Josef Pieper warned us this would happen. The German philosopher told us even before Vatican II that ours would not be an epoch of lovely liturgies. In his little book In Tune With the World: A Theory of Festivity, published in 1963, he wrote: “In happier ages, the hidden element manifested itself in the great feast days…In less fortunate periods, in which even rare holidays usually come to nothing for a variety of reasons, festivity recedes to greater concealment.”
I think I know what the German philosopher meant. I’ve celebrated the central Christian feast, Sunday, the Lord’s Day, every week of my forty-year life, almost always by attending the ritualized Christian party called the Mass. I’ve seen many varieties of “arrangements,” as Pieper says, of the Christian celebration—charismatic healing Masses where participants fell slain in the spirit; praise and worship music youth Masses with hand gesticulations; traditional Latin Masses laden with incense; and the pilgrim’s Mass, like that in Santiago de Compostela. In my experience though, it was at the Masses that were less spectacularly arranged, externally less festive, where I sensed true Christian festivity. My favorite Mass is still the uninspiring Mass of the average Catholic parish.
Maybe this kind of milquetoast Catholicism suits me the way certain childhood foods can still bring us comfort even after developing more adult, even ‘foodie,’ tastes. Though my revert parents, in their newfound religious fervor, explored several different types of Catholic spirituality, our family’s spiritual home base was our local parish. Like the surrounding residential developments where the parishioners lived, the church of St. Catherine Laboure in St. Louis, Missouri, United States, had been built in the 1950s, and so aesthetically it was pretty bland. On Sundays, depending on which of the five Masses one attended, it was modern music that flooded our ears, regardless of whether it emanated from the choir, the cantor, or the guitar band. The priests followed the prescribed rubrics of the post-Vatican II missal without any attempt to be energetically progressive or traditionally solemn. The homilies were orthodox, if not memorable. Mass attendance was good, though the congregation was not enthusiastic. Outside of Sunday Mass, parishioners had a plethora of other opportunities to “practice their faith” in both prayer and service. Some took advantage of them. At some point, a committee did write a mission statement, but otherwise, there was no overthinking things. It was just a Catholic parish doing what a Catholic parish does, celebrating the Mass as it was done in 1995.
I now appreciate the peaceful, nonchalance of this church. I’ve found that this attitude is the safest and surest for encountering Christ in the Church. It also stands in contrast to other Catholic spaces I’ve spent time in over the years. I was a very religious, impressionable, idealistic teenager. My first adult decision was to enter the convent. The century-old congregation of active Carmelites I joined had embraced Vatican II the ‘right way,’ if you will. They had updated their habit by simplifying the veil, but the monastic Carmelite robe and scapular hadn’t been touched. The liturgy, too, was post-Vatican II, but scrupulously correct. The community still sung old hymns and increasingly used Gregorian chant. We received Communion kneeling at the rail.
In 2007, when Pope Benedict XVI allowed the Tridentine Mass to be used freely, we joined the movement, celebrating Mass according to the old missal once a week. Then, for the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a patronal feast for the congregation, it was decided to do a solemn high Tridentine Mass. Another sister and I learned the Gregorian chants for the Mass. I had been to the Latin Mass many times before I entered the convent, but it had always remained rather opaque to me. Singing it, though, was like a revelation. I felt in perfect synchronization with the events happening at the altar, engaged in an intense back and forth between our sung prayers and the prayers of the priest. As the fathers of Vatican II had wanted, I thought I had more “actively participated” in liturgy than I had ever done.
But this beautiful liturgy had another aspect to it that left me uneasy: it smacked of a performance. It’s difficult, I admit, to express exactly why, except to say that we were all congratulating each other afterwards on how beautiful it was, how well it had come off. Indeed, what had we hoped to get out of doing a high Tridentine Mass in the first place? Though every sister certainly had her personal preferences, no one held that one way of doing Mass—any certain ‘arrangement’ of the feast—was inherently superior to any other.
Obviously, this example tends towards an argument often levelled against the traditional Latin Mass: it’s a self-referential celebration of an aesthetic preference. Interestingly, proponents of the TLM throw the same accusation at the new Mass: the post-Vatican II Mass is an artificial invention of a committee, and with the priest facing the people and lay people prancing around the sanctuary, it turns the Mass into an irreverent, modernist, self-referential show.
