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Online Edition - Vol. VIII, No. 5: July-August 2002

Taking stock and Looking Ahead at Liturgy Changes

By Helen Hull Hitchcock

 It is now fully two years since the Holy See's advance release of revised rules for celebration of Mass in the Latin rite. The Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani [IGMR] appears at the beginning of the new third typical edition of the Missale Romanum (Roman Missal). Originally scheduled to be published during the Jubilee Year 2000, the new Missal, in Latin, was officially presented to Pope John Paul II only this March.

This event did not make headlines in the press -- and its significance was not understood even by most Catholics. Yet, it was a harbinger of a promised "new springtime" in Catholic worship. And it signaled the approaching end -- or at least the end of the beginning of the end -- of what many Catholics have considered a long "liturgical winter" that has lasted nearly 40 years.

A collection of important developments on the liturgical front occurred this spring -- at a time when the attention of every Catholic in the United States was diverted by catastrophic scandals involving sex-abuse by clergy, and mishandling and cover-ups by prelates. The entire June meeting of the USCCB in Dallas was devoted to managing this crisis.

This year's liturgical developments - most recently the approval of "American adaptations" to the IGMR - were reported in these pages as they happened, and a summary, "Liturgy Highlights 2000-2002" appears elsewhere in this issue.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there is considerable confusion and misinformation surrounding the changes. Some key questions need attention, such as 1) the role of "experts" in producing liturgical texts and music, 2) the meaning of "unity" in Catholic ritual practice, and 3) the exercise of episcopal authority, either individually or through national conferences.

Review of the role of experts
The public nature of the process of liturgical revisions in recent years has amply shown that making changes and creating new texts is no longer the exclusive domain of a small circle of liturgical experts and a few bishops on the liturgy committee.

This is a sea-change. The controversy surrounding the translating body known as the International Commission on English in the Liturgy [ICEL] is not yet resolved; but great strides have been made within the past year-and-a-half that promise to put the crucial matter of authenticity in liturgical translation on solid footing. Liturgiam authenticam, when it appeared last May, assured this.

Although the restructure of ICEL is still a cipher, the role of the new Vox Clara committee, an international body of English-speaking bishops assigned the task of assuring sound translations, will most certainly change the procedures used in the past.

How the new IGMR and the US Adaptations will affect the creation of texts and the music for Mass in the coming months and years is not yet apparent. The bare-bones of how the Church's music may develop -- a key but long-neglected element of Catholic worship and cultural heritage -- is barely discernible in the new documents. Might an official Catholic hymnal finally emerge? It seems assured, in any case, that we may progress past the stage when a "liturgist" was anyone who knew four chords on a guitar and had a collection of Bob Dylan records.

Unity - Uniformity - Legitimate Variations
While the concern for unity is constantly stressed in nearly every liturgical venue, views vary widely about what, precisely, "unity" means -- and how far it extends.

Are we in danger of "balkanizing" the Catholic Church in America with widely divergent liturgical practices from parish to parish, from diocese to diocese?

Varietates legitimae, the fourth post-Conciliar Instruction on the Liturgy, appeared in 1994 and offered theoretical foundations. But how much "variation" is "legitimate" -- and at what point does it start being illegitimate? How is unity to be distinguished from uniformity? How far can variations of practice among individuals, parishes and dioceses be accommodated or tolerated?

Why do some experts regard it so important, for example, to "cleanse" the Liturgy of certain customary pious practices of individuals (such as genuflecting before receiving Communion) while insisting on maximum freedom to exercise personal prerogatives of conscience on key doctrinal and moral issues?

Why are some customs and opinions "more equal than others"?

Some dioceses in the United States celebrate Holy Days on the actual historic date as do other national Churches. Some dioceses have transferred "Ascension Thursday" to the following Sunday - and one archdiocese in the West has unilaterally eliminated the Holy Day of January 1 from the liturgical calendar.

Bishops - Conferences - Holy See?
The authority and responsibility of bishops and of bishops' conferences concerning the Liturgy is a question of similar importance, as is a related question about the hierarchical nature of the Church. If an episcopal conference can issue norms that vary from the universal norms to reflect the cultural practices of the national Church, must a bishop follow these national norms within his own diocese? Is he free to interpret both universal and particular norms as he sees fit? Are pastors of parishes obliged to follow a bishop's policies that diverge from the universal or conference norms? If so, to what extent?

Finding acceptable answers to these and other vexing questions is unlikely to be easy. But they are key questions that need to be addressed in order to establish a stable footing for the long climb ahead.

Such questions need attention in order to assure that the authorized liturgical texts and related documents are intelligently implemented. Experience with other key matters - catechetics and Catholic universities, for example -- shows that just having the right documents is not enough.

The journey has barely begun. The complex -- and sometimes tortuous --path of revitalizing authentic liturgical renewal has been reported in these pages since 1995. It will continue to challenge. Old habits are hard to break even if there is a desire to do so. We should not expect otherwise.

If we do not know the solution, we do know the Source from which it will come. Catholics who love the Church and her Liturgy -- the "source and summit" of Catholic life -- will intensify their prayers and fasting during the crucial months ahead. This will help prepare the ground for the fruitful new growth -- the "new springtime" for which we long.

***

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