So where did this liturgical custom come from? Does it mean anything to Catholics?
I have been reflecting lately on why certain customs flourish in one religious setting but those same customs utterly fail to produce fruit when transplanted to another. By custom I mean those outward expressions of religious faith common to humankind - certain types of song and musical instruments, manner of prayer, bodily gestures, architectural and artistic creations, and every other expression of culture that usually accompanies religious belief. Religious setting in the broadest sense could mean different religions, but in the context of this discussion, I mean it more with reference to different ecclesial traditions within Christianity itself (Lutheranism, Baptist, Calvinist, and of course, Catholic).
A very large assumption we find in the mindset of the post-Conciliar Church is that a custom one one religious setting can be transplanted into the Catholic Church. It was assumed that because a style of music, or vestment or dance had proved vibrant in one religious setting that it would be equally vibrant and "fruit-bearing" within the Catholic Church. An easy example is the style of hymn known as the "Negro Spiritual," a sort of song composed by enslaved African Americans in the South and associated with varieties of the Baptist tradition. Modern Catholic hymnals typically feature many of these Negro Spirituals; the Spiritual has been "transplanted" from the Baptist to the Catholic tradition.
There are several aspects of this idea of "transplanting" of custom that need to be examined:
(A) The true vitality of these customs within their original religious setting
(B) The assumption of "transplanting" the custom into another tradition
(C) Explanation for the failure of such efforts
First, it is necessary to assert the vitality of a custom within the context of its own tradition. A Negro Spiritual is extremely edifying to African Americans or anyone else raised in that tradition. The dull, austere architecture of a Mennonite gathering hall is pleasing to the sensibilities of Mennonites. Certain types of high-tempo Christian rock music are edifying to Pentecostal Christians, for whom that sort of music is an integral part of their tradition. These customs are all truly vital within their own religious setting.
Now, please note than when I speak of the vitality of these customs, I am not speaking of any supernatural ordering or any merit before God, and this is a rather important point in this discussion. I say not that bare Mennonite gathering halls are pleasing to God, only that they are pleasing to Mennonites. We could have a great discussion about whether God likes Pentecostal rock music; it is undeniable that Pentecostals like Pentecostal rock music. Every individual is edified on a natural level by those elements native to their own tradition. People like that which comes naturally.
But beyond "liking" these customs, we could go further to say that, because these customs have sprung up organically out of these religious communities, there is a certain naturalness to them from a cultural standpoint. It is natural for a black Protestant congregation in rural Mississippi to sing Negro Spirituals just as it is natural for Muslims to pray in Arabic or Catholics to genuflect. Because these customs are natural to these traditions, they form a positive link between the believer and those who have come before him; they serve to build a bond rooting that person to his tradition, edifying him within the context of that tradition. They keep the tradition alive. Thus, on a strictly natural level, we can rightly say that a custom has a true vitality within its own religious setting.
The next part of this discussion is looking at the assumption that these customs can be transplanted into another religious setting other than that of their origin. In the Catholic Church, this is where Negro Spirituals are put into liturgical hymnals, or Protestant praise and worship music is performed at Mass, or Protestant architectural principles are incorporated into parish design, or Eastern meditation is incorporated into Catholic spirituality. The assumption is that these customs will bear fruit in a Catholic setting because they have borne fruit in their natural setting; that the Catholic's experience of the Faith will be enriched by these customs that have enriched other cultures. This implies several problematic things.
For one, it implies that the Faith is somehow lacking and must be enriched by elements brought into it from the outside; I have already written about this elsewhere in the context of the Charismatic Renewal.
But more relevant to this discussion is that it is often forgotten that these customs possess vitality not by virtue of the customs themselves, but because of the context in which they occur, and that this vitality is of a natural, not supernatural, character. There is nothing meritorious before God about clapping hands during a song; it is a purely natural act that the worshiper finds edifying because it is organically part of the tradition to which he belongs. To the degree that, say, Protestant worshipers obtain some grace through their worship, it is because their hearts are more properly disposed towards God, not because there is anything better about clapping hands or singing a Negro Spiritual. If the worshiper does experience more grace through these acts, it is because participating in worship according to their own tradition is what puts them in that disposition.
This is not like the liturgy of the Mass, where the ritual comes from the Apostles and is intrinsically pleasing to God because in the Mass the Son of God is offered to the Father (this is why the Mass is still objectively pleasing to God even if the priest is sinful or the Mass is said privately without a congregation). The problem is that we assume that these other customs (Negro Spirituals) that have vitality within their own religious setting will produce the same results when transferred to Catholic worship. This ignores the fact that the inner vitality of these customs within their own tradition is due to their cultural context, not the merit of the act itself. It also presumes that the Mass, which has a supernatural origin and is ordered towards God, needs the inclusion of these foreign customs that have only a natural goodness, even within their own tradition. These are the problems with transplanting customs from one religious setting to another.
Are these transplants successful? I think anyone who objectively evaluates this question will unequivocally say that these cultural transplants have been a miserable failure. Our worst parishes are the ones where this cross-cultural pollination happens most. By the way, since these cultural transplants are such failures, those who support them can only claim they are successful by changing the definition of success. Instead of success as measured by holiness, increased participation in the sacraments, growth in knowledge, private devotions, etc., the proponent of this ideal has to make the transplant itself a kind of measure of success. Thus, the success of incorporating Negro Spirituals is the simple fact that Catholics are now singing Negro Spirituals. The cultural cross-pollination goes from being a means to an end in and of itself; a "mutual enrichment" as Cardinal Dulles used to call it.
But to anybody who cares about sanctity, love of the truth, or knowledge of the faith, these attempts to inject foreign customs into Catholicism are utter failures. Why is this? Because of the basic premise enunciated above - a custom has vitality within its tradition only because of its cultural context. Remember, the custom builds a bond between a worshiper and his own tradition. But what sort of bond can be established by Catholics singing a Negro Spiritual? How does a lay person taking classes in yoga thereby become more firmly rooted in Catholic spirituality? What does a person clapping hands to Pentecostal rock music at Mass learn about the Catholic liturgy?
We would not expect a Negro Spiritual to mean anything in a Catholic liturgy any more than we would expect the Salve Regina to mean anything in a black church is rural Mississippi. We understand this when we talk about other traditions or religions; anyone would acknowledge that Gregorian chant would be out of place in a Mennonite gathering hall or that a genuflection inside a Mosque would be highly improper; why are Catholics alone not able to exercise this same sort of reasoning when it comes to foreign customs transplanted into our own tradition?
Traditions cannot be transplanted. Just because a Protestant church finds great vibrancy and edification in Pentecostal rock music does not mean that a Catholic parish will likewise be edified. A salt water fish can't live in fresh water. The crops that thrive in Cuba wither in Norway because the environment is different. The only difference between these examples and what we have today in the Catholic Church is that it only takes the green-thumb farmer one trial and one error to realize that tropical crops cannot flourish in cold climates; how many decades will it take for our liturgists to learn the same simple lesson?