It is sometimes said that there are more important things to worry about in the Church today than the Liturgy. Frankly, there are not. For, as Aidan Nichols incisively puts it:
"There can hardly be a more important topic than the Liturgy if it really is, as the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council maintained, the source from which the Church's life flows and the summit to which that life is directed."
And, he continues, "Liturgy, evidently, is too important to be left to liturgists." This explains why Nichols, one of contemporary England's most prominent Catholic theologians has published this penetrating analysis of the state of the Liturgy of the Latin ritual church in Catholicism today.
Nichols argues that the Liturgy, both in its official reform following the Council, and in the way it is celebrated at the local level, is seriously deficient and in urgent need of remedy. This argument is based on three assumptions.
The first is historical: that those "who brought about the Second Vatican Council's commitment to the `liturgical renewal', and "those who subsequently worked to give that commitment concrete form" did not pay sufficient attention "to certain ambiguities in the history of the liturgical movement". The most significant ambiguity, Nichols argues, was "that the origins of the liturgical movement lie in the eighteenth century Enlightenment". Liturgical reforms called for by those under the influence of the Enlightenment (radical simplification of the liturgy including its vernacularisation, the celebration of the liturgy `facing the people', etc.) were "imperfect" according to Nichols, as they tended to horizontalise the liturgy, rendering it "first and foremost didactic and edificatory", at the expense of the worship and adoration of God. What Nichols calls the "political phase" of twentieth century liturgical movement (that working for ritual reform after the Second World War), with the noblest of intentions, and indeed the support of many Popes, appears to have unwittingly, or perhaps uncritically, adopted this agenda. The result was that
"...Church authority gave the professionals what almost amounted to a blank cheque, enabling them to redesign the Liturgy in just that inorganic way against which...reflective commentators on the Enlightenment experience...had warned."
Nichols' second assumption is based on anthropology and sociology. He assembles a number of writers from these disciplines (David Martin, Kieran Flanagan, Mary Douglas, Victor Turner, et. al.), to demonstrate that
"liturgists, in Flanagan's words, `managed to back modernity as a winning ticket, just at the point when it became converted into post modernism.'"
In other words, by paying too much attention to what were perceived as the needs of contemporary man (in the 1960s - surely a peculiarly man-centred period of history), liturgical reformers enshrined attitudes and assumptions that contemporary man would himself soon spurn. The inebriation of those entrusted with the postconcilar reform by such anthropocentric ideologies has resulted, according to Catherine Pickstock, a Cambridge scholar cited by Nichols, in a modern Liturgy, which, when compared to the traditional rites, - a "liturgical stammer in the face of the sublime excess of God" - has but a "clear and linear purpose": to be of the (1960s-1970s) age .
The third foundation of Nichols' argument is cultural. Taking the apt dictum of Oxford's Canon Vigo Demant, "When the Church begins to proclaim the Gospel in a secular idiom she may end by proclaiming secularism in a Christian idiom", as his starting point, Nichols decries the secularization and desacralisation of preaching, liturgical Language, translations of Sacred Scripture and other liturgical texts, chants, hymns and songs, iconography and architecture, ministerial posture and gestures, etc..
A good deal of attention is devoted to the twentieth century fashion of celebrating the Eucharist facing the people (versus populum). Scholars now accept that Christian antiquity only tolerated facing the people as an exception to the norm of all facing east, which remains the posture for the celebration of the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass. The Second Vatican Council did not change this, and, Nichols reminds us, the Holy See has acknowledged the historical priority of facing east in the Roman rite as recently as 1993. This is no merely academic problem. Drawing on the theology of Henri de Lubac, Nichols puts it plainly:
"...a shift in our focus of interest can sometimes symptomise a doctrinal debilitation and hollowness far graver than more obvious errors. I suggest that the concentration on congregation and presider in contemporary eucharistic practice is an example of such debilitation and hollowness, unfortunately encouraged by the versus populum celebration of the Eucharistic Prayer."
There is much more that Nichols could say about his thesis, and there are many further studies he could cite. However his argument is amply demonstrated and supported, and leaves the careful reader, particularly clergy charged with the celebration of the Liturgy, in a quandry: what is to be done?
Nichols suggests a number of possibilities, without perhaps the depth of discussion he affords his overall thesis. The first, "to forestall...any further dose of reform in the same direction as that of the postconciliar one". The second, to ensure "the prayerful, dignified, correct and, where appropriate, solemn celebration" of the new liturgy, including facing east for the Eucharistic Prayer. But he recognises that these are insufficient in themselves, calling for the "reappropriation" of the traditional Latin rite "in modified guise" which would include vernacular readings, an authentic enrichment of texts, and other truly beneficial elements of the postconciliar reform. Nichols suggests a curious role for the Missal of Paul VI, as a type of `source-book' for future development of liturgy. One suspects, given the flaws he has identified in its production, that this is too kind.
Nichols makes one significant error. He describes this book as "...a modest contribution to that debate on the desirability of the `reform of the reform' that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has called for...". It is in fact a work of tremendous importance, which in spite and in some ways because of its brevity, clearly identifies issues that simply must be addressed. And his practical suggestions deserve consideration. Buy it, read it, argue about it, and act on it, because the liturgy is indeed "the source from which the Church's life flows and the summit to which that life is directed".