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The Recovery of the Sacred

Reforming the Reformed Liturgy

Chapter Three - The Cult of Spontaneity

by James Hitchcock

The first insoluble contradiction in the attempt to reform liturgy radically was the impossibility of transforming a "vertical" rite into something "horizontal" without destroying it in the process. The second Was the equal impossibility of metamorphosing an essentially formal rite into something spontaneous. In the classic period of the Liturgical Movement, just before the Second Vatican Council, the monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton had warned against zealotry among liturgical reformers and then added that even Worse were the "pseudopersonalists".

Secular personalism is a kind of craze for individuality, a rage for self-manifestation in which the highest value is the recognition of one's own uniqueness. But the great paradox of Christian personalism is this: that it consists in something else than bringing to light the unique and irreplaceable element in the faithful Christian. On the contrary, Christian personalism does not require that the inmost secret of Our being become manifest or public at all. We do not even have to see it clearly ourselves.

But what is manifested, proclaimed, celebrated, and consummated in the liturgy is not my personality or your personality: it is the personality of Christ the Lord ....

But let us above all remember and admire the discretion, the sobriety, and the modesty with which the liturgy protects this personal witness of each individual Christian ....

Our spiritual modesty is protected by the reserve, the universality, and in some sense the "impersonality" of the liturgical action.

. . . We sing alike, we pray alike, we adopt the same attitudes. Yet oddly this "sameness" does not wound our individuality.

. . . On the contrary it is a providential guarantee of a chaste, spiritual enthusiasm which is all the more pure because it does not have to display itself, or even be aware of itself at all.1

In the wake of the liturgical changes, however, "the discretion, the sobriety, and the modesty" of the official liturgy became precisely that which most distressed many reformers, and "reserve, ... universality, and ... impersonality" became terms of condemnation. This shift in attitude corresponded to a double use of the concept of relevance -- simultaneously a turning outward toward objective social conditions and a turning inward toward subjective personal experience. A relevant liturgy might be one which spoke powerfully of social injustice, in which the aim was to bring the participant to a state of self-forgetfulness sufficient to elicit genuine sacrifices for the sake of others. It might also be an even stronger concentration on self, almost to the point of forgetfulness of the existence of others. When disaffected worshipers said, "The Mass doesn't do anything for me", liturgists no longer responded, as they once had, by insisting that the Mass is a deep mystery into whose spirit the individual must seek to penetrate by prayer, study, patience, and humility. They, rather, acknowledged that the Mass would indeed have to be changed to make it capable of speaking to a wide audience. A crucial shift of the profoundest importance was thus negotiated, but its seriousness was little noted at the time.

The implications were soon enough clear, however. Worshipers would no longer approach the rites with reverence and deference, seeking to be educated to the proper comprehension. Rather, the subjective state of the individual was itself taken as normative, and it came to be widely held that the Church has an obligation to adapt worship to that subjectivity. Necessarily, therefore, the transcendental character of liturgy -- its task of lifting man above himself -- was dangerously obscured, and ritual was increasingly put in the service of human needs and desires, not an altogether illegitimate function but one which had in the past been kept carefully subordinated to the greater function. Given the radical uniqueness and instability of each person's subjectivity, it was also made inevitable that liturgy itself could not be fixed to any significant degree but would be subject to constant experimentation. Predictably, some worshipers tried numerous new approaches to liturgy without coming upon the one uniquely suited to their needs, and concluded that liturgy was a dead end.

The extreme positions articulated by a few of the zealots -- the Mass as a good cocktail party, or the skaters at Rockefeller Center as celebrants of authentic liturgy-were in fact not so extreme given the new assumptions which many liturgists adopted. If liturgy is to celebrate life, then whatever is truly celebratory can be seen as true liturgy. A Mass performed without a spirit of celebration is inauthentic, while a party which is joyful and recreational becomes a sacrament. Not all liturgical reformers accepted these conclusions, but the more radical pursued them to their logical outcome.

The anomaly has come to be present even among persons who did not join the underground church and who continue worshiping according to the prescribed rituals. Two elements in the reformed liturgy seem to lend themselves to the "horizontal" and to the spontaneous -- the petitions and the exchange of peace. In the first, members of the congregation can, if they wish and if the group is small enough, express what is closest to their hearts, in language which comes naturally. In the second, advanced liturgical thought has come to urge that the exchange of peace not be a formal and restrained gesture like a handshake but a warm and spontaneous expression of affection -- prolonged embraces, kisses, moving about the group to greet as many people as possible. The difficulty is in the fact that, for those who seek in the Mass some means of expressing personal individuality and personal concerns, the petitions and the exchange of peace become in fact the centers of the ritual, those points at which feelings can be articulated, at which the worshiper is not restricted to a formal and prescribed service. By contrast the readings, the Offertory, the Consecration, and the Communion come to have a secondary place. It seems obvious that, for people of this persuasion, the exchange of peace is usually the high point of the service, almost in fact that which makes the service meaningful. It can scarcely be otherwise if what one expects in the Eucharist is primarily the celebration of a warm sense of community.

