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What If They Gave a Liturgy War And Nobody Came?

September 23, 2009

In the last several years, as I’ve traveled the Catholic Blogosphere, I’ve noticed that certain discussions can quickly become maelstroms of invective, caricature of others, and an atmosphere of  general and serious uncharitableness. The most distressing topic in this category is discussions having to do with liturgy.

It probably helps that I don’t really have a dog in that fight, so to speak – but then, I see the real problem as that I can use dog-fighting as an analogy, and it makes perfect sense.

It seems to me that the Traditional Latin Mass functions in these discussions as a signifier of what “team” you’re on: the political right favors the TLM, and the liberals favor the Novus Ordo. The thing is, that doesn’t really hold up to much scrutiny – as I recall, the contributors here run the gamut: Some like the EF, some the Novus Ordo but in Latin, and some like the N.O. in English.

But in lots of comboxes on Catholic blogs, the caricatures are rife:

The “Novus Ordo crowd” are a bunch of bossy, love-bead-wearing, Happy Clappy Hippies Whose Guitars Made Our Daughters Get Abortions in the Benighted Seventies; They want to replace the the sign of the cross with a loyalty oath to Lenin and put avocado-colored shag carpet in the sanctuary and replace chrism oil with patchouli; They want to banish the very idea of sin to some relativistic irrelevance, where Hell is Temporary and Only For Racists, etc. etc. etc…

“The Tridentine Crowd” are a bunch of bossy, regressive troglodytes who Long For The Old Days When Everything Was Sinful, Especially if s-e-x was involved; where Father Mumbled Mass to the wall in a dead language; where Post-Vatican II Tunes are chucked in favor of Good Old Catholic Hymns like “Now Slay We All The Protestants” and the people cowered silently in the pews, praying their Rosaries and worrying obsessively about Hell like they’re supposed to. Etc Etc Etc…

The thing is, I’ve never met a real, actual Catholic that bears much resemblance to either one of those caricatures: I like the old Latin Mass for mostly aesthetic reasons – there really is nothing like a High, Palestrina Mass performed by a good schola choir and a priest who can sing.

On the other hand, I also like the New Mass because it’s easier to follow what’s going on when I understand the native-to-me language, which helps me focus. I often go to a Novus Ordo Mass at the Newman Center near the University of California here in Berkeley Sundays at 10pm – all the lights are turned off except for a couple dim lights on the altar, a couple on the lectern and a couple in the alcove. The music is by a very skilled musician on a guitar, who selects reflective hymns based on scripture. The atmosphere is reverent, hushed and rather monastic: I recommend the experience the next time you’re in Berkeley.

All that said, for me the important thing about Mass (of whatever form) is the Sacrifice taking place, and the fact that I can receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord into my very body. I am an abject sinner, and I can use all the help I can get. For Catholics to fight about it in the often strident and uncharitable tones those fights can be conducted in, is pretty scandalous, and I really wish it would stop.

P.S. Ok, bonus question- honestly, now: when was the last time you actually heard the literal song “Kum Ba Ya” played at a Catholic Mass? My answer? And keep in mind – I went to Mass in Berkeley. In the Sixties, ok? My answer…let me think…yeesh, it’s been a long, long time. I want to say about 196…7? Maybe 1968 – ok, just to be safe, maybe 1970 at the very, very latest.

  1. September 23, 2009 11:13 pm

    I’ve had people express surprise about my liturgical tastes (my Sunday Mass is Novus Ordo Latin with schola, and I also enjoy the High EF Mass whenever I get a chance) when they know my politics. I’m sad to say that many who share my liurgical views, including people that I know, are devotees of that curious brand of American individualism and nationalism that so entraces the American right. I find this peculiar, as I don’t think a traditional form of Catholicism has much in common with this kind of politics, a politics so infused by popular American varities of Protestantism. But perhaps the EF Mass bolsters their individiualism (if so, they don’t really understand it – traditional popular piety was always a community experience – see Eamon Duffy for that).

    I was talking recently with an elderly gentleman, a rather distinguished man of advanced years, who admitted to be very “pre-conciliar” in outlook. And though he loved the EF Mass, he refused to attend it at the place in downtown DC where it is celebrated weekly. The reason? He founf the people there “angry and bitter” and he didn’t go to Mass for “angry and bitter”. And he’s right. I know some of these people. Again, and somewhat ironically, I think their exagerrated traditionalism actually masks a rather Protestant outlook – a sort of “I have the right to the Mass I like, damn it” mentality.

