Apr 15, 1996

Chapter Seven The Reformed Liturgy

Online Edition Vol. 2, No. 2: April 1996

The Recovery of the Sacred

Chapter Seven

The Reformed Liturgy

What Happens When Sacred Ritual Is Subjected to Contemporary "Inculturation"

The following excerpt from The Recovery of the Sacred is Chapter 7, "The Reformed Liturgy", slightly edited here. The book, by James Hitchcock, a professor of history at St. Louis University, was first published in 1974 and recently reprinted by Ignatius Press. Dr. Hitchcock’s prescient analysis of the unexpected and rapid desacralization of the Liturgy in the years following the Second Vatican Council under the influence of a new class of professional liturgists remains an insightful guide as the liturgical revolution continues. [Updated 03/30/2011 — to publish the complete chapter]

by James Hitchcock

The official Roman Catholic liturgical changes implemented after the Second Vatican Council, and the changes in Episcopalian worship contained in the 1974 Prayer Book were not for the most part intended to be radical, although in certain ways they did mark momentous departures from traditional practice, especially in the official language. In the light of unauthorized liturgical practices or of the most advanced liturgical thought, they must be considered relatively conservative, with the exception of the Episcopalian third eucharistic service, which encourages free improvisation and has been adopted by some congregations as their usual celebration.

The severe problems created by free liturgical experimentation do not therefore apply of necessity to the new official rites, which were clearly devised to maintain continuity with the traditions of the past and, most important, to provide norms of liturgical uniformity and stability.

At the same time, these official changes have been of such magnitude (even if dismissed by radicals as timid) as to have caused severe disturbance to many people. That such changes have been authorized by the highest governing bodies of the respective churches has lent support to those who charge that the old rituals are irrelevant; hence the new official liturgies inevitably invite the criticism of not going far enough, of maintaining a timid compromise position. Conspicuous liturgical change under official sanction helps create an atmosphere in which unauthorized changes are more readily dared, in which liturgical stability is undermined, and in which, symbolically, it is declared that a new era has been inaugurated. (Thus some advanced liturgists can accuse the Roman Church of failing to carry out the spirit of the Vatican Council, despite that body’s demonstrable caution in liturgical matters.) Once striking official changes have been mandated, this is taken by many people as a signal for general revolution.

The cause of legitimate liturgical change has been harmed by the sense which many people have that some liturgists do in fact regard it as only the beginning. Many of those most active in winning the official changes subsequently expressed their disappointment at the relative conservatism of the reforms. It became a commonplace in liturgical circles to predict that more radical changes would have to come. Many liturgists justified unauthorized experiments, and obviously came to regard the Church’s official pronouncements as at best general guidelines which could be disregarded. (The editor of


, for example, hoped for "extremely free adaptations" of the Latin texts in English.1) The difference between "moderate" and "radical" liturgists has sometimes seemed mainly a matter of timing and strategy rather than of substance; few moderates have oppose radical experimentation with any apparent urgency.

Virtually all liturgists seem to have greatly underestimated the effects of liturgical change even when carried out with official sanction. Almost no one appears to have foreseen the antagonism, the schisms, the confusion, the dissatisfactions both the right and the left which followed. Few strategies were devised for coping with the confusions, alienations, and uncertainties which ritual change occasioned, and the strategies which were employed tended to exacerbate the problem. Many liturgists appeared surprised that there was no relatively painless and efficient transition from the old ways to the new.

Apart from the merits of the various specific changes, change itself was a principal cause of anxiety and dislocation in the Church. In retrospect it is easy to see what was not perceived at the time — that no conservative body with an ancient and sacred system of symbols can alter these significantly without a severe spiritual crisis occurring, which for many people will be a fundamental crisis of personal identity. The liturgists’ bias toward explicit meanings contributed to this, in that it was assumed that once the rationale for the various changes was explained, they would be readily accepted. That for most people the symbols held implicit meanings which were even more important than the explicit ones was largely overlooked. Speaking of the introduction of the English liturgy by the Anglican Church in the sixteenth century, the historian A.L. Rowse has said:

"… we shall see operating, as the result of the Reformation, a kind of rationalizing campaign on the part of the Reformers and Puritans against the proliferations of the unconscious, the superfluities and elaborations of belief…. No doubt it meant some progress in rationalization; at the same time it involved a certain impoverishment of the life of the unconscious, deliberate restrictions upon its free movement, in part direction in accordance with the (not wholly) rational will.2

"It is difficult for anyone without a knowledge of anthropology to appreciate fully the astonishing audacity, the profound disturbance to the unconscious levels upon which a society lives its life, of such an action as the substitution of an English liturgy for the age-long Latin rite of Western Christendom in which Englishmen had been swaddled time out of mind … nothing can detract from the revolutionary audacity of such an interference with the customary, the subconscious, the ritual element in life."3

Rather ominously, the easy acceptance of liturgical change was made to seem dependent on people’s not taking the symbols too seriously, on their being able to shed one set and put on another, almost like changing their clothes for a new season. Oddly, in an age when freedom was being emphasized in the Church, the acceptance of liturgical change was made into a great act of obedience; many people who prided themselves on their loyalty to the hierarchy now consciously put aside their doubts and personal misgivings to fall in line with the new ritual. Those for whom the symbols had the deepest meaning were often among those who suffered the greatest anxieties, precisely for that reason.

