Why we should be able to celebrate the Old Rite in the vernacular

(courtesy John Aron)

Summorum Pontificum was a much needed unblocking of a grotesque log-jam. We should now have the courage to go further

The Chalcedonian vocabulary which attempts to describe the hypostatic union in Christ may not be perfect, but its tautness does help us to resist emphasizing unduly one nature over and against the other. The ineffable character of our Lord’s ontic constitution requires us to resist softening the irreducible strangeness of the God-man. This is true when we approach Christ both in His Gospel and in His Eucharist.

Our proper awe in the face of the Lord’s theandric actions in the Gospels should not obscure the fact that the same Person also slept, hungered, loved, had particular friends, both men and women; that He also wept, lamented, agonized and sweated. Conversely, sentimentalizing the Christmas story risks obscuring the transcendence of the One before whom the magi fell down in worship. It is salutary to remember that the hypostatic union also pertains to Messiah’s psychological unity: the Baby in the manger knew that He had made the stars. Even though in His humanity the Logos slumbered, the Infant was simultaneously ruling the whole of creation, quarks and galaxies alike. In Father Faber’s book Bethlehem there is an insightful chapter entitled The Infant God. Faber’s elucidation of the communicatio idiomatum is a useful antidote to anything that inclines us to shy away from the baffling strangeness of Christ’s two natures in one single divine Person.

When we approach the Redeemer in His Eucharist there is a similar danger of reductionism. Within Western Christianity many claim that since the mid-1960s the transcendence of the God-man has been overly domesticated in the effort to prevent Eucharistic worship from being too remote from everyday secular life. Some say that in the Ordinary Form of the Roman rite we have lost touch with the Mystery and settled for the earthbound and the banal. But is it really that simple? God did actually become human and we dare not shy away from that plain down-to-earth fact. By His incarnation the divine Other has drawn close, and invites us to embrace Him, to be at our ease with Him. So our worship should express His human closeness, His immediacy, His immersion in our everyday world, totus in nostris.

Christ’s humanity is the easier of His two natures to express liturgically. The prayers and the scriptures in the vernacular do that well, but at a cost. Some say that formerly it was Latin that provided a degree of respectful distance in the liturgy, and thus conveyed that uplifting sense of the sacred which some find lacking in the Ordinary Form. Maybe, but there is much more to it than Latin. Many priests and laity find something special in the Extraordinary Form that is quite separate from the Latin language per se.

The traditional form of the Roman canon is the heart of the matter. It is prayed quietly, a barely audible whispering. The celebrant’s numerous genuflections remind him and all participants that adoration is the business of the hour. This is clearer when the liturgy is celebrated ad orientem, where the genuflections are more obviously a bodily act of worship. When the celebrant is for the most part concealed behind an altar, the sight of his genuflecting to adore the Real Presence is reduced to a somewhat quaint bobbing up and down of a head and shoulders.

The Eucharist discloses the Lord’s incarnate humanity but it must also mediate the transcendental realities of His death and resurrection. For that purpose the most essential element of the Old Rite is the repeated signs of the cross which the celebrant makes over the oblata after the consecration. The multiple crossing before the consecration is a repeated prayer for the outpouring of the Spirit on the gifts. But after the consecration the repeated signs of the cross are not blessings. All possible blessing was already given at the consecration. After the consecration the fifteen crossings made over and with the Blessed Sacrament express and strengthen our faith that the sacrifice of the altar and the sacrifice of Calvary are one and the same. God does not need reminding of that, but we certainly do. Those repeated crossings after the consecration are much more instructive than the Latin language in proclaiming the Lord’s death until He comes again.

At the Incarnation the Godhead translated Himself into our human vernacular. I believe it would be congruent with that to celebrate His Eucharist in the so-called Extraordinary Form, without changing the rite, but in the vernacular. Summorum Pontificum Cura was a much needed unblocking of a grotesque log-jam. We should now have the courage to go further. What many of us long for is the full richness of the Old Rite in its totality, but in a prayerful and accessible vernacular; not to the exclusion of Latin, but as an option. Is that so much to ask for?

Fr Ignatius Harrison is Provost of the Birmingham Oratory