Friday, August 29, 2003

The GIRM and The Culture

This is the first of two parts. The second part will be posted next Tuesday.

Confusion and "Creativity"

There's been a lot of ruminating and a fair amount of bloviating around St. Blog's about the implementation of the Revised GIRM (General Instruction of the Roman Missal) in various dioceses around the U.S. Some of the debate, such as between Rerum Novarum and Secret Agent Man, has been about the interpretation of certain specific aspects of the Instruction. Some of the discussion has turned to various misguided efforts, such as in Cleveland and elsewhere, to distort or even conceal the true content of the GIRM in order to advance some liturgist's agenda.

But what seems to be most consistently running through the threads of debate and commentary is a sense of frustration, and even exasperation, among many Catholics. The frustration is over the perceived inability of our bishops, and even of Rome, to issue clear and unambiguous directives on the liturgy. In the words of one commentor over on Amy's blog, the problem is "Confusion, confusion, confustion." Why is it so confusing to know what you're supposed to do at Mass?

Well, there are several problems. Firstly, our own bishops have, frankly, been part of the problem. One has only to look at the hash they have made of Holy Days in this country to know this. Is the Solemnity of The Immaculate Conception a Holy Day this year? I don't know without looking at the Ordo, and I'm a priest. Well, let me see, if the Immaculate Conception falls on the second Tuesday after the last full moon of November, it must be a Holy Day. It would almost seem as though the norms for Holy Days were created to cause confusion.

Confusion creates contempt. If something isn't important enough to be clear and unambiguous about, you have signaled that it isn't really very important. And the more that the bishops have tweaked and massaged and reduced Holy Days, the more Holy Day Mass attendance has gone down. Regardless of what pious pronouncements the USCCB puts forth, they have spoken clearly with their decisions that Holy Days aren't a big deal.

So it is with the Mass. By allowing a culture of "do-it-yourself" liturgy to prevail for roughly 30 years, the bishops have sent the signal, unintentional as it may be, that the Mass isn't such a big deal. If the Mass is whatever we (whoever the "we" may be) decide it is, then it isn't such a big step to deciding that it's about Us. And so you end up with the "Self-Actualized Community" worshipping itself. If the Mass is about Us, well then it's not such a big step to deciding that it's about Me. And if it's about Me, then why bother about it all? I can worship Me in the comfort of my own bed on Sunday morning.

A related source of confusion is the mania for "options" within the liturgy. In their admirable desire to provide something for everyone and not impose a stultifying uniformity on churches, our bishops (and Rome is also somewhat culpable in this) have erred in the opposite direction, and given "options" where they weren't really necessary or in keeping with the historic mind of the Church. Witness the controversy over whether the faithful should kneel or stand after receiving communion: The GIRM says that people can either kneel or stand. The result is that in some places the bishop or pastor tries to mandate standing and forbid people to kneel, in others the bishop or pastor tells people to keep kneeling, and in others the attitude is "do your own thing". I'm confident that those who wrote the GIRM didn't intend to create confusion, but that's precisely what ambiguity creates.

This desire for more options is something I truly don't get. The Roman Missal already contains all kinds of options: 4 Eucharistic Prayers, dozens of Prefaces, alternative Collects for almost every Mass, Votive Masses, Masses for Various Needs and Occasions (For you priests: when was the last time you used the Mass prayers "to avert storms"?) and so on. And when, hopefully before the Parousia, we get an English translation of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal, we'll have even more options. But even that wasn't enough for some: when ICEL assembled its now-thankfully-moribund "translation" of the Second Edition of the Missal, it tried to include a whole raft of prayers that the Icicles (what else would you call those who worked for ICEL) had composed themselves. Luckily Rome quashed that edition and we have been spared those products of ICEL's creativity. The restless pursuit of ever more "options" merely spreads the profusion of confusion.

The example of ICEL's attempt to exceed its mandate by composing new Mass prayers out of whole cloth brings me to another source of confusion: the mistaken notion that the liturgy is somehow the object of liturgists' "creativity". Now, I'm all for creativity, properly understood and directed. Certainly the Church has been the beneficiary of an incredibly rich outpouring of creative effort throughout the ages. Our churches have been adorned with some of the finest efforts of artistic creativity ever acheived by Man. Our worship has been solemnized with much of the most glorious and moving music ever written. But those artists and composers all attempted to work within tradition, both the theological and liturgical Tradition of the Church, and the tradition they received in musical technique and composition. Thus the Mass settings of Victoria and Bruckner, though written centuries apart, and in markedly different styles, nonetheless share a common informing spirit. All great art is the product of, and in some sense is subject to, some form of discipline. Great sacred art emerges from the discipline of the Faith of the Church, and its incarnation, the Liturgy.

Part Two, coming next week, will examine the ideologizing of liturgy, and the collapse of Catholic culture.