Sacred rituals cannot be reformed substantially without serious dislocation in the society whose symbols they are.

Those for whom traditional symbols have the deepest meaning tend to be those most affected by change. This can take the form either of liturgical conservatism, as the individual perceives that the alteration of the symbols will have profound effects on the lives of those concerned, or of liturgical radicalism stemming from the same perception.

That liturgical change did not have even more profound effects is mainly owing to the prevailing pragmatic spirit which enables people to keep symbols from being to much a part of their lives; it is the facility which allows modern man to live much of his life at the surface level and not become deeply attached to very many things.

The almost universal crisis of the spirit through which Roman Catholics passed after the Council had many causes, but one of the most important was the simple fact of liturgical turmoil and instability itself. Although liturgists quickly developed the position that modern man ought to learn to pray in an atmosphere of distraction and worldly pressure, most people seem to want islands of quiet and recollection in their lives. (It is in any case not clear that the hubbub of modern life is any greater than in the cities and castles of the past.) The process of liturgical change was handled badly from a number of points of view: the people were never consulted as to their wants and needs; there was insufficient education in the new ways prior to their introduction; change was often presented as a hierarchical command to be obeyed; there were conflicting signals about the rationale for the changes (for example, was it to restore the ancient liturgy or to come to terms with modern culture?); change was piecemeal and hence doubly confusing. Although many liturgists oppose it, a permanent missal for the laity would be an important symbol at this time, implying that a new age of stability has been reached. The present welter of discardable booklets, mimeographed sheets, divergent paperback hymnals, etc. is not only confusing but appears to signify a haphazard, impermanent, jerry-built liturgy and has unfortunate psychological effects. Habits of irreverence and in attention are built up, for example, by the feeling that rites currently being used may be revised or discarded and hence are of little significance.

An atmosphere of liturgical disorder and instability is likely to cause diminution of the spirit of prayer.

For all its tendency to become a shibboleth, the greatest gain in the process of reform has been the attainment of a decent level of participation by the laity, a level which will probably improve over the years. Provided it is not simply entered into as a duty, and provided the entire Mass is not taken up with unison prayers and songs so as to prevent private prayer and silence, the custom of prayer and song in common can only add to the solemnity and meaningfulness of the service. Catholicism tends to favor the external expression of interior states, and the wholly silent Mass was always to some extent an anomaly. The habit of communal prayer and song also tends to ingrain these in people’s consciousness, a strategy for devotion which the Church has persistently recognized.

Since Catholicism tends to favor the external expression of internal states, communal participation in liturgy is more authentically Catholic than silent participation. It is also expressive of the Catholic spirit of communalism, in which worship is the act of the whole Church.

Liturgical change has also bought clear advantages insofar as it has restored or reemphasized certain symbols which had been lost or obscured. The restored Easter Vigil, which, however, predated the Second Vatican Council by some years, is the most important of these. The new place of baptism — conferred in the body of the church, often "in public and in conjunction with the Eucharist", is another. So are the Offertory procession, the Acclamations following the consecration, and the feet-washing on Holy Thursday. To some degree the effectiveness of the central liturgical symbols has been increased by clearing away many of the decorative objects which Thomas Merton and others had complained of. Up to a point the penchant for liturgical and artistic simplification has been a healthy influence.

The vernacular has on the whole been a positive change, the best evidence of which is in the fact that most lay people probably now prefer it to the Latin. It makes participation possible on still another level beyond the unison recitation or singing of Latin, although the latter is not to be dismissed. The vernacular is, however, a mixed blessing. It does tend to detract from the mystery of the rite. This is not simply because the Latin was shallow and theatrical obfuscation. Rather, the use of Latin conveyed a sense of timelessness and ancient tradition, which is so important to the experience of the sacred. It also reminded worshipers that the mystery in which they participated was finally unutterable in comprehensible language. The old ritual conveyed the sense that much more was happening than met the eye; the new asks to be accepted purely in its own terms. The Latin is also so close to the Church’s liturgical and theological wellsprings that its abandonment has left many people badly out of touch with their traditions. Its demise has been one of the principal stimuli to the belief that liturgy ought to be a completely contemporary thing. Ways must be found of preserving Latin as part of the Church’s living worship.

