinfels (bravely, correctly) declares that, in reality, “there was very little that was solemn or mysterious, serene or aesthetically elevating about the Tridentine Mass as it actually was celebrated by the average priest in an average parish.”

“Wistful laments for the reverence and beauty of the pre-conciliar Mass rest on myth or highly selective memory.” Day also mentions that de-ritualization of the mass did NOT begin with V2….Steinfels’ own recollections as a server: (some priests) “diligently observed all the rubrics..(while others) lumbered through the Mass mechanically, bowing and turning and kissing the altar and stabbing the air in signs of the cross and intoning the Latin as though these gestures and sounds had no other meaning than obligatory steps for validly completing the rite. And those were the better celebrants. Other priests…communicated to the altar boys a smug familiarity with all things sacred, a kind of authorized irreverence in which (they) were privileged to share….I remember being startled by one pastor’s habit of reducing whole portions of the prayers to a brief hum or grunt.

What is new? Higher standards-standards imposed by the reforms themselves such as “noble simplicity” and manifested with a minimum of explanation.

“The pre-conciliar liturgy had its power…But holding it up as an ideal seriously discredits criticism of current practice.
Sr. Kathleen Hughes, ICEL member, asks “So much ferment….upheaval…has the transformation of our liturgy transformed us….to pray more deeply…are we more just…more loving?
She recognizes “places where the renewal of worship has achieved wonderful results, where reverent and hospitable worship attracts hundreds, where the environment and the music, the proclamation and the preaching are all executed with great care, where the presider and all the ministers are prepared and prayerful as they invite a community to grow in God’s grace week after week.”

Steinfels goes on “But there are also the parishes where ‘Sunday after Sunday, dwindling numbers gather lifeless, dispirited worship.”

In the vast middle are parishes whose pastors’ and staff efforts have tried to initiate effective improvements, but “the demands outstrip the energy.” They feel “the pressure of a far more demanding, better educated and mobile flock, while their duties are multiplying…and the outcome so often seems to be rancor over what to sing, postures, inclusive language etc.
Steinfels concludes that this demographic is key: “What is so crucial to the future of American Catholicism…is the great in-between, parishes becalmed in mediocrity or parishes mixing thoughtful and effective liturgical efforts with elements that grate like fingernails on a blackboard.”

P182 Assessment of actual practice
At an above average parish in St. Suburbia, what would be the percentage of a given congregations’ actual singing/participation: “a generous estimate-half of them, weakly.
What would be the homiletic content and reception? “No hellfire, heavy theology….but simple, friendly messages about loving one another linked to the scriptures and brightened with personal anecdotes.
“This is mediocrity. How bad is mediocrity?”
1997 “Commonweal Panel Study” writers sensed a deep spiritual longing in their fellow worshippers and a sincere striving among the celebrants. “Good try, and God have mercy on us all, was the general reaction.
Writer Paul Wilkes concludes “American Catholics (have) come to accept lifeless liturgies” and “clueless, note-less sermons that appear to warmed-over paper memories from a poorly taught New Testament 101 class.”

P183 Accuracy of assessment
One of the startling aspects is how little effort has been made to find out how effective the liturgy in this era is. There lack both large-scale empirical studies and parish-level self-examination. Personal anecdotal evidence from Steinfels suggests that self-examination of music/homiletics/ritual efficiency is nearly totally absent from priest and staff responsibilities, agenda and duties.
Why? Because “Once a priest is ordained, he evidently has a license for forty years of liturgical malpractice- or superb liturgical leadership. One way or the other, he is accountable to no one, at least this side of egregious violations of the rites, and no one is charged with checking on him or his parish.

P184 Quality of Parish’s Worship
This can be usefully examined under four headings:
Presiding, preaching, participation and music

P185 Homiletics
“Catholics clearly expect more from their homilists than they are getting. Worse, an aging, overworked clergy can improve only so much.

P186 Music
“Music is perhaps the weakest link in Catholic worship today. The problem is NOT that some, maybe much, of the music is an affront to good taste, although that is true. The problem is that the worshippers don’t sing, and when they don’t sing, the result is worse than if they had never been expected to.”
“Those few (congregants) with strong voices don’t know whether to stand out as quasi-soloists. Those with uncertain voices hesitate in the absence of a collective sound in which they can blend.”
“….(The widespread failure of their sung worship….is treated as peripheral: it would be nice…to have better singing, just as it would be nice if the church had a new paint job, but it is hardly essential. So while there are fierce debates about music, they are debates…about the aesthetic quality of the music and the theology of the lyrics….quite apart from (the) experience of worshipping congregations.”

(At this point, we will condense the balance of the chapter to the summary paragraph on
Lex orandi lex credendi. “The experience of worship is shaped by the belief one brings to it, as well as by the conduct of the service….A routine or even slipshod Mass is a different experience for the worshippers who come convinced that, regardless of the liturgical competence of the priest or the enthusiasm of the congregation, the living Jesus Christ becomes immediately present to them in the consecrated bread and wine. Whether the Catholic Church successfully passes its faith to new generations will depend on their experience of the church’s worship, but the very experience of worship also depends on what convictions new generations bring to it. Which raises the next question: how well is the church communicating and fostering those convictions?”