Where Catholics Can Sing

Well, three months after my road trip to the Tridentine Mass, I decided it was high time I took another Mass adventure. This time, since most of my friends at the parish were out of town and I didn’t have any RCIA responsibilities, I took a shorter trip to go revisit the small Byzantine Catholic parish in a nearby town. I’d been there once before, about two years ago in my “should I become Catholic or not” phase, and while it enchanted me, I wasn’t sufficiently familiar with liturgy in general to appreciate just how ethereal it is. I was so befuddled trying to figure out what was going on that I couldn’t take it all in. Well, I was still a little bit confused in places, but the two hour experience caused a radical change in my perspective on reform within the Western church.

First of all, as I suspect I mentioned in my analysis of my trip to the TLM in March, I was already rather convinced that the language used in liturgy has almost nothing to do with its reverence and otherworldliness. The liturgy I attended this morning was 99% in English; there was a tiny bit of Slavonic but nothing that impacted my understanding in the slightest. And, it was the closest thing to making heaven present on Earth that I’ve ever seen. Glorious, gold-encrusted vestments, beautiful icons, and incense and candles galore transformed a converted, frankly a little bit dilapidated old house into a scene from Revelation. But, it was the assembly chanting, in harmony, loudly, mostly from memory that stunned me. Such sound I have never heard in a Western parish.

We sang a hymn immediately before the Gifts were brought from the “Table of Preparation” to the Altar that went as follows:

Let us, who mystically represent the Cherubim, and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity, now set aside every earthly cares…

At that moment, it dawned on me that this was what the Mass ought to be. We really were mystically representing the Cherubim, and this scene was made present:

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth; and he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.

And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.”

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!”

And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

(Rev. 5:1-14, RSV)

Every Mass, everywhere, brings this event into being. But, it is much easier to experience it when the surroundings evoke splendor, majesty and glory, and when the entire assembly is united in song and prayer. It was, to quote the old Protestant hymn, “Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!”

Yet, it was in English. The mere existence of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in English, translated faithfully and reverently, utterly disproves the notion that a return to Latin would restore the liturgy of the Western Church. That is simply not the case. What needs to return is not the “universal language” but the treasure-trove of symbols and hymnody that we already have. Barren, stagnant auditoriums should be replaced with buildings that burst with symbolism; abstract art should be trashed in favor of the traditional art of the Church; trite folk tunes should be jettisoned in favor of simple old hymns and chant. And, most of all, the focus of the Mass has to be displaced from the priest, cantor, lector, and choir, to God. None of this requires the Tridentine Rite; all of it takes place in the Divine Liturgy, and all of it can take place in the Novus Ordo.

The only problem is, good liturgy takes work. It’s demanding on the celebrant, demanding on those assisting him, and not easy for the assembly, either. In the Divine Liturgy, almost everything is sung, and the assembly has quite a bit to learn. It’s daunting to follow at first. The careful choreography of movements, gestures, and words is far more intricate than that in the average Novus Ordo parish. In this, it resembles far more the old Tridentine Mass than what we have today. And, I wonder if that is why there are so few people in attendance; I want to shout it from the rooftops how wonderful it is, but it isn’t something you simply attend. It’s something you do. Why go stand through an hour and forty-five minute-long liturgy, fumbling through the pages and getting lost, when you can go down the street to the megaparish and have few demands placed? Yes, Catholics can and do sing, in the Divine Liturgy, and in pockets elsewhere. But, we must work to restore the culture around us before we’ll have such beauty and reverence restored to our liturgy as a whole.


4 Responses to “Where Catholics Can Sing”

  1. 1 Zie Hammer June 18, 2006 at 8:57 pm

    Very good Ed. I think the first step is getting rid of the meeting halls and having real churches, but not sure when that would happen. But the Novus Ordo has to be reformed correctly, what I think B16 is up to. The Latin Mass has had relatively few changed in the last 1000 years, the Tridentine Mass from the council of Trent was just making the Mass of Rome the universal Mass around the world since there were other rites, like ambrosian, etc. But the rites, (don’t be fooled by liturgists) were actually more hard core than the Rome liturgy, they were trying to out do Rome, be more Roman than Rome. It was a different mindset than today (diversity) they weren’t thinking this is our rite and how we do liturgy, but how can we be more Roman. Anyways the current Mass is a break from Tradition and not intended by the council. The essentials are still there, and have to be. But there is a lot of tradition that was thrown out. We don’t need to go back to the Tridentine Mass, but we need to have organic true development and traditional continuity. Two of these should be retaining the Greek Kyrie, and Latin in the Mass. Now there should be parts that can be in Vernacular, but some parts should be only in Latin.

    B16 has the plan, and he was at Vatican II so he knows what’s going on…

  2. 2 Bekah June 19, 2006 at 6:15 pm

    What an experience! I wish I had an Eastern Rite parish somewhere feasible to travel to.

    Even the NO sung is more reverant than spoken. The parish my daughter made her first Communion at regularly chants the entire Eucharistic Prayer. Frankly, I think it is easier to learn through song rather than spoken. The music triggers memory. So I don’t think it would be exceptionally difficult in that respect to modify the Latin Rite liturgy.

    The hardest part of all is to motivate our clergy to willingly accept such changes. I don’t believe the average lay person even realizes anymore what they are missing. But if they did, I expect they would demand the reverence we are entitled to.

  3. 3 Jason June 19, 2006 at 11:06 pm

    Ah, that’s a lovely little parish, isn’t it? I’ve always liked them. 🙂

  4. 4 Edmund C. June 19, 2006 at 11:13 pm

    Yes it is, Jason. I think I’m going to have to go back from time to time for a “reverence fix” 😉

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