  2. Matt Talbot permalink*
    September 23, 2009 11:22 pm

    Some of us prefer the Novus Ordo, some of us like the Tridentine, but it’s all US. I wish we could stop thinking in categories of “us” and “them”. That’s not how God sees us, I think.

  3. margaret permalink
    September 23, 2009 11:23 pm

    I think that the ‘crowd’ at either type of Mass runs the gamut.

    I will say this… I heard Kumbaya at Mass last summer in Madison Wisconsin. It’s still out there.

  4. Matt Talbot permalink*
    September 23, 2009 11:33 pm

    What I’m saying applies to other things too, MM – I mean, I think the Government should do more things along the lines of helping the vulnerable and increasing justice, and less things involving men with rifles, so I’m a “leftist” – but I’m a gun-owning hunter, am pro-life and like the EF Mass so I’m a reactionary, except I’m really neither of those things.

  5. doug permalink
    September 24, 2009 1:13 am

    I’ve never been to a Latin Mass, but I fall squarely in the conservative camp. Pro-life, pro-poor, pro-liturgy according to the rules, but anti-Marxist and anti-liturgical abuse. I get slammed from all sides.

    We had a recent scuffle in our homeschool group over the NeoCatechumenal way, so I withdrew. No point in pissing people off. The invitation began with a violation of the GIRM, a layperson piled on during the Homily with a NCW priest. I won’t join a group that invites us via a violation of the GIRM. Attacked for it again.

    And of course, although not liturgical in nature, I’ve taken flak on this site for promoting what the CCC says about self defense.

    A guy who promotes Catholic teaching just can’t win, especially with Catholics. Go figure. Of course, we Catholics all have a different reading of what the Church says…. I think a plain reading without lengthy explanation is sufficient. The Church is quite clear, and therefore doesn’t require “interpretation”.

  6. muennemann permalink
    September 24, 2009 1:30 am

    OK, I’ll take on the “bonus question,” since I grew up in Oakland, and went to Mass with my parents both in Berkeley and Oakland. I remember when Fr. Osuna was music director of the cathedral of St. Francis de Sales on Oakland. With a little Google-work, it seems Fr. Osuna was there at least from 1968 until 1974 or so. I’ll bet we sang Kum-ba-ya at least until 1972 at the cathedral.

    So generally, I agree that Kum-ba-ya has not been common in Catholic churches for decades.

    By the way, I remember that the Paulists at Holy Spirit Chapel in Berkeley had those red binders with hand-written and mimeographed music sheets falling out of them. Perhaps you remember them as well. Kum-ba-ya probably wasn’t even in the binder; it was definitely more popular at the cathedral in Oakland than in Berkeley, which was much more of a “They’ll Know We are Christians by Our Love” sort of place.

  7. September 24, 2009 3:21 am


    Interesting — you and I both wanted to deal with the “liturgy war” at the same time, though for me, the issue was the misconception people have of what will happen if everything “reverted” back to the Tridentine Liturgy.

  8. Rob permalink
    September 24, 2009 6:00 am

    When it comes to liturgy, I am a mess of contradictions. I am comfortable with the the Novus Ordo but I like the EF liturgy. I abhor gimmicky liturgies and yet I enjoy attending charismatic services. By temperament I have a monastic bent and like praying the office using the traditional hymns of the breviary and chanted psalms using psalm tones. I wish the propers were used more frequently at Mass but I’m okay with contemporary hymns (for the most part). I think liturgy should be primarily in the vernacular but I would like to see more use of latin. I like many modern hymns but wish more of our ancient musical heritage was used in our liturgies.

    My parish is a relatively “modern” parish which none-the-less celebrates reverant liturgies. These liturgies are perhaps a bit too “busy” – even with the generous times we allow for silence after the readings and after communion – but they are neither sloppy nor hurried. The liturgy in our parish is often used as a showcase for the talents and creativity of the musicians and liturgists but at least they do what they do with taste.

