Professor Stephen Bullivant: “At an Ordinariate Mass, I witnessed the real spirit of Vatican II”

The Ordinariate has achieved the ‘noble simplicity’ recommended by the Council Fathers

by Stephen Bullivant
Catholic Herald, Friday, 11 Nov 2016

(Professor Stephen Bullivant directs the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St Mary’s University, Twickenham)

mgr-newton-with-thuribleHitherto, I’ve steered clear of blogging about liturgy. After all, with two young daughters, I’m subjected to quite enough nasty name-calling as it is. However, something truly amazing happened to me on Saturday evening. So here goes…

First, some background. For several years, my wife and I have been thinking, talking, and occasionally writing on the implications and implementations of Vatican II’s liturgical reforms. I dare say we’ll be doing so for several years more.

After all, “that the sacrifice of the Mass, even in the ritual forms of its celebration, may become pastorally efficacious to the fullest degree” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 49) is a difficult aspiration to live up to. And so, over the last fifty years, it has proven.

On the face of it, the overarching tenor of the Council’s liturgical manifesto is deeply conservative. Indeed, for many in today’s Church it must seem positively reactionary: preservation of Latin (SC 36), chant and organ as the Church’s pre-eminent musical treasures (SC 115, 120), and so on.

(Incidentally, this is just one of the reasons why I’ve argued, in a to-be-published paper given at July’s excellent Sacra Liturgia conference, that “It is Sacrosanctum Concilium itself that demands that the reforms be reformed.”)

Nevertheless, the Council cautiously permits deviation from these norms – e.g., judicious use of vernacular languages, the possibility of instruments other than the pipe organ – where strong pastoral/evangelistic grounds exist. The Council Fathers appear to expect these to apply primarily in mission territories. However, the actual decisions are devolved to “competent territorial bodies of bishops legitimately established” – that is, to (what would soon become) national Bishops’ Conferences.

Given that many western countries were already (and with very good reason) being described as “mission territories” well before the Council, it is perhaps unsurprising that the more radical possibilities opened up by it were soon being applied very widely indeed.

The legacy of all that is a topic not for a blog, but rather for a whole book. (Stay tuned…) What interests me here, instead, is what might have been.

For some years I have wondered: what might our worship look like had the original reforms taken a different turn? If the ‘exceptions’ had remained just that, and the range-of-possibilities for an “ordinary parish Mass” had more or less followed the main thrust of Sacrosanctum Concilium?

Last Saturday, my little daughters and I arrived for the 5pm Vigil at a smallish 1960s-built parish church (cue: “Daddy, are you SURE this is a church? It doesn’t LOOK like a church…”). Not, in the usual run of things, a time-slot, type of venue, or company suited to being liturgically blown away. But… oh my.

This was, unmistakably, “above all things the worship of the divine Majesty” (SC 33), done with the rare kind of “noble simplicity” (SC 34) where that phrase’s first word is given quite as much weight as the latter.

“Since the use of the mother tongue… frequently may be of great advantage to the people” (SC 36.2), a good deal of the Mass was in English, albeit in a more elevated register than is usual. But it was no more elevated than the English one might use for, say, a formal ceremony in the (real) presence of a Very Important Person. Even so, there was a good deal of Latin too. (Sacrosanctum Concilium itself is quite clear that Latin/vernacular is a both/and, not an either/or.)

I’ve nothing more erudite to say about the music – the musicological Dr Bullivant wasn’t with us, sadly – other than to say that this was a sung Mass, gospel included, rather than a Mass-with-songs. The schola of just three members (this was a 5pm Vigil, remember) sounded beautiful.

If “sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action, whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites” (SC 112), then I’ve no doubt that this was very sacred music indeed.

Furthermore, on those matters whereof the Council is silent, but became folded in with ‘the reforms’ anyway, the traditional practices were retained. Our priest, in persona Christi, was oriented with and not against (adversus) his people. Communion was received kneeling, on the tongue.

And if all that wasn’t enough… after Mass, there were homemade cupcakes and wine. Truly, the source and summit of the Christian life. We actively participated accordingly.

I dare say that this all will not be to everyone’s taste. Much more importantly, it may not be to everyone’s personal “pastoral efficacy”. Works for us though. And if we weren’t so enamoured of our usual Sunday Mass, we might well be back every week.

So if you too are curious to see what Vatican II’s stated ideal of the Tridentine Mass reformed – not replaced – “with new vigour to meet the circumstances and needs of modern times” (SC 4) could, and on this evidence probably should, look like… then I suggest you contact your nearest Anglican Ordinariate (whether British, American or Australian), and get yourself, and swiftly, to their Divine Worship.

Strange though it may sound, this is one (albeit eventual) fruit of the Reformation for which Catholics may certainly give thanks.

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