The association of the Latin language with the timeless, mysterious, and traditional aspects of worship is so profound that no fully adequate translation of it into the vernacular is possible.

The decision to translate the liturgy into the vernacular has had momentous consequences which should not be minimized. It may lead to the disappearance of almost all sense of the sacred in liturgy except among people who feed upon their earlier formation in the old rites. It may lead to a new and greatly revitalized way of apprehending the sacred. In certain ways it may be the most important change authorized by the Second Vatican Council. Unfortunately, few liturgists perceived its significance at the time; a vernacular liturgy was urged for the sake of "better understanding", as though it were merely the equivalent of installing new microphones in the churches or persuading the priests to speak more distinctly.

A decline of a sense of the sacred was inevitably fostered by the very fact of liturgical change, especially since the antiquity of the old rites had been exaggerated and people had been allowed to assume that the liturgy would never change. Mary Douglas has pointed out that belief in ritual tends to decline as it is discovered to what degree persons manipulate it.4 This was revealed quite publicly and deliberately at the Second Vatican Council and by the rather ineptly handled alterations which followed. It was intensified by widespread liturgical experimentation, some of which was intended deliberately to demythologize the ritual. Peter Berger claims that religion tends to conceal how much of the sacred is man-made, so that the periodic revelation of this fact has momentous consequences.5 Clifford Geertz asserts that one of the purposes of ritual is to portray human choices as though imposed.6 The conservative function of ritual is thus revealed, and a ritualistic religion can be merely a prop for an oppressive society. However, precisely because of its "irrelevance" it need have no close ties to the political order at all, which has enabled devout Catholics to spouse all shades of political opinion. Moreover, the fragility of meaning in human relationships is such that it is a mistake to dismiss the sacred character of ritual as merely a man-made illusion. Viewed from a certain perspective, all things human – love and marriage, political loyalty, art — are "merely" man-made and in some sense illusory. Yet the belief that they are also more than human, more than illusory, is central to their significance and ultimately more "true" than the bald facts about their origins.

Rapid and visible transformation of ritual has the effect desacralizing it. The concept of "experimental liturgy" is contradictory and self-defeating if liturgy is to be sacral, because the spirit of experimentation, implying detachment, criticism and conscious, manipulation is incompatible with the spirit of reverence and humility required by sacral rites.

The new Roman liturgy seems deficient also in certain details of its reformation, erring principally on the side of ill-conceived and unnecessary simplifications. A decided puritanical bias is detectable throughout, which has had unfortunate effects. A few examples:

Entrance Rite: In many parishes this is perfunctory and undramatic. The elimination of the old prayers at the foot of the altar greatly weakens the sense that the priest is about to enter a holy place, before which he has paused to prepare himself. It is worth noting that the beautiful Psalm 42 was regarded by Josef Jungmann as highly appropriate for the entrance ceremony.7

Confiteor: The truncation of this prayer was unnecessary, especially the elimination of the saints formerly invoked. The sense of remembrance of great saints from the past is an important part of traditional liturgy. Most unfortunate was the reduction of the triple recitation "through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault" to a single staid acknowledgment. This was one of the most familiar, almost archetypal moments of the entire Mass, and in the Latin it had become virtually a proverb. An important opportunity to maintain continuity was lost. The psychological effect of the triple recitation was overlooked, and the result is flat and pedestrian.

Responsorial Psalm: Partly because of quite undistinguished translations, this also is flat and mechanical. As a form of congregational participation it often seems like a duty rather than a willing prayer. Some kind of singing might be preferable.

Washing of the Priest’s Hands: The elimination of Psalm 25 in favor of a mere few words seems pointless and takes away a moving and appropriate scriptural passage, as well as one of great familiarity.

Canon: The elimination of almost all saints’ names from three of the four Eucharistic prayers (in the first, most of the merely optional) again weakens the sense of historical continuity. These prayers might have been revised to include more familiar saints than the Roman martyrs previously remembered, and this could have been an effective expression of the Church’s continuous unfolding through time.

Communion: The simple statement "the Body of Christ" is to the point but also lends itself to a rushed, mechanical repetition by the priest. The old formula was particularly beautiful. "May the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ preserve your soul into everlasting life."

Announcements: Coming at the end of Mass, they convey the impression that they are what the Church most wants the faithful to remember as they depart from the liturgy. They are ridiculously anticlimactic and should be restored to their old place before the homily or perhaps put before the beginning of the Mass.

