Before the spread of literacy to all classes of people, the churches were catechisms of stone and stained glass. The windows of Chartres, the baptistry doors of Florence, the statuary over the main door of Notre Dame, provided the faithful with unforgettable representations of the elements of their faith. But that to which all the rest was ordered, providing a place and setting for its enactment, was the liturgy.
It is at worship, in the prayers and music, readings and homilies, above all in the Eucharist, that the people of God come most intimately together and take on the faith by osmosis, as it were. There is a sense in which the language in which the Mass is said is unimportant. The language of the homily is of course important, but the liturgy is language as performance, not merely as utterance. Participation in the sacrifice of the Mass, however silently this may be done, is for the worshiper to be at one with the Church Militant, the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant. It is significant that the priest was said to "say" his Mass.
It is, accordingly, a commonplace that no changes that have occurred since Vatican II have had so profound an effect as changes in the liturgy.
For most Catholics, the Council simply is those changes - the priest and altar turned toward the people, the Liturgy of the Word and the Canon of the Mass in the vernacular, and an indisputable diminution of reverence, as participation by the faithful has become understood in exclusively active and outspoken ways.
The Sign of Peace, when the church becomes the scene of wholesale handshaking, adds another distraction just prior to the reception of Communion. The distribution of Communion, largely because of the extraordinary interpretation of the meaning of "Extraordinary Minister," calls for a prolonged rallying around the altar by the platoon that will distribute Communion.
As with so many other aspects of the Council, it is very difficult to trace the practices of the day back through thirty-five years to the time when the document on the liturgy was discussed, voted on, promulgated. So much has happened that was neither desired nor planned. Often, it seems, the bishops simply signed on to practices that had begun unauthorised, according them an ex post facto status.
The Rubrics of the Mass - instructions printed in red in contrast to the black of the liturgical text - give precise instructions on what and how the priest is to do and say. But these have not cramped the style of some innovative priests and there has often been an embarrassing and ad libitum personalising of the liturgy.
Many years ago, on an anniversary of the close of the Council, Father Andrew Greeley wrote a perceptive article for America magazine. In it he addressed the claim of fellow liberals that the changes that were occurring were only of incidentals, not of the essence of the faith.
To this Father Greeley replied that the faithful do not calibrate their faith in that way, marking the essence off from the accidents, and that is why changes in those accidents have the feel of essential change. And so it has. Is it fanciful to link the light- hearted atmosphere of many Masses with the alleged loss of the sense of the Real Presence by many of the faithful? Lay people handling the sacred vessels, distributing Holy Communion (once reserved to the consecrated hands of the priest), the fact that no one fails to receive Communion, also may have eroded the sense of what awesome thing is happening at that moment in the Mass.
And Father Greeley made another point. It is very easy to change and remove: it is all but impossible to go back if the change proves unwise.
But not completely impossible. There are signs that the constant change in liturgical practices, the personal variations of a completely unpredictable kind, the assumption that we come to church to be entertained - all that seems to have run its course.
Doubtless there are many reasons why some people want the Tridentine Mass, not all of them scrutable. But there is one thing that is unquestionably present at the old Mass, and that is a palpable sense of reverent worship, the realisation that this is an action unlike any other we perform. The very silence is eloquent.
In this matter as in so many others, Cardinal Ratzinger continues his role as a sane authoritative voice. The Ratzinger Report - his interview with Vittorio Messori in 1985 - marked the first official recognition of the distortions to which the Council was subject. His frank admission of outrages in the post- conciliar Church paved the way for a similar admission on the part of the Second Extraordinary Synod at the end of 1985.
And the Cardinal has said that the single greatest mistake liturgically was turning the priest toward the people. As it happens, the Rubrics of the Novus Ordo assume that the priest is saying Mass ad orientem, facing in the same direction as the people. And now Cardinal Ratzinger has published The Spirit of the Liturgy. It is a book one hopes every priest will read - and interested and concerned lay people as well. May it be a harbinger of a liturgy truly in the spirit of Vatican II.
Dr Ralph McInerny is editor of Catholic Dossier (from which this abridged article is reprinted) and author of What Went Wrong with Vatican II. Subscriptions to Catholic Dossier are available through Ignatius Press, Brisbane, tel (07) 3376 0105. What Went Wrong With Vatican II is distributed by AD Books.