The experience of my generation of American Roman Catholics is summed up in a remark attributed to Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich: “The risen Christ is always doing something new with his church.” In some eras that seems less obvious than in others. I was raised in the nineteenth-century fortress of immigrant Catholicism, where I learned, as my first foreign language, Latin; the first music I sang in school was Gregorian chant, and I was twenty-one years old before I heard a word of English at Mass, other than the homily. But then came Vatican II—it unfolded during my college years—bringing with it an education in how to deal faithfully with profound change through humble honesty, charitable discussion, and openness to the full riches of tradition.

The first great result of that conciliar process was the approval of the Constitution on the Liturgy, which inaugurated the decade-long reform of the liturgical books of the Roman Rite, and the still longer process of their translation and adaptation to various cultures. Today that liturgical and ecclesial aggiornamento, to use the sixties term, has been called into question and in some cases even abandoned—and often with good reason. Surveys for years have shown that Roman Catholic preaching, with some exceptions, is still not that strong. Some of the stories that I hear are awful and, God help us, often seem to involve funerals. One recent example relates how the priest’s words about his parishioner in the homily bungled some important details of the deceased’s life; in another, the homily consisted of a theological reflection on purgatory and the importance of indulgences.

The state of Roman Catholic music is also often questionable. Admittedly, the challenge a half-century ago was daunting. Other than Christmas carols, waltz tunes like “Bring Flowers of the Fairest,” and a few ethnic standards like “Holy God,” there was little Catholic repertoire in the vernacular. Borrowing from the Protestants’ robust tradition of hymn-singing was possible—until we discovered that they were “thee-ing” and “thou-ing” away in what was distinctly not a contemporary vernacular. And so the guitar group led us in repurposed pop songs. A good many Catholics, on both ends of the ideological spectrum, found this a penitential experience.

In many places the guitar group and the keyboardist still bang out the hits of their youth, or the organist chooses some generic standards. But progress has been made. Given the efforts of various Catholic publishers and of groups like the National Pastoral Musicians, there now exists a liturgical repertoire with a high level of musical, literary, and theological quality; and there are many places where congregation, cantor, and choir collaborate in shaping a liturgical experience where both soul and body sing. In general the last two decades have seen an amazing resurgence of serious singing in many different venues, especially among young people. Why then are Catholics still not singing in church?

Perhaps the real question—the great question that haunts post–Vatican II liturgical reform—is whether the clergy have given the people anything to sing about. I don’t just mean the homily. Do our priests, in the performance of their role in the liturgy, reveal how “mindful” they are of the deep and awesome mystery they are helping enact? I always pay attention, for example, to how the priest “performs” the dialogue that begins the Eucharistic Prayer. When he says “Lift up your hearts!,” is he making eye contact? Are his rising arms clearly inviting us to enter more deeply into God’s presence? Does he seem personally caught up in the need to give God thanks and praise? Or is he simultaneously turning the pages of the sacramentary to find the right Preface?

This list of failures in contemporary American Catholic liturgy could go on. The core question, though, is this: Should we blame this often-dismal state of affairs on flaws in the reform itself, or in our implementation of it?

Starting around 1985, the Curia began to fault the reform itself. In many publications, the story of the council, and of the labors of liturgical reformers who participated in it, contained two elements: a romanticized version of the preconciliar church; and a conspiracy theory about how the council and the reform had been “hijacked” by assorted “modernists,” leading to the destruction of the “timeless” Tridentine Mass of Pius V. In fact (and remember, I was there), the mandate given to the reformers by the Constitution on the Liturgy was straightforward: some elements “are to be discarded; other elements…are now to be restored to the vigor that they had in the days of the holy Fathers.”

The objection that became common was that the development of that earlier ritual after Trent was somehow “organic,” while the development of the postconciliar Mass was “disruptive.“ Yet the goals and process used by the reformers who produced the Mass of Paul VI closely paralleled the work of the Tridentine reformers. As Pius V summed it up in his 1570 bull promulgating the Tridentine Missal, those who produced that work used the best texts available to restore the Mass “to the former pattern and rite of the Fathers”—words that the Constitution on the Liturgy practically quotes. Similarly, as Blessed Paul VI said in a general audience in 1969, the new missal was “a step forward in the church’s genuine tradition.... It is not a fad, a fleeting or optional experiment, the invention of some dilettante. The reform is a law thought out by authorities in the field of liturgy, debated and studied at length.” Clearly, in the eyes of two popes and a general council, a living tradition does not mean the endless repetition of every detail of the past. Real continuity can involve significant discontinuity.

Indeed, the post–Vatican II liturgical reform is an excellent example of how a genuine tradition can organically evolve by looking at its own roots. The list of changes between the Tridentine Mass and the Novus Ordo is long: the use of the vernacular; active verbal participation by all the assembly; an audible Eucharistic Prayer; Communion in the hand and from the Cup for the laity; an altar facing the people; and the exchange of peace by everyone. Yet only one item on this extensive list could be called an innovation: the expansion of the lectionary. All the rest are not innovations but restorations, revivals of practices once integral to the Roman Catholic tradition of public worship, but which for various reasons had been abandoned over time. The Tridentine Mass reflected the state of liturgical and historical understanding in the fifteenth century; the Novus Ordo reflects the much richer set of resources available to the church in the twentieth. And so Paul VI could rightly claim that all these restorations had been “thought out…debated, and studied at length” before their reintroduction.

