Among enthusiastic Catholics (priests and laity, popes, bishops, and World Youth Day groupies alike) one often hears spirited references to a “new springtime” of Catholicism in America, along with a “new evangelization” just on the horizon. These sunny, hopeful phrases suggest brighter days ahead, as a new generation shirks off the bizarre, touchy-feely accretions that had glommed onto Catholic liturgy in particular, and culture in general, over the past forty years or so. This idea of a “new springtime” squared nicely with the transition into a new millennium of Christianity. Having shed the crazies and eccentrics of the 1960s, a new era of a more serious, orthodox, yet enlightened Catholicism was within reach.
So, is there a “new springtime” on the horizon?
The good news: yes.
The bad news: we’ve still got a long way to go. The horizon is a bit farther off that many think. Here’s why.
What’s often glossed over by well-meaning, rah-rah enthusiasts of the “new evangelization” movement is that many of the now-accepted liturgical customs, or aberrations, born of those decades of confusion and uncertainty are the very obstacles preventing us from the realization of this new golden age. In other words, the liturgical abuses that had their genesis in the 60s, 70s and 80s were never completely eradicated by the church leadership. Instead, they moderated somewhat in terms of their excesses, only to wriggle their way in and settle into our liturgical life, becoming normative.
Having jilted the more conspicuous and outrageous excesses in liturgical life, the remaining abuses became less noticeable, and, for that reason, much easier to incorporate into a liturgical life that had become so unsure of itself in the wake of the confusion following Vatican II. Exhausted from the battles to overcome the most extreme manifestations of liturgical and cultural upheaval, we let our guard down. Something of a liturgical détente was unofficially declared, and we allowed some of the (seemingly) innocuous elements to remain in our liturgy.
I cannot emphasize this enough. Yes, for the most part, we’ve thankfully done away with the spectacle of clown masses, and pizza and raisin bread for communion. But before we get on our high horse for achieving this victory, we have to come to terms with the reality of an extant liturgical life that is still riddled with confusion and abuses that are no longer even recognized as such. And this is a serious problem that we’ve yet to come to terms with.
Even among younger, more devout priests, the problem remains that their formation at seminaries still bears the residue from the previous generation. I once attended a young adult meeting at a parish, and the young, very devout priest running the group was tirelessly pushing for us all to become more actively involved in parish life by becoming, you guessed it, “Eucharistic Ministers”. The problem is that the widespread push for, and overreliance on Eucharistic Ministers (correctly called Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion) is one of those glossed-over aberrations stemming from the last generation. It’s never been fully addressed and corrected. “Active participation” in liturgy on the part of the laity has nothing to do with becoming a Eucharistic Minister. I would argue that it actually represents a profound misreading of “active participation”. Just a cursory knowledge of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s The Spirit of the Liturgy would make this clear. The well-intentioned priest, however, clearly didn’t know this. I trace this anecdote back to his formation at the seminary. We have an army of younger, devout priests who are absolutely onboard with the Holy Father, and this is wonderful. However, the other side of the coin is that orthodox liturgical formation at many seminaries is still lagging.
A number of other seemingly harmless, yet very consequential, aberrations that have been rubber-stamped since Vatican II include:
- the reception of Communion in the hand
- the virtually complete abandonment of Latin
- the priest facing the people instead of east
- the introduction of altar girls
- the slapdash approval of radical, incongruous alterations to church architecture
- the replacement of traditional Catholic hymns with saccharine, and at times Protestant-tinged songs
It’s important to note that, contrary to widespread opinion, none of these aberrations were called for by the Second Vatican Council. Ingenious, crafty liturgical schemers rammed them through, parish by parish, in the confusion following the Council, and no one nipped it in the bud. Don’t take my word for it. Bishop James Slattery made an excellent observation on this point when he said, “What we lost in a short period of time was continuity. The new liturgy should be clearly identifiable as the liturgy of the pre-Vatican II Church. Changes, like turning the altar around, were too sudden and too radical. There is nothing in the Vatican II documents that justifies such changes.” (Emphasis added.) Yes,“nothing in the Vatican II documents…” How often is this overlooked!
Even Pope Paul VI, considered by many to be a progressive pope, had the following to say when the topic of receiving Communion in the hand came up: “A change in so important a matter that has its basis in an ancient and honored tradition does not simply affect discipline, but can also bring with it dangers that, it is feared, may arise from the new way of administering Communion.”
Whenever any serious concerns about these phenomena are raised, the response from many higher ups is a shrug of the shoulders. That insouciant shrug is part of the reason why the “new springtime” is still a ways off.