The following is the perspective of an Eastern Catholic layman on the Novus Ordo as it currently stands. It is published here as a serious contribution to the current reflection on liturgical reform and renewal in the Roman Rite.
I will be very vigilant over the comments, and will not hesitate to exercise censorship once the time for "free commenting" is up. I will neither tolerate snide remarks on how the Byzantines are "modernists", nor permit any comments to the effect that Mr. Vernoski should speak and think like a Roman-Rite Traditionalist. He is an Eastern Catholic, and in this blog we respect all orthodox Catholic viewpoints. Besides, there is much in this interview that Traditionalists and "Reform of the Reform" supporters can agree with.
An interview with John Vernoski, a layman in the Byzantine Catholic Church who is a student of Liturgy and the webmaster of byzcath.org, which features The Byzantine Forum - a discussion group which is hosted there.
Q: What do Byzantines see when they look at the Novus Ordo Roman Catholic Mass? How would you change it?
A. If this had been right at Vatican II the answer would be easy. I would have prepared exactingly accurate and faithful translations of the “1962 Blessed John XXIII” missal into Standard English (literal, word-for-word but with elegance). Then I would have taken the responses typically recited by the altar server and given them to the faithful. Finally, I would have recommended the development of new chant settings for those responses for a sung Mass.
Q: And now?
A: Almost the same thing. I’ve seen the draft texts of the corrected translation of the Novus Ordo Mass and they appear to be quite excellent (and my friends who are Latin scholars say they are very accurate). I’d implement them along with a new lectionary that is the old lectionary or a modified form of the old lectionary.
I’d also move away from the presentation of “four songs and a Mass”. Right now in many (not all) Roman Catholic parishes you have a recited Mass with the four “anchor” songs (Opening, Processional, Communion and Recessional). When this happens what is communicated to the faithful is that the four songs are important and the Mass is not (the very fact the organist and choir or cantor gear up to sing for these four songs but not the rest of the Mass is what transmits that message). Instead I’d encourage the singing of the entire Mass. Gregorian chant – yes. But also simple chant that people can pick up and sing with gusto. I would not outlaw the “four songs” but I would be careful with them to make sure they are not a distraction from the Mass itself.
Finally, I’d ask the priest to face ad orientem (East, towards the altar table) for the Anaphora (the prayers of the Eucharistic Canon). I can understand the “we gather around Jesus rather then face Him together” approach but it just doesn’t work. No matter what happens the priest is the star of the show. People watch him and are not attentive to the Mystery taking place. I’d also recommend that at least the Eucharistic Canon return to being prayed quietly. In his book “The Spirit of the Liturgy” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) noted that the praying of the Canon loud has led to what some liturgists call a “crisis” and the endless writing of new Canons. He concludes that all the various experimentation with the Eucharistic Prayer “balk, now as in the past, at the possibility that silence, too, silence especially, might constitute communion before God.” Some who support the praying of the Canon aloud claim that they do so because these prayers are “for us”. They’re right, but in the wrong way. The prayers are indeed for us but they are not for our education by hearing. They are for our salvation by praying.
I suspect there would be more, but all this would be more then enough for one or two generations. Liturgical changes must never be so severe that they hurt the faithful. We know that after Vatican II a sizeable number of Roman Catholics walked away from the Novus Ordo Mass. Some became “Christmas and Easter Catholics”. Many never returned.
Q: You mentioned you’d change the lectionary. How? Would you recommend going back to the older lectionary?
A: Good question. The Revised Lectionary currently in use sought to bring in the Old Testament and other New Testament readings that were not read in the traditional Roman Catholic lectionary. A worthy motive. but it came at the cost of deemphasizing some of the really important readings that need to be read year after year. I’m not against using the Old Testament – we Byzantines read the Old Testament at Great Vespers for major feast days. But the readings should always clearly point to Jesus. The older lectionary did a better job at than then the new lectionary.
Then there is a problem in the Revised Lectionary with the abbreviation of readings. Very often they are so abbreviated that the listener can’t pick upon on what is being read. A Roman Catholic priest friend of mine complains that he has to keep a Bible handy and often takes the daily readings from the Bible instead of the lectionary. The lectionary can abbreviate with “He said to him” and through the whole reading who “he” and “him” are is never made clear.
Then there is the problem of the gender-neutral political language of the Revised-Amended-Revised New American Bible. Best to scrap the NAB altogether go with either the Revised Standard Version – Second Catholic Edition (RSV-CE2) or the English Standard Version. Both are accurate while be quite elegant. My Byzantine parish uses the RSV. No one has complained they can’t figure out what “Thou hast” means. I’m not advocating it, but suggesting for considering that a sacred version Standard English (without the PC overtones) is always best.
Q: What has been your experience of the Novus Ordo? Good or bad?
A: Both. At the Jesuit University I went to in the early 1980s I attended one “coffee table Mass”. One was enough. But the daily and Sunday Masses in the main chapel were quite edifying. I’ve attended many lackluster Masses. [No surprise there – we Byzantines have lots of parishes with lackluster Liturgy, too.] I’ve also attended some wonderful Masses – Masses that were well planned, well prayed, and well sung. I occasionally attend Novus Ordo Roman Catholic Masses in the Diocese of Arlington here in Virginia where I live. Yes, on Sunday they have the “four songs” but they are (in the nearby parish) well chosen to reflect either the readings or sometimes the saint of the day. Even better is that all the major parts of the Mass are sung (the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Sanctus, the Lord’s Prayer and the Lamb of God). Sometimes the chant is Gregorian and sometimes modern. Almost always very good. Now if only the priest would face East for the Canon and pray it in a low voice.