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Why There is No 'Right' Way to Celebrate the New Mass

On liturgical reforms.

Like many observers, I read Desiderio desideravi, the apostolic letter of Pope Francis released several months ago on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, with great interest. Not for the first time during this pontificate I was surprised by what I read. What had been rumored to be a new set of norms governing the celebration of Mass according to the liturgical books of 1970 was at once less dispiriting and more baffling.

To take them in reverse order, I was heartened to learn that the so-called “Reform of the Reform” (which, it could be argued, actually began with the occasionally rather austere public Masses of the pope who himself promulgated the new books) was not explicitly ruled out. It was nice to know that no attempt has been made to ban, for example, the celebration of Mass ad orientem (which, among other things, would seem to contradict a distinct possibility envisioned by the General Instruction itself) or to impose the vernacular or to proscribe Gregorian chant. Priests—of whom I know many—who attempt to say Mass in this manner will find their efforts inhibited by various restrictions of dubious and perhaps even non-existent force, but Rome herself remains silent. (I should note that the Holy Father’s letter also says nothing whatever about the Breviary, which perhaps gives us some idea of how important this sacred obligation looms in the minds of the authorities.)

So far, as I say, so good. But what does this document offer us instead? So far from giving us a normative vision of how the new Mass should be celebrated, it tells us nothing about which of the fifteen Eucharistic prayers (e.g., the Roman Canon with its “liturgical decadence,” as one of the formulators of the revised Rite put it) should be said, whether candles should be placed on the altar, whether Holy Communion should be administered standing or kneeling, in the hand or on the tongue, what sort of vestments should be worn and what sort of music played, in what language the Ordinary of the Mass should be said, or in what direction the priest should face. Instead we are left with a handful of impressionistic descriptions of the ideal subjective disposition of the individual celebrant, which are themselves relayed by a series of antitheses (“a rigid austerity or an exasperating creativity, a spiritualizing mysticism or a practical functionalism, a rushed briskness or an overemphasized slowness, a sloppy carelessness or an excessive finickiness, a superabundant friendliness or priestly impassibility”). 

I for one have never much concerned myself with this sort of thing, and it seems to me that if what we would like to avoid is what the Holy Father describes as a narcissistic, individualistic approach to the Holy Sacrifice, it would be better to discourage this sort of navel gazing rather than make it (apparently) the sole criterion according to which liturgical praxis is judged.

To be fair to its author, the pope made it clear from the very beginning that he intended to offer nothing more than a series of “prompts or cues for reflections,” not “a handbook of liturgical etiquette.” Fair enough. But the painful truth is that if this document (for all of its shortcomings) had been issued twenty-five years ago by John Paul II, it would have been hailed as a great triumph, a turning-point in the history of the hermeneutic of continuity (or the New Evangelization or whatever quasi-Hegelian moment in the life of the Church his reign was supposed to have inaugurated). The same neoconservative theologians who reflexively dismiss Francis’s reflections would have welcomed an intervention from a previous pope that substituted a kind of nursery-school vocabulary for the rigidly defined categories of a century ago: “encounter,” “gift,” “act,” “dignity,” words that have no precise, agreed-upon denotation but which accrue to themselves a certain banal significance by virtue of their constant repetition. Such Heideggerian poeticizing may or may not have a place in philosophy—or in apologetics—but in liturgical theology it is as unhelpful as a Hallmark card.

Setting aside the ecclesiastical politics of its reception, it is worth saying that Desiderio desideravi is of no use whatever to priests who would like to celebrate the new Mass in accordance with a series of established norms. Nor could it have been. The New Rite was, by design and in its execution, an Anglicanization of the Mass. It put hundreds of millions of Latin Catholics in the position occupied by those in the Church of England during the last century and a half: at the mercy of celebrants whose personal sensibilities—low, high, and broad church—admit of an infinite array of gradations and preferences. To arrive at anything like a coherent set of prescriptions for the celebration of the new Mass, the General Instruction would not have to be revised—or clarified by papal decree—but replaced.