Recently I’ve been reading The Hobbit to two of my young children. Central to the story is lost treasure: Thorin and his fellow dwarves ask for Bilbo Baggins’ help in reclaiming their trove, which has been captured by the dragon Smaug and hidden deep within the Lonely Mountain. As I read the book, I can’t help but think of our own day’s lost treasure: the liturgical patrimony of the Catholic Church.
After the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), massive changes were made to the liturgy which involved the abandonment of many traditional practices. None were more noticeable to the average Catholic (and even non-Catholic) than the abandonment of Latin in favor of the vernacular. Yet there have been many other changes, and although they are not as noticeable to the casual observer as the loss of Latin, they are each sadly significant nonetheless.
Now, one might imagine that someone lamenting these losses is simply a nostalgic child of the 50’s, pining for the Church of his youth. However, I was born after Vatican II ended, and didn’t even become Catholic until the 1990’s. I never even attended the “old Mass” until about 10 years ago. Further, I came into the Church by way of the charismatic renewal, which isn’t exactly known for old-school liturgies. And if I’m being completely honest, I generally prefer a liturgy in English. Yet over the years the treasure we’ve lost has become more evident, and more painful, to me.
9 Liturgical Losses
Here are some of those lost aspects of the Roman liturgy from the past 50 years, in no particular order:
1) Ad Orientem
We no longer celebrate the Mass with the priest leading us to the Father. Instead, we gaze at each other while proclaiming How Great We Art. I can’t imagine a more dramatic symbolic divergence than turning the priest away from God and towards the people he’s supposed to be leading. It’s like Moses trying to lead the Chosen People to the Promised Land without ever actually looking toward Zion.
2) Altar Rails
The altar rail was a staple of Catholic churches for generations. Then it was tossed aside like a Hollywood actor discovered to be a conservative. This loss has led to secondary losses: the practice of receiving communion while kneeling, and the distinct separation between the sanctuary and the nave. (In fact, most people don’t know what a nave is, and call the whole church a sanctuary).
3) Communion on the Tongue
Although Communion on the tongue is still allowed, the vast majority of people receive communion in the hand now. I once attended a First Communion retreat for one of my daughters in which the presenter told the children that First Communion meant they had grown up, and only babies are fed in the mouth. Afterwards, I told my daughter that in the eyes of God, we are small children, and receiving on the tongue signifies our complete dependence on the Lord, like little birds receiving food from their mother.
4) Bowing of the Head at the Name of the Three Divine Persons, or Jesus, or Mary
The first time I ever attended a Latin Mass it was an elaborate High Mass with dozens of seminarians and priests serving. At every mention of the name of Jesus or Mary or the Three Divine Persons, every single one of them bowed their head in unison. I was struck by this gesture of respect, and thought to myself, “Now these people have respect for the Faith.”
5) Sacred Music
To compare today’s Haugen-Haas mess with the beautiful musical patrimony of the Church is to compare a package of Starbursts with a seven-course meal at a five-star restaurant. Today’s music is sickly-sweet and leaves you empty, while music that stirs the soul and lifts the heart heavenward has been forgotten.
6) Sacred Architecture
For centuries, communities would band together to build, at great expense and sacrifice, churches worthy of the Almighty God. But if you tour the well-off suburbs of America, you see Pizza Hut parishes and what appear to be abandoned airplane hangers posing as Catholic churches. The feast for the eyes that are older Catholic churches has been replaced with the battle of the bland and blander. No longer do you walk into a Catholic church and immediately know you’re in a sacred place where the Lord is worshipped. If you didn’t know beforehand, you might think its where you go to get your driver’s license renewed.
7) Use of the Paten When Receiving Communion
Once communion in the hand became commonplace, the simple paten, which the altar boy placed under your chin lest any of the precious Host fall onto the ground, was retired. Yet the paten represented something: that we really, truly believed that what we were receiving wasn’t a piece of bread that could be trampled upon, but instead was the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ.
8) Altar Boys
In our culture’s quest to become genderless, the Church has felt the need to placate that culture as much as possible. Thus gender-specific roles, if they were not divinely ordained like the priesthood, were abolished. The training ground for future priests became something we wanted little Sarah to do, because “she’d be just as good at it as Johnny.” Of course, it was never about ability, but instead reflected the imaging of the God-man Jesus Christ and the essential differences in roles between men and women.
9) Genuflecting at the Final Blessing and During the Creed
Protestants like to joke that there is a lot of standing and kneeling at a Catholic Mass. And compared to a typical Protestant service, they are correct. Yet even that had to be streamlined in our efforts to “simplify” the liturgy. So ancient practices of genuflecting for blessings, or while proclaiming the Incarnation during the Creed, have been shunted aside. Gone is another gesture of reverence to remind us of the great mysteries we are celebrating.
Each loss, by itself, might seem a minor thing. None of these lost aspects, of course, impact the validity of a Mass. The Eucharist is still the Eucharist in today’s Mass. But each loss – especially when combined with all the other ones – substantially impact our reverence when celebrating the sacred mysteries. They impact our subjective reception and participation in the graces we receive at the Mass.
Also, note that none of these things are related to Latin in the Mass. After all, almost every one of these aspects of the Liturgy we’ve lost are retained in the Eastern liturgy, which is usually celebrated in the vernacular, and never in Latin.
The reasons that were given for the discarding of traditional liturgical practices was that it would allow people to participate more fully, and would make the Mass more palatable to the “common man.” The evidence, however, points in the opposite direction. “Simplifying” the liturgy has made it less special, which has made it less attractive to attend. On a Sunday morning, when someone has a choice between relaxing at home or attending an insipid imitation of a bad high school musical, what will the common person choose? However, if the option were a reverent partaking of heavenly mysteries that transports one beyond space and time, it might be a far more compelling choice than checking out the Sunday news shows.
I tend to look at most things in the Church through an evangelization lens since I’ve been involved in Catholic evangelization for decades. I’ve written before that the purpose of the Mass is not evangelization but the glorification of God. Yet there are evangelization consequences to poor liturgies (and I mean poor in two senses of the word: badly executed and with a poverty of reverence). It sends a signal that we don’t take this God stuff too seriously, and you shouldn’t either. Is this the message we want to send to the world?
Catholics should mourn for what has been lost in the liturgy in the past generation. These losses have contributed to the Church losing much of her soul, and in the process, losing many of her members as well. Let us pray for Bilbos to arise and work tirelessly to restore the lost treasure that has been buried out of sight for so long. To do so might involve fighting dragons, but the treasure we are working to unearth is worth it.
Eric Sammons, a former Evangelical, entered the Catholic Church in 1993. He is the father of seven children and author of seven books, including The Old Evangelization: How to Spread the Faith Like Jesus Did.