Over at Deacon Eric Stoltz’s fascinating Conciliaria there is an interesting article from the June 28, 1962 Commonweal by John Mannion, who was at that time the president of the Liturgical Conference, entitled “First, the Liturgy.” It not only gives a list of desiderata for liturgical reform — most of which were realized in the next decade — but also gives an apologia for why actual reform of the liturgical rites, and not simply better education, was needed.
I found particularly interesting the argument based on the sign-character of the liturgy. He make the (to my mind) convincing point that a sign that fails to signify fails in its function as a sign. A sign that needs to be translated in order to communicate is not really fulfilling its sign function. Of course, we all need to learn how to use signs; few if any signs are naturally perspicuous. So some education — or, in the case of the liturgy, formation — is needed. So it is really a judgment call as to when the failure of a system of signs tis due to a lack of formation among the recipients of those signs, and when it is that the system itself needs reform.
I suppose we might think of it along the analogy with proposals for spelling reform. One might say that someone who fails to understand that the written sign “cough” stands for the spoken word pronounced kôf, then he or she simply needs to get better formation in the English language. Another might say that, given how English pronunciation usually functions, it would really be better to change the spelling to “koff.” Mannion, it seems to me, represents the latter position with regard to liturgy. The impact of the liturgical action is blunted by the need for constant explanation and signs that are more readily graspable will allow the liturgy better to fulfill its role in the life of Christians.
It is interesting to red these reflections from 1962. How, if at all, has the subsequent half-century proved Mannion right? How, if at all, has they proved him wrong? Do we today have any greater insight into the question of whether the desire for clarity in our liturgical signs is a salutary one?