Before the Council, H. A. Reinhold, stating what most liturgists would probably then have accepted as axiomatic, anticipated Thomas Merton in praising the offtcialliturgy for saving worshipers from "the embarrassing sight of unrestrained and naked emotion", adding that "nothing is more opposed to good liturgy than histrionics and artificial display". A little later he warned of the danger of "a romantically conceived 'evangelical simplicity,' formless individualism, or the victimizing of the congregation by a tasteless and uninspired mystagogue".2

At the time his warnings perhaps seemed unnecessary, since liturgists were generally concerned with making services more solemn and restrained, not less. The speed with which the need for spontaneity was acknowledged, however, made his words prophetic indeed, and also unheeded. Soon the desire to accommodate feelings in worship was leading to innumerable experimental liturgies in which the participants tried principally, in a variety of ways, to plumb their own depths and those of their companions. Inevitably for some, the encounter groups which came to prominence in the later 1960s proved to be the ultimate sacraments, toward which everything else had been dimly pointing.

For those who believed that organized liturgy was still a valid form of expression, however, there was no shortage of Father Reinhold's "tasteless and uninspired mystagogues" to offer their services. A Jesuit seminarian expatiated on how dull the liturgy is compared with an Alka-Seltzer advertisement. To remedy this, and to make worship truly contemporary, he proposed rites which would reflect modern life in being "too much" and "at random" but at the same time "more powerful than a slice of daily life", in fact "overwhelming". The sights and sounds of daily life would, in his proposed liturgy, "scream out for the attention they deserve". Voices and music would be loud and abrupt. Startling images would be projected on the wall, so compelling that "passivity is impossible". The creator of the service, called now a "visual rhetorician", aims to bring the participants into "violent confrontation" with their environment, which dictates that "shock, then, is a necessary element". Several films are projected simultaneously, including one on surfing, which expresses "the exuberance of humanity in the Christmas season". Christmas music is played on the loudspeakers, but vying with it are "noisy commercials for useless products and weather reports". Ideally "the congregation must be surrounded by sound, as though assaulted on all sides by noise", since this is the true contemporary experience of Christmas. For Ash Wednesday the theme of discipline could be expressed by showing films on Olympic diving or running.3

A German priest-liturgist described a visit to a Protestant church in Greenwich Village:

On entering, you were kissed by a coloured girl, forced up some stairs where you had to eat some unidentifiable kind of soup, and then put on trial under brilliant searchlights. You were chased through ajungle of polystyrene foam and corrugated paper, put up against a wall and photographed with arms outspread, interrogated, led on to the dance-floor by a girl who turned out to be a man, and finally asked by a doctor to put out your tongue, only to be given the verdict of imminent death ....

The priest then added defiantly, "Why shouldn't a church be the place in which we are confronted with everything which is beautiful and repressive, intelligible and inconceivable in our lives? Or is a church an island to retreat to from life's problems?" He thought there was little celebration in the churches because of a lack of understanding of "how modern man celebrates".4

Bishop Terwilliger related a famous incident which consisted in

Harvey Cox clad in Eastern Orthodox vestments, celebrating something or other with bread, wine, incense, and so forth, at three or four o'clock on Orthodox Easter ... in a nightclub in Boston. The celebration included multimedia presentations, music from the movie Z, the Hallelujah Chorus, and spontaneous dancing. The congregation ... ran out at dawn to greet the sun. A Boston policeman, present to enforce the local law against dancing on Sundays, is quoted as saying, "This is not religion; it is god-damn chaos."

Bishop Terwilliger then added: "People may seek the Church yet once again for relief, and the relief we may give them may be a great put-on with bread and wine, incense, and balloons, even the warmth of human touching. It may be fantasy. It is not Eucharist: resurrected Christ-centered newness of life."5

Moderate liturgical innovators were doubtless embarrassed by the nearly mindless experiments of some of those on the fringe of the movement (although the fringe had come by 1969 to include the leadership of the Liturgical Conference). But the restating of the obvious by men like Bishop Terwilliger would not have been necessary if even moderates had not incautiously succumbed to a vague notion of liturgy as simply "celebration", and if they had not fallen in so easily with the fallacy that worship is supposed to be the expression of spontaneous personal feelings. The nadir of Christian spirituality was reached when it was discovered that liturgy could fit in so readily with that ultimate expression of general spiritual bankruptcy, the "happening" -- the search for formless, pointless experience, the pursuit of stimulation for its own sake.

