Before the 1950s, there were several forms of the EF. (The following is a simplification, before anyone jumps into action.)
(1) Low Mass
— all spoken, much silence, no assembly participation except by being physically present and following along in a hand missal.
(2) Solemn Mass, often referred to as High Mass
— priest, deacon and subdeacon, with music sung by clergy and choir. Mostly no assembly participation, but see also below (3).
(3) Missa Cantata, sometimes confusingly called High Mass (cf. De musica sacra et sacra liturgia, 1958, para 3)
— similar to (2), but without deacon and subdeacon. Mostly no assembly participation, though Gregorian chant ordinaries (Kyrie, Credo III, etc) were sometimes sung by the people in a handful of “advanced” parishes from the 1920s onwards.
In the 1950s, all this changed, and not only did Low Mass become (4) Dialogue Mass, with the assembly vocally joining in with the responses uttered by the servers, but Solemn/High Mass became (5) “People’s High Mass” which involved the assembly singing things such as the Pater Noster, which had hitherto been reserved to the priest, and the responses, previously only sung by the choir, in addition to the ordinaries.
Not everywhere took these changes on board, of course, but some had been doing them for much longer (for example, Dialogue Mass in Scotland started in 1922 in response to approval by the Holy See, reiterated in 1935 and again in 1958).
It is quite clear, then, that there was in fact quite a lot of assembly vocal participation in the preconciliar rite in the decade or so preceding the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which is yet another reason for discounting the arguments of those who continue to maintain, incorrectly, that the new 1969 Ordo Missae was a rupture with previous practice.
It seems to me that one major problem with many of today’s EF celebrations has arisen precisely because they have mostly opted only for the older, pre-1950s, non-participatory incarnations of the rite, trying to replicate the silent Low Mass (1) and the “High Mass” without any assembly vocal participation (2), and ignoring what happened in the 1950s, which some of them have even said they think was a betrayal of the “True Mass”.
Anyone attending one of these celebrations who tries to join in either with the spoken responses or by singing is treated as a leper. Attempting to point out that this was in fact the prior tradition of the Church before the Council results in one being branded as “not a proper Catholic”. This happened to me at a funeral only a few weeks ago.
Another problem is that most of the people who are advocating these things never lived through them themselves because they weren’t even born. This means that they have no understanding “from the inside” of how these liturgies worked, but only have book knowledge or what they have picked up on the internet. They have no lived experience of them; they are not “in their bones” as they were for those of my generation. This means that for the most part their celebrations are in a sense “parodies” of the original celebrations, with the ministers as play-actors, observing rubrics with an almost inhuman obsession that was never really a characteristic of the preconciliar liturgies. An adjective that I have used of these celebrations is “anodyne”.
Some try to maintain that these celebrations are more “reverent”, or even “what the Church wants” (actually no, we’re talking about the Extraordinary Form). They confuse the mystical with the reverent. In fact the preconciliar rite could be in some respects amazingly irreverent! Here is not the place to tell all the stories of what went on, but they are many and varied and would easily fill a book. In part, these “eccentricities” were a reaction to the liturgical straitjacket of the rite, a way of personalizing it or humanizing it. To celebrate the rite today in a robotic manner as if none of that ever happened is a denial of history.
The young people who have been drawn to these celebrations have not picked up on any of these deficiencies because they, too, were not alive when this way of celebrating was our daily bread.
And because they never lived through a time when these liturgies were normative, they also have no basis on which to understand that the way in which most (not all) of these celebrations are carried out today betrays a preoccupation with external observances rather than an understanding of the internal essence of the liturgy and its different parts. As I have said elsewhere, the mentality is often one of “If we say and do everything in the right order, lo and behold, we have committed liturgy!”
I have nothing against EF celebrations per se, but they really need to focus more on prayer rather than on performance. The latter, alas, often seems to be the primary mode, and, as we know, performing the rite for the rite’s sake is the sin of ritualism, a close relative of the sin of rubricism. I do believe that those who attend them are sincere in their intent, but one could be forgiven for having the impression of a disconnect between ends and means.
I would add that the same critique can be levelled at those at the other end of the spectrum. Ultra-charismatics, neocats, those belonging to other contemporary movements, even LifeTeen, all run the risk of exalting form over content. That danger is perhaps one of the things Romano Guardini had in mind when he famously posed the question in 1964 as to whether humans were still capable of carrying out the liturgical act.