Poverty of Language

Altogether the language of the reformed Mass is, at best, undistinguished. It is modern but in the same way that a newspaper article or directions for assembling a mechanical object are modern. Almost nothing about it is memorable, powerful, or poetic. As Ralph Keifer, the secretary of the International Committee on English in the Liturgy, has said: "If anything is wrong with the language of the new eucharistic prayers, it is precisely the attempt at modernity. The curious editing of the ancient sources has left us with feeble and hackneyed versions of the more powerful originals."8 Most worshippers are probably not consciously sensitive to the literary qualities of the Mass prayers, but it’s in the nature of symbolism, including language, that it has effects on people in ways they do not realize. It is doubtful if anything in the present English text will ever become as ingrained in people’s minds as the "mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa", the "Dominus vobiscum", or the "Domine non sum dignus" of the old rite. It is also highly ironic that, even as liturgists insist dogmatically on the need to pray in the vernacular, people are required to address God by the unfamiliar and rather grating, even if philologically correct, "Yahweh". Although an excellent translation probably could not have been prepared within the brief time available for the introduction of the vernacular, it surely remains a crucial need for the future.

Poverty of Gesture

As serious as the poverty of language in the new English liturgy, and obviously related to it, is the poverty of gesture, which seems to be the result of the same misguided puritan spirit. There are few good reasons, for example, to have eliminated the genuflection during the Creed, the frequent signs of the cross, the ringing of bells, and in many parishes the use of incense except at funerals and during Holy Week. Liturgical reformers dismissed these as "decadent" historical accretions,9 but they were an intimate part of traditional public worship and it is not at all evident that their abolition has improved the quality of the service, except perhaps for those who have in mind some abstract notion of what a correct Eucharist might be like.

The official elimination of some familiar gestures has caused others to fall into disuse through the apparent belief that they too have been suppressed, or a general confusion as to what is or is not now prescribed. Included are the crosses traced on forehead, lips, and heart before the Gospel, striking the breast during the Confiteor, and the sign of the cross after receiving Communion. In some churches kneeling has fallen into disuse altogether, and there are even remodeled chapels where the benches have been set so close together that kneeling is made impossible. The claim that standing is appropriate to the Mass because it is the "Resurrection position" ignores the popular tradition about kneeling – it is not commonly regarded as a mark of penitence but of deep reverence, and especially as a sign of respect for the Real Presence. Other unnecessary and ill-advised diminutions of ritual include the drastic truncation of the Holy Thursday procession, always a major expression of popular devotion to the Eucharist, and the elimination of the Asperges or the Vidi Aquam, both quite beautiful uses of Psalms 50 and 117, before High Mass. The suppression of Tenebrae in Holy Week, apparently on what is the merely technical grounds that the next day’s Office should not be anticipated, and the reduction of the ceremony of the stripping of the altar to merely a private one on Holy Thursday, are other examples of changes which may satisfy some strict and rather arcane liturgical principle but merely weaken the symbolic power of the ceremonies. It is symptomatic of the confused state of liturgy that few people seem entirely sure which traditional ceremonies are still in effect and which are not. It is a confusion which appears to extend even to many of the clergy.

Before the Council, Thomas Merton had expressed a common viewpoint within the Liturgical Movement when he argued that modern man has a diminished sensitivity to symbol, which is indicated among other ways by a taste for what is merely decorative.10 The importance of gesture was then recognized, as for example by one prominent liturgist who said that "even in the liturgical rite most in need of radical change, the smallest measure of outward participation represents some inner activity".11

Oddly, however, as reform proceeded, and despite the fact that some advanced liturgists want even to introduce new actions like dancing into worship, gestures were more and more pruned and simplified, often with no evident good reason and often also in ways open to misinterpretation (for example, the disuse of kneeling as possibly signifying lack of belief in the Real Presence). It became obvious that reformers wished to place primary emphasis on the words of the rite, uninspiring though they are, and seemed to regard gestures as rather superfluous and distracting. The result has been a liturgy which is undramatic and wordy, in which worshipers, except for standing, sitting, and kneeling, have little to do and are mainly supposed to develop their powers of concentration so as to get maximum benefit from the words being read. It is a kind of puritanism which failed to note that historically Catholics associate this kind of worship with Protestantism and that Catholicism has through most of its history favored a worship rich in gesture. Cardinal Newman, for example, thought gestures alone – the laying on of hands, the pouring of water, etc. – would be sufficient to convey the meaning of the sacraments even without words.12 The suppression of familiar traditional gestures has predictably given rise to proposals that new gestures like dancing be introduced, since "Faith … is a disposition towards God which is actualized only in expression…. So no faith exists that is not actualized in a rite, that is, indissolubly efficacious gesture and word."13 An important principle is in danger of being lost:

Catholicism tends to worship God in gesture as much as in word ­ unlike Protestantism ­ which is preeminently a religion of the Word. The cult of spontaneity necessarily inhibits this since it regards ritualized gesture as merely external.

