Life & Soul Life and Soul

Did the creators of the Novus Ordo go too far?

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To my delight and edification, I discovered that in the Extraordinary Form the Mass of Candlemas uses the preface of the Nativity. A contemplative friend of mine has a beautiful analogy for this, saying it is like the last glorious burst of a firework display when you thought it had finished.

By finishing Christmastide in this way we are able to revive all the sense of fervour that the feast inspired and the daily purpose of the Incarnation expressed so powerfully: “In him we see our God made visible and so are seized by love of the invisible God.”

I am not an “Old Rite” Catholic. I rarely attended it before entering seminary. To do so as a seminarian would have been to risk summary expulsion, but I was lucky enough to grow up in the ambience of the New Rite celebrated by priests who had been formed by the Old, and who therefore brought to it reverence and a sense of the sacred which derived from continuity with the liturgical register which had characterised the older rite.

It is increasingly clear that the Extraordinary Form has an important role to play in rescuing that sense of liturgy as worship rather than drama or self-expression. My appreciation of the rite is not archaeological, but tempered by a sense that the reforms urged by the bishops at the Second Vatican Council were desirable. For example, that the faithful join in prayers like the Kyrie, Gloria and Our Father, and that readings be in the vernacular, from a wider diet of Scripture.

But the question, raised forcefully by Yves Chiron’s biography, Annibale Bugnini: Reformer of the Liturgy, is whether the liturgy as celebrated in most parishes today reflects the will of the Council Fathers (and is therefore is a product of tradition), or whether it actually represents a break with the past because it is the product of creativity and innovation (or, even in some cases, disobedience).

The book details how the watchword “reform” opened the floodgates to unauthorised experimentation and innovation throughout the pontificate of Paul VI. The Council Fathers’ relatively modest demands were caught up in a climate of liturgical experimentation which was most fevered in those countries that subsequently saw the most vertiginous falls in Mass attendance: France, the Netherlands and Belgium. This is a tragic irony, since the justification for such experimentation was its “pastoral” motivation.

One such experiment was turning the priest towards the congregation. This was never a requirement of the Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy, but an experiment which had become the norm by 1965 and was subsequently enforced with rubricist rigidity. Another glaring example is Communion in the hand. Surveys of bishops rejected its re-introduction. Again and again from 1963 onwards, Pope Paul VI intervened to caution against or condemn unauthorised innovations. With Communion in the hand he simply capitulates, against the bishops’ and his own express wishes and sanctions, permitting the experiment in “special circumstances” with the proviso that any lack of reverence or diminution in understanding of the Real Presence be avoided.

My 20 years of priesthood witnessing the sacrileges and lack of reverence routinely associated with this practice prompt the question: how did the exception become the rule, unless the faithful were inadequately catechised or coerced? It is a sad fact that the Church where Pope St Paul VI’s body rests now routinely employs security guards to monitor the distribution of Holy Communion to prevent the faithful walking off with the Sacred Host.