by Neil Xavier O’Donoghue
Robert Taft has often spoken of the danger of the “pick-a-century” game in the renewal of the liturgy. For example, his essay on: “Eastern Presuppositions” and Western Liturgical Renewal explains it in this way:
Despite fearful reactions and attempts to turn back the clock, such efforts surely will not succeed, since Vatican II Catholics have succeeded in facing the modern world. For the most part they have done so, I believe, with courage, honesty, integrity and imagination.
It is impossible to overemphasize how important it was to do that, if Christianity is to have a future in the modern secularized world. For Christians, the only “ideal period of liturgy” is the one they are living in. A nostalgic vision of Christian tradition was a basic error of the Protestant Reformation, the notion that there was some ideal evangelical past to which one could return.
Some lovers of eastern liturgy make the same mistake, playing the same “pick a century” game. The only difference is that they pick the classic patristic age of late antiquity, whereas the Protestant Reformers opted for apostolic times. But Paul tells us in Second Corinthians 6:2, “Behold, now is the acceptable time … now is the day of salvation.”
A recent piece on the Rorate Coeli blog brought this to mind. Many liturgists had reservations about Pope Benedict XVI’s liberalization of permission to use the liturgical books that had been replaced after Vatican II. In the motu propio Summorum Pontificum he stated that it is “permitted to celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass following the typical edition of the Roman Missal, which was promulgated by Blessed John XXIII in 1962.”
This permission has encouraged many groups and priests to celebrate Mass using the missal of 1962 (although there are some doubts as to exactly how many people actually attend these liturgies). However it now seems that even the 1962 Roman Missal is not sufficient for some of those who find the celebrations according the 1962 Missal more beneficial than those using the current Roman Missal. The Rorate Coeli blog has the news that “the Pontifical Commission ‘Ecclesia Dei’ has given new permission to a handful of traditional priestly societies to offer Holy Week liturgies this month as they existed before the massive Pius XII / Archbishop Bugnini reforms of 1955.”
Personally I believe that the 1951 introduction of a renewed Easter Vigil and the 1955 introduction of a renewed Holy Week was a good achievement. I am not sure about the advisability of allowing groups to “resurrect” different forms of the liturgy. Does this mean that in the future some people will use the 1962 Missal and others use a 1950 edition? What will happen if another group would like to use some other old version or “resurrect” another earlier form of the liturgy from history?
Liturgy is something that develops over time, and I agree with Taft that going back to some ideal time in history is dangerous. However, I also believe that Catholicism has room for a healthy diversity (just so long as no one is claiming that their expression of the Faith is the true version and is better than others). Hopefully the Holy Spirit will help all communities to live the Paschal Mystery in these days and build up a unity that the Church so badly needs in our days.
Neil Xavier O’Donoghue is a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey. He currently ministers in the Archdiocese of Armagh, Ireland, where he serves as vice rector at Redemptoris Mater Seminary. He has studied at Seton Hall University, the University of Notre Dame, and St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He holds a Doctorate in Theology from St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.