Liturgical (Reform of the) Reform and “Neighborhood People”

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 recreate 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.


  1. All this might be reasonable if it were not for the ongoing attack against those neighborhood people who are still attached to a more traditional form of worship. Do you want respect for those who grew up with the present reform and wish to retain it? Fine, but then have the same respect for those who wish to return to way the Church worshipped for over a thousand years. This need not be a winner take all battle. If we were to accept that all of the options present in the current Roman Missal are legitimate and in keeping with Vatican II then the rest would just be a matter of logistics.

  2. Well, in the first place, I didn’t really say anything about those who are “still attached to a more traditional form of worship.” I am not in principle opposed to making the EF available to people.

    But, second, my impression, both from the few EF Masses I have attended and from my interactions with EF proponents on the interwebs (thus, perhaps, a mistaken impression), is that most of those who are attached to the EF or to ad orientem or Gregorian chant are not the “neighborhood people” that Greeley and Dionne refer to. That is, they are not those who grew up with this “more traditional form of worship” and are attached to is because it has been woven into the fabric of their lives, but rather are those who have discovered it from reading Fr. Z or the NLM or some other such outlet. This is not to say that their attachment is not sincere, but it is the kind of attachment more characteristic of cosmopolitans than of neighborhood people.

    And perhaps because I myself am a cosmopolitan and not a neighborhood person (anyone with a PhD who claims to be a neighborhood person is simply a poseur), I am particularly sensitive to the way in which the attachments of neighborhood people can be run roughshod over, even when it is done in the name of a “return to way the Church worshipped for over a thousand years.”

  3. As Pope Francis said, “there is no going back.” Going back would imply a desire to return to a ‘golden age” when poorly educated but compliant priests and nuns ruled “the church” by instructing the lowly laity to pray, pay, and obey. Those were the days when the royal priesthood was not spoken of, thus no need for any kind of active participation in the Mass. People heard Mass or went to Mass and priests said their Masses, No need for assistance with Holy Communion since so few people received it apart from the early morning Masses. Oh yes, in those good old days the laity were actively steered away from study of the scriptures because that was a Protestant practice. Also thought of as Protestant were singing, sacrificial giving, stewardship, and evangelization. While the TLM included a Liturgy of the Word it was given such short shrift that few noticed. The sermons were commonly insipid and thought of as something not truly a part of The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. These understandings of church went hand in hand with the ecclesiology of the TLM. I was there, already in my twenties when the seismic shift occurred with SC. Than you, Lord, for sending your Holy Spirit to renew the face of the church and through it the earth.

  4. If you were to look at my recommendation you would see that I was not talking about the EF but about the new Mass celebrated in a more traditional manner. This could also incorporate what even many traditionally minded Catholics the good points of the reform. The stark contrast in forms of worship that is created by denying the traditional options present in the current Missal, thus leaving those wishing for a more traditional form a worship no option but the EF, is artificial and unnecessary.

    As for those who are attached to the EF, it has to be asked why did they seek out or become attached to it? These are ordinary people who have grown increasingly dissatisfied with a liturgy that veers more and more from what is recognizable as the Roman Rite. For many this dissatisfaction is more instinctual rather than intellectual. They are also the product of families that have never be comfortable with the way the reforms have been implemented; the remains of the forgotten neighborhood people who were left behind. You do not have to have a PhD to be attracted to a more traditional form of worship, one that is organically connected to the past.

    Much of the rancor that we have experienced over the past 50 years could have been avoided with a little Christian charity and a practice of a true diversity that is so often preached.

    1. @Fr. Anthony Forte:
      I concur completely with your final paragraph. Indeed, that was at least one of the points I was attempting to make with my post. Unfortunately, I see among some of today’s advocates of a return to tradition the same willingness to run roughshod over the religious sensibilities of ordinary people that was displayed during the post-conciliar reforms. As someone once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.” I would hope that we can learn from the mistakes of the past.

      1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt:
        I agree with you that there is an unfortunate lack of pastoral sensitivity among some advocates for a return to tradition. But you have to remember that they are coming out of a wounded population that still feels itself shut out of the mainstream church. There are also two other issues that need to be addressed: the refusal by those attached to the status quo to acknowledge the legitimacy of their aspirations, and the lack of supervision by bishops to facilitate a welcoming return of those attached to a more traditional form of worship and an accommodation to their spiritual needs. If there is no diocesan plan to accomplish this then individual priests cannot be blamed for seeking to do so on their own wherever they happen to be. As I said above, it we were to start off with charity and mutual respect they rest would just be a matter of logistics.

