It has been about a year since Pope Benedict XVI granted priests of the Roman rite throughout the world permission to celebrate Mass according to the Tridentine rite.
(Priests never needed permission to celebrate Mass in Latin. The papal action last summer allowed more widely the use of the rubrics, or procedures in the ritual, enacted after the Council of Trent. The general norm, until then, was that priests followed the rubrics mandated by Pope Paul VI almost 40 years ago.)
Because of the rumors that something was coming from Rome, and because many Catholics today have never experienced the Tridentine rite, the entire issue fascinated many people. Even the media picked it up, and not just the Catholic media.
I found particularly interesting the fact that many Catholic young people were quite curious. Frankly, I wonder if this interest does not reveal a very important fact of contemporary religion, Catholicism in particular.
Before proceeding, I should say that I think I can explain the development of the liturgy as it was envisioned by the Second Vatican Council, and by Pope Paul VI, quite well. My education in liturgy at St. Mary's Seminary was excellent, if I do say so myself. I was studying for the priesthood when the Liturgical Movement was in full bloom.
And sound scholarship was its legacy. Indeed, it insisted upon scholarship, and I spent the first years of my priesthood trying to tell people what was happening in the Church immediately after the council and, critically, why it was happening.
Pope Paul VI's changes of the liturgy, of course reflecting the council, were not based in the least upon the wish to invent or to start anything new. Rather, the idea was to return to the most ancient practices of formal Catholic worship.
Thus came the vernacular and so many of the other changes that Catholics who were alive and observing 40 years ago will remember.
It was no sinister plot to deny or downplay any doctrine. And let me set the record straight -- it was no concession to Protestants. Utterly none of the discussions in the council, nor anything said among authorities or scholars prior to Pope Paul VI's changes, mentioned anything about copying or appealing to Protestants.
I am convinced that most priests at the local level 40 years ago were, and most pastors now are, very well meaning. They wanted to draw people to the liturgy.
On reflection, however, I also readily admit this: We have lost something in the process.
Specifically, I am convinced that we lost a sense of reverence and a sense that the worship of the Church is the moment in time and space when humans encounter God.
However, we have often created circumstances in which it has not been that easy to sense the presence of God, to be kind. True, God is in each of us. Being in a believing community is to be with God. True, our formal ritual in the past did not always point us to this reality of the Church. But, being with each other is not the same as encountering God sacramentally.
In many older churches, I, of course, admire the beautiful artwork. More importantly, I honor the faith that drove builders, architects and contributors to create the art, to dream, to plan and to sacrifice, yearning to praise God. Without belittling anyone, I must work to remind myself that faith also led to the construction of some of the stark churches that we have now.
Even so, whether we celebrate Mass in a great cathedral or in a rustic church in the Amazon rain forest, we are joining in the sacrifice of the Mass. We are encountering God in Jesus. "The Mass is the Mass," a devout old Irish lady once told me.
We must so remind ourselves. But, some developments have not made it easier for us to see this reality.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is the associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.