    The biggest problem in the liturgy wars is that legalism is carved very deeply into the Catholic soul. It doesn’t seem to matter much whether you liberal or conservative, reactionary or progressive, the odds are you are legalistic about it. There always seems to be an “expert” on the right or an “expert” on the left available who is prepared to tell you why doing “x” is inappropriate. “Oh no, since Vatican II we don’t kneel for that anymore” or “Oh no, Vatican II never authorized receiving communion in the hand and we shouldn’t be doing that”.

    Sadly, I recently had a falling out with our liturgy council (I am a member) over the issue of blessing children at communion. They were out to put a stop to this transgression – one in a long series of transgressions they have been determined to stomp out. The long and short of my objections to them was – “We’re probably right about this – but do we have to be such ^$$@oles about it? Aren’t there times when it’s okay to just leave well enough alone? We don’t have to encourage the practice – but do we really need to take away yet another expression of faith that has meaning to some of our brothers and sisters? Isn’t it better to err on the side of generosity?”.

    I have many friends who are evangelical and pentecostal Christians and it seems that I often have an easier time practicing my faith without fear among them than I do among my fellow Catholics. If I want to raise my hands and pray in tongues, they’re okay with that. If I want to chant the office using psalm tones, they’re okay with that, even if I do it in Latin.

    I am sick of the Liturgy Wars. We have to find away to get along with each other and accept some of our differences. I would suggest that a good starting point would be to reflect long and deeply on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians particlulary chapter 8 and chapter 10 vs 23-33. What does that say about how we should approach some of our liturgical differences?

  9. Ronald King permalink
    September 24, 2009 8:41 am

    I say give me Communion and stop singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic and God Bless America. If there was a song for God Bless the World I would be ok with that. Also delete Onward Christian Soldiers.

  10. Zak permalink
    September 24, 2009 9:33 am

    I agree with you about the problems of the liturgical wars and the polarization and signaling they involve. As someone whose general preference is the new Mass with smells, bells, and a good share of Latin, I am sometimes bothered by liturgical celebrations that display a certain nonchalance about what is taking place, and I have a distaste for deviation from the mass as written. But I struggle to block out such thoughts, because they distract me from Him whom we are there to worship and because they give rise to an uncharitable disposition.

    Perhaps your observation that many people who worship with the EF liturgy are politically conservative (or on the political right, if you prefer) should challenge your notion that everything on the right in America can be traced to Protestant individualism. Some people value the nation-state because they compare it with the unstable multi-ethnic empires or failing states. Or because they believethat multi-national superstates like the EU are unlikely to respond to people’s concerns or preserve their traditions, but instead empower secular, “progressive” bureaucrats who see no reason for the “democracy of the dead” that is tradition. And maybe the love America for the same reason that Karol Wojtyla loved Poland or a mother loves her child – because its theirs. Not everything traces its roots to Calvin, and it seems to me that to reduce all political issues to a Catholicism vs. Calvinism dualism is to have a very impoverished view of the complexity of cultural and political ideas and values in the US and abroad.

  11. Fr. J. Patrick Mullen permalink
    September 24, 2009 10:42 am

    My own sense is that if a parish has more than one liturgy on Sunday that a goal might be to represent the beautifully broad spectrum of good liturgy. Having said that, I’ve never been asked to say mass in Latin, ever.

  12. Matt Talbot permalink*
    September 24, 2009 11:55 am

    By the way, I remember that the Paulists at Holy Spirit Chapel in Berkeley had those red binders with hand-written and mimeographed music sheets falling out of them. Perhaps you remember them as well.

    I went to St Joseph the Workman parish down on Addison when I was younger. The Newman center now uses an overhead projector, rather than paper books, which is kind of nice because it makes everyone keep their heads up, so their voices carry better.

    The thing about “Kum Ba Yah” is, it’s not really a bad entrance song – there are better ones, I guess, but there’s nothing heretical or especially problematic about it that I know of: “Someone’s singing, Lord, Kum Ba Yah [Come by here]” – this is a threat to all that is holy? From what I can gather, it seems to me the objection is that the hippies sang it, They’re Not On Our Team, and thus Kum Ba Yah is evil.

