The Case Against Liturgical Antiquarianism

October 2009By Harold B. McKale

Harold B. McKale, ordained a transitional deacon for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on May 9, 2009, is currently assigned to Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Secane, Pennsylvania.

Virtually every Catholic has been at Mass and heard the phrase, "In the early Church...." Often this phrase is followed by some deviance from the norms of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. To wit: A seminarian once told me how his pastor decided to say Mass like they did in the early Church — at least his version of it. He came out of the sacristy in blue jeans and a T-shirt; what followed was an abomination. The thinking is that what the Church prescribes in the present is somehow deficient and the individual must heed the call to return to some former practice that either was abolished or fell into disuse.

This kind of liturgical antiquarianism, which seeks to reinstitute practices of old without proper Church authority, is explicitly condemned by Pope Pius XII in his 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei. Pope Pius did not prohibit alterations of the Mass; indeed, he himself modified the rites of Holy Week. Nonetheless, Pius asserted definitively that the Church has jurisdiction over her liturgical rites.

Mediator Dei begins with praise for those who study the past forms of the liturgy and sacraments of the Church, and with an immediate assertion that these rites belong to the Church: "This Apostolic See has always made careful provision for the schooling of the people committed to its charge in the correct spirit and practice of the liturgy;...it has been no less careful to insist that the sacred rites should be performed with due external dignity" (#6).

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Someone on the Internet has posted a slogan "Save the Liturgy,and save the world." The vast majority of Catholics have little other religious experience in their lives other than the hour they give to Sunday mass. It is incomprehensible that Catholic clergy over the past 40 odd years have managed to turn that experience into something that too often fails to build up the spiritual life, and sometimes works to erode it. But liturgical abuse, ignorance, and outright disobedience, are not new topics for the well-informed readers of NOR and similar periodicals.
Perhaps it is time to propose a national method all bishops can adopt to correct all that has gone wrong since "Sacrosanctum Concilium," appeared. In the 1960's priests gathered often to receive instructions and training about the "new liturgy." Granted, many came away with really bad ideas and even worse practices. But with the arrival of a new translation for the English version of the Mass, and with the promulgation of numerous, important directives from the Vatican in recent years concerning the liturgy, would it not be a good idea for all bishops and religious superiors to gather their priests for retraining? One could hope this might be an opportunity to stamp out the scourges of "creativity," and "relativism." It might also be a good time for bishops to really observe how their priests actually celebrate mass. (St Alphonsus Liguori, I am told, used to do this.)
It is impossible to exaggerate how important the devout, attentive, observant, recollected, priest is to a beautiful and inspiring liturgy. It is also impossible to exaggerate the wonderful impact this has on the spirituality of the faithful.
I have no doubt the Church will eventually get its liturgical discipline in order again. There are many positive signs developing already. I pray that the bishops and clergy, whose careless implementation of change in years past caused enormous harm, will be the first to understand the practical meaning of the "reform of the reform" that is desperately needed.
Posted by: skysix
October 18, 2009 08:25 PM EDT
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