Thursday, February 9, 2012

On Thinking Outside the Box and Seeking the Unanswered Questions

So one of my penances for Septuagesima and Lent is that I'm reading Abp Bugnini's thousand-page tome about the postconciliar reform of the liturgy. I'm keeping a pencil and a notebook next to the volume and jotting down questions as they occur to me. The very first one:

But whence came the idea of revision by committee?

At the beginning of Archbishop Bugnini's narrative, Pope Pius XII gathered a handful of scholars into a committee that seemed to be aimed at exploring the possibility of future liturgical reform, clearly suggesting that this idea was not new as of the postconciliar era.

Now, my study into the process of reforming the liturgy has only just begun; there are many histories left for me to read. Perhaps Alcuin Reid addressed the genesis of the "revision by committee" idea in the 20th century in The Organic Development of the Roman Liturgy, and I missed it in my targeted thesis-related skimming (or perhaps he do so will in his sequel Continuity or Rupture?, rumored to be released in 2013).

Too, previous liturgical reforms, minor though they admittedly were, have left us much sparser records. I would love to compare in what manner the various popes who've made liturgical revisions through the centuries leaned on the respective experts at hand. Alas! There is little hope of such comparisons. Earlier centuries were not so concerned with recording every confessional detail for the edification of future generations.

Now that I'm a whopping 8% of the way through the book, I realize that not one scholar or bishop presented in the narrative for my consideration seems to have ever asked himself my question above. It's simply taken for granted that this method of revision by many committees is good, because it avoids the errors of revision by one person, and the work moves forward.
This oversight reminds me directly of my complaint with most liturgical catechetical resources in the field today. Books like Fr Paul Turner's popular Understanding the Revised Mass Texts are full of solid theology and good praxis, but take for granted that the reader knows and appreciates why his presence at Mass is important. The vast majority of resources out there never address what seems to me the central question: Why should I bother to go to Mass anyway?

We can do great things for the spirituality of all the faithful by helping the liturgy to look and sound more beautiful, by teaching people when they're supposed to do and say what, and why. But we cannot afford to lose sight of the important questions, the questions no one seems to be asking.

In the current case, it's our bored teenagers who've got the missing question. In the 60s? I don't know. The more I learn about the 60s, the less I understand them (recommendations of a readable history on the 60s welcomed in the combox). Those who voiced opposition to the reforms were perceived as stuck in the past - as sometimes they truly were (as par. 7 here). But it seems to me that finding this answer, discovering where the idea of reform by committee originated, may reveal where the floodgates flew open and allowed for reform that is so easily perceived as a rupture with our liturgical tradition.

The Church, in the promulgation of her liturgical books, is indeed infallible, or at the very least highly trustworthy. The reformed books of the Roman Rite are unquestionably valid, and I do think that future reform must begin with them. However, the actions of her individual members are not so objectively defensible, and a careful examination can be helpful. Unfortunately, it seems that my question will not be answered in this book, so I will have to tuck it away in my brain and keep seeking.

It's going to be an interesting Lent. You may be hearing from me more frequently...

Qui mysteria abscondis prudentibus et sapientibus et revelas ea parvulis, miserere nobis.


  1. Did you ever read this?

  2. Yes! I even had Ken autograph my copy last fall. I highly recommend it. Gave great insight into the liturgical music situation of the 60s. Now if I could only get a grasp on the secular culture...


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