      2. @Fritz Bauerschmidt:
        Thank you – exactly 30 years to the day, the pastor and a small, rich, and handpicked group with no parish consultation or input, decided to eliminate the Eucharistic chapel and move the tabernacle behind the free standing altar. One of the group commented – “Finally, Jesus is back home”

        Sorry, but this same small group has alienated gays, Hispanics (who use the church but have separate everything), young families (no provision for them), and fight for the church they remember from 1960 – pure nostalgia. Agree with your distinction but, in fact, there is a role for liturgical education and development. To just allow people to stay in their piety hits discordant chord in me, IMO.

  5. Actually, quite a few of the neighborhood people would be glad that it was a priest coming to give Communion to the relative in the nursing home instead of an EMHC, with all due respect to Mrs. Murphy.

    1. @Jay Edward:
      Perhaps. But, alas, it was Mrs. Murphy who showed up. And I suspect that even though she’s no longer welcome to serve at Mass, Mrs. Murphy is still welcome to visit the nursing home.

      I can count on one hand the number of priests I’ve known who regularly visited nursing homes. And I wouldn’t even use most of the fingers on that hand.

      1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt:
        Additional context:

        Elderly infirm Catholics are probably now far more segregated than they were before the Council, and farther way from their “home” and “home parish”.

        My father (and late mother) moved 30 miles away from their home and parish of 55 years to become members of a continuing care community with a few hundred residents. They were turned off by the territorial parish and elected to join another parish a bit further away. My mother was buried from that latter parish, and my father (now 92) recently asked the pastor to make sure he could receive the Blessed Sacrament from time to time on request when he is no longer able to drive, and to be buried from the parish when he dies. Of course, the pastor said yes. But it’s a much more attenuated relationship with a parish than living in a home with a family still active in a territorial parish dense with active Catholics.

  6. There must be a balance between advancing reforms and not pulling the rug out from under people — a pastoral sensitivity. Let us table, for a moment, whether or not the EF is better or worse and go back to the Council of Trent. While it standardized the Roman Rite, it also allowed for local custom. Rites with long standing traditions — like the Ambrosian Rite, for example — were allowed to continue. It was hardly perfect; if I remember correctly, it had an arbitrary cut off date of 200 years. In its own way, though, it was more accommodating than the recent reform was.

    Looking to the past, imagine if the reformers had begun with simply allowing the EF in the vernacular, and then after a time, reformed the text. Imagine if the Church had not ripped down reredos and stripped churches of centuries of art and architecture. Imagine if newly constructed parishes met the new guidelines (such as the much discussed rubrics for altars), rather than moving ones that already existed. And so on. But that was the spirit of the age in the 60s and 70s, and reforms lurched along rapidly, not always for the better.

    I wouldn’t suggest that only keeping traditions older than 200 years is correct, but certainly, if St Swithuns By the Sea has some tacky thing they’ve been doing that isn’t in gross violation of rubrics and the GIRM, room can be made to accommodate it as reforms continue. The cosmopolitan can make room for the neighborhood people.

  7. Shaughn Casey : Imagine if newly constructed parishes met the new guidelines (such as the much discussed rubrics for altars), rather than moving ones that already existed. And so on. But that was the spirit of the age in the 60s and 70s, and reforms lurched along rapidly, not always for the better.

    I think a lot of the way the post-conciliar reforms were carried out had to do with the “best and the brightest” mindset of the 60s—an over-confidence in expertise and a disdain for common sense. Liturgical reform and urban renewal had a lot in common, including not only the good intentions behind them but also the willingness to bulldoze historic structures. Of course, rebuilding those structures now is as artificial as their bulldozing was destructive.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt:

      That’s true, with notable differences–chiefly in who is supporting it and who is opposing it. Here again, there must be a balance, and a desire not to pull the rug out from under people. I’m reminded of C. S. Lewis talking about fixing errors in logic, sums, or philosophy. We can’t get to a good destination by driving ever forward, anymore than we’ll get to the right sum by pressing on from a mistake. Rather, we have to go back to where the error was made and right it. Local communities desiring those older forms and aesthetics, it could be argued, are trying to push the pendulum away from bad extreme by trying to reconstruct some of what was lost.

  8. Lot of imagining going on. Imagine if SC had simply endorsed the priest centered Mass known as the TLM and failed to take up the consequences of a baptism that results in priestly people worthy of active participation in the Sacred Mysteries. What if the council fathers in union with Peter had not rediscovered that all the bishops, in and with Peter, are responsible for teaching, sanctifying, and serving the church universal? And suppose they also had not expanded the church’s understanding of revelation in Verbum Dei? How about if they had left intact the notion of a triumphal church by reaffirming the perfidy of Jews, the utter emptiness of the religious beliefs of Hindus and Moslems, and the vast heresies of the Protestants? The reform of liturgical rites was inspired by nothing less than a paradigm shift occasioned by fresh insights into the role of the church in a modern world. I think we should keep in mind what the church would look like without that shift: The Society of St. Pius X.

