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For liturgy, reform means looking back but moving forward

By Keith F. Pecklers
The Liturgical Press 1998, 333 pages, $24.95


Lucien Deiss, the legendary French liturgical composer whose simple psalm melodies helped a whole generation of Catholics taste and see the beauty of the Mass in the vernacular following the Second Vatican Council, offered some wise counsel to fellow composers at a February 1998 meeting in St. Louis.

Deiss warned them not to use Vatican II as a finished blueprint for renewal and reform. The council itself was clear about this, Deiss said. The church of the ’90s should not be looking back to the ’60s for guidance or inspiration. What we have achieved since then, and the subsequent instructions that have brought new insights, should be the source of our evaluations. Even if the dreams of Vatican II have not been realized, Deiss said, we should not stay locked in the past.

The challenge of reform and renewal has always had a dynamic double focus. Look to your roots, recover the original charism, but then adapt it to contemporary need. Tradition itself means “what we hand on.”

It is not surprising that the greatest reformers knew both tradition and history, have identified their essential currents, have seen the convergence of social, economic and cultural patterns that indicate watershed moments.

There are no crystal balls, no magical signs that can predict the future, but history does offer the discerning eye a kind of careful map of potential pathways waiting to be affirmed by our collective decision-making. In the end, we write history by the way we live now.

Jesuit Fr. Keith Pecklers, a professor of liturgical history at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, has assembled just such a map for the American church in his comprehensive history, The Unread Vision: The Liturgical Movement in the United States of America: 1926-1955. The title, taken from T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday,” defines the challenge of knowing this crucial history as our chance to “Redeem the unread vision in the higher dream.”

The higher dream is the image of the church as the body of Christ, the dream that first seized and blinded Paul on the road to Damascus, then became the core of his mission. The same dream seized the early liturgical reformers, from the European Benedictine monks Gueranger, Herwegen, Casel, and later, Beauduin, the Belgian monk whose influence reached the American church primarily through Dom Virgil Michel.

The dream inspired a powerful re-evangelization of a church that had lost consciousness of its deeper identity, withdrawn from the world into a post-Reformation juridical and hierarchical fortress.

While the reform’s focus was on liturgy, its most dramatic result was to recover the profound ecclesiology of the early church as captured in the gospels and conveyed in the early patristic writings.

Everything else we have come to take for granted because of Vatican II -- collegiality, full and active participation by all in worship, a focus on the local church, lay charisms and ministries, an urgent ecumenism, an essential commitment to social justice and structural transformation and, above all, the gift of divine life flowing into us as a community -- comes from our identity as the body of Christ.

The revolution these liturgical pioneers set in motion was not an assault from without but the reassertion of the church’s own ideals, a revolution from within. Pope Pius XII was only catching up with the liturgical movement when he issued his encyclicals Mystici Corporis and Mediator Dei. Vatican II was the culmination, not the start, of this dramatic shift in ecclesiology.

Deiss is correct in warning us not to cling to the past. In a real sense, Vatican II narrowed the scope and energy of decades of creative thinking and modeling for a church that has still not fully emerged. What Pecklers captures in his rich chronicle of early reformers is the vibrant spirit and radical fidelity they brought to education, liturgical music and art, Catholic action, social criticism, ecumenical and philosophical dialogue, long before such possibilities were even imagined by much of the church, especially the hierarchy.

Like all good history, Pecklers’ book is as much about the present as the past. For those who fear that the reforms of the 1960s have hopelessly stalled out in the 1990s, that we can’t go back but don’t know how to move forward, Pecklers offers a valuable history lesson. Some of that history’s most eloquent voices are still with us, including Lucien Deiss, Godfrey Diekmann, John Egan, Eileen Egan, Fred McManus and Ada Bethune.

The reform and the renewal of the church is the unfinished agenda, the unread vision waiting to be redeemed in the higher dream. To understand the goals that fueled the liturgical movement of this century, and the pastoral, educational and social justice movements that flowed from it, is to recover our footing for the task of transformation before us. If we want models, prophetic energy, sound theological and biblical foundations, we need only look “back to the future” to find them.

Pecklers’ book comprises a powerful story that itself is largely unknown, even by many active in liturgy. The Unread Vision should be required reading in every seminary, every rectory and in every liturgy office in every diocese. As the church, and every other global institution, stands at the crossroads to many possible futures, we will do well to know the maps that history offers us.

Pat Marrin is editor of Celebration, NCR’s sister publication.

National Catholic Reporter, July 31, 1998