Periodization of Liturgy

NLM has a post up that includes bits of an interview with Msgr. Schmitz, vicar-general of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest–a traditionalist group in the Roman church committed to the use of the Tridentine Mass.

Here’s a snippet that struck me as interesting:

Some of the faithful, however, are alarmed by the popular revival of the Old Mass. “They argue that what the “neo-trads” refer to as “the Mass of always” is in fact the product of the Middle Ages, whereas the liturgies that emerged following the Second Vatican Council are connected with the older, patristic heritage of the third or fourth centuries.

“Very well,” Mgr Schmitz returns with a hint of frustration. “This distinction between historical periods is not a Catholic thing to do. I believe that the Holy Ghost is present in every age and in every period of the Church.

“To divide the history of salvation into little drawers that you yourself label with certain qualities is a very narrow view of the history of the Church. As a matter of fact, we are not medievalists, we are not concentrated on the third century or the 17th.” Very well, but what then can we make of the last 40 years of Catholic worship? Does the Novus Ordo not also belong to this organically evolving Church? “We don’t exclude anything,” Mgr Schmitz answers gently. “We simply want to open the window, so that the wind of tradition, the good Roman Catholic tradition, can blow through into what has often become a rather stale atmosphere.”

I agree with many things in the interview but my views on the liturgy and its history part ways from Msgr. Schmitz on the issue of distinguishing between historical periods. Rather, I’d contend that it is very important for our continued effective proclamation of the Gospel that we pay close attention to historical periods.

“Organic development” is mentioned here–whether that phrase began with Msgr. Schmitz or the interviewer I can’t tell (and haven’t had a chance to read the original article). Development necessarily means change over time. Furthermore, as I understand how the Holy Spirit works in the Church I believe that the Holy Spirit directs certain changes at certain times to respond to the needs that arise among God’s people at those times. IF this theological understanding is correct, then several things necessarily follow from it.

  1. Liturgy should not be static. A completely static liturgy is a liturgy that is not listening to the truths that the Spirit teaches. Don’t misread me, though–I’m no fan of liturgical change for the sake of change. Continuity is critically important because liturgy is a big part of the practical process of formation that inculturates us into being the people of God. Start messing around with that too much and you mess with our identity. Rather, change should happen slowly, deliberately, organically, with good order, and with much testing of the spirits.
  2. Historical ages have certain corporate characters based on the events, people, etc. that molded them. As such, some are more alike than others. If the Spirit has taught the church through the liturgy in the past, then it behooves us to examine the epochs and consider what parts of our age are congruent with others. What are the spiritual vitalities and malaises of our age? How do they mirror those of other ages? How did the liturgies of those times and places speak the Gospel to curb the vices and encourage the virtues of the Church? Note that I’m not saying that we capitulate to the Spirit of this Age (or any age…) Rather, we observe how the Holy Spirit has interacted with the various spirits of the ages, sometimes moving in parallel, sometimes issuing sharp rebukes (and often doing both at the same time as well as a myriad other things…).
  3. One of the ways that the Spirit works is through the work that we do, carefully combing through the tradition to observe how the Spirit has worked in the past, then considering how these ways aid us in our current proclamation of the Gospel. The Spirit works in us as well as through impersonal forces. Thus, as people of liturgy–people who craft liturgies, yes, but more so as people who use and are formed by liturgy–we are called to the work of cooperation which can only happen with the triple spirits of openness to the Spirit, humility about our projects, and a passionate desire for the mutual up-building of the community.

So, as I see it, change is inevitable. But it should be deliberate, steeped in the tradition and open to who God is calling us to be–not merely our own frenzied changes or our capitulation to whatever fancies happen to be current.

We have to take historical periods seriously–because what is at stake is nothing less than the principle of Incarnation. An ahistorical understanding of the Church and its liturgies smacks of Docetism. The Spirit does not choose to encounter us in a vacuum but in the messy realities of our lives, of our ages, of our history and it is precisely there, then, that we must find the Spirit’s footprints to direct our ways.