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Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy

The Recovery of the Sacred
Reforming the Reformed Liturgy

[1995 edition]

by James Hitchcock

This is a book the author wishes would never have to be reprinted. It was first written less than a decade after the Second Vatican Council to call attention to certain liturgical trends which seemed unwise and even destructive. But the book had no perceptible effect on the course of liturgical development, so that the analysis remains as relevant today as it was more than twenty years ago. Author's ego aside, this is a symptom of a much greater problem -- the apparent determination by professional liturgists to pay heed only to other certified "experts". For thirty years every warning about liturgical abuse has automatically been dismissed as uninformed.

As the book demonstrates, the Liturgical Movement (no longer capitalized once it had been absorbed into the mainstream of Catholic life) turned sharply leftward immediately after the Council, so that some of its pioneers, such as Msgr. Martin B. Hellriegel (see the Preface to the first edition) were quickly estranged from the movement they had labored so long to bring to fruition. (Before Msgr. Hellriegel died in 1981, the author had several candid conversations with him in which America's greatest pastoral liturgist expressed his deep disappointment at the post-conciliar developments.)

The classical (pre-1965) Liturgical Movement, despite being considered vaguely "liberal", sought something both very difficult and very simple -- to deepen people's knowledge and appreciation of the inexhaustible mystery of the liturgy and hence of the Church itself. It sought to elevate the practice of liturgy as it then existed in order to incorporate neglected riches of earlier centuries, especially the Patristic age.

Whether before the Council some liturgists were already impatient with that purpose remains a matter of speculation. What is undeniable is that the classical program of liturgical reform was abandoned very swiftly. Instead of seeking deeper understanding of the great tradition of the Church through the ages, liturgists now sought "relevance" by means of continued adaptation to contemporary culture.

Probably most Catholics now "like" the new liturgy and would not wish to return to the old. Although both the revived Tridentine Mass and solemn celebrations of the Novus Ordo are deeply moving to many people, suburban American culture has had its effect, so that for perhaps a majority the regimen of guitar songs, casual styles of celebration, and churches almost as bare as meeting halls are considered signs of progress. Personal preference is not the issue, however. Despite the original purposes of the Liturgical Movement, Catholics today are badly instructed concerning the fundamental meaning of the liturgy and even indifferent to its meaning-it is a communal celebration in which they feel they should take part, but it is hardly a crucial part of their lives. People "like" the present liturgy precisely because they are oblivious to the spiritual riches which liturgy embodies.

When this book was written, the fundamental causes of liturgical distortion were not yet clear, although there were many clues scattered about waiting to be deciphered. It is by now apparent that the deformation of the liturgy stems from the denial of human sinfulness, from a semi-conscious popular Pelagianism in which people think of themselves as wholly good.

The steep decline in the practice of confession, which is linked to the Eucharist in an intimate way and one of the Church's basic rites, is merely the most obvious sign of this, along with the preference of many celebrants to omit the Confiteor, for example.

For reasons which are still obscure, the modern Western psyche cannot endure the thought of being under judgment, of having all one's thoughts and actions definitively summed up by the Supreme Judge. To maintain what they regard as a healthy self-esteem, modern Christians excuse most transgressions, define sin in terms like "failure to grow", and shut out even the possibility of divine punishment.

This explains the sometimes hysterical reaction of liberal Catholics when confronted with even the idea of traditional worship, much less the experience of it. For authentic Catholic liturgy is always transcendent and "other". Worshipers speak almost exclusively to God, not to each other, and their worship is filled with expressions of their own unworthiness and God's infinite greatness. (Thus the Gloria is also often omitted from modern celebrations.) Traditional solemn Masses affected worshipers with a sense of awe, of personal insignificance before the Almighty, and even routinely celebrated "low" Masses took place in an atmosphere of hushed reverence, of timidity about entering the holy place. (One of the major faults of the Novus Ordo is the fact that it has no rite whereby the priest approaches the altar unworthily, and prepares himself to ascend its steps, as was done in the traditional prayers at the foot of the altar.)

