Wednesday, September 17, 2014

More alike than we knew. . .

Contrary to Protestant imagination, the usual mass familiar to most Roman Catholics prior to Vatican II was not the high mass with deacon, sub-deacon, and choir but the low mass with spoken liturgy and a priest assisted by a single boy server.  It would take about 45 minutes (not counting the sermon) and the congregation might have knelt for most of the liturgy.  The homily may have been the only part in the vernacular.  The congregation's participation was mainly through interior prayer and the actual reception of communion.  In some places organ music and a few popular hymns might have been included.

The ritual of the low mass was largely limited to the part of the priest.  The low mass was mostly restrained in character and the expression of the people focused more upon the rituals apart from the actual mass itself -- namely upon the Rosary.  Extra services such as the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament or the Stations of the Cross were often a strong focus of their piety.  The character of the low mass was more penitential than celebratory -- much more than is usual today.  The priest spoke into the silence in generally muted and deliberate tones.  This is certainly a far cry from the more folksy style of many masses after the reforms that came in the wake of Vatican II.

In other words, the liturgical setting of a typical Roman Catholic parish prior to Vatican II did not look all that much different from a typical Lutheran parish of the same era (if you closed your ears to the obvious difference in language).  The mood among Lutherans was similarly somber, the focus penitential, and the attitude of the Divine Service reverential.  There was little ad lib insertion of commentary or even the pastor's personality into the service.  The pastor, for his part, led the worship without revealing much of himself (except perhaps during the sermon).  So there was much that Roman Catholics and Lutherans had in common on Sunday morning.

In the same way, in the post-Vatican II reform of the mass and Lutheran liturgical experimentation and change of the Divine Service, we moved in parallel fashion.  For both of us the service was shifted in tone from the reverential and penitential character that once dominated it to the more folksy, personal, and casual style of the present age -- so much so that for Roman Catholics and Lutherans alike the parishes that mirror the earlier setting of the mass or Divine Service stick out as being exceptions rather than the norm.

Nowhere is this more true than the stereotypes.  Lutheran people complain about chanting as being too Catholic when Roman Catholics have for generation after generation seen chanting as exceptional rather than ordinary.  Lutheran folks assume that Rome is still the same stalwart home of highly stylized ritual in which the distance between priest and people predominates when Roman Catholics have been subjected to every kind of pastoral hijacking of the liturgy that Lutherans also have suffered since the early 1970s.  The strange reality is that the Lutherans who complain about liturgy being taken too seriously and who desire a more folksy kind of Divine Service are more in step with the typical Roman parish today than those who are generally accused of being pseudo-Catholics!!  Even incense has largely disappeared from the ordinary church life of a Roman Catholic so that they find it just as strange as Lutherans!!  The more we try to be different, the more like Rome we became -- and not in a good way!!


John Joseph Flanagan said...

My, we do focus entirely too much on ritual and traditions, on outward forms, when, if we really want to please God, we need to cultivate our relationship to Him in a plain and simple way, with honesty of heart, with gratitude for grace, with humility for the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

James Kellerman said...

In his book "Why Catholics Can't Sing," Thomas Day points out that the low mass is actually an Irish(-American) phenomenon. Italian, French, German, Spanish, and Mexican varieties of Roman Catholicism are much more "high church" than the Irish variety, mainly because under English rule RC priests could not publicly say mass in Ireland. The English landlords tended to cut their Irish tenants some slack, as long as the RC priests held a low key mass. But anything too "high church" (such as the lavish processions found in the Romance countries) would provoke the ire of the English powers-that-be. In time the Irish came to think that the low mass was the only legitimate mass and complained of the Italians and others as being too "showy." Since the Irish ran the RC church in America until recently, their taste has tended to prevail here. Even Italian-Americans have tended to adopt Irish sensibilities about worship and tend to be embarrassed by their continental cousins.

The Pietists among us would be loathe to admit it, but there is much in common between "Lutheran" Pietism and the Irish version of Roman Catholicism: an anti-liturgical bias, a severe ascetism, a dour Augustinianism untempered by the Reformation gospel, and a tendency to think that the trends of the last 2 centuries are the way it has always been in Christian history.