The liturgical changes in the Episcopal Church appear to suffer from similar deficiencies, although on the whole the English of the second eucharistic service, even if not of th highest quality, is better than that authorized for the Roman Catholic Church in America. The controversy over the Book of Common Prayer as the uniform liturgy of the Episcopal Church is especially fraught with consequences because the basic focus of unity in what is otherwise a liturgically and theologically quite diverse church. Those who mourn the loss of the great classic texts of the Prayer Book — the Collect for Purity, the General Confessions and Absolutions at Morning Prayer and in the Eucharist, and the prayer of Humble Access — are not necessarily being nostalgic. They recognize that these words have a proven power to move people deeply, something which the new and more pedistian words do not. If a prayer is memorable, it effectiveness is greatly extended, since it can work in people’s minds even outside the times of formal devotion. The Prayer Book sentences have a powerful rhythm built into them which helps to make them a part of people’s basic consciousness. Little in the new liturgies gives sign of being particularly memorable. Advanced Anglo-Catholic liturgists also appear to have a bias against traditional gestures.

The effectiveness of new liturgies has sometimes been established simply by fiat, in apparent accord with the principle that whatever has been done for the sake of reform must be good. Thus a prominent Roman Catholic theologian can say with assurance: "The adult Catholic who goes to church on Sunday morning finds that the change has made the liturgy a very beautiful, simple, understandable, and moving ritual. The symbolism, once covered over with too much paint, has become clear again. The message of the Mass is clearly cast into the very form of celebration." (Revealing the pervasive contempt which professionals have for the rank and file, he has also said that while the distinction between sacred and profane was widely accepted in the Church, it was never accepted by theologians, who can now disabuse the people of their mistaken ideas.)14 When a distinguished international group, including Joan Sutherland, Yehudi Menuhin, C. Day Lewis, and Graham Greene, protested on aesthetic grounds the suppression of the Mass of Pius V, various English clergy presumed to inform them that they had been mistaken, that there was little of aesthetic value in the traditional rite. One monsignor said the old Mass might be permitted for use by elderly people within five or ten years.15 (One of the less convincing aspects of the claim that Roman Catholic liturgical reform has succeeded is the liturgists’ reluctance to allow the new rite to compete on its merits with the old.)

The Dilemma of Liturgical Reformers

The new Roman liturgy has achieved general acceptance, and a majority of worshipers would probably not want to return to the Latin. At the same time there is little enthusiasm for the new rite, and no one has said it is beautiful or memorable. It has not inspired the deep attachment which many people had for the Latin. Declining church attendance, while not necessarily attributable to the new liturgy, nonetheless casts a pall over any claims of general success. Even more serious is the wide-spread dissatisfaction with the new rite on the part of those who were in the forefront of the struggle to get it adopted but who now feel the necessity of constructing heir own rites. What has been achieved is a political solution — extremists have been cut off at both ends, and those in the middle have accepted a compromise.

Ralph Keifer points out that in the old liturgy, although Roman Catholics were often described as inert and passive,

"Even the very clerical and sober rite of low mass carried with it a sense of involvement, by silent attentions, bows, kneeling, crossings, breast-beating, and attention to ‘Mass devotions’.

"The new rites were supposed to have restored active participation in the liturgy and a more balanced sense of the paschal mystery. It is doubtful if we have restored either; we have probably, in many cases, stamped out the last vestiges of both. A vivid and concrete appreciation of the incarnation and the atonement has … often been bleached into vague shibboleths about ‘community’ and ‘joy’ and ‘peace’ and ‘love’…. The dropping of the old passion pietieshas not meant a renewed appreciation of the presence of the risen and exalted Lord; it has meant simply that Jesus becomes a vague teacher from the past. Instead of a deeper sense of participation, people feel less engaged than before and complain of a loss of a sense of ‘mystery.’ The young frankly admit they are bored….

"For a church which prides itself on being sacramental, we have little to give people the sense of presence and engagement that touch, taste, and smell bring to worship … kneeling, signs of the cross, beating of the breast, and bows recede more and more into the past … an intellectualized liturgy discourages ‘primitive’ gestures….

"Such unrelenting wordiness is indeed both dull and puritan and extreme. Nor is it surprising that people complain that the ‘new mass’ lacks poetry and a sense of mystery. Unrelieved chatter, however exalted, is inimical to both.

