The post-conciliar era has scarcely been a period of undisturbed
harmony and tranquillity in regard to the way Catholics worship.
On the contrary: it seems probable that the last thirty years have been the most liturgically troubled period since at least the era of the Reformation -- now nearly half a millennium ago.
Indeed, the recent discord could well be judged more serious than that of the sixteenth century, because at that time the controversial liturgical changes were introduced by those outside the Catholic Church -- Protestants who openly rejected any kind of allegiance to the Pope.
Now we find similar disturbances within the heart of the Catholic Church
We are not talking here about mere differences of opinion or points of academic debate, but about deep divisions, and at times a sense of profound alienation, within the mystical Body of Christ whether the dissatisfied Catholics concerned see themselves as "Progressive," "Traditionalist," "Liberal," "Middle-Of-The-Road," "Conservative," or whatever.
Not only does every Catholic seem to have his or her definite preference for one or other style of worship in the pluralistic liturgical supermarket represented by the dozens ( or hundreds ) of very diversified parish Masses now offered in each of our cities; we go further than mere preferences and quickly reach the point of either hating or loving this or that style of Eucharistic celebration.
We now, have feminist women who feel themselves insulted and outraged at being excluded by virtue of their sex from being able to preside at the Eucharist; we also have non-feminist women -- and plenty of men! -- who feel outraged at the Vatican's decision last year to allow female altar-servers.
For some Catholics any liturgy seems cold, mechanical and dreary unless the Priest ad libs and jokes his way through the Mass, insisting on mutual introductions in the pews at the beginning, everyone holding hands at the Our Father, and about five minutes of hugging and kissing at the Sign of Peace.
But many other Catholics find the artificial intimacy of such aberrations so annoying and out-of-place as to make Mass attendance unbearable or at least, enough to turn it into a severe weekly penance instead of the hour of spiritual joy and refreshment which it should be.
At a still deeper level, we have seen liturgical dissension become a major factor in formal ruptures in the Church: the Popes have been openly defied; anathemas have been hurled from Rome; grave mutual recriminations of heresy and schism have been exchanged; several Antipopes have arisen among fringe groups who claim that the new Mass is invalid and that there has not been any true Pope living in Rome since before Vatican II.
All in all, an estimated million "Traditional" believers round the world ( sometimes just as opposed to each other as they are to Pope John Paul II ) now worship regularly in a state of total or virtual separation from the Catholic Church under Peter's Successor.
At the opposite extreme, We have an "Establishment" of liturgical experts among whom the very mention of the Traditional ( Tridentine ) Latin Mass can be guaranteed infallibly to produce the same effect as that of the proverbial red flag waved in front of a wounded bull.
I was studying in Rome in 1984 when the Holy Father issued the Indult permitting the renewed ( although very limited ) use of the 1962 Latin Missal and will never forget the anger and frustration this decision provoked among "Progressives" in and around the Vatican.
For instance, an international liturgical conference was under way in Rome at the time, and one enraged Irish liturgist was reported to me by an eye-witness as branding the Pope's Indult "the worst betrayal since Judas."
In short, what we have witnessed in these thirty years has been a tragic
polarization and fragmentation among Catholics in regard to the liturgy.
But while so many have been drawing swords either to defend or attack the post-conciliar changes in the rite of Mass, not many seem to have noticed that the very existence of such tension, bitterness and division is about the most eloquent possible evidence that the liturgical reform introduced in the name of Vatican Council II has been seriously defective.
What both Liberals and Conservatives often forget is the fact that in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, "The Eucharist is the Sacrament of the Church's unity."
When St. Thomas said that, he was commenting on the words of an
authority far higher even than his: those of the Holy Spirit who inspired
St. Paul to write,
"We, being many, form one bread and one body, because we partake of the one Bread and the one Chalice".
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this revealed mystery as
"The Eucharist is the efficacious sign and sublime cause of that communion in the divine life and that unity of the People of God by which the Church is kept in being."
A little further on, in treating of "The fruits of Holy Communion", the Catechism first sets out this Sacrament's effects of grace in the individual believer, and then sums up its communal effect --
"The unity of the Mystical Body" -- with the strikingly bold and sweeping affirmation that: "The Eucharist makes the Church." Those who receive the Eucharist are united more closely to Christ. Through it Christ unites them to all the faithful in one body -- the Church. Communion renews, strengthens, and deepens this incorporation into the Church, already achieved in Baptism. In Baptism we have been caused to form but one body.,,
The implications of this profound truth for the Post-Vatican II liturgical reform seem to me very serious. if one of the main purposes of the Eucharistic liturgy is to "renew, strengthen and deepen" the unity of all Catholics in the one Mystical Body. then what are we to think of a reform which, whatever its positive results may have been, has also managed to provoke more discord, mutual alienation, and disunity than any officially introduced liturgical innovation in the entire history of the Church?
Let us listen to the very first paragraph of the very first Vatican II document -- the Constitution on the Liturgy -- and ask ourselves honestly how well these optimistic expectations of the Council Fathers have been fulfilled: "The Sacred Council has set out to impart an ever-increasing vigour to the Christian life Of the faithful;" to adapt more closely to the needs of our age those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call all mankind into the Church's fold.
