By Msgr. Owen F. Campion - The Priest, 1/1/2011
Perusing editions of The Priest from 40 years ago quite clearly illustrates how priests of that day dealt with the liturgical changes inspired or mandated by the Second Vatican Council. From this reading it is interesting to project what priestly approaches to the forthcoming new translation of the Roman Missal will be.
Actually, the 2011 changes will be minimal considering the vast liturgical changes in the Roman Rite following the Council, all occurring within the whirlwind of what many perceived as radical change in virtually every aspect of Catholic life. Nevertheless, the experiences of four decades ago provide lessons for today’s priests: 1) Vital is a priest’s personal, but dogmatically authentic, sense of his vocation within the context of ecclesia; 2) Vital, too, is a pastoral sensitivity for the people’s sensibilities and comfort levels. Yet also vital is an accompanying realization that overall knowledge of the theological dimensions of Catholic formal worship, especially about the Eucharist, appears to be ebbing (if public opinion polling is believed), and 3) A generation gap among priests easily may become as apparent now, specifically with this matter in mind, as it was so evident 40 years ago.
Forty years ago, Catholics knew no formal, public Roman Rite worship that was not in Latin. Much more so than now, Catholics then were products of Catholic schools. Religious instruction in Catholic schools for them had been rigid and exact. An atmosphere of anti-Catholicism, or at least a backdrop of conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, or between Catholicism and any other religion, stood behind everything.
It was more than familiarity. In their schools, Catholics had been taught to defend Latin, to see that using Latin was highly sensible, as Latin itself was standard and timeless, unchanging, absent of ambiguity, universal, and of course a vehicle for clothing the formal worship of the Almighty with majesty, loveliness and mystery. It is no wonder. If executed well, and this was definitely more a question than few today remember or admit, the Latin liturgy was imposing — assuming that it was executed well, a reality not always pertaining.
Putting the liturgy into any language other than English seemed to run counter to all this. Many senior priests at the time of Vatican II revered Latin. They themselves had learned to pray in Latin. The breviary, the Divine Office, as well as the liturgies for all the Sacraments — including the Mass, of course — were in Latin. Learning Latin for many priests had come at some intellectual cost. So, for many priests, mastering Latin had been something of a personal victory.
Many senior priests had gone through seminary courses in which “Liturgy” in fact was a class in rubrics, knowing how far off the edge of altar to set the corporal, and to make sure that in vesting with the stole before Mass, the right crossed over the left, and never vice versa.
Priests, if they had been ordained a decade or so, and people alike gloried in the fact that the Church never changed, seeing proof of this in the heroism of martyrs during the Reformation, or more currently, in Eastern Europe and China as Communism persecuted the Church. Others, surely a minority, knew about the Liturgical Movement. A minority had come to embrace it. In any case, from among the senior priests then came the pastors.
Subtly, but very significantly, seminary intellectual formation had changed radically during the years immediately after the Second World War. Every seminary faculty had its old guard. But, regardless, there was a new breed of student in the seminaries. For probably a decade, again depending on the seminary in point, more recently ordained priests had studied liturgy not as rubrics, but as the psychology, history and theology of communal worship.
These seminarians, who were the junior clergy at the time of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, had informally, if not formally, learned what was happening in the name of the Liturgical Movement. For them, liturgy meant much more than the positioning of the index finger and thumb after the words of consecration at Mass. Usually, they had been educated in an atmosphere, personal if not institutional in the seminary, of trust in, and excitement about, the Vatican Council II and its decisions and reforms.
As the times unfolded and young and senior priests faced the Vatican II reforms, there were varying responses. Quite obviously, all too often a generation gap had its impact, varying with local circumstances.
Senior or junior, priests often were accused, surely justifiably at times, of pressing the reforms upon their congregations. Some would tolerate no objections to the new. Other priests telegraphed their own lack of enthusiasm for the reforms to their people. There may have been haste, coupled with preparations not detailed or considerate enough.