"… theologians are priding themselves on more successful communication than they actually enjoy if they think they have permitted a new theological consciousness among devout laity. The only significant act of communication has been ritual; if the old devotions have become ‘irrelevant’, it is because our pseudo-patristic and highly verbal liturgy has rendered them so."16

The Episcopalian liturgist Daniel Stevick has pointed out the dilemma of the liturgical reformer: the choice between a very powerful but traditional idiom of worship and an idiom which is modern but also weak and unimpressive. He cites the literary critic Dwight Macdonald’s comments on the Revised Standard Version of the Bible: "To make … readable in the modern sense means to flatten out, tone down, and convert into tepid expository prose… It means stepping down the voltage … so it won’t blow any fuses."17 The Catholic philosopher Michael Novak has said bluntly: "There is no death any longer in the Mass. No irony. No bite. The Mass was not translated into English, it was translated into optimism and suburban cheer. The meaning of the Mass was never joy, peace, or celebration, or festivity – not in some direct recognition, not by some Rotarian enthusiasm…."18

Daniel Stevick’s solution to the dilemma is to choose a fully modern idiom which can perhaps be powerful and compelling because it makes no compromises with the old. It is in fact one of the curiosities of the new liturgies that they accept as "modern" what is merely the presently fashionable outpourings of popular culture. It is probably not true that modern culture is incapable of creating a truly sacred idiom. Until liturgists became enamored of secularity, some very powerful and impressive modern churches were being built and religious art in general appeared to be in a flourishing state. There is an extensive repertoire of modern sacred music, of which Stravinsky’s works are not by any means the only representatives. Yet rarely is such music heard in worship. The problem is partly practical, in that modern music is generally difficult and requires trained musicians and singers. But it appears to be also a matter of taste. Liturgical reformers have in many cases lent their authority to the teenage idiom of guitars and "folk" music, and decreed that this is to be modern man at worship. Strangely, modernizers have been among those fostering the impression that it is necessary to choose between Ray Repp on the one hand, and Gregorian Chant or the old Marian hymns on the other.

Truly modern styles of artistic worship ­ in music, in poetry, to a great extent in painting ­ would fail to jibe with fashionable liturgical ideas precisely for the reason indicated by Michael Novak ­ they are unsuitable to a worship seeking to build itself on shallow and sentimental notions of "love" and "community".

The superficiality of so much pop music fits in well with the superficiality of present notions of what worship is supposed to be: the artificial stimulation of a fragile and ephemeral sense of community such as experienced at a rock concert. The new liturgy no longer has any room for the Dies Irae, and modernists often express discomfort at having to say the Gloria. The Exsultet is no very important prayer for people with little need to be saved.

Instead the new liturgy seems to aim at a safe and moderate range of human experience. Christians are not to be very conscious of their sins, and hence not very conscious either of the meaning of redemption. A warm sense of community is to blanket everything, obliterating peaks and valleys, lulling those who may be tempted to lift up their eyes or cast them down.

The new style of liturgy is greatly popular in high schools and colleges, where it is tied closely to the ephemera of the youth culture and to youth’s sense of special identity. It does not appear capable of nourishing in most students a deep commitment to or involvement in the Church’s worship, as evidenced in the reports that students rarely attend church when they are away from their special campus liturgies. Such liturgies partly succeed through their strong sense of alienation from the larger world of adults.

The new liturgy has also gained popularity in those places supposed to be the bastions of a sterile conservatism — the suburbs. That this should be the case is not surprising, because unintentionally the new liturgy seems designed to fit the new middle-class culture. It eschews formality, solemnity, and complexity in favor of a casual and utilitarian style. Years ago William Whyte noticed in The Organization Man the tendency of many suburbanites to prefer nondogmatic, ethically-oriented, community-service churches, and this trend has finally come to be felt within Catholicism.

Worshippers can now hear in church words not greatly different in tone from those television commentators use. The music is similar to what is played at pop concerts. Archaic symbols have been all but eliminated from the ritual. Everything is quite consciously "modern", and new techniques are tried out with regularity. There is now a generation of people who have to a great extent given up their traditions and willingly adopted a mobile style of life in which everything is newly minted, progress is taken for granted, and the past is something boring and unpleasant.

The affirmative secularity and community-mindedness of the new liturgy corresponds to similar attitudes in many such people, who are not in any serious way estranged from contemporary society, at least not at the conscious level. At present, where such people do not find a sufficiently modern liturgy in their parishes, they frequently go elsewhere ­ to a college chapel, for example. The decline of the practice of confession occurs in a milieu which advocates "self-fulfillment" as a primary duty and is increasingly reluctant to accept limitations of any kind. A religion which speaks of the "other-world" may seem irrelevant to people who find this life basically rewarding and who have accepted a sophisticated version of the idea of instantaneous gratification. The strongest support for the newer modes of worship is now amid the suburban middle class, while the self-consciously radical, the seminarians, and the college students often search for a resacralized idiom.