Accordingly it sees particularly cogent reasons for undertaking the reform and promotion of the liturgy." Now, can the new rites be said to have promoted "unity" among believers, when we see more strife and disunity than ever in connection with the liturgy? It may be true that Catholics and Protestants now feel less divided than before, but not in the way the Council Fathers expected. They hoped that liturgical reform would help Protestants to become more Catholic in their thinking; but all that has happened is that Catholics have demonstrably become more Protestant in their thinking!
The Vatican II Fathers, as we have just heard, hoped that a revised
liturgy would be a means of "help[ing] to call all mankind into the Church's
But how could anyone claim that this hope has been even partially fulfilled when in most countries rates of conversion to Catholicism have plummeted to an all-time low,
Priests and religious have abandoned their Holy vocations in tens of thousands, innumerable other Catholics have given up their faith altogether, and of those who still do profess it, fewer than ever now attend Mass regularly.
Finally, can anyone seriously claim that the post-conciliar liturgy has
managed to "impart an ever-increasing vigour to the Christian life of the
faithful" ( as the Council Fathers hoped ) when reliable surveys show that
fewer Catholics than ever believe in the central and fundamental mystery
of the Mass:
that is, the true change of the bread and wine into the living Body and Blood of our crucified and risen Saviour?
According to a 1994 New York Times/CBS poll cited by Germain Grisez and Russell Shaw in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, a good 45% -- nearly half of even the oldest age-group among American Catholics ( those aged 65 years or more ) now hold a more or less .protestant view of the Eucharist, thinking, that the consecrated Host is a mere "symbolic reminder" of Jesus.
Among those a little younger ( aged 45-64 ) this "protestantized" group increases to 58%; and among the youngest age-group ( 18-44 years ) -- that is, those Catholics who were still children or not yet born when the liturgical changes began -- holding this heretical view shoots up to 70%.
In other words, disbelief in the Real Presence among professing Catholics in the United States increases in direct proportion to the proportion of their own lifetime in which the Eucharist has been celebrated with the new post-conciliar Missal.
According to the same survey, we have the point where even the majority ( 51% ) of the most regularly practicing Catholics -- those who say they attend Mass every Sunday -- expressed the protestantized "symbolic-reminder" view of this most Holy Mystery.
Now, I am not suggesting, of course, that the recent liturgical changes should bear all the blame for this decadence.
A number of factors have undoubtedly contributed to this deplorable situation, which is in turn only one part -- although a very major one -- of the more generalized crisis of faith, morals and discipline which has afflicted Catholicism in the last thirty years, especially in the affluent and secularized West.
But I do submit that the experience of the last quarter-century should be sufficient for us to recognize in retrospect, with all due respect to the memory of Pope Paul VI, that the way in which the liturgical reform was handled after Vatican II has been one significant cause of the present decline in Eucharistic faith and practice.
After all, if the alarming facts and statistics we have surveyed do not convince us that the reform was badly done, what conceivable evidence would convince us?
Not only is it clear that the new rite of Mass has failed to achieve the principal objectives which were clearly set out at the beginning of the Council's document on the Liturgy; it seems to me highly debatable whether even the secondary objectives have really been achieved.
For instance, it is often said that the laity now participate more actively in the Mass instead of being mere passive spectators. In a sense this may be true. But if so, this victory must be judged an extremely hollow one for at least two reasons.
In the first place, it must be remembered that in most countries a much smaller percentage of the laity even attend Church at all than was the case previously; and those millions of nominal Catholics who have now completely given up going to Mass can scarcely be said to participate more actively in it.
Secondly, of the minority who still do attend Mass, their "more active participation" has often consisted in doing things that only the clergy could previously do: handling the sacred vessels, touching the Sacred Host itself through Communion in the hand, standing instead of kneeling to receive it, proclaiming the Scriptures, passing freely in and out of the sanctuary, distributing Holy Communion as extraordinary ministers, and so on.
But this kind of "clericalization" of the laity is not what the Council Fathers had in mind when they called for "active participation":
Sacrosanctum Concilium does not say one word about opening up an ever-increasing, number of "ministries" to the laity; this tendency toward a certain liturgical "egalitarianism" has, I believe, become part of the very problem we have already outlined.
It has often fomented division among the faithful ( since Conservative lay people dislike the trend while Liberals applaud it ), and by emphasizing the common, human and "fraternal sharing" aspects of the liturgy at the expense of the divine, mysterious, and sacred aspects, it has contributed to loss of faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species.
For an excellent presentation of how this secularizing process has worked psychologically, I would refer you to another recent article in the Homiletic & Pastoral Review, entitled "Restoration of the Priesthood" by Fr. Frederick Heuser of the Milwaukee Archdiocese.
Fr. Heuser argues that by over-reacting to the alleged clericalism of pre-conciliar times, and by minimizing as far as possible the distinction between Priests and laity, we have robbed the Priesthood of much of its special mystique.
( We Priests, of course, have also been partly to blame for that by so often dressing and living very much like laymen. )
But this "de-mystification" of the Priesthood has in turn contributed not only to a drastic decline in Priestly vocations, but to a corresponding de-mystification of the Priest's most sublime responsibility -- the Most Holy Eucharist.