(Warning: Catholic inside baseball ahead.)
This weekend we had to attend Mass at a different time than usual. Our options were a) the Spanish Mariachi-flavored Mass, or b) the Extraordinary Form down at the Cathedral. Now, Darwin's Hispanic heritage does not extend to the more vernacular forms of Mexican musical expression, and neither do I love me some mariachi, so we opted for b. As we were driving down to the Cathedral, Darwin said, "I feel like we should go down to the Tridentine Mass every so often because I keep thinking that it will get better."
"What's the definition of insanity?" I asked.
Both Darwin and I are of a traditional bent of mind. We've read the 1962 Missal, and we appreciate the richness of the language and the clarity of the rubrics. We love Gregorian chant and own a Graduale. Both of us learned basic Latin responses such as "Et cum spiritu tuo" from our parents, who remembered saying them at Mass as children. So we're predisposed to like the Extraordinary Form. We want to like the Extraordinary Form. And yet every EF Mass we've ever been to has left us wondering, "Is this really what it's all about? Why is anyone attached to this?"
Our Sunday Mass was completely in keeping with our experience of the past five years. It began with a hymn, not the introit (Holy God, We Praise Thy Name -- which I don't have to go to an EF to hear done well on a regular basis), and then... what? I was unclear where exactly the Mass started, since the Mass booklet provided wasn't exactly clear either. Since the vintage priest was inaudible and absolutely unintelligible (in Latin and in English) there was no way of following where he was in the Mass. Nor was it possible to match up his postures to the little pictures in the missal, the which I assume were included to orient those who had no way of following the Latin. We knelt for a long silent stretch, enough time to read several pages several times over while still being unclear what was going on. Darwin, in back with the baby, assured me that faintly through the speakers came the sound of the priest saying the first words of the Confiteor. I thought I heard "Gloria". The children, who had nothing either visual or aural to focus them, began to wiggle and squirm.
There was very little clear consensus on which parts were to be said by the people. Some congregants responded to some things, some to others, some said nothing at all throughout the Mass. The responses that were said were mumbled in such a low and disorganized fashion that I had trouble recognizing them. The sound system had been turned so low that even the readings, read at the lectern, were extremely difficult to follow. (This must be a choice made by the mass group, because at other Masses at the Cathedral we've been able to hear just fine.) During the long sermon I couldn't hear, due to the under-utilized sound system, I pondered the stereotype of the little old lady who said her rosary during Mass and realized that had I a rosary upon me, I would be that lady. At least then I'd have some knowledge of what prayer I was supposed to be saying when.
There is a certain desperation in attending some ritual event or ceremony in which everything seems slightly off-kilter. The sense of a familiar routine being altered in some subtle way that you can't understand or follow becomes disorienting and eventually suffocating. The girls gradually abandoned their efforts to be still and quiet when it seemed like nothing was happening, and I couldn't even show them in the missal where we were and what was going on, since I was floundering myself. Between the deteriorating behavior (which crossed the line, as children's behavior always seems to, right before communion) and my increasing frustration with being unable to align myself with what was going on, we had to drag everyone out directly after Communion -- something we have seldom ever done. (Everyone under seven promptly received a lecture and spanking, from daddy, in the car.)
On the way home, we shook our heads once again over the definition of insanity: doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result.
When the Motu Proprio was issued, we were excited. Pope Benedict's encouragement of one great sacred tradition of the Church inspired us to delve into other traditional forms of worship. Darwin worked hard to form a group to say Vespers, bought books himself, and even typed up one page sheets for each day of the week when the books proved difficult for beginners to navigate. I accosted our associate pastor on his first Sunday at our parish and asked him to use his experience with chant and sacred music to found a schola. We followed blogs and websites devoted to the "reform of the reform", which were bursting with avid devotees of the Extraordinary Form all extolling the pre-Vatican II Mass as the pinnacle of Catholic worship, and triumphantly predicting that as more people experienced the riches of the old Mass, there would be an upsurge in demand for it.
And yet... every time we actually attend the Extraordinary Form we're underwhelmed and disappointed. Perhaps we expect too much, but our expectations are based on the text itself of the 1962 missal. The text suggests an inherent drama and beauty to this form of the Mass that has not been born out by any of our actual experiences of the EF. Oddly enough, our experiences don't jibe with those of our parents and grandparents, who remember the old Mass as celebrated as the norm by parishes. It's as if our local EF Mass is formulated to accommodate those who long for a distant musty past -- as opposed to the way a living parish works, where a priest who strives for liturgical beauty and tradition must be scrupulously excellent to stave off the inevitable complaints from people who don't like "that sort of thing".
Conversely, the few times we've been to the Novus Ordo celebrated in Latin have been wondrously reverent and marvelously beautiful. Perhaps that's because we're attuned to the rhythms of the Novus Ordo and so can immerse ourselves in the richness of this form of worship. But also, the careful planning and preparation and clear love of the form and the language have shown through in the attitudes of the priest and the choir and the congregation. The worship aids have been clear and concise so that even someone who had never attended any mass, let alone a mass in Latin, could follow the prayers and respond appropriately. The same has been true of the few and various Byzantine Divine Liturgies we've attended -- even in a completely unfamiliar language, with an unknown structure, we didn't feel at sea because both the priest and the faithful were unambiguous about what they were doing, and what role each played.
It's enjoyable to click around to various websites and look at the pretty pictures of vestments and gorgeous churches and the inspiring image of the elevation with the priest surrounded by the deacon and the sub-deacon. Darwin can appreciate the richness of the Latin text, with its elevated vocabulary and the layers of ancient solemnity. I love the inherent drama of the ritual gestures and postures, and the spiritual elevation of Gregorian chant integrated into the Mass. But we've never seen these things in person. Some detractors of the Novus Ordo say that although they've heard that the new Mass can be reverently and beautifully celebrated, they've never seen it. For us, it's the other way around.
We'll probably go back to the EF Mass, even though it's unlikely that our local group will deviate from the minimalist pattern we've seen over the last five years. But please, guys. You do have to try to create beauty. At a minimum, decide which responses the congregation should make, and then make them. Even the Novus Ordo can manage that -- even in Latin on occasion.