This past summer I became secretary (and thus far the only member) of a new and important society. It is called SAMAWL, “The Society Against Messing Around With the Liturgy.” The name was not arrived at without considerable searching of mind and conscience. One doesn’t like to be negative in our negativistic age, so I tried to work up a positive name. Unfortunately the best I could manage was “The Society for the Maintenance of the Dignity and Majesty of the Liturgy,” a name which, as you will readily recognize, yields the unpronounceable initials SMDML. One has his pride. I did not pro pose to go about getting myself introduced as Secretary of the Sumdummel. So SAMAWL it is.
I take it that it is not necessary for me to argue the need for such an organization in post-Vatican II Christendom. Since 1965 the brethren — Roman and non-Roman — have taken Vatican II’s schema on the liturgy as a signal to get on their blind horses and gallop off in all directions. An unhappily large number of them, I regret to say, headed for a certain kind of worship called variously “popularization,” “participation,” “bringing the liturgy to the people where they are” (no matter where they are),“colloquial,” “the language of the marketplace,” and “the music of the discotheque.”
The result of these attempts to be “hippier than thou” is the worst mess since St. Peter tried to talk Greek at Pentecost. We now have everything in the “vernacular.” Item: The stately greeting “The Lord be with you (Dominus vobiscum)” has been watered down to “I hope that God may be with you,” to which the faithful respond: “And you, too.” (I did not make this up. I have printed proof before me.) Item: “Thou” and “thee” have been discarded as obsolete and unintelligible to modern man, so we are being bidden to address the Lord God Jehovah, King of kings and Lord of lords, with the same familiar “You” that we use to scold our children or call the dog. The ancient prayer, “Blessed art Thou,” becomes “Blessed are you,” which may be modern enough in the technical sense but which assaults any ear that has been even minimally attuned to the assonances and dissonances of the English language.
I remember being particularly dismayed last Christmas when I watched telecasts of several masses, Protestant services, and some strange “religious” services put in the far corner of left field. One of these latter was a “service” in which every point the preacher emphasized was followed by a saxophone obligate glissando fortissime or a “Scherzo for a Saxophone Tuned to Heaven.” It was not merely horrible; it was blasphemous. The Word was not enough; it had to be reinforced by an alto sax. And I rather resented the implication that, in order to worship Christ the King in sincerity and truth, I had to employ the music of Basin Street and cater to the taste of “sincere” beatniks and mini-skirted teenagers.
To return to my subject: Does all this “popularization” of the liturgy (I don’t know whether it is even that) really do anything except to deepen the contempt which the inhabitants of left field have always felt for the Church? Certainly it does not reach the poor and the lowly of heart. They know well enough that God is Someone Other, dwelling in light which no man can approach unto, and yet so majestically near that at any intimation of His presence they must bend the knee and adore Him.
So I think that we are on the wrong track. In the liturgy of the Church, in Word and Sacrament, God comes to man in infinite love and condescension and man responds i with love and awe to God. Must this majestic, solemn encounter be staged in the language of the street? (I am not saying that it may not be. The Word still stands: “Him that cometh to me” — presumably no matter how bad his grammar or his manners — “I will in no wise cast out.”) But must we equate breeziness with sincerity and elevated speech with pomposity? Must I say “You” when “Thou” is perfectly understandable to any three-year-old and, for the adult, suggests just that de gree of distance which a man ought to be aware of when he comes into the presence of One who is not only his kind and loving Father but also his King and his Judge?
I would not want to deny, of course, that there is room for constant reform and up-dating of the Liturgy. Words do change their meanings over the course of years or centuries. But there aren’t all that many words that have changed their meanings so radically and the few that have can easily be replaced with more contemporary language that retains the dignity of the older language. The governing principle should be that change should clearly be in the direction of improvement. It should raise our dialogue with God to the mysterium tremendum of creation and redemption. And it should suggest that real and living continuity which binds the faithful of our own age to that so great a cloud of witnesses which, having fought the good fight and having kept the faith, rejoices now to praise our God in a clearer light and on a happier shore.