I am old enough to remember the days when the liturgy was celebrated in Latin, and I recall that on some Sundays there might be singing, and on other Sundays no singing, not even by a choir. This seems rather strange by today’s standards. It was in 1958 that the Vatican published an important document called the Instruction on Sacred Music and Sacred Liturgy. This document not only encouraged people to join in the Latin parts of the liturgy that belonged to them, but also paved the way for including in the liturgy hymns that were in the language of the people.
The point that is important to make is that the provisions of important documents like this one are never implemented identically by everyone or in every place. Thus when it became possible for Catholics to participate vocally in the liturgy in word and in song, some bishops and pastors implemented these changes only reluctantly or after months, even years, of delay. Other bishops and pastors around the world implemented the changes as soon as possible. Others anticipated the changes by months or even years. This means that what happened in one’s parish church fifty years ago was not necessarily what was going on in the parish next door, or in the parishes of another diocese or nation.
Such liturgical pluralism has always been a characteristic of liturgical renewal and development. Contrary to what some may think or want, there has never been, not will there be, a Catholic liturgical rite that is celebrated identically everywhere. There will always be liturgical leaders that will eagerly embrace current liturgical norms, and others will resist what is normative in favor of what was done in days gone by. In addition, the Roman Rite is not the only rite in the Catholic Church. National conferences of bishops, as well, can ask for special adaptations in liturgical matters, and then there is the whole issue of how different cultures impact the way the liturgy is celebrated in various countries and regions.
We encounter this pluralism directly when we travel. We notice that churches come in all kinds of shapes and sizes and designs. Some have pews and some don’t. In one parish or nation people stand, and elsewhere they kneel. Catholic communities normally share the Sign of Peace and offer Communion from the cup, a handful do not. Again, one might think that this borders on some sort of liturgical anarchy. The reality is that for most of our Church’s history, the differences in the way the liturgy developed and was actually celebrated from place to place were much more radical than anything that we might experience today.
Should we be alarmed at what appears to be such a marked lack of unity? Certainly not, for such diversity has been common to every age of the Church’s history. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy teaches that “even in the liturgy the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters that do not affect the faith or the good of the whole community… Provision shall be made for legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions, and peoples… provided the substantial unity of the Roman Rite is preserved… and in some places and circumstances an even more radical adaptation of the liturgy is needed...” In other words, unity - which is absolutely essential to the Church - is not to be found in uniformity.