December 1, 2009

In Defense of the Novus Ordo Missae

For the fortieth anniversary of the Novus Ordo Missae this past weekend I have read many stern evaluations of its legacy and reception in the blogosphere and even in the secular press. So I thought that perhaps it would be a good and healthy thing to make a post in its defense. My apology for the modern Roman liturgy has two parts. First, I shall suggest some areas in which I think we need to discipline our speech and make sure we avoid unfair criticisms. Second, I will describe those elements of the Mass of Paul VI that are--to me--an improvement over the traditional form of Mass.

One of the oddnesses of the modern Roman liturgy is that some of its de facto ordinary procedures and practices for celebration are actually exceptions, substitutions, or non-essentials. Thus, these aspects are not fair targets for unqualified criticism. For example:
  • Benedict XVI is oft-quoted (from The Spirit of the Liturgy) on the theological and ecclesiological problems of the Mass offered versus populum. Many agree with him. However, though this option for celebration may seem to the casual observer to be one of the distinctive marks of the Mass of Paul VI, and is treated by many priests as a sacred and unalterable religious duty, it is neither essential nor normative. In fact, in the newer form of Mass, the priest is required to turn and face the people fewer times than in the older form. Thus, it is not fair to criticize the Novus Ordo based on troubles attendant on the offering of Mass "facing the people."
  • Analogously, though it may also seem that Mass offered in local languages is an instrinsic mark of the newer form of Mass, this is also an option rather than a norm. Sacrosanctum concilium 36 clearly affirms that the Latin remains the ordinary language of the Roman rite. Thus, it is also unfair to base criticisms on the use of the vernacular.
  • Much criticism, and some of it justified, has been made against contemporary Catholic music that has grown up alongside the newer form of Mass. For most of us, the ordinary procedure for arriving at music for Mass is to contoct the 'four song sandwich' that will match the readings or suit our theme. This custom is taken for granted so much of the time that we forget that it is a matter of exception and substitution. The ordinary way of music-ing the Roman liturgy is to sing the actual texts of the Mass as they are found in the Missal and the Gradual, rather than substituting them for songs and metrical hymns. For this purpose, Gregorian chants allegedly retain their "pride of place," at least according to Sacrosanctum concilium 116. Therefore, it is not exactly fair to criticize the modern Roman liturgy based on some of the bad music with which it has become associated, for this association is neither essential nor normative.

Secondly, in my opinion there are aspects of the reformed liturgy that are improvements on the older form. For example:
  • The introduction of proper formularies for each day of the Advent and Easter seasons helps to genuinely privilege these liturgical times.
  • The reformed lectionary succeeds in its effort to provide a "richer fare" from the table of God's word; the reformed cycles provide a greater comprehensiveness and diversity through both Sundays and weekdays. This reform affirms the foundational place of proclaimed Sacred Scripture in the liturgy.
  • The new Eucharistic Prayers which we have in addition to the venerable Roman Canon demonstrate that the Roman Missal is not Roman in the narrow sense, but in the most catholic and ecumenical sense. If the clergy of the Roman rite have abused this diversity by marginalizing the Roman Canon, this is not the fault of the reform. (Indeed, when I took the 'how to say Mass' course in studies, we were taught to despise the Roman Canon.) I suggest to them that they begin to pray the Canon, perhaps according to my plan for the minimum use of Eucharistic Prayer I.

In conclusion, by way of all this I just want to say that in the midst of all of this criticism of the Mass of Paul VI, we should keep in mind that it does have certain virtues to recommend it, and that much of the criticism leveled against it is based in non-essentials and imaginary norms.

8 comments:

Mark in Spokane said...

Very good points, Father! I appreciate both the older form of Mass and the Novus Ordo, and prefer to worship in the Novus Ordo for a variety of reasons. I think that when discussing the Novus Ordo, some folks have a hard time distinguishing between the liturgy itself and certain abuses or improper practices that have grown up around the liturgy. As the new English translation of the Novus Ordo finally arrives, there will be an opportunity to reform those practices and have a stronger and more proper method of celebrating Mass.

The great advantage of the Novus Ordo, I think, is that it has allowed for the Mass to become closer to the people, to allow us a better view of the Mass and what is happening therein. While many attack the idea of vernacular liturgy, the Mass in English (and Spanish, Tagalog, Polish, etc.) has helped enormously, I think, to allow the Mass to enter more strongly into the consciousness of our people.

Brother Charles said...

Thanks for the comment, Mark. I agree that the failure to distinguish between the liturgy itself and its frequent abuses muddies the discussion.

ben in denver said...

Thank you so much for inviting intelligent dialogue about this issue Fr. Charles.

I agree that the introduction of proper formularies for Advent and Easter is an improvement.

However, the expanded lectionary, while not a problem in itself, points to one of the difficulties that I have with the ordinary form, which is that the role of the scripture readings seems completely different in the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the mass. In the Ordinary form, the role of the readings is primarily catechetical. They are proclaimed to the congregation from the ambo. As the people of God, our task is to hear and live the Word. In some ways it parallels the communion rite.

