American Catholicism: Worship ’58 – ’62

The dawn of the year of Our Lord 2011 found Worship, a liturgical journal published by the monks of Saint John’s Abby in Minnesota, entering its eighty-third year of publication.  Known as Orate Fratres before 1951, the journal was originally edited by the famous liturgical theologian Dom Virgil Michel OSB.  According to it’s current website the primary aim of the journal is “to develop a better understanding of the spiritual impact of the liturgy and to promote active participation on the part of all men and women in the worship of the Church.”

The December 1958 edition of Worship finds the editorial heirs of Dom Michel prognosticating as to the new Pope’s attitude regarding liturgical reforms already well underway.  In the same issue that Worship notes the proliferation of support for the liturgical reforms by citing Bishops, laity and scholars from Spain to Louvain, their concern for an unknown future is evident.  “Ever since the election of the new Pope, letters and telephone calls have inquired whether it is likely that he will carry forward the liturgical reforms initiated by Pope Pius XII.  Quite frankly, we wish we knew.”

Such uncertainty and hesitation in their evaluation of John XXIII would not last long.  It is with great excitement (and perhaps a hint of pride) that the following report is given in spring of 1959: “for the first time in nearly a hundred years, the Pope celebrated Mass in St. Peter’s on Christmas day for the people of Rome… at his expressed wish, it was a dialogue Mass.”

Worship, during the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s, is both a pastoral and theological journal.  It’s written both for an educated and invested laity, and for those Pastors seeking practical advice on how to “revitalize” (a frequently used word) the liturgical life of their Parish.  Through all of this Worship strives to hit a tone of hierarchical respect, faithful ressourcement, and attention to the changing signs of the times.  It attends to the parish as the unquestioned center of Catholic culture, clarifies practical questions about celebrating Mass, and supports devotional practices – especially those associated with Our Lady.

Of central note, however, is Worship’s evident desire to deepen the spiritual life of the laity.  And this desire bears evident fruit.  For example, in mid-1958 we see a letter from an airbase where the soldiers are writing to renew their subscription to Worship.  These airmen express their excitement at having been able to celebrate the “dialogue” Mass and to substitute food (which they will take to the poor in surrounding towns) for money at the collection.  Practically speaking Worship pays special attention to the emerging role of “commentator” or “leader” in the aforementioned dialogue Mass, a role with the function of “lead[ing] the people to closer union with the actions and prayers of the celebrant and sacred ministers.”  Of related import are discussions of the placement of the altar.  In a discussion about the possibilities present for liturgical renewal given the move to the suburbs we are able to note the example of one parish priest who was given permission to move the altar to the crux of a newly constructed cruciform church.  This priest is approvingly quoted as saying that his motive was to “pick up the Mass and fling it into the middle of the congregation.”

Discussions of the altar give us opportunity to note another strong quality of Worship during these years: its efforts at liturgical ressourcement.  An article addressing just this topic is entitled: “Altar facing the people: fact or fable?” In it the author goes to great efforts to unearth the historical roots of the initial change from a versus populum Mass to a Mass facing the east.  We ought to gather from the energy surrounding (or even just the title of) such an article much about the tension surrounding such discussions.  Ressourcement is also often revelatory of the hopes held for the forthcoming General Council.  This is especially exhibited in a study, by Josef Jungman, S.J., on the state of the Mass before the Carolingian reformation of the liturgy.  The timing of the article alone suggests that the author believes the time ripe for a reform of similar significance.  In a summary statement regarding the sacramental understanding of the laity before this reformation he writes: “The Mystery of Christ was no longer understood as a present reality …the past alone was stressed; the Redeemer living forever in His humanity was seldom considered.”  We may be forgiven in making the leap of presuming that Fr. Jungman may hold similar opinions about the then-current state of the Latin liturgy.

The concern to encourage spiritual depth within the celebration of the liturgy is also an increasing priority for Worship during these years.  Often special attention is paid to helping readers appropriate the spiritual significance of certain feast days.  An excellent example of such is found in a series of articles on major feasts (such as Easter or Ash Wednesday) by the famed monk Thomas Merton.  The goal of interior appropriation emerges in Merton’s attention to the meaning of the Lenten fast: “It is not that food is evil, or that natural satisfactions are something God grudgingly allows us… fasting is a good thing because food itself is a good thing.”  A similar, albeit more academic, effect is achieved by Fr. Schillebeeckx is an article on Ascension and Pentecost.  And while we are noting famed contributors to Worship during these years we would be remiss not to take notice of a 64 year old Dorothy Day’s contribution – which mainly consists in suggesting to Pastors that they will foster prayerful participation in the Mass by “slow[ing] down” and praying each prayer “slowly and distinctly.”

The budding use of the vernacular in such Masses is also of strong concern.  For example, a lengthy analysis of the issue by a Fr. McNaspy prompts a Pastor to write regarding his frustrations with Latin that “the people are not participating in a fully human, fully rational, fully Christian way… for they are not communicating.”  This parish priest concludes with the ringing question, “It comes to this: Which do you prefer to save: Latin or souls?”

Even mid-year in 1961, a scant 15 months before the opening of the Council, expectations are truly mixed as to what it will bring.  While Worship offers hope aplenty to those who long for more active engagement in the liturgical life of the Church, a realist eye is cast on the liturgical scene by an unnamed layman who writes to the editors: “If the coming General Council is to fulfill even half our hopes, it will have to work miracles.  In my limited experience I find only one major block to any future liturgical development: the clergy.”  Despite such dour words 1961 finds Worship solidifying their efforts to deepen the lay experience of the liturgy by instituting a regular section entitled “Liturgy in Practice.”  Within the same are to be found regular aids to deepening the experience of the liturgy within the “everyday” parish – e.g., the presence of “Homily Outlines” which are meant to help Pastors relate the Word of God to the context of the people.

As the council approaches Worship reacts, in April of 1962, with what seems to be muted disappointment to John XXIII’s decision, in Veterum Sapientia, to mandate that all seminary courses be taught in Latin.  Concluding with words of humble submission to the rightful authority of the Vatican, the editors explain their hope that John XXIII’s intention is to “stem the disastrously accelerating deterioration of clerical knowledge of Latin” rather than to preclude any use of the vernacular in the Mass.  Later that same year the editor’s seem nearly gleeful in being able to announce that the words of Cardinal Larraona, prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, that “a majority of the bishops at the Council will favor the use of modern languages” in instructional parts of the Mass.

The years to which we are able to attend draw to a close with Worship still nervously wondering as to what fruits the newly titled “Second Vatican Council” will produce while noting that the “curtain of secrecy” as yet remains firmly in place.  The November 1962 issue does, however, conclude with a few optimistic reflections.  Central among these are the words of the Holy Father during his opening address.  Worship chooses wisely to in quoting Pope John’s desire that this Council “renew the face of the earth” by embracing “new forms of life” and “new avenues [of] the Catholic apostolate.”  Looking back on these moments from the height of an unforeseen future, I find myself eager to experience the joy the editors will soon feel at the approaching promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium.

PG, SJ

2 Responses to American Catholicism: Worship ’58 – ’62

  1. Qualis Rex says:

    Hello Paddy, very nice “snap-shot” and follow-up to your previous posts on the subject. As this all happened long before my (and your) time, what struck me is small hints and foreshadowing to the post-Vatican II reforms. Granted, this is an American magazine and a very small sampling of Catholicism. But one has to wonder just how much of an impact the American church had on the decision making process at the time. Here’s what I get out of it: a) the historical Catholic communities of the US were moving from their respective inner-city neighborhoods to the suburbs b) they were compelled to work with and relate to their new neighbors, who more than likely were Protestants c) 2nd and 3rd generation Catholics identified far more with Democracy than hierarchy, which could be mistaken for totalitarianism and monarchy d) the Marshall plan was in full swing in many Catholic countries/communities in Europe.

    I’m not saying these were the sole influences, but it would seem they were realities that needed to be dealt with.

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