The Church's Liturgy

It never fails. Each month we review the edition of The Priest for the corresponding month in 1958, 50 years ago, as part of planning our ''Last Things'' page.

In every edition in 1958, and in the previous year for that matter, the question of the vernacular in the liturgy, rather than the traditional Latin, appears in an article, an editorial, or a letter to the editor.

This is not surprising. The Liturgical Movement was blossoming then. Stalled by the Second World War, both in Europe and in the United States, the movement to draw more people to the formal liturgy of the Church and to present the Church's liturgy so that it would inspire more people was well underway.

Several points are important. The Liturgical Movement was no call to rebellion. In 1958 it was considerably stronger because of the decision several years earlier by Pope Pius XII to reform the liturgy for Holy Week. Before Pope Pius XII, there had been a rebirth of interest in Gregorian chant, and several pontiffs had encouraged this interest.

Another point is important. The Liturgical Movement rested upon scholarship. It was not just scholarship involving what people wanted or did not want. It certainly was not based upon fascination with Protestant worship. In fact, at the time, ecumenism -- at least as far as Catholics were concerned -- had not yet become popular.

It would take Blessed Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council to make ecumenism not only respectable, but also important, for Catholics.

Finally, the ideal was not to invent anything. Rather the ideal was to return the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church to its most ancient form.

It is interesting to read these articles in light of what soon was to occur. Within a decade -- of course according to a schedule completely unknown in 1958 -- the Roman liturgy was significantly changed. The use of Latin became the exception, and increasingly a rare exception, and in its place was the vernacular that had not been the norm in the Church since long before the Middle Ages when Latin was the common language of the people.

Fifty years later, some discussion is underway about using Latin in the liturgy again. Last summer, Pope Benedict XVI made it much easier for priests to celebrate Mass not only in Latin, but also according to rubrics that flowed from the liturgical reforms of the Council of Trent that adjourned 445 years ago.

Dioceses across this country and beyond are accommodating Catholics who wish to worship according to the Tridentine rubrics, and who find the Tridentine Rite, specifically with its use of Latin, more appealing and more spiritually satisfying.

Dismissing the reforms of Pope Paul VI, as prompted by the Second Vatican Council is at the very best skating on ice that is quite thin and cracked.

If it is believed that the Spirit of God guides the Church, and expressly guides it through Ecumenical Councils and Roman pontiffs, there can be no other conclusion.

Still, certain realities call priests today to question themselves about how they present the liturgy, or how in general it is conducted.

This questioning must include the frank admission that many social factors have come together in the last several generations to dull the popular interest in, and reliance upon, religion.

The decline of religious practice among Catholics is not unique to Catholics in the United States. Many Protestant denominations yearn for the numbers of regular churchgoers that frequent Catholic churches, falling though these Catholic numbers may be.

Religion is simply not widely acceptable any longer in modern American culture, unless it is a religion that is exceedingly private and very accommodating of secularist standards.

So, it well might be that the formal liturgy of the Church has been a victim of circumstances, rather than the agent that has in and of itself led many Catholics to be less than fervent and less than regular in their attendance at Sunday Mass.

Nevertheless, are we missing something when it comes to the formal liturgy? Have we been so zealous in making the liturgy attractive to as many people as possible that we have created a colorless, lifeless liturgy, albeit a liturgy with obligatory congregational responses and singing?

Several months ago I attended a large national Catholic convention. To be on the positive side, the celebration of Mass was an important event on each day's program. Also to be positive, and God bless them, the delegates to the convention turned out in great numbers each day. Obviously, they came because they wanted to come. (No Sunday or holy day was involved.)

Still, at each celebration, I listened to the rather unspectacular music and wondered how what we were hearing, and diligently joining, in any way truly enhanced the ''lifting of our souls and minds to God,'' as the old Baltimore Catechism aptly defined prayer.

Reflecting upon the 50 years past, I think that many of us priests convinced ourselves of the wisdom of the reforms undertaken by Pope Paul VI in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

Having said that these reforms were guided by God's grace, I would hardly criticize any priest for not convincing himself that the reforms were good.

But, we must look more deeply at the Liturgical Movement that so blessedly was alive for those decades preceding the Council and the actions of Paul VI. The spirit was to draw people to the liturgy and, through the liturgy, to God.

This is a thought for priests as they plan their parishes' liturgies week after week, and season after season.

Do their liturgies draw people to God? Obviously, people cannot be dragged kicking and screaming to God -- they must want to follow their pastors. They must find the liturgy uplifting and inspiring. Is it?

One other item comes to mind. The spirit of the Liturgical Movement, as it grew into fruition at the Second Vatican Council, was to restore the liturgy to its most ancient expression. It was decidedly and essentially ecclesial in its view; it was not an undertaking in experimentation or novelty.

I have written before that, here in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, I do not see experimentation in the liturgy. But, I know it exists in many other places.

For example, after attending a Catholic press meeting in Switzerland several years ago, I remember going to a nearby Catholic church for Saturday evening Mass. The ceremony had only a vague resemblance to the Roman Rite. I felt as if I did not know where I was.

I never spoke to the priest. I cannot judge him. I suspect that he planned and officiated at the liturgy in the genuine hope of attracting people to God. But, his efforts were made very much at the expense of truly joining people into the reality of the Church.

People who are asking us about the Latin liturgy may be saying much more than mere pining for the past. The young people who find the Latin fascinating should cause us to question ourselves. Each of us must ask himself if his supervision and celebration of the liturgy genuinely touches people so that they see in the liturgy the presence of the living Lamb of God.

Well, fall will be here soon. With the fall of 2008 will come the national and state elections of November. They will be important. The decisions made by voters will shape our nation's future and, since this nation is so powerful throughout the world, these decisions will shape the future of humankind itself.

Emotions will be high. People will be quite engaged. Priests will have the responsibility of teaching without being partisan.

In this effort of teaching, priests will have many resources to offer to people. It will not be hard to suggest reading material that sets out the Church's thoughts on matters of so great importance to the society. In addition, there will be an abundance of sources on the Internet.

The main thing will be to assure people that they can make a difference, and that they should make a difference by voting. TP