Saturday, May 15, 2010


We have our triennial chapter in the Summer and the last one had the theme 'Duc in Altum - Launch out into the Deep'. This article has just been published in our internal Bulletin and I offer it here for more general reading. It took some time to finish and still feels and reads, to me, as unfinished. Still perhaps it will spark good thoughts and actions in others. The picture above is from the Florae Seraphicae.

Duc in altum or ‘launch out into the deep’ was the message over the last few years. We were exhorted not to be afraid but to forge ahead, try new things, and to persevere and, of course, if we do not go out no one will come in. But sailors as a rule do not launch their ships without being fully stocked and with not only a very definite destination in mind but a clear route as well. They do not wander over the deep aimlessly and when they explore they go slowly and well-prepared, mindful that shallow water is more dangerous than the open sea. As Seneca somewhere says “The man who goes to sea without a port in mind will find no wind favourable”.

That said I have long been listening to young people saying ‘Mass is boring’ and I have come to the conclusion that from their perspective they are right. Yes one needs to put something ‘in’ – one’s faith-filled participation but I have also heard older people complain that the mystery is gone and that rites and rituals they loved and that provided a sense of encounter with God have been taken away from them. We might tell them the modern Church and her Liturgy is better and more ‘inclusive’, more accessible but their experience tells a different tale. For some it seems that all the liturgical renewal has achieved is the triumph of the ‘low Mass’ and an even lower theology. I am sure we could all cite examples of abuses or instances of shocking ignorance of the faith and irreverence towards the Blessed Sacrament. It is also commonly believed that contrary to expectations the years since the Council have been, over all, years of crisis and decline. So I have been reading material related to the state of the Church worldwide and especially the state of the Liturgy and the various efforts being made to remedy the situation.

For the first time in history anyone, anywhere can access the Church’s texts and its accompanying music in Latin, or in English, in Gregorian or modern notation, as new or traditional musical compositions, for nothing- all via the internet. You can even listen to it for free! This is the most revolutionary event in the history of music since the invention of notation.

Much of this worldwide activity is in response to Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. In fine what the Holy Father has said is that the Missal of 1962 was never abrogated and is still licit to use; that any priest, who knows how to, may do so in private without any need for permissions; that laity may attend those Masses and pastors who receive a request from any ‘stable body’ of people for such a Mass must meet that request. The Mass, as of 1962, is henceforward to be called the Extraordinary Form (but some call it the Gregorian Mass, some the Mass of St. Pius V, some the usus antiquor and some the Traditional Latin Mass) while the Novus Ordo, or Mass of Paul VI, is called the Ordinary Form. Thus the Roman Rite now has two forms, following different calendars (e.g. the Ascension is on a Thursday) and disciplines (e.g. communion is only on the tongue while kneeling). This is not without problems as you can imagine and the Holy Father is quite well aware of this. Still, as he signalled, while still a Cardinal, in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, he is committed to Liturgical reform, a ‘reform of the reform’ as it has been called, which he sees as reinforcing the connection of the OF to the Church’s 2000 year tradition of worship. This ‘reform of the reform’ has given birth to a new Liturgical Movement. The Pope seems to believe that the Liturgy of the Church must be organically connected to its origins and, contrary to those who have read the Council as a rupture, he insists that the Council must be read in continuity with the Church’s traditional teaching and practice. He actually called for a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’, that is, reading the Council as a continuation of, and in the light of, the Church’s tradition and not as a rupture or break with that tradition. To this end he has allowed the free celebration of the Extraordinary Form with the hope that the two forms will mutually enrich one another as a step on the road to fulfilling what the Second Vatican Council asked for but did not entirely get.

This is why we have new translations and the re-introduction of old forms. The Council in its first document Sacrosanctum Concilium famously declared the Liturgy to be the source and summit of the Church’s life and ministry. As any ecologist will tell you, if the source of a river is polluted or impeded then everything down river from the source is affected, usually detrimentally. The Holy Father, among others, has noted that what the Council mandated was exceeded by the designers of the Ordinary Form and even, some claim, subverted. The subsequent years have seen abuses, divisions and the decline of Catholic life in general despite some areas of growth.