In the Extraordinary form, the word is offered to the Father on the Altar of Sacrifice, and is more of a parallel to the sacrifice in the Mass of the Faithful. Even in the case of the Solemn High Mass, where the Deacon chants the gospel away from the altar to the liturgical north, he is offering to the Father a symbol of the sacrifices he will make in Evangelizing the pagans.

To me, the Mass of the Catechumens seems much more worshipful as an offering of goods to God, than does the Liturgy of the Word which does not seem sacrificial.

Similarly, I don't like the proliferation of Eucharistic prayers. Now it is my understanding that the alternative Eucharistic Prayers have their genesis in other rites--hence they are by definition not organic to the Roman Rite. I beleive a better alternative would be to actually allow the celebration of these rites by Roman Clergy as an option on appointed days. For example, yesterday would have been a fine day for Romans to clebrate the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in Honor of the Patron of Constantiople, or they might celebrate Liturgy of St. James on July 25th, for example.

I think this sort of thing would be more truly ecumenical, even though as a practical matter it would only happen in a few churches.

There is already a precedent for this kind of thing in some of the eastern churches. I believe the Byzantines, for example, celebrate the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great on a few appointed days every year.

Brother Charles said...

Ben! I have not thought about this difference between the function of Sacred Scripture. There is something to it, clearly. I shall have to think on this one.

Your suggestion regarding the offering of different rites is also interesting. I suppose that Benedict has opened the door to this sort of thing by proclaiming the possibility of a diversity of liturgical expression in a single rite. I'll be thinking about this one, too! (And looking forward to praying the anaphora of Addai and Mari. ;o)

Anonymous said...

Father Charles, you and your commenters hve some very erudite observations about the EF and NO liturgies.From my far less educated perspective, I think that the problem with th NO is not the liturgy itself,but the various forms of liturgical abuses over the years. On many popular websites, the commenters seem to clamor for the suppression of the NO in favor of the EF. This will never happen, nor should it, but the reintroduction of the EF on a wider scale can only better our liturgical practices.The NO can be beautiful and memorable when properly offered according to the rubrics. The problem is that so few priests seem to do so. I have had many a "cringing" experience where a priest who otherwise seems reverent and diligent will speed through the Eucharistic prayer as if trying to set a new record. The absence of his own sense of mystery cannot possibly help the faithful to develop it. In most churches, the liturgy has become very informal. How many parishes today regularly offer a solemn NO Mass on Sunday, with sung responses and use of incense? Very few. How many persist in using a legion of extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, even when there are priests available (not to open another can of worms?) Here is where the EF can inform a better offering of the NO, by restoring and infusing in the NO a sense of the sacred that we have sadly lost to some extent.

Qualis Rex said...

Father Charles - thank you for this lesson in humility. As you, Mark and Ben rightly point out, it is poor scholarship and "dirty pool" to point out the abuses rampant in the Novus Ordo and equate them with the liturgy itself. I am indeed very often guilty of this. Mea culpa. However, I have always separated Vatican II (specifically Sacrosanctum Concilium) from the Novus Ordo of Paul VI and have been/am the first one to point this out to Sedes (aka heretics) and SSPX (schismatics ?).

Assuming the most orthodox of orthodox priests says the Novus Ordo to the letter of the GIRM, that the congregation all recieve on the tongue by kneeling (with no EM's), the music is gregorian chant and the priest celebrates mass ad orientem and in Latin, I guess what I would still miss at this point is a) the is the Gospel of St John reading at the end (it sums our belief up every mass) b) the genuflections (especially during the Credo) c) the "vesting prayers" since they portray the priest as taking the role of "high priest" as in the continuity from the time of the temple and d) the "asperges". This last part is for me the most important in that it is also represented in the Oriental Orthodox churches (Coptic, Ethiopian etc). I believe it is a piece of the ancient church that made it to our present day (barely).

Brother Charles said...

Anonymous: Don't sell yourself short; you know what you are talking about. "The absence of his own sense of mystery" is a biting diagnosis.

QR: I always say the vesting prayers when I offer Mass in the OF. :)

Brother Charles said...

Norah: Sorry; I deleted your comment by mistake! Here it is:

"I watch the OF Masses on EWTN and sometimes the Holy Father's OF Masses so I know that they can be reverently celebrated - would that I could attend one such Mass.

I like the extra Scripture Readings but I wish that father would unpack them and not just talk about how God lurves us again this week.

I am over the Second Eucharistic prayer. I can't remember the last time I heard the First Eucharistic Prayer or the Fourth Eucharistic Prayer for that matter.

I wish that father had continued his predecessor's use of incense, candles at the gospel reading, and singing the parts of the Mass. I am glad that we don't have to give the choir and the altar servers a round of applause for their performances any more though. I am sorry that father finds giving Holy communion on the tongue 'icky'."

I think that Eucharistic Prayer IV goes by the wayside because of concerns over so-called "inclusive language."