Perhaps everyone’s right. There’s just a lot of self-conscious, hung-up, aesthetically obsessed liturgy out there, something for every liturgical style preference. The year I lived in the Netherlands provided a couple of memorable and wildly different examples of this tendency within the new Mass. The first was an annual ‘international’ Mass. The music had been purposely composed for the occasion, taking inspiration from different cultures. One part of the liturgy sounded like something from a dance club in the Caribbean. On the other extreme, I attended a Mass with the local bishop where a Mozart composition was performed. Lovely as his sacred music is, Mozart’s liturgical pieces do not work well with the Novus Ordo. While the choir sang the fifteen-minute-long Gloria, the congregation and celebrant just sat stationary and listened. I then understood why such operatic Mass arrangements had already been discouraged, in their day, as not appropriate for liturgy. They turned the Mass into a concert, concerned clergy feared. I agree. Nowadays, such ornate Mass arrangements are usually only played as concerts, often in churches. It strikes me as ironic.
Concerts made out of Masses. Masses turned into concerts. I think we modern folks have a peculiar obsession with staging, with aesthetics. And it’s only honest to admit that aesthetic tastes change and vary, from historical time, culture, and within the individual. Singing, ritual worship or building a church all involve making aesthetic choices, about which Christians can disagree. Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, had some strong aesthetic opinions. He did not approve of the Cluniac style for monastic life. He found it too ostentatious, even though he had to admit that, aesthetically, those other Benedictines were awfully creative. Undoubtedly, advocates of their respective monastic architecture and art could each mount a good theological argument in favor of their preference, but these were not questions of dogma or doctrine. Neither style seems to have either destroyed the Christian religion nor protected it from the various ups and downs its practice has gone through over the centuries. Both, I’m sure, served their purpose in the course of history.
But seriously, how did Bernard of Clairvaux make his particular aesthetic choices? Likely the same way humans always have: with a bit of reasoning and a lot of gut instinct. Culture changes, but human nature is essentially the same. Culture, at the same time, surely helps inform our visceral reactions, and our culture and St. Bernard’s have some significant differences. Bernard’s times were more fortunate than ours in terms of festivity. The saint’s culture had the elements that, according to Pieper, are needed for festivity to manifest itself. The Middle Ages were surely the epoch of the Christian feast day. Now, we are largely missing the prerequisites for manifest festivity.
Where does that leave us with the great traditions of the Catholic Mass? “What really matters,” Pieper says, “is not the preservation and conservation, but a constant succession of new and present reshapings which give contemporaneity to the festivals.” We here in modern times have a very strong tendency towards conservation and preservation. Think of museums, which are also good demonstrations of how anti-festive preservation can be. Interesting on the one hand, museums are, on the other, really boring. It always seems like a good idea when I decide to go to one, but by the time I leave my eyes are crossed, my feet hurt, and my brain is a bit numb from having stared at so much stuff taken out of its meaningful context. St. Bernard’s France didn’t have museums. The medieval mind created as new much of the ‘patrimony’ we seek to conserve.
But, it seems the fathers of Vatican II intended to do precisely what Pieper says is necessary for festivity—give contemporaneity to the Traditional (not traditional—note the capital) celebration of the Mass. What went wrong? Why do I feel stuck between liturgies of performative splendor and blasé boredom, neither of which really comes off as properly religiously festive? Some would put the blame on calculated forces within the halls of the Vatican, whether modernist or traditionalist. I have a different theory. I think our present liturgical conundrum is almost inevitable. It is a consequence of our times. We live in an age of museums and tourism, consumerism, a flat world of manipulable material. Sometimes everything, whether progressive or conservative, feels to me like it’s tainted with sophistication and artificiality—enemies of true festivity. As Pieper says, we must resist “sophistical corruption of art,” and progress to preserve Tradition, but even the Catholic Church has museums, where, of all things, vessels and vestments once used for worship now serve to remind us of… what? I’m not sure. Jesus comes to us, and thus we have reason to celebrate by actually participating in the Mass, not in looking at a liturgical fashion.
So, if our present time isn’t prepared for great external festivity and true festivity has gone undercover, then it’s to be found precisely where it seems least likely. I knew there was a reason I love Novus Ordo liturgy.
Bridget Ryder is Spain-based writer. She has written on politics, environment, and culture for American and international publications. She holds degrees in Spanish and Catholic Studies.