We tend to think of evangelization as focused on individuals. But cultures need evangelizing too, perhaps even more so, due to the influence of culture on so many. In her strongest periods the Church has been instrumental in forming the culture and ethos around her. In her weaker periods the Church begins to parrot and reflect culture which, without her leadership, is too easily ephemeral, disedifying, and at worst, debased.
It is hard to contend that we are in a period in which the Church has a key influence on culture. It is rather more the case that popular culture has far too greatly influenced us. Few Catholics get most of their information or influence from God, the Scriptures, or Church teaching. Most are far more aware of and inclined to listen to secular leaders, pop musicians, entertainers, sports figures, and the general cultural din. And this is where they develop even their most critical insights about God, family, sexuality, and many significant moral questions.
Liturgically, too, there are many problems associated with the triumph and primacy of modern and popular culture. Most of our modern trends in liturgy reflect the preferences of our culture, rather than the ability to challenge and influence people. And thus liturgy must be convenient, fast, entertaining, youthful, “relevant,” accessible, completely understandable even by the smallest child, warm, comfortable, respecting of diversity, friendly, etc. To be sure, most of these are not bad qualities. But the emphasis on them to the exclusion of balancing principles (such as mystery and tradition), and the often shallow understanding of those balancing principles, shows that popular culture rather than the Church is really in the driver’s seat.
I’ll be honest, I don’t know where exactly to draw the line. When exactly is a song too secular or in bad taste? When does something go from being understandable to being “dumbed down”? When does emphasizing a warm and welcoming environment become too anthropocentric and unprayerful? When does respecting diversity become a Balkanization and “stove-piping” of communities? When does “youthful, vibrant, and relevant” do harm to what is ancient, enduring, and time-tested?
Somewhere in all this concern for evangelizing the culture, as opposed to being dominated by it, is the quiet and stable presence of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, often called the Usus Antiquior (the older use or form), that was in use, largely intact, from antiquity until 1970.
A recent article by Tracey Rowland in Sacred Liturgy (The Proceedings of the International Conference on the Sacred Liturgy 2013) develops the way in which the usus antiquior can act as a kind of salve or preservative in the rapidly changing climate of the post-modern West. I want to offer a few excerpts from the lengthy article and add a few comments of my own (in plain, red text). Rowland writes,
Specifically the usus antiquior may be an antidote to the ruthless attacks on memory and tradition and high culture typical of the culture of modernity. [And it can supply] a coherent, non-fragmented tradition that is open to the transcendent … Participation in this form of the rite does require a deeper intellectual engagement, if one is not to get completely lost, but this form is also more contemplative …
Yes, once one overcomes the notion that he or she must be hearing, seeing, and interacting with every aspect of the Mass, one is drawn to a more quiet contemplation of God and to the fact that many things are being done by God “for me” in a quiet and hidden way. So too in the Mass when the priest acts on my behalf, it is not required that I hear or understand every word. It is often enough that the priest ministers for me and that God both enables and receives this ministry. To pray quietly is thus an acceptable demeanor rather than to (only) relentlessly participate. Thus the usus antiquior emphasized a more contemplative dimension.
In arguing this, one need not take the view that the usus antiquior should be the only form of the Roman Rite … The older and newer forms … Should be mutually enriching. (p. 117, 130)
Yes, at least in our current setting, the “liturgy wars” are a sign that charity, which ought to be preeminent when it comes to Sacred worship, is lacking. But the main point here is that the usus antiquior acts as a kind of preservative of the overall Roman Rite by holding up “old-time religion.” This helps the newer forms from becoming detached from their proper roots and from the more fully Christian culture that preceded our current secularist and ephemeral culture. The usus antiquior evangelizes current Catholic culture (too easily swayed by modern notions) by showing forth the ancient holy traditions that have sustained us over the centuries.
Yves Congar argued that … the liturgy is truly the holy ark containing sacred tradition at its most intense … He said (in 1963), “We need only step into an old church in order to follow a Mass which has scarcely changed, even in externals, since St. Gregory the Great … Everything has been preserved for us, and we can enter into a heritage which we may easily transmit in our turn, to those coming after us. Ritual … as a victory over devouring time … and a powerful communion in the same reality between men separated by centuries of change … (P. 116)
The charcoal drawing at the upper right, if one does not look closely, could be of a Mass from almost any time period going back to at least the 4th Century. But it is a Mass celebrated just two days ago, by me here in my parish. The actual photograph is just below it. This is a demonstration of what Congar says.
Sadly, shortly after 1963, the “holy ark” was “lost to the Philistines” (cf 1 Sam 5) and has only recently been recovered through a series of indults and the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum. We can only pray that the holy ark will now stay among us and grow in the influence and “mutual enrichment” for which Pope Benedict XVI longed.
If modernity is a culture of forced forgetting, postmodernity is more of a fragmented culture of retrieval, the mood is less self-assured and more melancholy and nostalgic. Postmodernity, unlike modernity, is not hostile tradition … but it is hostile to the idea that the human intellect can be used to discern that one tradition is to be preferred over another. Most post-moderns tend to think that one’s preference of tradition is likely to stem from one’s aesthetic sensibility, rather than from intellectual judgment. (p. 129). Amen! If we are not careful, our tolerance of aesthetic preferences too easily becomes just another form of relativism.
In the midst of the decadence and fragmentation and Philistinism, the usus antiquior can continue to be, in the words of Congar, a holy ark, a victory over devouring time, and a means of communication between Catholic separated by centuries of change … It does however need to be disentangled from ghetto culture, either ignorant or suspicious of the genuine reforms of the Council.
Therefore, we must be careful to find a balance that celebrates and insists upon the preservative role of the usus antiquior, but which does not devolve into the smug superiority and dismissiveness that threatens the very influence we seek to foster.
These are just some thoughts about how the usus antiquior can help evangelize culture both within and outside the Church. In this older form of the Mass we step back to what proved right for centuries, to the Mass most saints knew, to what time had tested and retained. This is important in a constantly shifting culture that has lost its moorings.
To have in our midst something that is fixed, stable, proven, and deeply connected to the wisdom of the past is a glorious gift. The newer form of the liturgy also brings gifts (a wider selection of readings, greater access to the vernacular, and some cultural flexibility). But without the stability of the usus antiquior, we see too many risks for wild and inauthentic shifts. And this is just what we have experienced in recent decades.
Both forms are currently the reality for us, but the new without the old is unanchored and drifts too wildly. The usus antiquior, the Extraordinary Form, restores our needed moorings.