Monday, August 2, 2021

Beyond the Church's Unending "Liturgy Wars"

In the Church, the so-called "Liturgy Wars," like our secular society's pointlessly destructive "culture wars," continue to divide and polarize people in a way which increasingly suggests that for some it is the "war" itself which is the preeminent point. Even so, as with the secular "culture wars," there are actual substantive issues in dispute, about which reasonable people may differ. For example, given what we know now more than 50 years later, did the post-conciliar liturgical reform really produce benefits for the Church, or has it failed to fulfill its promise (and, if so, why)? Would it have been better to have remained faithful to the limited reforms authorized by Sacrosanctum Concilium, or was the more radical liturgical rupture which actually occurred better for the Church? Was the generous pastoral outreach to accommodate the pre-conciliar liturgy as a legitimate alternative, an "Extraordinary Form" within Roman Rite, beneficial for the Church, or has it in fact failed to benefit the Church, as Pope Francis and many others appear to have judged? Finally, is a preference for alternative liturgical forms compatible with or incompatible with the doctrinal developments associated with Vatican II?

These are all perfectly legitimate questions about which reasonable people may disagree, but which we should not be afraid to discuss. (it is one of the more lamentable characteristics of our time that we are increasingly afraid to discuss disagreements.) To do so safely, with benefit to the Church, however, all of us should adhere to the principle so famously formulated by Saint Ignatius: "it should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation in a neighbor's statement than to condemn it" [Spiritual Exercises, 22]

All that having been said, the present condition of the Church in the United States presents pastoral problems which were obviously unanticipated either by the pre-conciliar liturgical movement, or by the Council itself, or by the post-conciliar liturgical reform. It is an observable fact that Mass attendance has declined in recent decades and that many parish communities, composed increasingly of older members, have been less than successful in forming future generations in the faith and passing on Catholic beliefs and patterns of religious practice to subsequent generations. At the same time, it has been widely observed that one appeal of "Extraordinary Form" liturgy and the communities that celebrate that form of the liturgy is precisely that they appear (especially to some younger families) to serve as alternatives that do actually provide some of the communal context and support for forming families in the faith. This may well be a characteristic common as well to other groups which offer an alternative to - or at least something more than - what may be found in many ordinary, aging parishes. Some examples might be the NeoCatechumenal Way, some charismatic communities, and communities whose most meaningful faith formation occurs in ecclesial movements such as, perhaps, San Egidio, Communion and Liberation, etc.

Whatever the final judgment about the future of "Extraordinary Form" communities, clearly some way must be found to mainstream what such communities are presently providing to support young families and others in forming future generations in the faith and passing on Catholic beliefs and patterns of religious practice to subsequent generations. If ever there were a need for a creative but serious response to a pressing pastoral crisis,  it is staring us in the face right now.

Undoubtedly, the "liturgy wars" will continue. Even so, given the actual condition of contemporary Church life in the United States, all sides would do well to recall Vatican II's liturgical Constitution's admonition:

"The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church. Before people can come to the liturgy they must be called to faith and to conversion: 'How then are they to call upon him in whom they have not yet believed? But how are they to believe him whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear if no one preaches? And how are they to preach unless they be sent?' (Romans 10:14-15)." [Sacrosanctum Concilium, 9]

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