What if we took Holy Mass as the Council Fathers knew it and wrote about it – you know; Mass according to the 1962 Missal, or the Traditional Latin Mass as it’s sometimes called — and then applied the directives found in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy to it? Can you imagine what this rite might look and sound like?
Opinions will vary on certain points, I suppose, but one thing all of us can agree upon is that it wouldn’t look and sound like the overwhelming majority of the Masses that have been celebrated since the Council closed, that’s for sure!
Now just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that some beautiful and reverent liturgies haven’t been celebrated in the revised rite as we currently know it, they most certainly have. The question I’m asking here — one that hasn’t been asked nearly enough in the last 40 years — is simply this: what would the rite look and sound like if we actually followed the Council’s wishes? Let’s call this unfortunately imaginary rite the “What if Rite,” or WIR for short.
I’m going to offer some “highlights” of the WIR as I see them, but I’d also like to invite you, the readers, to add your own thoughts and ideas as well. The only “rule” for taking part in this exercise is that you must reference Sacrosanctum Concilium in support of your vision, because let’s face it – we already know what Holy Mass looks like when the Council is ignored. This exercise is intended to provide an alternative view based upon the Council’s actual texts; or what Pope Benedict XVI calls, “the true inheritance of the Council.”
The first thing we might notice about the WIR in contrast to the present day situation is that it would hardly vary from place to place, much less from celebrant to celebrant; rather, all involved would be operating under the premise that no one, “even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority” (SC 22).
We would also notice that although the laity carry out “genuine liturgical functions as servers, lectors, commentators, and members of the choir” (cf SC 29), we would no longer encounter ushers in jeans or Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion in beachwear; rather, each one would follow the Council’s exhortation to “discharge their office with the sincere piety and decorum demanded by so exalted a ministry and rightly expected of them by God’s people” (ibid.).
In any case, we most certainly would cease referring to such laypersons as “ministers” as is so commonly done nowadays; e.g., ministers of hospitality, ministers of the word, music ministers, etc. Why? Simply put, the Council Fathers never did. In fact, they drew very clear distinctions between ministers (the ordained, that is) and the laity saying, “In liturgical celebrations each person, minister or layman, who has an office to perform, should do all of, but only, those parts which pertain to his office by the nature of the rite and the principles of liturgy” (SC 28).
“Minister or layman.” Did you get that? You see, to the Council’s way of thinking (and remember – that’s what we’re here to explore) it’s either one or the other.
Moving on; no matter where on earth one participates in the WIR, much of it, or in many cases all of it, would be in the language of the Church, Latin. The Council Fathers were exceedingly clear on this point saying, “The Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites” (SC 36).
The people, however, would not necessarily be relegated to the role of silent observer since the Council Fathers also said, “Steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them” (SC 54).
This tells us rather plainly that in the WIR the Ordinary would be in Latin; e.g. the Confiteor, Kyrie (yes, I know it’s Greek, but please afford me this rare opportunity to play the “spirit of Vatican II” card on behalf of tradition), Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, etc.
In fact, the laity would not only be taught how to say or to sing the Latin in the WIR, they would also be aware of the deeper meaning of their words and actions thanks to their sacred pastors to whom the Council Fathers said, “Pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve active participation by means of the necessary instruction of the faithful” (cf SC 14).
The Council Fathers also recognized, however, that the vernacular “may be of great advantage to the people” at Holy Mass, and so they said that “the limits of its employment may therefore be extended,” primarily in such areas as “the readings and directives, and some of the prayers and chants” (ibid.). In other words, the WIR could employ limited use of the vernacular in some places.
Speaking of the readings, since the Council asked for “the treasures of the bible to be opened up more lavishly, that a more representative portion of the Holy Scriptures will be read to the people in the course of a prescribed number of years” (SC 51), we would likely find a cycle of readings in the WIR that is very much like the one used in the Ordinary Form today — a true fruit of the Council for which we should all be grateful.
