10 July, 2007

A gratuitous swipe at certain liturgists

Come then, let us bow down and worship,
bending the knee before the Lord, our maker,
for he is our God, and we are his people,
the flock he shepherds.
At this point I want to make a wholly uncalled-for digression at the expense of certain American Catholic liturgical experts. I've probably written all this before, and repeating it is likely to do nothing more than win me some more time in Purgatory, but it feels good to recap from time to time.

I became a Catholic in 1994. Since then, I have had the extreme displeasure of making a fool of myself on many occasions where I was discussing matters liturgical. In my case this is understandable, inasmuch as I am a layman. So, here I go again.

By contrast, I have heard all of the following assertions passed off as unvarnished truth by people who really ought to know better, if only because they present themselves as liturgically educated. This includes Catholic clergy, and a number of seminary professors.
  • Catholics in other parts of the world don't kneel for the consecration of the Eucharist. The American bishops asked for, and received, permission so we could do that, and now we ought to join the rest of the world in standing, because kneeling is an inappropriate posture of penance during the Eucharistic prayer.
  • Orthodox Christians don't have pews or kneelers. Orthodox Christians don't kneel during their services, because it would be an inappropriate sign of penance.
Readers of my previous two posts (here and here) will notice that these statements are far from the unvarnished truth, and in certain cases are so far off the mark as to raise questions about the speaker's qualifications to speak about liturgy. This includes Catholic clergy, and a small number of seminary professors.

Anyone who deigns to read the General Introduction to the Roman Missal (located at the front of every Sacramentary, which is how I first discovered it) would see plainly that a number of positions of "humility", not "penance", are advised during certain parts of the Mass, to wit:
  • bowing the head whenever the names of the Trinity, of Jesus, of Mary, or of the saint of the day is named;
  • striking the breast during one of the penitential rites;
  • bowing at the waist during one phrase of the creed ("By the power of the Holy Spirit, he... was made man");
  • kneeling (gasp!) during that same phrase of the creed on Christmas;
  • and yes, kneeling (gasp!) during a part of the Eucharistic prayer known (although not to certain liturgical experts, apparently) as the consecration.
You can clearly see that the American bishops did not ask permission to kneel during the Eucharist prayer, since the GIRM in fact directs us to kneel. Rather, the American bishops asked for permission to extend the kneeling from the end of the Sanctus to the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, standing after the great Amen.

It is not clear to me how someone sufficiently educated in liturgy can know of the American bishops' indult on kneeling without knowing what the indult is actually about. But, these people are the same who regularly demonstrate ignorance of any postures recommended by the instructions on the missal, and simultaneously advocate postures and/or activities that are not recommended by the GIRM, that are in fact explicitly contradicted by a number of official documents. Nevertheless, these experts insist that such novel postures and activities are necessary to maintain "liturgical unity with the rest of the world."

Of course, you can't believe everything you read in books, and maybe the GIRM is just more pie-in-the-sky thinking from the Congregation for Divine Workship in the Vatican. I can dig that line of reasoning. But I have now personally witnessed Catholics kneeling during the consecration in Italy, France, and Russia. Typically they do not kneel for the entirety of the Eucharist prayer.

It gets better! I have seen pews with kneelers in a Greek Orthodox Church (in Raleigh, NC) and I have seen both Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians kneeling during their liturgies. My wife informs me that a number of people, including 80 year-old women, knelt for the entire service Sunday.

So, the only churches where I have personally witnessed anyone of the Catholic or Orthodox faith not kneel are those American Catholic parishes that claim they are maintaining liturgical unity with the rest of the Catholic and Orthodox world, which apparently extends no further than the fantasies of American liturgists. It makes me wonder whether such experts have actually visited any actual Catholic or Orthodox liturgies outside their narrow circles of "enlightened" parishes. Of course, these are also people who think that the Gloria—an ancient hymn required by the missal and an essential part of the liturgical heritage of the Roman Rite—should be optional, and the "recessional hymn", or "hymn of sending forth", or whatever the jargon du jour is—which is never mentioned in the sacramentary, and is therefore wholly optional—should be observed rigorously. As a seminarian in the late 90s, I found myself disturbed at the eagerness with which parish liturgists jettisoned the Gloria. Even if it was true that "the next translation of the missal" would make the Gloria "optional", their enthusiasm seemed misplaced.

Once, when I protested to one such expert some years ago that I had personally witnessed Italian Catholics kneeling during the Mass, he remarked, "Oh, that must have been Southern Italy." Okay, yes, it was the diocese of Gaeta. But (a) it suggests no small amount of dishonesty when these experts claim a universal practice while acknowledging it not to be quite so universal once challenged, and (b) by now I've gotten around a bit more, to other dioceses in southern Italy as well as the shrine of Lourdes and this parish in Kazan. I've visited several Orthodox churches. Sooner or later I'm bound to find one of these legendary non-American Catholic churches that has "grown past kneeling", but I wager that I'll sooner find one of those mythical European cities where "everyone speaks English." Not counting Great Britain and Ireland, of course.

When I was first Catholic and heard these things, I was surprised and a little disheartened, since I rather like kneeling. It's a sign of humility, a healthy virtue that all Christians ought to cultivate. In addition, I knew that a lot of Catholics found their faith seriously challenged by these claims, and, this being 1994, I discovered communities online where many Catholics would angrily denounce such liturgical experts. Usually, however, they would only quote books written by their own liturgical experts of a very small and dwindling school. I never saw anyone challenge the assertion that most Catholics abroad don't kneel, or that Orthodox Christians never kneel.

At the time, I thought that I could let go of it, since posture was perhaps a matter only of personal taste. As I grow older, however, I find myself more and more attached to kneeling during the Mass, and I am hardly in the camp of the traditionalist Catholics.

I guess I've joined the ranks of those Catholics who denounce the liturgical experts, except that time has shown us ignorant laity to have a little more understanding than the experts. After all, (a) That new translation of the missal that people pointed to never appeared. Largely this was because an important part of the translation was deemed by the Vatican to have prayers that certainly strayed too far from the original Latin and, in addition, were "possibly heretical" (ordination and consecration of bishops). The result was that the organization charged with the translations was reorganized and restaffed, and the new translation approaches the actual Latin prayers more closely, bringing us closer into real unity with the rest of the world. (b) I have seen for myself the loving piety of ordinary Catholic in churches abroad, as well as ordinary Orthodox Christians in churches both in the States and abroad, who kneel humbly during the liturgy.

But maybe we ordinary Catholics and Orthodox don't matter. The words at the beginning of this post are from the invitatory Psalm, a prayer that starts every liturgical day in the Liturgy of the Hours. I have personally seen monks and nuns, whose day is suffused with this prayer based on the Psalms, bown and kneel during the words in bold. Maybe I don't matter, but I prefer to cast my lot with the monks and nuns... even if they don't matter.

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