Michael Davies' Australia / NZ tour - The Catholic liturgy: where is it headed?

Michael Davies' Australia / NZ tour - The Catholic liturgy: where is it headed?

Michael Gilchrist

A successful first tour of Australia last April by British author and lecturer, Michael Davies, underlined once again the vexed question of the Catholic liturgy's condition since Vatican II and its possible future directions. Davies (a former Anglican) has written prolifically on the problems connected with changes to the liturgy since Vatican II. His books, booklets, articles and lectures offer frank and critical assessments of the process of liturgical renewal over the past 25 years.

There are at present at least three liturgical trends evident today: a continuing radicalisation of the new Mass via the liturgical bureaucracy; a "reform of the reform" (supported by Cardinal Ratzinger) seeking to bring the liturgy more into line with Vatican II; and a spread of celebrations of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass. Michael Davies is the President of Una Voce, an international organisation which meets in Rome, and is dedicated to fostering the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass worldwide within the limits prescribed by the present Pope.

Michael Davies' critique of the post-Vatican II liturgical changes, which he has argued in the face of strong hostility from Catholic "loyalists" since the 1970s, includes the following theses, which he repeated during his Australian lecture tour:

  • The Novus Ordo or new Mass of Paul VI is not the liturgy of Vatican II, but of a group of post-Vatican II liturgical experts whose product was eventually approved by Paul VI in 1969, despite strong warnings from a number of Cardinals. Paul VI had a 'legal' right to approve radical changes within the limits of Church doctrine, but not a 'moral' one, since he, like all other popes, was the "custodian" of the Church's traditional liturgy. While the Vatican II document on liturgy (voted for by even Archbishop Lefebvre) had a number of loopholes and ambiguous wordings in places, bishops who were present at Vatican II (e.g., Cardinals Heenan and Stickler) were subsequently adamant that what ensued was not the liturgical renewal envisaged by the vast majority of bishops present at the Council; that they would never have approved of the successions of changes which followed the Council.
  • What occurred after Vatican II was absolutely unique in the history of the Church's liturgy: previously, all liturgical rites had evolved gradually over centuries; by contrast, the new Mass was the first to be 'manufactured' by a committee of liturgists. The result was not liturgical renewal, but a liturgical "revolution".
  • The changes in the Mass since Vatican II, which were motivated in part by ecumenical sentiments, closely paralleled those which occurred during the Protestant Reformation in England. (See also Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars).
  • The Latin "typical edition" of the new Mass as approved by Paul VI is unquestionably valid, but is inferior to the old Latin Mass in its clear emphasis on the distinctive truths of the Catholic faith.
  • The new Mass, particularly in its almost universal vernacular forms, has fostered a mentality of endless change, which has seen the introduction of practices never contemplated during Vatican II: the priest facing the people; standing not kneeling for Communion; reception of Communion on the hand; removal of altar rails and even high altars; lay Extraordinary ministers; children's liturgies; increasing numbers of 'alternative' Eucharistic Prayers; and now pressures for 'inclusive' language.

The Davies analysis of the modern Catholic liturgy has been substantially vindicated by a number of developments since the 1980s.

  • In 1980, Pope John Paul II issued an apology to the entire Church in Dominicae Cenae for the liturgical abuses which had accompanied the post-Vatican II liturgical renewal.
  • In 1984, the Pope issued an Indult which allowed for a limited revival of the traditional Latin (or "Tridentine") Mass.
  • In 1988 the Pope issued the Ecclesia Dei decree opening the way for much more widespread celebrations of the old Mass, wherever Catholics desired it, with the approval of local bishops.
  • In 1993 came publication of an English-language edition of the collected writings of Msgr Klaus Gamber, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy, carrying a strong endorsement from the Vatican's number two man, Cardinal Ratzinger. Gamber's analysis paralleled Michael Davies' critique of the new liturgy in all essentials.
  • Cardinal Ratzinger himself has since celebrated Tridentine Masses in public and has repeated some of Msgr Gamber's criticisms of what has occurred in the name of liturgical renewal.

It can no longer be seriously disputed that in practice the post-Vatican II liturgy, or Novus Ordo Mass, in the First World of Western Europe, North America and Australasia, at least, is in a state of free fall. The Catholic liturgy now threatens to disintegrate altogether into a thousand or more grass roots versions according to the whims of bishops, priests, liturgical experts, local congregations or "basic Christian communities." Despite the incessant talk of "renewal," Mass attendance figures continue to decline to a small fraction of what they were 30 years ago, even as attendances at traditional Latin Masses are steadily increasing from an admittedly small base.

As Michael Davies conceded during his talk at the Thomas More Centre in Melbourne, the 'banning' or virtual disappearance of the traditional Latin Mass after 1970 was not of itself the main cause of the crisis in the Church, which has arisen also from other deeper and more extensive factors such as secularisation, materialism, family breakdown and a general loss of religious belief. But what has happened to the liturgy since then undoubtedly reinforced these factors.

