THE introduction of the new form of Mass liturgy has been postponed until the beginning of Lent. Some people will be disappointed. others relieved, but many don't care much anyway because past changes have not, in practice, affected Catholic life as much as had been expected.
Whether one approves of liturgical change or regards it as an abandonment of our Catholic past, its effects have not been as earth-shaking as the preceding arguments led us to expect. The use of English in worship has neither liberated a great tide of fervour or enlightenment.
nor has it marked a collapse of faith and a compromise with secular values.
Most people go on going to Mass just as before, and paying just as much attention as before. For some. the changes have been a spiritual bonus of considerable im portance, for others, a loss they will not easily cease to mourn. But I would be very surprised if more than a tiny number have either lost their faith, or been converted to Christ, by experience of a vernacular liturgy, or any other innovation in worship.
It .seems unlikely, moreover, that the new "Stan dard Mass" rite, as such, will have any greater effect. Does this mean it doesn't matter how we worship'? Has all this agonising been a waste of time and energy?
I don't think so, but 1 do think that we have in fact wasted much of it. It matters enormously how we express our worship of God, because the forms (however casual) of worship actually shape our attitude to God, and to ourselves as called by Him to be disciples. At least, they do if we let them.
Nowadays, however. we don't always allow ourselves to be more than nominally affected by these forms of worship, because we don't really know what to do with them.
This is a problem that has arisen partly because of the use of the vernacular. If you look at an old prayer book, and read the "devotions of Mass." you find that the worshipper is helped, as it were, by "filling in" with personal prayer and love the various kinds of "blanks" provided by the Latin They were "blanks," not because the prayers themselves mean little, but because the ordinary Catholic. with little facility for reading Latin, did not find in them the direct means of worship. He or she had to "make" the act of worship most suited to the particular part of the Mass which was in progress. even if in practice he used words that were a translation of the Latin.
In this way the use of Latin in itself — regardless of the actual form of words formed a certain kind of attitude to worship: one which used the Liturgical form as a framework for worship, but did not actually use the form itself.
The use of the vernacular. especially when audibly recited, has made this difficult. Some people still try to do it, and for them the sound of the English words is actually a distraction from what they are trying to do. My impression is that many Catholics have not yet realised that a different approach is demanded by the new forms, just because they are heard, and they are directly intelligible.
It is important to realise that a different approach is demanded because the failure to allow our interior attitude to adapt itself is, I think, responsible for much of the sense of disillusion about the changes. On the one hand there are those who long for the Latin once more, on the other those who want to jettison virtually all formal liturgy in favour of spon taneous expression of worship, though within the traditional Eucharist ic patient.
Without arguing the merits of either view. the fact is that Catholics will, in general, be using an English liturgy in a set form, and can only escape this by withdrawal from normal parish worship. Our approval or disapproval is to this extent irrelevant.
Nobody is stopping us working for further change if we think that right. but meanwhile there is this "standard Mass" coming up, and one thing we must not do is to decide simply to put up with it, in a martyred, virtuous sort of way as if it didn't matter. Another thing we must not do is to think that the changes in the form will automatically effect what they are intended to effect; they won't. however good they are.
The fact is. whether we like the changes or whether we don't, it is our own use -of them that matters. By using them as fully and sensitively as possible we shall do three things.
First of all, we shall really worship. in the here and now, though of course imperfectly. This may sound obvious, but quite a few people have been going in for what might be called "reserved worship"—that is. they've regarded the present liturgy as a substitute for something better, and therefore kept their full assent to worship in a kind of reserve store, withholding it from what actually goes on now. This is true both of people who naturally transfer the "real" worship back to the days of Latin, and of those who hope for more radical changes, worshipping meanwhile, as it were, "on tick" until the changes come.
Secondly, we shall discover which things are really and permanently valuable in worship. We can only do this if we use the forms fully, not if we criticise from a detached point of view.
Thirdly, we shall gradually show up aspects that are inadequate or "dead-end," and may, in time, be dropped or modified. This again can only really be discovered by whole-hearted self-giving in whatever way is demanded by the form of worship.
It is difficult to give oneself fully to worship in forms that are unfamiliar, perhaps uncongenial, perhaps poorly expressed. It will take time and effort, and the effort is above all a spiritual one.
It is a bit like the effort one has to make to be really open to another person whose habits of mind are uncongenial. One's instinct is to withdraw into oneself and render only the minimum demanded by outward courtesy. But this is not love, and love IS what is required.
Perhaps this sounds odd, and certainly it will be difficult. but it seems to me that unless we are prepared to love the liturgy in this sense we shan't get anywhere with it, nor shall we ever get a better one. In the past. demands that we "love the liturgy" too often meant that we had to persuade ourselves that every historical anachronism in the Roman rite was really a spiritual gem. It was similar to the attitude demanded of us towards the Church.
Some people cope with a difficult partner in marriage by pretending that his or her faults are really virtues. We used to do this with the Church. It is a way of coping but it isn't really love, which is clear sighted and just and therefore devoted.
If we love the Church we do so because we have learned to recognise its "real self' which is Christ. and therefore both to condemn what prevents the development of this full stature, and to be sure that such growth is possible and certain. If we want to love the liturgy, that means, perhaps, that we arc prepared to give ourselves to its "real self" which is Christ, and this self-giving will eventually enable us to recognise, and discard, elements that interfere, or are clumsy and unnecessary.
But we shall never have a perfect liturgy.
A marriage grows by loving, and it is the knowledge and sensitivity of love that helps it to shed what is unloving. Liturgical worship is the expression of love among God's people, and unless there is real loving going on there will be no growth, no matter how expert the committees that devise it, or how well informed the criticisms that we make. liturgical expertise is no more a substitute for real love in worship than sexual expertise is a substitute for love in marriage, though both are very useful.
Irritation and nostalgia
One part of the effort of loving is this business of opening oneself to hear and speak the forms of the Mass and not just use them as a framework for personal devotion. Once this was appropriate, but it is so no longer. This personal hearing and speaking of a common form actually demands a greater degree of spiritual poverty, and it will be very hard for many of us. (I am prompted to say this at least partly by my own reservations about the impoverished English which is being used in the new rite; it is easy to let irritation and nostalgia fill up the gaps in one's attention.) The few more months we have to wait before the new rite comes into general use may give us a chance to rethink our attitudes. and to rediscover the fact that the liturgy calls us out of ourselves. into Christ. We shall need to understand the reasons for the various changes. and learn to use them intelligently, but much more important and more difficult is the task of letting the Holy Spirit speak to us, and in us, in whatever liturgical form we use.
Unless we do, the liturgy becomes simply an art-form (it is that. but should be much more): and we are in danger of ceasing to be worshippers and becoming, instead, assemblies of rather irritable drama critics.