What is envisaged by this reform of the reform? Essentially that depends on to whom one talks. While Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith the future Pope called the Ordinary Form a "hybrid mass," and said that

"I believe, though, that in the long term the Roman Church must have again a single Roman rite. The existence of two official rites is for bishops and priests difficult to “manage” in practice. The Roman rite of the future should be a single rite, celebrated in Latin or in the vernacular, but standing completely in the tradition of the rite that has been handed down. It could take up some new elements which have proven themselves, like new feasts, some new prefaces in the Mass, an expanded lectionary - more choice than earlier, but not too much, - an “oratio fidelium”, i.e., a fixed litany of intercessions following the Oremus before the offertory where it had its place earlier."

From a Letter of Cardinal Ratzinger to Dr. Heinz-Lothar Barth, dated 23 June 2003.

The Pope, in union with the Council and his predecessors, has also called for a real effort to bring back the Church’s heritage in music i.e. Gregorian chant and polyphony. This is because the Church does not need new forms of music for her Liturgy - she already has her own! (Since the copyright to these texts was let lapse in the 60’s they are now being reprinted without copyright or distributed on the net for free) The Dominican Master of Theology Aidan Nichols OP has suggested that the most effective reform and perhaps the most radical is a return to ad orientem prayer. That’s ‘turning your back to the people’ for the unreconstructed liberals, or turning towards the Liturgical East which has always represented heaven and God. This orientation in prayer is ancient, universal (the Orthodox do it) and symbolically better than our versus populem. The latter was never sanctioned by the Council nor even envisaged by them, was never part of any tradition (outside of some forms of Protestantism) and is always in danger of turning the priest into a performer on a stage.

What the Pope is NOT looking for is complete abandonment of the Ordinary Form and a return to the Extraordinary Form. He is not looking to take the Church back to 1962. What he is asking for now builds on what John Paul II, and all the Popes, repeatedly asked for: faithfulness to the Liturgical tradition of the Church. The Pope seems to believe that if we get the worship right the Church will be more truly herself and eventually the Church’s spiritual and moral life will improve and she will be more effective in her mission of evangelization.

What is not proposed is a return to the ‘one hundred and twenty mortal sins’ approach to Liturgy and treating rubrics not just as canon law but moral law as well. The Liturgy is more than rubrics but without rubrics the Liturgy becomes distorted and its effectiveness blunted. Consider any sport or dance, or indeed any discipline. There are rules and it is by following these rules and making them one’s own that the performer can produce a work of skill, of art even. The same is true for Liturgy. When the rubrics are followed with reverence and love the Liturgy emerges in its beauty and grace, and the people will not mind how long it takes but rather they will want more. Yet the people need to be educated about the true meaning, nature and purpose of the Liturgy too. It is not and never was about us. It is always about the prayer of the Son to the Father in the Holy Spirit.

What then of the Capuchins? As Franciscans we are responsible for the universality of the Roman Missal. Francis asked the Pope for permission to use the Rite of the Papal Court and his friars took that Rite all over Europe and beyond. In the process they began to shape what we know as the Roman Missal and the Roman Breviary as well. We pride ourselves on our long closeness to the Church, her people, and above all loyalty to the Holy Father. We even promise that loyalty in the Rule. How is that loyalty visible today?

To renew our opening nautical metaphor the Holy Father has offered us a destination for our voyage, a way to contribute to the future of the Church. We are not asked to launch out blindly into the deep but to steer a course towards a renewed Church. That course is the effort and work to renew the Liturgy. There are dangers: to starboard are the traditionalists who want nothing but the Extraordinary Form and effectively a return to 1962 while to port there are the liberals who want us to continue in the shallow waters of banal innovation and the ‘spirit of Vatican II’ without following the letter of the documents or having faithfulness to the Council’s intentions. Ahead there is the barque of Peter and he is aiming for renewal through faithfulness to Tradition.

