Novus Quodlibet: The New Whatever Liturgy

I have attended the Novus Ordo Mass all my life. I do not believe it was necessarily a mistake to have the Mass translated into the vernacular so that people could more readily understand the words and actions. Yet I have great sympathy for people who flock to, or flee to, the traditional rite, and have wondered why, if language alone were the point, the old rite had not simply been translated and otherwise left as it was.

During the week, when I pray from the Baronius Press edition of the old Roman Missal, I am struck by the sheer richness of that old order. It is a work of tremendous theological insight and power, and of artistic beauty. We find subtlety, as the psalms and readings are cunningly arranged to fit the time of day, the season of the year, and the feast being celebrated. We find taste and intelligence, as the hymns combine the specifics of petition or praise with a comprehensive grasp of Scripture. We find breadth, as the hours and the seasons touch upon all of the vicissitudes of human life; sorrow and joy, shame and glory, suffering and exaltation, and sin and redemption. We find a massive power, as in the matins of nine lessons for the major feasts, or the antiphons that place beside one another, in a single sentence or two, verses from Scripture that we do not generally hear simultaneously. The effect is like joining two high voltage wires.

And then I go to Sunday Mass.

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When school is in session at Northeast Catholic College, we go to Mass there, and it is superb. Our old parish in Rhode Island (Sacred Heart, West Warwick) is terrific. Elsewhere, it is what I’ll call the Novus Quodlibet: the New Whatever.

I kneel and try to pray before Mass. I’m trying to say those preparatory prayers that used to be in the old missal, but seem to have been banished, certainly from the experience of the churchgoers, because the place is usually abuzz with conversation. Mainly I hear whispers from old ladies. It would tend to be old ladies, as their demographic opposites, young men, seem to have been wiped out in a massacre, and are nowhere to be found.

A woman ascends the pulpit. She says her name, then welcomes everybody. I do not want to know her name, and I am trying to pray. She announces the names of the readers, the Eucharistic ministers, and the altar servers. She announces the name of the priest. At one church, I am urged to get up (if I can; they make allowances for people with disabilities) and greet the people around me by name. I do not want to do this. I find it false. I do not remember the names of strangers, and I do not like to give my name out to strangers, either. It’s an act of aggressive etiquette, parading as bonhomie. I do not go to church for bonhomie. If I ever wanted it, I would go to a bar and order gin and tonic.

The choir, milling about up front, finally puts themselves in order. Then comes the hymn.

Here I am three and four times cursed.

I have read and taught poetry all my adult life. This is one curse. I know English grammar. That is a second curse. My family and I are versed in the long tradition of Christian hymnody; we collect hymnals from all traditions, and we have sung one or two thousand of them, sometimes in languages other than English. This is a third and most terrible curse. And we know our Scripture. Cursed a fourth time, cursed and damned to writhe in eternal pain. Well, not eternal. The pain is transient but real—pain mingled with frustration and disappointment, that well-meaning people should give their talents and energies to stuff that is so worthless, and sometimes worse than worthless. For sometimes it is flat-out heresy.

Well, I won’t sing heresy, and I won’t sing chloroform for the brain, and this means that I hardly ever sing at such Masses. (I say a quiet prayer of gratitude for the goodwill of the singers instead.) No need here to bring up, like ill-digested onions, the specifics. What strikes me, though, is the general liturgical lassitude. I don’t mean that there is not often a lot of energy, with drums, verses projected on the wall, and sometimes applause. I mean that there’s no plan to it, no aim. You are as likely to sing the peculiarly awful “Gather Us In”—well, that’s an onion, sorry—during Advent as in the middle of the summer, and if the choristers, or the lady at the piano, or the tenor at the organ likes it, you may be singing it twenty times a year. The hymns are chosen by the musicians for the same reason as the cartoon-like banners on the wall. Somebody who has wangled his way into the works likes them.

If you go to Mass every Sunday and every holy day during the year, and if four hymns are sung at each Mass, this gives you the opportunity to sing over two hundred different hymns. Need I say that, outside of the Christmas carols and three or four old Easter hymns, the typical Novus Quodlibet church boasts a repertoire of eight or nine? The same, the same, the same, like the drip, drip, drip of cold rain, without meaning, without artistic coherence, and without any feint toward the whole of the liturgical year and the history of salvation.