Daniel Stevick has pointed out several major advantages of a fixed and traditional rite, namely, that it saves the Church from having to create and discard new liturgies continually as theological and liturgical schools succeed each other in diminance, and it forces each school to modify its one-sidedness in order to fit in with the whole church.19 Reformers have now succeeded in creating a liturgy which is modestly successful in relating to certain groups of people alive at the present time (although this relevance is often achieved only by going beyond what is officially permitted in the new liturgy). However, whether this same idiom will seem meaningful when tastes and styles change rapidly, is doubtful. Already the swing back from "secularity" to a "fantasy" has made the new liturgy look bare and puritan. A generation of young Catholics is growing up with almost no experience of the traditional sacral mode of worship. Inevitably people’s horizons tend to be limited by what they have experience of. Catholics of the future, while perhaps vaguely dissatisfied with their utilitarian style of worship, may have no real knowledge of the possibility of the sacred and may have to go to other traditions like the Eastern Orthodox to find it.

Ecumenical Problems

Similar problems exist with respect to the Episcopal liturgy, principally in regard to language. The liturgist Charles D. Keyes has asked, "Does the flattening out of the sense of finitude and the sublime in [the 1974 Prayer Book] really do justice to man’s actual situation and his most profound needs?" And he adds:

"The new iconoclasm is no longer puritanically offended by small things like candles and vestments. Instead, it is an iconoclasm about big things, namely the basic symbols of transcendence or whatever wakes a sense of awe before the sublime. Indeed the symbols of transcendence aren’t useful either in jacking up a crumbling establishment or for copying on political placards. Still the peculiar fact remains that without them man loses his dignity. The attempt to reduce life and religion to common sense terms of reference is a self-defeating process."20

There is a notable inconsistency between the broad and eclectic humanism which advanced liturgists profess and their puritanism toward the worshipping traditions of their own churches. At the least, even if religious ritual is seen as purely a human creation, it should be respected as among the most important of such creations. Catholicism has of course always insisted that it is much more than that.

Iconoclasm and Fundamentalism

There is at present an unhappy schizophrenia in liturgy, marked, on the one hand, by an official ritual which has been flattened out and drastically simplified and, on the other, by an eagerness to try new things so long as they appear lively and contemporary.

The two poles, often adhered to by the same people, represent the influence of Protestant theology on the first side, with its severe and systematic attack on the sacred, and the influence of the counter-culture, the desire to keep abreast of modern developments, on the other. In the middle, traditional, rich Catholic liturgy tends to get squeezed out.

Mary Douglas has noticed that loosened social bonds tend to stimulate effervescent religious expression. However, as millenarians throw away the old symbols, they also discover that communal life is rendered difficult precisely because of this. Hence the search for new symbols begins, a search which is obstructed by ingrained habits of iconoclasm in the rebels. Where visible symbols have been discarded as rigid and idolatrous, equally rigid if less tangible symbols may replace them, such as a fundamentalist attitude toward the Bible.21

The often desperate struggle for "meaningful" liturgy has been made necessary precisely because existing symbols and rituals were discarded or altered drastically. Liturgical eclecticism has been the result of this, as dissatisfied worshipers ransack the various religious traditions of the world for usable symbols with which to replace their own.

The new fundamentalism has appeared in a variety of guises ­ magic, the Jesus Movement, rigid ideological politics, the charismatic movement. Liturgists were drawn in theory to a puritan idea of worship. In practice, however, has proved unsatisfying and has given rise to all manner of extravagant emotionalism. The suppression of the imagination in worship has given play to many ungoverned religious fantasies. Whatever may be said about the charismatic movement, it is doubtful that it would have gained so much strength in Catholicism if so many traditional devotional outlets had not been systematically closed.

A religion richer in folk piety than perhaps any in the world has been reduced to borrowing its most notable contemporary folk idiom from fundamentalist Protestants, a fact which in itself strongly suggests that something is drastically wrong with the renewal of prayer life in the Church.

Catholicism generally prefers what is rich and complex to what is simple and direct. The attempt to reduce the former to the latter produces severe dislocations in the system, which tend to thwart the attempt at simplicity.

An illustration of this principle is perhaps found in the adoption of the new funeral liturgy, which is dominated by the affirmation of the Resurrection and which has expunged almost all expression of dread or sorrow. Yet this new rite has been introduced almost precisely at the moment when a strong faith in life after death is more in question among Catholics than ever before. When the official funeral liturgy expressed many thoughts of fear and sadness, most Catholics probably believed implicitly in resurrection; now that it affirms resurrection (and in the process has given up one of its most powerful and impressive rituals) many people find it harder to believe in that possibility.