People were instructed in the mechanics, with rare attention given the wider picture. Some priests leaned too heavily on the authority argument. “The Pope wants this,” or, “The Council has decreed this.”
Still, overall, most priests worthily followed the direction of the Church. They learned why the reforms were underway, took the reforms to heart, explained how and why reforms rested upon quite diligent research into the history of liturgy and into the theology of liturgy and, ultimately, gently and persuasively guided their people to better appreciate and spiritually draw from the liturgy.
Catholics in the pews then perhaps had a better knowledge of certain facets of Catholic doctrine, and probably their sense of identity with the institutional Church was more profound. Their attention to Church authority was strong; guilt for ignoring Church authority was certainly stronger than it is now.
Nonetheless, likely the average understanding of worship — beyond asceticism, rules and rubrics — was as spotty in the long run as it is today.
By and large, people responded well and rather quickly. However, frankly, in some cases, such as in the matter of congregational singing, it was like pulling teeth.
The situation today has its differences from, but also its similarities with, what happened after the Council. Some Catholics today recall the Latin admiringly, but their numbers obviously are diminishing as nature takes its course. Some Catholics look to a reintroduction of Latin, or a renewed frequency of Latin, to remedy the effects of badly presented vernacular liturgy.
Even so, Latin is not the final point. Many Catholics so often today want a very subjective, varying, experience of liturgy, a notion unthinkable a generation past, while others find novel liturgies quite unsettling. They are apt to go from church to church, to hear this music, or that sermon, or to encounter this or that priest. There is too much subjectivity these days, it is true, but there too is an issue of sensitivity and of understanding the nature of ecclesial worship and of personal discipleship.
Often it is stated that priests who will use the new translation as an opportunity to catechize, and consequently to draw their people closer to God through the Church’s liturgy, will write the true success stories of this current process. To achieve this, it would seem, priests today must impress upon themselves that priesthood, and precisely their priesthood, essentially is ecclesial. Priests are part of the ecclesial mission to bring God, in Christ, to people.
Of course, individual priestly commitment and virtue are vital to the process, but priests are by the very nature of their vocation, of Holy Orders, of and for the Church, intimately enmeshed in its apostolic character, effort and structure. They must take to themselves and they must teach ecclesia, reenacting the experience of the first Christians who gathered around Peter and the other Apostles in Jerusalem “to break bread” together, as the Acts of the Apostles says.
Today, the question of the people’s knowledge of their religion is crucial. It is a fact, nevertheless, that the current catechetical lack is real, and it is a massive problem that involves much more than liturgy.
Without being pessimistic, a generation gap may appear in given cases now. The young clergy of the 1970s are today’s senior clergy. They constitute the leadership. They are the pastors. They have become at ease with the liturgy as it is. Memories of arguing for it, and embracing it, linger in the corners of their minds.
To some extent, another experience of years past may have bearing. They were formed when the authority of the Church was debated if not challenged. This hardly implies even latent disloyalty among today’s senior clergy. It does state that their realization of the Church in their most impressionable years was in a certain sense different from that experienced by most of the more recently ordained priests.
Simply in terms of academic training, the junior clergy today much better understand what the new translation will entail, if in no area other than the use of singing by celebrants and by congregations.
Samplings of opinions among American priests repeatedly show differing perceptions between younger and older priests. The younger clergy today probably find themselves worrying over the creeping lack of knowledge about, or regard for, Church doctrine and practice among contemporary Catholics. They are eager to reverse the trend.
It is not in any way that senior priests fatalistically look at the same statistics and simply surrender to the times, but they have had to live with what Catholic culture has become.
As far as priests were concerned after Vatican II, a good solution, or at least a way to a solution, in effective implementation was communication, always accompanied by mutual respect and a sense of common purpose, as well as knowledge about what was happening, in all respects, among priests.
And, absolutely, all must be undertaken in a full acceptance of the priestly vocation, with Christ, for the Kingdom, in the Church, to be one with the Lord and to draw all to the mercy of God. TP
MSGR. CAMPION, a priest of the Diocese of Nashville, is associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., and editor of The Priest magazine.
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