Much more important, the core distinction between these two orders of Mass lies not in external details, but in a renewed inner spirit. The external changes reflect the council’s understanding of the inward meaning of the Eucharist, an understanding far broader and richer than the Roman Rite had known for centuries. That core theological restoration is summarized in one simple expression: the Real Presences of Jesus, in the plural. Without denigrating the “real and substantial presence of Jesus” in the consecrated bread and wine, the Roman liturgical books now also speak of his real presence in the gathered assembly, in the ministers and their service, and in the proclamation of the Word. The desire to let each of these four real presences shine forth once more during the Mass was the guiding principle behind the restorations.

In the context of the four centuries that followed the Tridentine reform, Vatican II’s liturgical reform brought about a profoundly different architectural layout and a different style of ritual enactment. Yet from the two-millennia-long perspective of Roman Catholic tradition, the latter reform represented a profound spiritual continuity. If Christ, for example, is really present both in the assembly and in the ministers, why should a priest face a wall when he is talking to God? Why should the personality of the ministers, which comes through in their interaction with the assembly, be a barrier to prayer rather than a means of disclosing Christ’s presence at work within them? Why should behavior in church imitate the court etiquette of Versailles instead of the interactive behavior of believers described in St. Augustine’s sermons?

I can personally appreciate the dynamic of the Tridentine Mass, since I grew up with it and some of my most profound religious experiences occurred within it. Yet its celebration focused so much on only one real presence that the Eucharistic Prayer could seem to be some sort of transubstantiation machine run by the priest, for spectators to behold and adore. In contrast, I have lived almost all of my adult life within the reformed Roman Rite, and the fullness of Christ’s multiple presences has unfolded for me ever more richly, Sunday after Sunday. We gather and listen again to God’s Word. The presider (to use Justin Martyr’s term from the middle of the second century) offers thanks and praise for all God’s wonderful works, and then we all eat and drink from what has just been consecrated, before we leave to serve our neighbors—according to Matthew 25, the fifth of Christ’s real presences.

The rightness of it all comes from experiencing the very real and gradually intensifying presence of Jesus through the unfolding of all of these manifestations. It also feels right because I know that at the core, this is both what Jesus commanded us to do and also what Christians in the West actually did for centuries, before the Dark Ages led to profound adaptations that turned the laity into spectators rather than participants in the Mass. These medieval adaptations have still not gone away, even though the world has changed profoundly. I have never forgotten one occasion about ten years ago when the priest told us that the cup was not going to be shared at “his” Mass because the practice was “inconvenient” and “not strictly necessary.” I wanted to ask him which other of Jesus’s inconvenient commandments I could regard as optional.

I am especially moved by the rightness of the Mass of Paul VI because the parishes in which I have worshipped throughout most of my adult life have in general baked their own bread. (It is easy to make unleavened bread: there are several good recipes online.) Consequently, instead of being presented with a neat, white, round little commercially produced host, I am used to watching a large unleavened loaf be presented (sometimes by the person who baked it), consecrated, divided, and distributed. As Luke puts it in the Emmaus episode, Jesus is made known not merely in the object of Bread, but in the action of breaking and sharing it. Some object to such a strong emphasis on the Eucharist as meal because it seems to them to diminish its reality as a sacrifice. Yet that is a false dichotomy. As Léon-Dufour put it: “The Mass…symbolizes the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, but it does so by way of the supper.” The mystery of faith is that “when we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, O Lord, until you come again.” It is precisely through our table-fellowship with Jesus that we reenact his self-emptying love revealed on the cross.

So how do we break out of the impasse that exists in the many parishes where discontent with the liturgy has bred apathy? What we don’t need is a return to the pieties of the past. I have seen gigantic tabernacles, dramatized recitations of the words of institution, exaggerated elevations, and prolonged genuflections—all in the name of restoring reverence for the Real Presence. That approach, however well-intentioned, is misguided, for it shrinks Jesus’ presence down once again to the singular. We are not at Mass passively to reverence and adore, but actively to eat and drink and to share Christ’s love with each other and with all the other poor whom he came to save.

Jesus’ commands to us in the gospels are very few. “Gather in my name.” “Take and eat.” “Take and drink.” “Wash each other’s feet.” “Love one another.” The Novus Ordo was reformed precisely to make these core commands stand out. It was not meant to be an experience of private, mystical prayer—valuable though that be—but a communal, sacramental experience in which, through Word and water, wine and bread, and above all through people, the real and living presence of Christ is encountered.

And so we do not need to reform the reform; we need to do the reform, and not just in the letter, but in the spirit that fills our post–Vatican II liturgical books. We need bakers who bake, readers who proclaim and don’t just recite, ministers who move with style and grace, presiders who are truly leaders of prayer, and a congregation ready to do what we call “liturgy”—the “people’s work.”

I think we need to return to doing the reform with authenticity, boldness, and charity. Then catechesis, preaching, and practice will make all the multiple presences of Jesus real, not only to us but to the whole world.

Published in the October 7, 2016 issue: View Contents

Michael H. Marchal is a retired teacher and writes frequently on liturgy and literature.

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