The liturgy is of fundamental importance, for what Catholics encounter inside their parish churches during Mass, more than any other single factor outside their own family environment, affects their perception of the Faith - the Eucharist, the priesthood, the Scriptures, sin and repentance and other key beliefs.

Fortunately there are still many priests who continue to celebrate the new Mass with care and reverence - as they no doubt would any officially approved form of the Mass, however deficient it might be in its precise doctrinal content. And in Third World countries such as Papua New Guinea, where religious sentiments remain deep-rooted and spontaneous, celebrations of the new Mass (or any form of the Mass) can be edifying occasions.

But in the First World the number of reverently and correctly celebrated new Masses continues to decline as older, generally more orthodox, priests retire and the younger products of new wave seminary liturgical formation attempt to 'update' parishes.

In any case, the new liturgy in the vernacular facing the people tends to encourage priests - even the more orthodox ones - to perform, rather than remain impersonally immersed in the sacred event.

Catholics attending Novus Ordo Masses find themselves increasingly confronted with arbitrary changes in Mass wordings, the removal of tabernacles and sacred images, the re-arranging of church interiors, liturgical 'dancing,' standing for the Eucharistic Prayer and a host of other seemingly pointless and often offensive innovations. More and more, the Mass comes to appear man-made rather than God-made. The thrust towards lay-led communion services in the absence of a priest will merely complete the process of secularising and Protestantising the liturgy.

Of course, given the vast range of situations and trends worldwide, it is difficult to generalise about the Catholic liturgy as a whole, even if one considers just the Roman Rite - only one (if by far the largest) of over 20 Catholic rites. What is typical in the First World of Western Europe, North America and Australasia is not necessarily true of the Second or Third World - and within that, situations vary radically from diocese to diocese and parish to parish.

Indeed, one obvious consequence of the liturgical changes since Vatican II has been increasing fragmentation and disunity. Where formerly Latin was a 'neutral' tongue for worshippers of all languages and cultures which bound the universal Church together, now Masses are celebrated in a host of vernacular tongues, with endless possibilities for mistranslations. In tribal societies, where linguistic rivalries can be lethal, the choice of vernacular is of extreme sensitivity.

In the multi-cultural Australia of the 1990s, a Latin liturgy (with English Scripture readings and homily) would make far more sense than it did in the 1940s. However, the time has long since passed when Latin might make a widespread comeback in Catholic schools and in the general consciousness of Catholics.

In the meantime, since the Ecclesia Dei decree of 1988, the numbers of Tridentine Mass celebrations, especially in the First World, have been steadily increasing even as new Mass attendance rates continue to fall. New seminaries and new congregations committed specifically to the old Mass have emerged over the past decade, notably the Fraternity of St Peter, and are not lacking in recruits.

In most major Australian or US dioceses, at least one traditional Latin Mass is celebrated weekly, and in some, several. Nevertheless, the number of Catholics all told attending these Masses remains a very small fraction of the total nominal Catholic population.

Mass attendance

In Australia, weekly Mass attendance rates in the early 1960s before the new Mass was introduced ranged between 50-60%. Today the figure has fallen to as low as 12% in Townsville, and in capital cities varies between 15-20%.

No-one could seriously suggest that the radical change in the form of the Roman Rite Mass is a sole cause of this unprecedented decline over such a short period of time - but it is reasonable to argue that the manner in which the new Mass tends increasingly to be celebrated, does contribute to a loss of belief and practice among Catholics.

It is one thing to point to the typical edition of the new Mass of Paul VI in Latin, (which one sees the Holy Father celebrate over TV at Christmas or Easter time); it is another to consider the numerous vernacular versions. The 'supermarket' English-language ICEL edition of the new Mass, along with its numerous linguistic errors, some with doctrinal implications, tends to lower the tone of what should be a sacred event.

Today, there are two opposite trends at work within the new Mass.

One of them seeks to carry the revolution further. The world's liturgical establishments (including ICEL) - rejecting any suggestion of a botched reform - seek more and more of the same recipe: more and more optional Eucharistic Prayers, standing during the Consecration, abbreviated versions of the Mass for week-days; and inclusive language.

At the same time, organisations such as the US-based Credo, with the support of prominent churchmen like Cardinal Ratzinger, are pursuing ways of bringing the new Mass closer to the 'real' intention of Vatican II, and narrowing the gap between the old and new forms of the Roman Rite liturgy. One immediate goal is for a more accurate, edifying English translation of the Latin typical edition of the new Mass. Other proposals include having the priest face the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer (recited silently) and a return to kneeling for Communion.

Given the present disarray, however, any changes at all, whether desirable or not, are likely to create further disaffection or confusion, unless introduced gradually and with great care.

But as the numbers at new Masses in First World countries such as Australia fall to as low as 5-10%, the relative prominence of traditional Latin Mass centres will inevitably increase.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.