  13. Mark Gordon permalink
    September 24, 2009 12:19 pm

    Ronald, perhaps you believe we should redact Ephesians 6:13-17 from Holy Scripture. I mean, if all martial metaphors are out of bounds …

  14. brettsalkeld permalink*
    September 24, 2009 12:22 pm

    People object to blessing children? That is one I haven’t hear . . . ’til now.

    For the record, that is Toby’s (2.5) favorite part of Mass. It’s part of what makes him manageable for the first 45 minutes. It also has him very excited for the prospect of receiving the Eucharist some day.

  15. Matt Talbot permalink*
    September 24, 2009 2:47 pm

    Mark, Ronald: Cease fire.

  16. Mark Gordon permalink
    September 24, 2009 4:28 pm

    Matt, I think the new policy at Vox Nova is terrific, but I find it hard to believe that my innocuous little rejoinder to Ronald’s last comment constituted a violation. Will there be no room for counterpoint, debate, or charitible argumentation?

  17. September 24, 2009 4:45 pm

    Excellent post, Matt. Another related blogosphere rant that gets on my nerves is the one that says something like, “As soon as the dratted Baby-Boomers toddle off to the nursing home, we’ll enjoy a renaissance of liturgy, catechesis, and vocations. (Whadeya mean you’re not ready yet; they have all kinds of fun activities there…).”
    Speaking of “Kumbaya”, it’s been at least 30 years since I’ve heard it at Mass. Someone mentioned “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love”. Interestingly, our choir recently had a request for that, from our 40-something pastor, who said “I hardly ever get to hear any of those good old songs from when I was a kid anymore”. We were glad to oblige. I should mention he also likes “Panis Angelicus”. Traditional means different things to different people.

  18. Matt Talbot permalink*
    September 24, 2009 4:57 pm

    A fair point, Mark – Ok. Maybe I’m a little trigger happy at that. Just let’s keep it charitable :)

  19. Matt Talbot permalink*
    September 24, 2009 5:54 pm

    MelodyK – That’s definitely in the category I’m talking about. I mean, think about this for a second: the idea that a bunch of hirsute, peace-loving hedonists destroyed civilization in 1968 is just…yeesh. I mean, how fragile would civilization have to have been for that to be true?

    “Baby-Boomers” has definitely become a caricature in certain contexts.

  20. Joe Hargrave permalink
    September 24, 2009 6:51 pm

    Two things.

    “On the other hand, I also like the New Mass because it’s easier to follow what’s going on…”

    It is easy to follow what is going on at a Mass said in Latin. It simply requires reading along for a while, until you memorize it. Once you know the Confetior, you know it.

    As for Morning Minion’s old man:

    “And though he loved the EF Mass, he refused to attend it at the place in downtown DC where it is celebrated weekly. The reason? He founf the people there “angry and bitter” and he didn’t go to Mass for “angry and bitter”. And he’s right.”

    I don’t see why this ought to matter at all. I’m sure there are angry, bitter people where I go to Mass too – just as I am sure that there are pro-choice, pro-birth control folks who attend the local N.O. Masses.

    We go to Mass to give God the worship he is due. No one else’s attitude is relevant at all.

  21. Matt Talbot permalink*
    September 24, 2009 7:05 pm

    It is easy to follow what is going on at a Mass said in Latin. It simply requires reading along for a while, until you memorize it. Once you know the Confetior, you know it.

    Of course, Joe – I like the Latin Mass too, remember. I guess what I was getting at was that when I hear the Mass in English, I don’t have to do the translating, so I can focus on words that are from my everyday life, but now used in a sacred setting – it is in some way more immediate or less removed, I guess?

  22. September 24, 2009 8:14 pm

    Traditional means different things to different people.

    EXACTLY. And that’s OKAY. It’s not a threat. It’s what makes the church the church!

  23. Harry permalink
    September 24, 2009 10:43 pm

    We in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod are having the same liturgy wars. The LC-MS ranges from the tradition Divine Service to praise bands ( wannabe Baptist ). The wannabe baptist Lutherans think that church growth comes from praise bands instead of the traditional Divine Service. My church is a traditional church and we are not losing members.

  24. Monica permalink
    September 25, 2009 11:00 pm

    I love each of the masses, in their own way. There is something wonderful and unique about each of the masses, whether they are the more traditional, or the more modern. Either way, the most important thing is to remember why we are at mass-The Eucharist.


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