What will this mean for us? If we are serious about launching out into the deep then we must be consistent. One side cannot be running out the sails if the other side is dropping anchor. If we are truly sons of St. Francis then we should follow the Pope and the place to begin is by reading his writings, especially those on the Liturgy. Further we could, as individuals and communities, read and study the new translation of the Mass (available online at the USCCB website) especially as these have a different rhythm to the one we presently use. We can study the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), especially the new edition, and ask ourselves the questions: ‘what should the celebrant do?’ and ‘what should the people do?’ In a nutshell ‘say the black and do the red’. Learn to follow not just the rubrics but the symbolism of the Liturgy. Do it by the book and explain to the people WHY. After all it is not our Liturgy – it belongs to God and is His gift to us. Our objective must be to reveal how beautiful is Christ and His Kingdom through the beauty of the Liturgy.

We can work to help the people really achieve the active or ‘actual’ participation the Council spoke of, but keep in mind that it understood ‘active participation’ by the laity primarily as a spiritual action expressed through the song of the Church. The Liturgy of the Mass is not the sung form of an originally spoken action (the Last Supper). The Liturgies of the Church were always sung and we have reduced their poetry to prose. This song of the Church as the people of God is above all expressed in the ancient Propers of the Mass (those parts that change such as the entrance and communion antiphons) and also the unchanging parts proper to the people (e.g. the Sanctus). As the Liturgy of the Mass is first and foremost a participation in the saving work of Christ through an act of worship that is properly sung so we could invest thought, time, effort and cash (there’s always a cost!) into training and developing scholas and choirs that can sing Gregorian chant and teach the people to do likewise. The hymn singing and guitar bashing of the last forty years just doesn’t cut the mustard. The good news is that it is often easier to get a choir and the people singing this music than to get a group of musicians to play well together and it’s cheaper! (So some American church music experts assert). In Ireland it might even get the people to sing since there is no similarity in chant to Protestant hymn-singing.

Even if we do not go as far as ad orientem worship we could at least consider adopting the Holy Father’s proposal of the Benedictine arrangement for the Mass: a large crucifix with six (for Sundays) accompanying candles on the altar between celebrant and people so that the true meaning and focus of the Mass (Christ) is clearer. Perhaps we might even move on to experiment with ad orientem celebration. We could consider the reintroduction of some Latin (sanctus, agnus dei etc.) – it was what the Council wanted kept but the permission for the partial use of the vernacular was expanded to push it out. The Holy Father definitely wants to re-introduce communion on the tongue while kneeling (it’s still the norm it’s just that we all follow the exception) to restore reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. We must be consistent though. Nothing scandalises the people more regarding the Liturgy than unexplained inconsistency and disparity of practice. I put it to you that whatever we do we could seek nothing better that to remain in concord with the Holy Father so that we can make a Capuchin Franciscan contribution to the renewal of the Church as our brothers did in the past.

“We need to foster worship which stuns, which leaves the newcomer, long-time practicing Catholic, above all the fallen-away simply thunder stuck. Worship must at some point leave people speechless in awe. We need language and music and gesture which in its beauty floods the mind with light even while it swells the heart to bursting. The more people encounter mystery through liturgy, the more hollow will clang the false or incomplete messages of those who have strayed from the good path, either to the left or to the right. Our goal must be that which is good and beautiful because it is true, that which reflects what is of God, not man’s image merely. Give us mystery, not fabrications smacking of the world, fallen and transitory.” Fr. John Zuhlsdorf on his weblog What Does The Prayer Really Say?.

Suggested reading:

The Spirit of the Liturgy (Benedict XVI)

A Song for the Lord (Benedict XVI)

The Heresy of Formlessness (Martin Mosebach)

The Mass and Modernity: Walking to Heaven Backward (Jonathan Robinson)

The Organic Development of the Liturgy (Alcuin Reid OSB)

The Bugnini Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform. (László Dobszay) (free on-line at )

Sing like a Catholic (Jeffrey Tucker) (also available at

Websites: (Church Music Association of America) (On-line database of public domain music)


RJ said...

Thanks for this heartening post father, even though I've only just come across it. Wonder if I should have joined the Capuchins.

Tom said...

Bloom where you're planted.


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