I can get as nostalgic as the next ex-seminarian about the worship we experienced at St. Joseph Abbey, circa 1960. Filing into the abbey church at early-winter dusk as the monks chanted the last of vespers, joining them in the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament as the church filled with incense, color, and chant-for some of us, the magic of such worship was itself reason enough to become a Benedictine monk.

A layperson now for over thirty years, I still miss the pageantry of the monastic ritual during Holy Week. Still, this is a small and private grief next to the great joy I feel every week when participating in the celebration of the Eucharist at my local parish in downtown Atlanta.

The reform-and renewal-of the liturgy is arguably the most visible, important, and successful accomplishment of the Second Vatican Council. Preceded by decades of pioneering efforts, grounded in meticulous historical scholarship, and carried out with considerable conflict and sometimes personal pain, the transformation of Catholic worship life over the past forty years provides evidence that the Holy Spirit can indeed work even through clumsy human processes.

Although the loudest public battles were fought over changes in the Mass, reform extended to all the sacraments and their associated catechesis. The recovery of the ancient Catechumenate leading to adult baptism at Easter is a notable example of how the reform of the liturgy has worked to renew all of Catholic life. The RCIA, as it is known, has been effective not only in preparing adult converts for initiation, but has equally renewed the enthusiastic faith of their sponsors and teachers. All of the sacraments have similarly been shaped to correspond more fully both to the richness of the entire Catholic tradition and to the spiritual needs of contemporary believers.

As a result, the celebration of the sacraments in the typical Catholic parish today possesses important characteristics that were lacking fifty years ago. It is a communal celebration-explicitly a sacrament of the church-rather than a private or family event. It is an intelligible celebration, using vernacular languages to make both words and gestures accessible. It both expresses and creates tradition, the language of Scripture and of the ancient church taking on new life by being attached to the significant moments of our human lives. Finally, ministers of the sacraments are both pastorally and theologically in tune with the reform. This has been a little-acknowledged success of priestly preparation over the past decades. For all the other deficiencies in seminary education, priests today are generally impressive in the way in which they embody and help others to embody the ritual life of the church.

Critics who complain that these “horizontal” values have been realized at the cost of “vertical” ones, that mystery and a sense of the transcendent have disappeared among all the folksiness, need gently to be reminded of the difference between mystery and mystification. We who grew up in a Tridentine liturgy and who witnessed the travails of reform can bear an important witness to those of a younger generation who hanker after the “good old days.” Some fear they have missed the solemn richness of Catholic piety, believing that the reformed liturgy comes dangerously close to Protestant worship, and that the perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is the essential expression of authentic eucharistic theology. But we are in a position to state that for every example of splendid monastic liturgy in the old days there were countless examples of parish worship that appeared meaninglessly mechanical.

We know that birettas and fiddle-back chasubles, mumbled (and often mangled) Latin, and truly execrable renditions of Gregorian chant were no more aesthetically than theologically impressive. Having lived through “speed-typing” Masses guaranteed to last no more than twenty minutes, we can point to the greater seriousness, even the greater solemnity, of parish worship today. Those who call contemporary worship insufficiently sacred literally do not know what they are talking about.

As for the growing similarity among the eucharistic celebrations of Catholics and Protestants, we should rejoice that Catholics now feel at home at Lutheran, Methodist, and Episcopalian worship, and that our Protestant neighbors have gained much through our process of renewal and reform. The Catholic form of worship remains a strong motivation for conversion among adults. As we have known all along, God works powerfully through the words and gestures of the liturgy; the hard work of renewal has served to make God’s work plain and public each Sunday when we gather as “church.”

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor.


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Published in the 2006-04-21 issue: View Contents
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