Among the many paradoxes of liturgical reform is the fact that, even among moderates who eschew the radical extremes, the attempt to make worship more personal, warm, and expressive of love has often had the opposite effect. Experimental groups sometimes broke up as deep antagonism and unbridgeable differences began to develop. Most ironically, what was intended as the ultimate gesture of love and peace became in many parishes itself a cause of dissension. Some worshipers resisted the gesture and felt it was imposed upon them. In many places this concession to the spirit of spontaneity was adopted only in obedience to the law.

The simple explanation -- that a reluctance to exchange the sign of peace signifies a lack of Christian love in the congregation -- is not adequate. People decline to exchange the peace not only with persons they dislike, or who are strangers to them, but also with close friends and members of their own families with whom they are on loving terms. What appears to motivate the reluctance in many cases is a sound perception of the incongruity of introducing a spontaneous gesture into a formal rite. It often appears to be an interruption of the service, and the incongruity worsens if some participants choose to make the gesture prolonged and demonstrative. The atmosphere of the liturgy allows the acceptance of formal or stylized acts, but the insertion of an act which purports to be spontaneous seems to invite skepticism and coolness. The formal handshake is accepted as a conventional sign of good will and mutual regard. To make more of it is to tread on very personal territory which may turn out to be guarded, and for good reason. The cult of spontaneity throughout American culture suggests that shallow, insincere, effervescent emotions can be summoned up on short notice and at little personal cost. As this phenomenon appears in the liturgy it often provokes feelings of caution, reserve, and suspicion rather than their opposites.

Major attempts to create liturgical "happenings", as well as small gestures like the sign of peace, also reveal an unforeseen paradox: nothing becomes so contrived as that which must be continuously spontaneous. Many liturgical reformers have expressed admiration for the Quaker use of silence in worship, but without perceiving that one of the reasons for those long silences is the recognition that much of the time the worshipers will not have anything that is worth saying. Truly spontaneous and creative moments in liturgy are rare, and the desire to make them a regular feature of worship is likely to lead to what is in reality stale, uninspired, and manipulative.

The desire for spontaneity in worship is also directly related to the tendency to make it relevant by evacuating much of its religious content. If the Mass is ultimately a deep, supernatural mystery, then no human feelings and perceptions will ever be adequate to express its meaning. As a divine mystery it lies not only beyond intellectual comprehension but also beyond suitable emotional response. Thus so long as human perceptions and experiences are regarded as somehow central to the rite (they do have a legitimate, carefully subordinated place), it is short-circuited into merely natural channels and ceases to possess a divine character. Whatever it may thereby gain in immediacy it loses in richness, depth, and complexity.

Clifford Geertz theorizes that religious rituals aim to stimulate and preserve both "moods and motivations" of behavior, in accordance with a general view of the universe embodied in religious symbols. Of the two, moods are more evanescent and unreliable, while motivations are deeper and more enduring and do not necessarily have to do with feelings.6 Liturgical experimentation seems to have concentrated for the most part on the evocation of moods, which is inevitable when relevance is defined very narrowly to apply to the present concrete situation in a particular group. This has led to a remarkable degree of instability, internal conflict, and eventually even disintegration within many groups and to a liturgy which becomes less and less meaningful the more it is changed. There has been little concern for the deeper and more abiding human elements in worship, the ingrained and habitual attitudes which have grown out of it over long years and which have often been cavalierly dissipated amid thoughtless change.

The anthropologist A. R. Radcliffe-Brown defined ritual as involving a "symbolic statement of sentiments necessary for sociallife",7 and if the term "social life" is understood broadly enough this definition is applicable to religious ritual as well, since the total social life of the believer necessarily involves the divine reality, insofar as it impinges on human life. The importance of the definition is in the affirmation that ritual is a "symbolic" statement of these sentiments, not necessarily a realistic one. The confusion of these two realms, as much as anything, has wreaked havoc with much liturgical reform.

A spontaneous liturgy will of necessity be a liturgy which impoverishes itself because it will have to be based on whatever sentiments are available at the time of celebration. On rare occasions it may be a profound religious experience, although the likelihood of a whole group of worshipers all having mystical experiences simultaneously is not very great. Not only will the liturgy be dead when its creators are tired or jaded, not only will it fail to proclaim the Redemption if the creators are suffering fear or disappointment, but it will inevitably latch onto whatever emotions -- trivial or sublime, creative or destructive, Christian or pagan-can stimulate it and provide it with a focus. By defmition, therefore, it becomes a liturgy which cannot be transcendent, which cannot help the worshipers to rise above themselves, which keeps falling into narcissism. Bishop Terwilliger has even questioned the validity of the "dialogue homily", since, as he points out, the preacher is supposed to preach in the name ofJesus, yet Jesus preached authoritatively, not giving all sides of the question and not exchanging ideas in a democratic fashion.8 It is not an exaggeration to say that many experimental liturgies have amounted primarily to a sharing of confusions, which is never what Christian worship has been supposed to be, in any church whatever.

