Respectful, prayerful worship can be celebrated in any era

Father John A. Kiley

“The Woonsocket Call” recently noted that St. Joseph Church in that city would soon be offering the old Latin Mass for worshippers who treasure fondly the solemnity of that ritual.

Father Michael Woolley, the pastor, observed that the older liturgy manifested “more intimate worship.” He also suggested that “the traditional Latin language and unyielding structure offer an environment that is more conducive to worshipping.” Father Woolley is in good company, of course.

In 1988 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, addressing the bishops of Chile, offered this comment: “Even though there are numerous motives that could have brought a great number of faithful to find refuge in the traditional liturgy, the most important is that they find preserved there the dignity of the sacred.” Brazilian Bishop Fernando Arêas Rifan recently spoke in a similar tone. He exalted the Tridentine Mass “ ... because of its richness, beauty, elevation, nobility and ceremonial solemnity, because of its sense of the sacred and reverential, because of its sense of mystery, its greater precision and rigor.”

The Brazilian bishop also noted that Cardinal Ratzinger elsewhere lamented that the new liturgy has sometimes degenerated into “a show,” which attempts to make religion interesting with the help of stylish elements with only momentary success. Like others, and like “The Quiet Corner” itself, the bishop and the cardinal regret the coffee table liturgies where stoles replace chasubles while baskets and pottery replace linen and gold. Father Woolley is correct in highlighting the air of mystery and the advantage of structure that the Mass of our youth possessed. The Brazilian bishop also suggested interestingly that priests who did not choose to celebrate Mass according to the older rite but who have experienced that rite can actually celebrate the new rite better. Having experienced richness, beauty, nobility and solemnity in one rite, it should be easier to discover and reveal those elements in another rite. A recent experience proves his point.

A few weeks ago, I was honored to participate in the Confirmation celebration at St. Augustine Church in Providence. The full church, still arrayed in its Easter splendor, with dignified cherry-wood furnishings, restrained stained glass windows and polished marble floor, was the perfect environment for worship. The sanctuary was well equipped with flashing tapers, polished metals, crisp linens, plush carpets and a legion of altar servers. The characteristic pace of the Mass was maintained even with readers being led to the pulpit by a server, incense being offered at appropriate times, and an honor guard of candle bearers flanking out along the still-extant altar rail during the eucharistic prayer. Splendid music echoed in sound the same milieu that delighted the eye.

The Word of God was proclaimed in turn by laity and pastor in deliberate (and audible) phrases. Graced with the episcopal presence, the gathered clergy respectfully invoked the blessing of God on the sacred species and the attentive laity replied with their affirming “Amen,” which they further ratified by an endless Communion line. The Mass indeed followed the Novus Ordo required by post-Vatican II regulations, but the celebration was one of timeless Catholic authenticity combining dignity, décor and dispatch — the enduring framework of all good liturgy.

Now I am not writing this just to ensure that I will get invited back to dinner. Rather, on this Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, I am proposing that respectful, prayerful, engaging worship can be celebrated within the guidelines of the present day church. One cannot argue with the splendor that was Romanesque or the glory that was Gothic. But one does not have to go back to the “old days” for good worship, for mystery, or structure or liturgical brilliance. In any era, good liturgy relies more on attentiveness than on nostalgia.