Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A Surprisingly Successful Innovation

We will celebrate the Chrism Mass with our Bishop tonight at Knoxville's Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. It will be my 5th Chrism Mass here in Knoxville. (The attached photo is from two years ago - in 2013) As a priest for almost 20 years now, I've participated in Chrism Masses previously at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York and St. Michael's Cathedral in Toronto. It has become an event I always look forward to participating in each year. 

As liturgical innovations go, I think the Chrism Mass is one of the more successful ones - perhaps one of the few instances where a radical transformation of longstanding liturgical tradition has actually worked out for the better.

When Pius XII's Holy Week Reform recreated the Chrism Mass in 1955 - removing the annual blessing of the holy oils by the diocesan bishop from the Mass of the Lord's Supper (now relocated to Holy Thursday evening) to a "restored" Mass of the Chrism on Holy Thursday morning - it seemed like a classic case of liturgical antiquarianism.  While undoubtedly of great interest to professional liturgists and lay liturgical enthusiasts, I doubt many seriously expected that the Chrism Mass would ever become the major and popular event that it has since turned into. Except for the extra clergy who had to be impressed into service for the occasion - 12 priests, 7 deacons, and 7 subdeacons (all in addition to the usual assortment of clergy and other assistants required for a Pontifical Mass at the Throne) - my guess is that hardly anyone else took much notice of the celebration. (Of course, someone from each parish would have had to go "downtown" to pick up the supply of new oils, but presumably that could be - and was - done apart from Mass later in the day or on Friday.) 

When I attended my first Chrism Mass at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral as a 20-year old, history-obsessed liturgical enthusiast in that tragically tumultuous month of April 1968, I was almost entirely motivated by my curiosity about an antiquarian ritual which had been so recently restored and which was itself about to undergo further transformation as part of the liturgical revolution already then underway. (By 1968, while it was still essentially the older rite, and the oils were still blessed at their traditional times during the Mass, the event had already begun to be affected by the ongoing liturgical revolution. Thus, much of the Mass was in English, and the Archbishop concelebrated the Mass with the 12 designated priests - concelebration having been introduced in the Latin Church three years earlier on Holy Thursday 1965).

What changed everything was Pope Paul VI's decision to turn the Chrism Mass into something completely new - a celebration of the priesthood. Of course, the oils are still blessed (although no longer at their traditional times during the Mass or with the full centuries-old ceremonies), but the focus of the occasion is evidently elsewhere.

Holy Thursday (the proper and traditional day for the Chrism Mass) has for centuries been seen as a celebration of the institution of the Eucharist and of the priesthood. As Archbishop of Milan in the 1950s, the future Pope Paul VI had especially stressed the priestly aspect of Holy Thursday with his Ambrosian Rite clergy. The post-conciliar Pauline Missal incorporated this emphasis into the revised rite of the Chrism Mass, inserting a renewal of priestly commitment into the Mass and a proper Preface focused on the priesthood. Despite the reservations of some more traditionally minded liturgists,* the change has not only been widely accepted but has become quite popular. As a result, nearly universal priestly participation at the Chrism Mass is now the general norm.

Personally (speaking as a sometime "history-obsessed liturgical enthusiast"), I would have probably preferred it if the new rite had left the blessings of the various oils at their traditional times during the Mass instead of pointlessly putting them all together at a totally untraditional moment in the Mass at the end of the Liturgy of the Word. That said, I think the radical innovation involved in inserting a renewal of priestly profession was a stroke of liturgical genius, giving the occasion a modern relevance of great spiritual and catechetical value. In this, it parallels the equally radical renewal of baptismal promises at Easter, introduced in the 1950s reform of the Easter Vigil. The solemn, public renewal of priestly commitment involves the entire local Church in a corporate celebration of the meaning of priesthood at a juncture in the Church's history when that may be more needed than at any recent time. The apparent popularity of this Mass with so many laypeople - attested to by the experience of cathedrals often packed to capacity - highlights the value of this innovation in the contemporary Church. 

Certainly one could debate the wisdom of transforming the traditional blessing of the oils into a contemporary celebration of the priesthood. Perhaps another occasion could have served the purpose. But the connection with Holy Thursday is so strongly symbolic, and the renewed Chrism Mass has been such an astounding success pastorally, that it would be hard to argue that any other occasion would have worked better.

Of course, the phenomenon of high attendance by the faithful has been facilitated by the widespread practice of anticipating the Mass earlier in Holy Week. While that does do some damage to the Holy Thursday symbolism, that loss (which could in any case be compensated for by effective catechesis about the occasion) seems to me more than balanced by the gain in the quality of celebration. 

Finally, the Chrism Mass helps to highlight the transcendent importance of the cathedral as the vital center of every local Church. This too is something that may be an increasingly necessary reminder as our once very urban-centered American Catholic life has become so much more suburbanized in style in the past half-century.

* "Not all liturgists were convinced of this innovation, especially those anchored in the older liturgical rite which situated the Missa Chrismatis in the context of the consecration of the holy oils. This consecration was the basis for  every type of consecration in the Church and was seen as an immediate preparation for the baptism of catechumens which took place during the Easter Vigil." (Nicola Giampietro, The Development of the Liturgical Reform As Seen by Cardinal Ferdinando Antonelli from 1948 to 1970, 2009, p.68.)

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