As could be expected, Chittister’s commentary is informed and insightful. It also gets to the heart of the matter: “In their fundamental messages,” she writes, “[the Tridentine and the Vatican II liturgies] present us with more than two different styles of music or two different languages or two different sets of liturgical norms. They present us with two different churches.”
Following are excerpts from Joan Chittister’s commentary, “Coming Soon to a Church Near You.”
Why the concerns? If some people prefer a Latin mass to an English mass, why not have it?
The answer depends on what you think the Mass has to do with articulating the essence of the Christian faith.
The Latin Mass, for instance, in which the priest celebrates the Eucharist with his back to the people, in a foreign language – much of it said silently or at best whispered – makes the congregation, the laity, observers of the rite rather than participants in it.
The celebrant becomes the focal point of the process, the special human being, the one for whom God is a kind of private preserve.
The symbology of a lone celebrant, removed from and independent of the congregation, is clear: ordinary people have no access to God. They are entirely dependent on a special caste of males to contact God for them. They are “not worthy,” to receive the host, or as the liturgy says now, even to have Jesus “come under my roof.”
The Eucharist in such a setting is certainly not a celebration of the entire community. It is instead a priestly act, a private devotion of both priest and people, which requires for its integrity three “principal parts” alone – the offertory, the consecration and the communion. The Liturgy of the Word – the instruction in what it means to live a Gospel life – is, in the Tridentine Rite, at best, a minor element.
In the Latin mass, the sense of mystery – of mystique – the incantation of “heavenly” rather than “vulgar” language in both prayer and music, underscores a theology of transcendence. It lifts a person out of the humdrum, the dusty, the noisy, the crowded chaos of normal life to some other world. It reminds us of the world to come – beautiful, mystifying, hierarchical, perfumed – and makes this one distant. It takes us beyond the present, enables us, if only for a while, to “slip the surly bonds of earth” for a world more mystical than mundane.
It privatizes the spiritual life. The Tridentine Mass is a God-and-I liturgy.
The Vatican II liturgy, on the other hand, steeps a person in community, in social concern, in the hard, cold, clear reality of the present. The people and priest pray the Mass together, in common language, with a common theme. They interact with one another. They sing “a new church into being,” non-sexist, inclusive, centered together in the Jesus who walked the dusty roads of Galilee curing the sick, raising the dead, talking to women and inviting the Christian community to do the same.
The Vatican II liturgy grapples with life from the point of view of the distance between life as we know it and life as the gospel defines it for us. It plunges itself into the sanctifying challenges of dailiness.
The Vatican II liturgy carries within it a theology of transformation. It does not seek to create on earth a bit of heaven; it does set out to remind us all of the heaven we seek. It does not attempt to transcend the present. It does seek to transform it. It creates community out of isolates in an isolating society.
There is a power and a beauty in both liturgical traditions, of course. No doubt they both need a bit of the other. Eucharist after all is meant to be both transcendent and transformative. But make no mistake: In their fundamental messages, they present us with more than two different styles of music or two different languages or two different sets of liturgical norms. They present us with two different churches.
The choice between these two different liturgies bring the church to a new crossroads, one more open, more ecumenical, more communal, more earthbound than the other. The question is which one of them is more likely to create the world Jesus models and of which we dream.
To read Joan Chittister’s “Coming Soon to a Church Near You” in its entirety, click here.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The New Motu Proprio: “Nothing But Headaches for Bishops, Priests, and Laity”?
In the Garden of Spirituality: Joan Chittister
Reflections on Consociate/Associate Programs by Joan Chittister
“Receive What You Are, the Body of Christ”: Reflections on the Eucharist
Trusting God’s Generous Invitation