    1. @Jack Feehily:

      With all due respect, Father, that’s a fine reductio ad absurdum argument you’ve got going on there, strung together with a lot of non-sequiturs outside the scope of my argument. I’m not suggesting that liturgical reform shouldn’t have happened, but that it should have happened in an incremental, pastorally sensitive way. As I’ve said, the goal is not to pull the rug out from under people. I’m not trying to mythologize the pre-VII church as perfect, and I’m not even disagreeing with the Council in principle. The execution, however, has indisputably led to many disaffected people and objects needlessly smashed.

      We were speaking of taking care of “neighborhood people” now and in the future. I quite agree, but that necessarily means taking a sober, fair minded view and realizing the Church could have better taken care of “neighborhood people” in the past, too.

    2. @Jack Feehily:
      Why would the whole Church look like the SSPX? Their whole existence is shaped by the reform and Vatican II. Had no VII occurred, there wouldn’t be a Society of St Pius X at all. They are as much a fruit of Vatican II as anything else.

  9. I suspect that the subjective accounts of the most extreme offenses catch in people’s minds. For all the talk of Vatican II, there were many people making changes in the 60’s and early 70s who were formed entirely in a pre-conciliar Church and interpreted reform as “I decide. You follow.”

    On the other hand, I recall many churches well into the 90s whose pastors and parishioners resisted, ignored, or moderated liturgical changes. Many renovations of the 80s and 90s were done with great sensitivity and were well-received.

    My suggestion would be that rather than look to reform2 as an optimal middle ground between neighborhood and upper crust or the balance between TLM thousands and the millions of the rest, we seek out best practices. It might be hard. Parishes that did reform well likely don’t have embittered parishioners seeking solace online.

    The big miss that continues to elude us Catholics isn’t liturgical reform one way or the other, but a much deeper sense of discipleship and mission. Face it: the Great Commission is about going and making disciples. Not about making good liturgy for the elder siblings of the household.

  10. Well I’m trying to read this in a charitable light but, it still reads like (to ‘traditional’ people)-
    “Please don’t do to us what we did to you, think of the neighborhood people.”
    The “traditional movement” is a complex thing. It contains a mix of elderly “neighborhood people” who never “got with it”; people fleeing from the formless silly chaos of the worst of ‘progressive liturgy’; people who simply prefer smells and bells; and a minority of liturgical intellectuals. In many ways it is a reactionary movement which wouldn’t exist if the ‘reformers’ hadn’t been iron fisted fascists in the first place.

    1. @Ben Perry:
      I’ve had conversations with traditionalists (real life ones, not internet) where that was the sentiment. It is difficult to want to give charity to those who were not charitable to you. Many I know would want things to go slowly, pastorally, etc (indeed, I would say that is a major theme in the ROTR movement generally), but a few others are not so willing and would love it if everything were suppressed tomorrow and replaced by the 1962 Missal.

      For me a true pie-in-the-sky “middle way” would be to jettison the ordinary of the OF and replace it with that of the EF as it stood in the mid 60s, but with the looser musical rubrics, calendar, and reading cycle of the OF. Stuff like versus populum, EMHCs, hymns in place of propers, and communion standing would still be the norm and everything could remain in vernacular for those who want it. I’ve been directly told here that for most neighborhood people, these are the things that they most care about and which define the VII liturgical reform for them – that the reform of the texts themselves practically didn’t even register. Aside for being peeved at learning a few new responses for the new “penitential rite” (the old prayers at the foot of the altar), it’d probably go over pretty well, but would be a step towards re-connecting the Mass to the larger tradition.

    2. @Ben Perry:
      Despite my aged appearance, I was not a player in the post-conciliar reforms, so I didn’t really do anything to anyone (at least not in the liturgical realm; my other sins are manifold). My point was more that Greeley’s “neighborhood people” were largely ignored in the 60s and are often ignored today, and that in both instances it was/is wrong to ignore them. So I think it’s less a plea to “don’t do to us what we did to you” as it is one to “learn from past mistakes.” And I say this as much to myself as to others, since I am as inclined as anyone to want to impose my idea of “good liturgy” on others.

  11. Thanks Jack,
    I qualify as a real life ‘traditionalist’ of sorts (I’m hesitant to use the term as people make assumptions). And generally yes, I would like a reasonable, realistic, pastoral approach …

    At the same time, though, I have been personally treated very badly by older, virtually rabid “progressives” (including personal insults directed at me and other members of a Gregorian Schola from the pulpit- this beside the usual ridiculous accusations of ‘trying to turn back the clock’ and such, I’m 35 my clock doesn’t go back that far). The natural human reaction is I think to want to give back poison with interest. Our Lord demands a much, much more difficult response.

  12. I have to say, I’m heartened to read the cordial conversation here between the various liturgical camps. If only we could do this more often and generate more light and warmth, and coziness among the family of believers. 🙂

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