The desacralization of liturgy has been principally due to the interpretations put on liturgical change by innovators acting without official sanction. However, it is also necessary to inquire to what extent the official changes themselves have contributed to that result, perhaps contrary to intention. Victor Turner, for example, believes the changes were motivated by questionable behavioral and materialist assumptions about ritual, especially the belief that it is supposed to reflect the social structure in which it operates. He also thinks the unspoken needs of the majority of believers, especially the need for interior prayer, were ignored by reformers.22 A Dutch professor rejoices that the new liturgy deliberately desacralizes the rite and makes few concessions to traditionalists.23 Daniel Stevick argues for revision of the Episcopal liturgy on the grounds that it is now harder to make statements about God than it once was, and in any case statements about God are perhaps really statements about man. 24 An Anglican liturgist has argued for the revision of the Prayer Book not, as is usually claimed, because it fails to speak to modern man but because it speaks all too effectively, proclaiming a transcendent God instead of the worldly faith now required. 25

Vertical or Horizontal?

A liturgical idiom which powerfully conveys a sense of the sacred in modern form is perhaps possible, despite Charles Davis’ doubts. However, such an idiom has not as yet been created, and each new modern liturgy which appears seems merely to reduce the feeling for the sacred even more, sometimes by intention, sometimes through ineptness. If traditional liturgy conveys a sense of the sacred better than modern forms, that is all the more reason for keeping it, since it gives to this age something it would otherwise lack. Rudolf Otto insisted that the sense of the numinous must be excited or induced. 26. Liturgists appear to have paid little attention to how this can be done.

The tension between the "vertical" and the "horizontal" in liturgy is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the new custom by which Mass is celebrated with the priest facing the congregation. It is a rite which has unquestionably helped the people’s understanding and sense of participation. At the same time it does tend to detract from the sense of an ordered solemn ceremony addressed to God.

John Macquarrie has pointed out that some of the reformers who have most eagerly advocated this practice, such as the Anglican bishop John Robinson, are also proponents of a secularizing theology. Father John Macquarre has expressed a suspicion which has probably occurred to many people, even if liturgists did not intend it: "If a real God, transcending man and to whom one may offer worship, has become doubtful, then we must turn in upon ourselves and meditate on our own humanity and on what is going on in our midst."27

Josef Jungmann, noting that both the customs of facing toward the people and facing away from them are very ancient, added: "If Mass were only a service of instruction or a communion celebration, the other position, facing the people, would be more natural. But it is different if the Mass is an immolation and homage to God."28

The communications theorist Marshall McLuhan has speculated that

"…when the celebrant turn to the audience, he is putting them on as his corporate dignity or mask, just as when he turns to the altar, he is putting on the divine mask of supernatural power. A continuous confrontation of the audience by the celebrant reduces the occasion to the merely humanistic one…. ‘Putting on’ only the congregation as his corporate mask of dignity, deprives the celebrant of any compelling power of charisma, and this fact is not lost on the young adults who, naturally, can think of no reason for seeking divine absolution nor for pursuing a merely banal vocation of a humanistic padre."29

The confusion of ultimate significances in the new liturgy badly needs to be clarified, in part because it is not evident to what extent the revised symbolism is doing what it was intended to do, and to what extent it has led to misconceptions. Some liturgists seem not to have understood the likely results of liturgical change, while others apparently intended all along to use liturgical change as a means of effecting revolution in belief.

The great Anglican liturgist Gregory Dix noted that changes of rite always cause loss of meaning,30 although they may also bring about the recovery of lost meaning. It is of the first importance now that the revised Eucharistic symbolism not be allowed to effect a drastic secularization or protestantization of Catholic belief, either because these effects are not recognized and properly guarded against or because a handful or persons in strategic places deliberately set out to achieve them.

That such changes do have unanticipated and sometimes profound consequences has been admitted by one influential progressive liturgist. Referring to the practice of receiving communion in the hand, he said, "There is tremendous theological significance in the change…. I’m not sure, though, that it would be possible now to recoup the mystery of the old liturgy…. The communion has become a cheap commodity, cheaper than pizza, because you have to pay for pizza."31 


1 Tegels in Worship, XLII, 7 (August-September, 1968), p. 444.

2 The Elizabeth Renaissance: The Life of the Society (London, 1951), p. 231.

3 The England of Elizabeth: The Structure of Society (London, 1951), p. 17.

4 Natural Symbols, p. 147.

5 The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, N.Y., 1967), p. 33.

James F. Hitchcock

James F. Hitchcock, emeritus professor of history at St. Louis University, which he attended as an undergraduate, received his masters and doctorate degrees from Princeton University. An archive of various articles of his can be read here. Dr. Hitchcock has authored several books, including The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life; The Recovery of the Sacred; What Is Secular Humanism; Catholicism and Modernity: Confrontation or Capitulation?; and History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium