A “Chapel on the Moon”: Reflections on Roman Catholic Liturgical Imagination in 1967 and in 2007
JOANNE M. PIERCE
The title of this paper may prompt the reader to ask a bemused question: how can an article from the late 1960s, offering plans for a hypothetical chapel on the Moon, offer any inspiration to a contemporary middle-aged specialist in medieval liturgy? The answer lies in the different directions of expression that the energy of the liturgical imagination takes in every century of Christian history. As Father Andrew Greeley has observed about the Roman Catholic liturgical imagination, “Its strength is rooted in the depths of the Catholic psyche with its ability to sense grace lurking everywhere ... [and] ... the artist is a sacrament maker who sees the hints of grace in the world and in human life and illumines them for us.”1
In medieval western Christianity Christian artists and architects offered many modalities of such illumination; liturgical imagination is an important element in understanding medieval liturgy. For example, the medieval manuscript that I edited for my doctoral dissertation was a libellus precum prepared circa 1030 for Sigebert, bishop of the then-prominent diocese of Minden (Westphalia, Germany). This ivory carving of Sigebert (see fig. 1 on the accompanying CD) very likely decorated the cover of this humble little prayer book; here, the importance of the personthe central figure, Minden’s bishop, Sigebertis shown by that figure’s relative size. In fact, in elaborate liturgical books as well as in the simplest, important texts were set off by expensive decoration (fig. 2), and even the “ordinary” letters were produced by an intense scribal concentration that results in texts of extraordinary evenness and quality (figs. 3, 4). Medieval liturgical architecture also reflects the liturgical imagination of the builders, and their community and patrons. Like the present-day cathedral in Minden (fig. 5) Ottonian-era stone churches presented heavy fortress-like faces to the town square, reflecting not only a more “imperialistic” vision of liturgical celebration, but also a more practical response to the unfortunate tendency of earlier wooden churches to be destroyed by fire.2
Thus the particular expressions of liturgical imagination that I normally work with are about as far away from space exploration and “Star Trek” as you can imagine. However, the intense energy and focus of the medieval liturgical imagination were as much a part of the consciousness of that culture as the elements in “social imagination” were in our culture during the second half of the twentieth century. For example, the western European building “boom” of Gothic cathedrals, which look place a bit later in medieval history (primarily in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries), has often been compared to the efforts of the American space program in terms of commitment, expense, and sheer labor (if not inspiration and imagination).
What drew my interest to more modern expressions of liturgical imagination was one of my recent projects: serving as a member of the editorial team for A Commentary on the General Instruction of the Roman Missal,3 published at the end of 2007. My work in editing this lengthy series of articles commenting on each chapter of the newest edition of the General Instruction provided me with an opportunity to reflect on the interpretation of the renewed Roman Catholic liturgy that this most recent explanation of basic principles and concrete directives expressed, one that seemed to differ in significant ways from its earlier edition in 1969/1970. How might these differences have an impact on the liturgical imagination of Roman Catholics in the United States?
The Beginning in the Present
For the purposes of this paper I would like to “start at the end,” that is, with a brief discussion of this most recent edition of the Roman Catholic Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani (IGMR 2002); the English translation approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM 2003). In our introduction to the Commentary we three editors stated that “The publications of IGMR2002 and MR2002 mark the crest of a fresh wave, a significant moment in the flow of Roman Catholic liturgical life at the turn of the new millennium.”4 Before we take a look back at that first wave of liturgical reform, some comments must be made about this most recent document (I will use here the English translation approved for the United States in 2003).
It is important to remember that the new GIRM is based on the previous editions of 1970 and 1975 as well as on changes incorporated along the way (1972, 1983).5 While the 2003 text continues to affirm many of the essential characteristics of liturgy articulated from 1969 through 1983 there are shifts in the tone, the tenor, the “cast” of the new text; the ways the original editions of the text (1970, 1975) are edited, amended, and expanded affect the boundaries or possible “parameters” of the liturgical imagination it inspires. Based on the analysis of the IGMR/GIRM by the team of liturgical theologians in the Commentary, I offer a brief list of liturgical “characteristics and correctives” both explicit and implicit in the text. This list will anticipate a discussion (below) of the list published in the journal Liturgical Arts by Joseph Champlin in 1970, as well as insights from other authors accompanying Champlin’s essay.
In general, one might say that in this most recent twenty-first century perspective the eucharistic liturgy is:
1. Traditional: the stress on tradition is more strongly affirmed in the new GIRM in a number of ways. While the flexibility of the rite is still a key characteristic (as it was in such a striking way in 1970, as will be discussed below), some commentators find that the text’s appeal to authority can be problematic, particularly in its reference to the Council of Trent without a full consideration of Trent’s context.6
2. Interior: as we will see, one of the strengths of GIRM 1970 and the Missal it introduced was its personal orientation. The new GIRM continues to reaffirm the goal of full and active participation in the liturgy by all, but this is taken in newer directions. The text’s repeated emphasis on the importance of silence in the liturgy (for example, after the homily) tends to “focus on the interior disposition of the worshipers” and puts less emphasis on other ways that the “faithful” are “engaged.”7 Indeed, the participation of the laity in general tends to be seen “primarily in terms of the assembly’s inner meditation on the Word ... or on their inner consent to what the priest does in the liturgy.”8
3. Hierarchical: emphasis on community was clearly noted in 1970, as we will see; this is not lost in GIRM 2003, but attention to the liturgical assembly tends to be directed strongly on its hierarchical structure. In several places GIRM calls for distinguishing the laity from the ordained (most often the ordained priest) in various ways: speech, gesture, and spatial placement. For example, a more “traditional” architectural design of the church building is prescribed, with a “clear separation” made between the sanctuary area and the seating/placement of the laity.9
4. High quality: GIRM 2003 continues the insistence on high quality in the liturgy and its celebration already clearly expressed in earlier editions. This applies to furnishings as well as to music. As adapted for the United States the final chapter notes that “the organ is to be given pride of place,” but why this instrument is more appropriate (“apt”) than others is not clear.10
5. Rubrical: one of the concerns of GIRM 2003 is to correct abuses and make changes to the earlier editions in the light of almost thirty years’ worth of liturgical practice. While this can be understood as a component of the “clarity” lauded in 1970 (it is “in general ... more precise than previous Instructions”11), at certain points these revisions and additions seem to direct attention to the rubrics of the liturgical act, which might be seen as a reversion to an overly-legalistic or “rubricist” attitude (one criticized during the early years of the implementation of the liturgical reform).12
6. Sacrificial: while many of theological images and understandings of the Eucharist continue to receive attention in GIRM 2003, throughout the document the sacrificial nature of the Mass predominates over others (e.g., memorial, eschatological banquet).13 This serves again to throw the unique role of the ordained priest in the assembly into sharp relief, resulting in a “tendency to focus on the priest as the apparent lone subject of each action.”14
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