Today’s Washington Post has an interesting piece by E. J. Dionne on what lessons progressives might learn from the rise of Donald Trump. In the course of his discussion he invokes, as a contrast to the sort of cosmopolitanism found among most progressives, Andrew Greeley’s notion of “neighborhood people,” noting:
Being “citizens of the world” is not high on their priority list. They love the particular patch where they were raised or that they have adopted as their own.
Putting presidential politics aside (something of ever-increasing difficulty and desirability these days), I was struck by the applicability of Greeley’s notion of “neighborhood people” to questions of liturgical reform. The liturgical version of neighborhood people are those who love the liturgy they grew up with and are attached to it not for the richness of its theology or the beauty of its words or music or vestments or architecture, but simply because it is theirs, and has been theirs through moments of great sorrow and moments of great joy, marking milestones in their lives and recalling for them the presence of God at those milestones.
Many of the liturgical reformers of the post-conciliar period were not particularly attentive to these liturgical neighborhood people. Tending to be cosmopolitans themselves, the reformers seemed not to understand how a tacky shrine or some badly warbled chant from the Requiem Mass or saccharine devotions to Our Lady of Wherever could actually be central to the religious life of the neighborhood people. The anthropologists Mary Douglas and Victor Turner were voices crying in the wilderness in the post-conciliar period, warning against the vandalism being carried out by the cosmopolitan reformers against the religious sensibilities of the neighborhood people.
I do not think, however, that what the liturgical neighborhood people of today want or need is for someone to come along an put things back “the way it was.” First, because such a thing is not really possible; unless the liturgy is thought of as a zone hermetically sealed off from the rest of life, we cannot recreated the liturgical experience of the immigrant Church of the first half of the twentieth century. But, second, the neighborhood people have moved on. Some, alas, have moved on out of the Church. But others have adapted, willy-nilly, and have made themselves a home in the reformed liturgy, and love it as “the particular patch where they were raised” spiritually.
In an odd twist—the sort that history so often provides—it is now those who would replace Eagles Wings or Amazing Grace with the chants of the traditional Requiem who are the cosmopolitans that seem unaware of or unconcerned with how deeply these songs have sunk their roots into the lives of the liturgical neighborhood people. The neighborhood people are offended when Mrs. Murphy, who has served as a “Eucharistic Minister” (as they ignorantly call the Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion) for thirty years and brought communion to Pop when he was in the nursing home, is told by the new pastor that her services are no longer needed because now only he and the deacon will be distributing Holy Communion at Mass, because this is more traditional. They feel shunned when the new young priest, fresh from the seminary, turns his back on them during Mass to pray the Eucharistic prayer, not only making them feel cut off from what is going on, but also blocking their view of the consecrated elements. They don’t care if this is the recovery of a very ancient practice; it is not a practice that they have ever experienced.
Some might say that once these changes are explained—once the neighborhood people are educated as to their meaning—then they will accept them. Perhaps. But that is what cosmopolitans always say about neighborhood people (it’s what they said during the reforms in the 60s). Dionne points out that many people offer retraining and re-education as the answer for those who have been left behind by the globalized economy. But those who have been steel workers or miners for 40 years might be understandably resistant to being told that they must now forget all that and learn to sit at a terminal all day. Those who cannot understand this resistance are likely those who have little understanding of what it means to be rooted in a place, in a community within which one has lived one’s whole life. Likewise, liturgical reformers (or reform-of-the-reformers) who think that they can educate people into “better” liturgy perhaps have an insufficient understanding of how liturgy seeps into the bones of neighborhood people. Citizens of the world who are unmoored from a particular place, they are likely to offer abstractions learned from books, whether these abstractions be “active participation” or “organic development.”
Of course, I too am a cosmopolitan, not a neighborhood person. I wince at tacky devotional art and at much (but not all) post-conciliar liturgical music. And even when I enjoy something like a Marian shrine decorated with blinking Christmas lights or a rousing chorus of Eagles Wings it is always with at least a soupçon of postmodern irony. And I am not saying that there should not have been a post-conciliar reform, or that some things that were thrown out in that reform might not be worth trying to recover. But just as, while recognizing the reality of global economic change, we cannot ignore the neighborhood people being left behind by the global economy, so too, when advocating for liturgical change, we should not ignore those who do not really care about what is “liturgically correct” but who simply want to be able to pray the liturgy that has been their home for their whole lives. These neighborhood people embody a genuine wisdom that any advocate for reform should respect.