January 19th, 2014

Our Generation’s Experience

As I describe the generational differences in their experience of the liturgy, for the sake of clarity I must make a clear distinction between encounter and reaction.  A generation will largely have a common encounter of the liturgy, but not all will have the same reaction to the encounter.  The encounter describes the way things were in the liturgy, while the reaction describes how people reacted.  Furthermore, as I discuss reactions it is important to understand that the following are characterizations.  As such, there will invariably be exceptions.  In fact, having been on the inside of Church life for over twenty years, I can safely and most assuredly confirm that it is never safe to assume that others share your experience of the Church, particularly the liturgy, especially if they belong to another generation.  Nonetheless, there are large and overarching trends that are both revealing and valuable to examine. 

Let us consider first the generation that experienced the most liturgical change.  This generation ranges in age from about sixty years and older.  The eldest of this group, who were practicing Catholics at the time, will of course recall with greater clarity the liturgy before 1963, the year the liturgy began to transition into its current form.  Prior to 1963, this generation’s encounter of the Liturgy was marked by exclusive use of Latin, no hymns, ad orientum posture (the priest and the people together facing the altar), and the altar boys reciting the dialogue parts of the Mass on behalf of the people.  Aside from the altar boys the laity did not exercise liturgical functions.  From 1963 to 1970 transitional missals were published allowing for various options that previously were not permitted, perhaps the most prominent feature was the incremental use of the vernacular (the spoken language of a region).  In 1970 Pope Paul VI promulgated the missal as we now know it.  We are currently in its third edition, that is to say that minor alterations have been made since. 

The generation that encountered these changes had different reactions that can be generally categorized as positive, negative and indifferent.  The last category would number among the least.  Nearly every practicing Catholic had an opinion.  There were a large number of people who had a negative reaction.  They found the Mass to be so different from what they had previously experienced that it was difficult for them to accept.  To be clear we are not talking about alterations or styles.  This generation essentially went to Mass one Sunday and found the priest was facing them, speaking English, and the people had to respond and were being asked to exercise liturgical roles.  For those who are too young to have had this encounter, it may be valuable to imagine if the reverse happened today.  One Sunday you come to church and the priest recites the entirety of the Mass in Latin, including the readings.  He stands at the same side of the altar as you.  There are no more hymns or responses of the congregation and none of the faithful assisted with the readings or helped distribute Holy Communion to larger crowds.  Needless to say, this generation’s experience is an entirely different order and magnitude of liturgical change than any other subsequent generation has since known.  For this reason, those who had a difficult time ought to be afforded a great deal of sympathy and compassion.  Nonetheless, they were required like everyone else to accept these changes.  Some did and some did not.  Even to this day, I encounter people who left the Church because the changes were too great for them to bear. 

Finally, there were a large number of people who appreciated the changes.  This group of people took well to the use of their own languages.  Many also appreciated the dialogue of the Mass with the people now having a more substantial verbal role by way of the responses.  They preferred being positioned on the other side of the altar and the optional use of hymns. 

As you can see, there is a generation still alive and active in the Church who shared a common liturgical encounter marked by great change.  Their reactions were both positive and negative.  Unfortunately, among the latter there were those who felt betrayed and left the Church.  Next week we will consider the generation to which I belong, those of the post-1970 era. 

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