Many of them are narcissistic, rather like “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story. “Let us build the City of God,” really? I cannot build the City of God. I can be made, by God, into a stone for the building of that spiritual city, but the action is his, not mine. “We have been sung throughout all of history”? I haven’t been sung even once in my whole life, and if I ever were to be, I would surely want to slug the singer. “Here I am, Lord, is it I, Lord?” Why, who ever would have thought!

But as the music, so the rest.

Often the priest will, after the entrance hymn, arrogate attention to himself, and say hello to the people, and crack a joke, and there’s nothing evil about that, no. It’s all friendly, in a pleasant and shallow way, and it gives you the sure sense that you are there for this reason or that reason, whatever floats your boat. Sometimes the altar servers have nothing to do but stand by and look pretty, while lay people potter about. Everybody gets involved, right, except the churches aren’t full.

In Canada, we have been instructed not to kneel, no, except for the first part of the Eucharistic prayer. We do not kneel after the Agnus Dei. We are not supposed to kneel after communion, but are to remain standing, in solidarity with the other people in line at Tim Horton’s—I mean, in line for communion; and then when everyone has received, why, naturally, everyone sits down. There is no sense to this, no art of prayer.

When I delve into the riches of the Missal, I see order within order: the whole is like a cathedral, in which each element reflects the integrity and the structure of the entire work. You feel the difference between an ordinary day and a feast, between feasts of the second class and feasts of the first class, and between those and first class feasts with an octave: fuller and more complex antiphons after the readings (antiphons set to polyphonic music in the old days, by such composers as Palestrina, Tallis, and Gregorio), special hymns, and a departure from the ordinary series of psalms. In other words, what you say or do not say, or sing or do not sing for a weekday of the third class is oriented toward, for example, what you will be singing on Easter or Pentecost. It all fits together, rather as the largo in a symphony echoes the allegro past and the maestoso to come.

I am not suggesting that laymen should become liturgists. Was that not one of the plagues of Egypt? Most people are not great artists, or even good artists. The work is already given, and the task of the priest, who alone should determine what the ancillary people are doing or not doing, is to conform the praying of the Mass, in word, gesture, and spirit, to that work.

Let us take, for example, one of the many Sundays after Pentecost, and ask what hymns might be sung for that day. Suppose it is the seventeenth Sunday in ordinary time, this year. The first reading tells of how the prophet Elisha fed a hundred people with twenty barley loaves. In the second reading, Saint Paul urges the Ephesians to live with one another in the unity of love, as worthy of their one baptism. In the Gospel, Jesus feeds the multitudes with five barley loaves and two fishes.

On such a day it should be easy for the priest to choose hymns. We have two sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist, and the great miracle recounted by John, just before the Lord’s discourse on his body as true flesh and his blood as true drink. The focus is on God’s nourishing us and making us one in him. Think of hymns accordingly: Shepherd of Souls, The King of Love My Shepherd Is, At That First Eucharist, Pange Lingua Gloriosi, Blest Be the Tie that Binds, In Christ There is No East or West, At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing, The Lamb’s High Banquet, Adoro Te, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, and perhaps concluding with Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones, sung, of course, to its grand completion. If someone objects that the choir does not know those hymns, I reply that the choristers should be dismissed, then, because hymns are not hard to learn and to sing. If the organist cannot play them, they may be sung a capella. The work comes first. The feelings of the choristers do not come second; they do not come in at all.

In general, no one in the congregation should be choosing anything, nor should there be any perception that the priest, or anyone assisting the priest is making something up for the nonce. Unless you are yourself an artist of world class, when you sit down at the piano to play Beethoven, you should want to disappear, so that the people hear Beethoven and not you. With the Mass, we want no one’s personal interpretation, not even if he was the most learned liturgist in the world. We want the order of the work of art—not whatever, or whoever.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Alleluia” painted by Thomas Cooper Gotch in 1896.


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