Given that the Council Fathers called for “the rite of the Mass to be revised in such a way that the intrinsic nature and purpose of its several parts may be more clearly manifested” (SC 50), a couple of very big changes that took place after the Council would have to be repealed in the WIR.
For one, altar rails would return to our churches if for no other reason (and there are other reasons) than to make it easier to resume the practice of receiving Holy Communion on-the-tongue while kneeling — the only way it would ever be done in the WIR. We can confidently say this for two reasons; one, the Council suggested neither the removal of altar rails nor Communion in-the-hand, and secondly, no serious argument can be made in support of either innovation as “more clearly manifesting the intrinsic nature” of the rite; in fact, it seems more than obvious that it has had the exact opposite effect.
Additionally, we can also confidently say that the priest would no longer face the congregation as he typically does today; instead he would resume the ancient and venerable practice of praying “toward the east” along with all the people. Similar to the matter of altar rails and the reception of Holy Communion, the Council Fathers never encouraged any change in the priest’s orientation at Mass.
I can tell you from experience that when the Ordinary Form is so celebrated, the “intrinsic nature” of Mass as Holy Sacrifice and an encounter with Sacred Mystery is absolutely “more clearly manifested” than the “priest-as-centerpiece” arrangement commonly seen today. For those concerned that ad orientem (facing east) worship would somehow detract from a sense of communion among the people, the interesting thing is that it is actually heightened as a tangible sense of solidarity – priest and people as one — ensues when all are facing the Eucharistic Christ here present while also anticipating His glorious return.
Speaking of “centerpieces” that can obscure the intrinsic nature of the Mass, it would be unthinkable in the WIR to find people applauding for this person or that as takes place in so many liturgies today. The Council said rather forcefully, “no special honors are to be paid in the liturgy to any private persons or classes of persons, whether in the ceremonies or by external display” (SC 32). That means no more clapping for the married couples during their anniversary month, no more asking the teachers to stand for an ovation on “Catechetical Sunday,” and no more “giving it up” for the cantor or the pianist or the bongo player. Not at Holy Mass, anyway.
Oh, that reminds me, say goodbye to Cat Stevens, Marty Haugen and the Folk Mass in the WIR since these are also innovations that the Council Fathers never envisioned. Listen instead for “the treasure of sacred music” that the Council said should “be preserved and fostered with great care” (SC 114). This means that choral music would thrive in the WIR, as the Council insisted that “choirs must be diligently promoted” (ibid.).
In fact, be prepared to welcome back Gregorian chant, which the Council said “should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (SC 116), and the pipe organ too since it “is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things” (SC 120).
In those parts of the WIR that are said or sung in the vernacular, the translation from the Latin would have been carried out just as the Council insisted no less than three times in the Constitution with regard to all efforts at liturgical reform, “with great care.”
This means that the vernacular text used at Holy Mass would be anything but profane; that is, totally unlike the everyday “language of the people” that we encounter so often in the Missal we use today. The vernacular WIR Missal would instead be a faithful translation of the Latin original that retains the theological significance of the text, preserving the centuries old rich liturgical tradition of the Church while opening its often multi-layered meaning up to the faithful as a pathway toward union with the Divine. The vernacular translation used in the WIR, in other words, would be “sacred;” a word that appears no less than 60 times in the Constitution to describe the liturgy and those things associated with it.
Now for some good news… no, make that great news!
While liturgical reform remains a work-in-progress that leaves much of what I offered here a vision as yet unachieved, those of us in the English speaking world can look forward with great joy to the coming of the Roman Missal — 3rd Edition in which the translation has been carried out in exactly the manner just described! This means that the mistakes and shortcomings found in the text that we’ve been using lo these long last 40 years has been corrected, its rich theological meaning restored, and a major step toward recovering a sense of the sacred at Holy Mass is about to be taken! Deo gratias!