By now several further principles of sacred worship have begun to delineate themselves:

In Catholic ritual the participants seek to articulate not primarily their immediate subjective sentiments but what might be called their "true selves" -- the habitual, ingrained attitudes of faith which endure through doubts and crises, the highest expressions of worship toward which the individual aspires.

Within Catholicism, subjective and spontaneous personal devotion has been given play primarily in non liturgical worship, which the Church has approved while also insisting on the primacy of liturgical worship which is impersonal and objective.

It may be possible to insert occasional spontaneous gestures into the official liturgy-applause, heartfelt "Amen, brothers!", or hats tossed into the air 9 -- but it can be done only sparingly and will often have the mark of incongruity, since the entire tone of the liturgy implies that the worshiper should transform himself to enter into the spirit of the rite, not use the rite as a vehicle for personal expression. To omit parts of the Mass casually because they "do not speak to" the participants, or to add alien elements which seem to be relevant, is to miss the point that liturgy, as the official prayer of the Church, expresses the total beliefs and symbolic attitudes of that Church. Insofar as the official liturgy becomes the raw material for experimentation, for adaptation to the needs of particular groups, it is transformed radically into something it was never meant to be and soon begins to lose its power, its meaning, even its coherence. A common liturgy presupposes a common faith and a common life of grace. To the extent that a participant in liturgy finds liturgy meaningless, the honest course is to depart the Church.

For the worshiper who remains within the Church it is important that unrealistic and unnecessary expectations not be built up, a tendency of which the Liturgical Movement was sometimes guilty even in its classic period. It matters little whether the worshiper feels contrition during the Confiteor or the Prayer of Humble Access, is carried away with joy during the Gloria, experiences a perceptible quickening of faith during the Creed, or a deep sense of the divine indwelling after Communion. The level of true faith, as all competent theologians have always recognized, lies beneath such sentiments, as a habitual and ingrained commitment of the entire person, a locus of reality more authentic than those layers of personality which are prone to sudden and spectacular eruption. A very "creative" celebrant or a preacher who gives highly "personal" homilies is ultimately reduced to offering the congregation his own finite and flawed personality. One of the greatest advantages of an established worship and a preaching which bases itself on the beliefs of the whole Church is that it enables even the poorest of priests to give his people something more.



1 "Liturgy and Spiritual Personalism", Worship, XXXIV, 9 (October, 1960), pp. 503-5.

2 The American Parish and the Roman Liturgy (New York, 1958), p. 15; Bringing the Mass to the People (Baltimore, 1960), p. 37.

3 Richard A. Blake, S.J., "Visual Rhetoric for the Word of God", Worship, XLII, 5 (May, 1968), pp. 292-98.

4 Gunter Rombold, "Creative Freedom in the Parish Church", Liturgy in Transition, ed. H. Schmidt (Concilium, XLII [1971]), pp. 82, 84.

5 "Eucharistic Preaching", Towards a Living Liturgy, ed. Donald Garfield (New York, 1969), pp. 27-28. For Harvey Cox's account of the same event see The Seduction of the Spirit (New York, 1973), pp. 156-65.

6 "Religion as a Cultural System", The Religious Situation: 1968, ed. Donald R. Cutler (Boston, 1968), pp. 643, 649-50.

7 Structure and Function in Primitive Society (Glencoe, Ill., 1952), p. 157.

8 "Eucharistic Preaching", p. 31.

9 These are the suggestions ofJoseph T. Nolan, "Spontaneity in Worship", The National Catholic Reporter, May II, 1973, p. 14.


Copyright © James Hitchcock. All rights reserved.
Online edition published with permission.

Preface -- 1995 Edition

Preface to the First Edition - 1974 Edition

Chapter 1 - The Liturgical Revolution -- Published in the Adoremus Bulletin, November 2009

Chapter 2 - The Chimera of Relevance

Chapter 3 - The Cult of Spontaneity

Chapter 4 - The Loss of History -- Published in the Adoremus Bulletin, June 2006

Chapter 5 - The Death of Community

Chapter 6 - Folk Religion

Chapter 7 - The Reformed Liturgy -- Published in the Adoremus Bulletin, April 1996

Chapter 8 - The Recovery of the Sacred


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