For many, the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council was a jarring experience. Even for those who favored them, the changes were so great in some places that it was difficult to reconcile what they were presently doing with what they had been doing. The new was a rupture from the past, and that was either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on one’s perspective.
Even today this perspective prevails. As we’ve become entrenched in our camps, very few have a satisfying perspective for me. Either the Tridentine Mass was the true Mass and the reforms were heretical or the Tridentine Mass was oppressive and the reforms brought us back to true worship. There is no harmony in the story. There is no sense that it was the same Church that promulgated the Tridentine Mass as it was that promulgated Sacrosanctum Concilium (Second Vatican Council liturgical document that offered principles of reform). No, for most people, one is right and the other is wrong.
I struggle with this perspective.
Too often with progress we want to forget the steps and people and decisions that came before us and dismiss people of the past as outdated or backward. They didn’t have the same sensibilities that we do. They weren’t as enlightened as us. Um… duh? Isn’t that the point of progress? We would not be where we are without the journey of those who came before us, and they with the people before them, and so on. What’s often lost in the discussion is that sometimes the people in the past, although outdated (by definition…) today, were progressive and pastoral and faithful in their time too. When we look at the Council of Trent in its context we understand that it’s perspective was both necessary and pastoral.
On the other hand, too often we romanticize the past, look to those who have gone before us as having some undeniable gift that we do not have. Sometimes we look at things that are old and give them tremendous respect and reverence simply because they are old and traditional. But guess what. Even the oldest and most traditional things all started out as new. At some point in every tradition’s life it started as a break from what was traditional before it. It is only over a long period of time when the initial memory is forgotten and new memories are made that something becomes traditional and romanticized and immune to change. As important as the vision for the Church of the Council of Trent was in the 16th century, it would have been seen as ridiculous in the 5th century and wasn’t what the Church needed in the 20th century.
In the history of the Church, a history that has spanned almost two thousands years, both of these perspectives are always at play. As the living and true faith, we as Christians are constantly growing and adapting. As we change, so does the Church and our approach to the world. And as an institution founded on a memory and an ancient identity, we are always trying to hold on to the past, maintaining and conserving what inspired us from the past.
It is with that that I present this week’s Catholicism in Focus, “The History of the Eucharist.” In six minutes, using Henri De Lubac, S.J. as a guide, I try to offer a general overview of the ways in which the Catholic Church’s liturgical life as been in a constant state of changing preservation. We are always growing. We are always trying to hold on to the traditions of the past. It is with this perspective, this overview of the way that certain things change while other things stay the same—that some things that are old are important while others were just mistakes—that the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council may continue to feel jarring for some, but they appear inauthentic to none. What happened in the Church following the council was not a betrayal of tradition but the continuation of the complex, ever-growing, ever-changing life of the Church.