The aim of post-conciliar liturgical change, whether or not fully conscious, has been to make liturgy quite obviously a human creation, a mere extension of the self. "God" is not found except in the depths of one's own soul or in encounters with other human beings, and "God" is revealed in any experience which the individual subjectively feels is meaningful.

Thus the ideal post-conciliar liturgy, seldom fully realized in parish churches but often achieved in other kinds of communities, is one in which the texts of the rite are chosen and even composed by the worshipers, in which the priest is not a divine ambassador but simply the representative of the community, in which the physical setting is mundane and familiar, and the style of celebration is elaborately relaxed. The homily is a dialogue, since no authoritative word should be spoken by the priest, as though instructing or admonishing the congregation.

Such celebrations are apt expressions of certain kinds of modern theology, but even for those innocent of all theology they are satisfying because they do not threaten. One never hears the voice of God in a clap of thunder, is never raised on high, has no sense that Christ has "come down" on the altar. Worshipers never have to ask themselves, "Am I worthy?"

The state of liturgy in many parishes is unsatisfactory because often those charged with preparing it strain to produce this kind of atmosphere despite the fact that the objective structure of the liturgy thwarts it at every point. Despite what some conservative critics of the Novus Ordo claim, it is an irreformably "vertical" rite, attested to by the fact that for many people the high point of the Mass is now a moment not even provided for in the official rubrics -- the greeting of peace -- which by the logic of recent liturgical assumptions ought to replace the Communion as the climax of the Mass.

Since the Council the practice of having the celebrant face the congregation has been studied more carefully, and the claim that it represents the practice of the early Church has been disproven -- in the early centuries the celebrant and the congregation both faced the East at the high moments of the Mass, looking towards the rising sun, symbol of the Risen Christ who will come again. Although once again most people now probably "like" having celebrant and people face one another, it has proven to be an anomalous practice which tends to reduce the celebration to a communal gathering.

But the cultural situation at the end of the second Christian millennium, while obviously inhospitable to religion in many ways, is in others perhaps potentially more supportive of genuine liturgical renewal than was the immediate era of the Council.

Thus people are probably more sensitive now to symbol, in contrast to the kind of leaden verbalism which marred so much liturgical change. Better educated laity can be taught the profundities of liturgy. The puritanical spirit which dictated that the liturgy should be stripped as bare as possible has given way to a more imaginative artistic spirit.

What is lacking is primarily human will. No amount of experimentation can make worship meaningful to people who have chosen to live their lives in a secular way, or who resist the conclusion that a true appreciation of liturgy requires a fundamental conversion of heart, the putting off of the old Adam.

The reality of the Incarnation means, among other things, that Christ can be truly incarnate in any culture, and in principle the modern age could create a liturgy which, although quite different in some respects from earlier ones, is equally profound and authentic. But a secular age lacks the ability so to create, and continued attempts to do so are almost bound to be shallow and even destructive of genuine worship.

The alleged mandate of "inculturation" is much more intensely discussed now than when this book was written. Although the challenge is most dramatic outside the Western world, the problems are in many ways the same in Europe and America, since determined apostles of cultural adaptation seek to create liturgies appropriate to each country, each region, even each locality, to say nothing of specialized groups of people like students or women. The problems of inculturation have only begun to be seriously considered, and it is likely that many egregious mistakes will be made in its name.

The book noted, two decades ago, not only the loss of the sacred in formal worship but also the decline, indeed the deliberate suppression, of popular devotions, where spontaneous emotion always had a legitimate place. This was before the popularity of the Charismatic Movement, among other things. Today the emotional starvation of many Catholics (perhaps especially Hispanics) is even more acute. In large measure this accounts for the excesses and eccentricities of some elements of the Marian movement, for example.

The book was written when liturgical change was still under discussion in the Episcopal Church, and shortly thereafter those changes were implemented. Whatever hopes there might have been for authentic renewal are no longer tenable. The Episcopal Church has suffered steep numerical decline, and divisions which have left it a unified body only in its formal structure.

These are events for which the abandonment of the classical Book of Common Prayer bears major responsibility.

Saint Louis, Missouri
Feast of St. Bernard, Abbot August 20, 1994


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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