In our last issue (Sep./Oct. 1997) note was taken of the Pope's comments on the beauty and splendor of authentic Catholic Liturgy as well as a recent "Instruction on Liturgy" by the Congregation for Eastern Churches applicable to the Eastern rites of the Church. Emphasis in the latter document was placed on retaining cherished liturgical traditions that add to the solemnity and devotional aspects of liturgical celebration. For example, we read:
"The sanctuary is separated from the nave by a veil, gate, or iconostasis, because it is the most sacred place; it contains the altar on which the Divine Liturgy is celebrated and the Oblation is offered. Only those who are entrusted with the sacred ministry can enter the sanctuary to complete the sacred acts"
"The Eastern churches are to jealously maintain practice as much as possible the use of incense in the celebration, even daily, because it belongs in a special way to their own tradition. Every custom to the contrary is to be modified"
"Giving to the people parts which are specifically the competencies of the holy ministries is to be avoided"
"(St. John of Damascus) ... explains the reason (an unwritten tradition, deriving from the Apostles) for which the celebrant who presides in the liturgical celebration prays facing the east, just as the people who participate. It is not a question, as is often claimed of presiding the celebration with the back turned to the people, but rather of guiding the people in pilgrimage toward the Kingdom, invoked in prayer until the return of the Lord. Such practice, threatened in numerous Eastern Catholic Churches by a new and recent Latin influence, is thus of profound value and should be safeguarded"
"Reserving the distribution of the Eucharist normally to the priest has the scope of manifesting its highest sacredness... The faculty of distributing the Eucharist by those other than the Bishop, or the presbyter, or the deacon... is to be exercised only in the case of true emergency"
Latin rite (or is it now American rite?) Catholics have much to learn from their Eastern rite brethren concerning the maintenance of cherished liturgical traditions and customs. There can be no question that poor, irreverent and abusive liturgical celebration degrades the "Mystery of the Mass" and that the existing liturgical malaise in Western Catholicism is one of the most important problems facing bishops and priests.
As an editorial in the New Oxford Review (July-August 1997) observed:
"About 30 years have now passed since the liturgical reforms were implemented, and it's time for a frank evaluation. Just before the liturgical experiments were launched, 70% of Catholics attended Mass, whereas today only 25% do. There are various reasons for this, but a major one is the way the liturgical reforms have been carried out in so many parishes. Millions of Catholics have voted with their feet – either losing interest in Christ altogether or jumping ship for a splinter group, a non-Catholic church, or even some cult. And, increasingly, stalwart Catholics fed up with liturgical desecration are seeking refuge in Eastern rite Catholic parishes. ...Archbishop Weakland is right that the liturgical renewal is 'in disarray'. But instead of blaming the Pope and the still hard-to-find Tridentine masses out there, he ought to adjust his angle of vision and ponder what liturgical 'renewal' has wrought: massive defections from the Church and massive disbelief in the Real Presence".
The impact of liturgical disorientation and desecration on ecumenical relations with the Eastern Orthodox I noted briefly in an article in the Canadian CHALLENGE periodical (February 1995), and perhaps such words are worth repeating here:
"Liturgical abuses and disorders presently marring the life of the Catholic Church in the West must be ended. These seriously offend the liturgical sensibilities of Eastern Orthodox peoples who reverence solemn liturgical celebration. They are repelled at the thought of entering into unity with 'modernized Roman Catholics whose liturgies have become mere popular entertainment, and not very tasteful at that'."
To quote the same Eastern Orthodox writer (a former Protestant, incidentally):
"I abhor the guitar-strumming, tambourine-banging, piano-thumping, the passing-out balloons and mediocre popular inspirational music of the kind with which modern Roman Catholics have polluted their sadly reduced liturgies in imitation of the worst of the worst of American pop-culture."
A serious ecumenism cannot ignore the negative assessments of contemporary Catholic Liturgy by Eastern Orthodox observers who find repugnant liturgical abuses that go uncorrected (despite such efforts as the Vatican documents Dominicae Cenae and Inaestimabile Donum issued in 1980). The loss of sacred music, the feminization of the Liturgy, the illicit use of "inclusive language", the spectacle of the priest-entertainer telling jokes and desperately striving for eye-contact with his "audience", and the mayhem resulting from a protracted "kiss of peace" — are but a few of the distractions characterizing desacralized liturgy. A recent editorial in the Providence, Rhode Island, diocesan paper correctly observed:
"How the Eucharist is celebrated has become the personal preserve of the priest and his 'liturgical style'. A priest, however, is ordained to celebrate the Eucharist and the other sacraments as the Church has handed them down. That means the priest's style must be the Church's style... The days of saying "This is the way we do it in our parish'... should be long gone".
One can well wonder if our liturgists and those in Offices of Worship understand the trauma and suffering they have caused our Catholic people. Do they understand how many millions they have alienated from the Church? Do they understand the barriers they have placed to impede genuine ecumenism, especially with our separated Eastern brethren?
It would be useful for interested readers to write their Office of Worship and find out.