Something old, something newAlcuin Reid
- 10 March 2007
The modern liturgy is here to stay but, in response to Andrew Cameron-Mowat (The Tablet, 24 February), a liturgical scholar whose work earned praise from Cardinal Ratzinger argues that the older liturgical forms have something legitimate to offer to the Church of today - and tomorrow
Early in the morning of 20 April 2005 I received an email from a liturgist friend: "I've already sent in my request for an indult to be allowed to continue to say the modern Mass during the new pontificate," he quipped. I laughed heartily, because the last thing Pope Benedict would ever do would be to use his authority to proscribe a liturgical rite that has nourished the faith and life of at least two generations of Catholics - regardless of his appreciation of the value of the pre-conciliar liturgy, and of his support for the discussion of a possible "reform of the [liturgical] reform".
The reason is his profound concern about the recent history of the liturgy in the West where, as he has written, in the place of liturgical development that was organic, authority imposed reforms that were "fabricated" - to use his word - by experts. Benedict XVI would not abuse authority even to bring about an apparently good end. And he has too profound an understanding of the intimate pastoral connection between liturgy and the life of the faithful to enforce any abrupt rupture, no matter how otherwise justifiable.
But these concerns have led him to raise the profile of the "question of the liturgy" in recent years. In his reflections he has made it clear that he believes that "the true celebration of the sacred liturgy is the centre of any renewal of the Church whatever". Benedict XVI is a pope for whom the liturgy, as the source and summit of Christian life, is of the utmost importance. Perhaps that is one reason why the Apostolic Exhortation following the Synod on the Eucharist is taking so long to appear. Similarly, that is undoubtedly why the content of the anticipated motu proprio permitting the wider use of the preconciliar liturgy is being carefully weighed.
Should Pope Benedict proceed with this liberalisation it would be a profound gesture of reconciliation towards traditionalists. As the Abbot of Pecos, New Mexico - whose work for reconciliation in this area has achieved a great deal - reflected recently, it would be akin to the Good Shepherd going after the one lost sheep: "How Christ-like indeed it would be to offer a gesture of pastoral love in the form of a motu proprio."
It would also be a move towards a more inclusive plurality in the Church's worship. That may sound odd, but there has in fact been no more restrictive or proscriptive period in the history of the Roman rite than the years following the Second Vatican Council. Even St Pius V, in publishing the first "centralised" Roman missal, allowed for significant ritual diversity (local rites as well as those of the religious orders) which thrived until the reform of Paul VI. To say "there can only be one Roman rite within our living tradition" is too narrow an understanding of the liturgical history, theology and pastoral practice of the West, showing insufficient "commitment to the whole of [that] history".
If Pope Paul VI did in fact abrogate the previous missal (and canonical opinion is by no means unanimous that he did), his successor today is himself free to judge that there are legitimate pastoral reasons to allow its wider use once again.
These pastoral reasons - among them the need for reconciliation and unity in the Church (without imposing a rigid uniformity on anyone), the increasing numbers of young people and families who find this liturgy life-giving and relevant to their spiritual needs, and its apparent inspiration of disproportionately large numbers of vocations - are all signs of the times to which reform within the Roman rite must be alive today.
However, there seems to be a fear, almost a paranoia, among a generation of liturgists that the genie of the preconciliar liturgy, once completely out of the bottle, will wreck all that they have achieved in recent decades and betray the great pioneers of the twentieth century liturgical movement and the Second Vatican Council. Not so. The rites promulgated by Paul VI are here to stay. Any attempt at their abolition would be a grossly insensitive act that would most probably precipitate a widespread pastoral disaster. The achievements held so dear by these liturgists, and by many ordinary Catholics, will not be lost.
But from the wider availability of the older liturgical rites the Church would gain a richer experience of the sense of the numinous in worship, of silence as integral to the liturgical act, of the treasury of euchological texts dating back to the Patristic era, of the rich musical heritage of the Christian West which finds its origin and natural expression in this rite, and more. Where the preconciliar rites are celebrated today they are manifestations of that liturgical spirit which must imbue any liturgy. They bring out the best of our tradition and are a far cry from the lamentably sloppy celebrations of the preconciliar rites that did mar our history. If these celebrations serve spiritual needs of a growing number of the faithful, who are we to seek to stifle the Spirit speaking to the Church in this way today?
Efforts exclusively to equate the aspirations of the great pioneers of the twentieth-century liturgical movement with the modern Roman liturgy are, I think, disingenuous. St Pius X's 1903 motu proprio, "Tra le sollecetudini", didn't seek ritual reform - it sought to bring about the reform of persons. It sought to lead them to actual, contemplative participation in the liturgy as received in tradition. Dom Beauduin endeavoured to turn this aspiration into a pastoral programme, of which the likes of Romano Guardini, Pius Parsch and even Adrian Fortescue here in England were early practitioners. Certainly some of these men adjusted their manner of celebration of the rites, but that was not their priority. One only has to read Guardini's seminal work The Spirit of the Liturgy or his Sacred Signs, or Beauduin's Liturgy the Life of the Church to see that a new rite was not necessary to achieve the actual participation in the liturgy they so desired.
Similarly, to suggest that the concerns and problems of the great pastoral liturgists or theological scholars of the twentieth century are being repudiated is unhelpful. We are, today, in a different situation, one that seems to suggest that more ritual flexibility and pluralism is part of the way forward. No doubt notable twentieth-century figures would have their (nuanced) opinions, but it belongs to the pastors and scholars of the twenty-first century to enter into dialogue about our problems, and it is the responsibility of those whose ministry is that of authority in today's Church to decide what steps are necessary.
This is not hostility to the Second Vatican Council. It is seeking critically to revisit, with and under Peter, what has happened in its aftermath in the liturgical life of the Church in the light of more than 40 years of experience since the Council, and to discern what our future path should be.
Yes, there are serious pastoral questions to be faced in respect of the new liturgy, and Cardinal Francis Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, does speak rather frequently about "offensive travesties" - presumably with good reason. And yes, the issue of translation highlighted by Pope Benedict's recent decision about "pro multis" is a sensitive one. The new directions being taken may seem old. Perhaps, though, that is not the point. Perhaps in respect of these issues and of others that may emerge as the years pass, we should not ask whether this is something from the past, rather, whether it is something that will enhance the worship of God and the sanctification of his people?
I do not know whether those who have joined the Catholic community from other Christian traditions are in "danger of confusing an articulate intellectualism with being formed by a tradition and experience". I would not presume to judge. As one "born and raised in captivity" as it were, and formed in the tradition and experience of the postconciliar Church, I welcome the articulate contributions made by those who have recently joined us. As St Benedict teaches, sometimes it is through the observations of the latest to come to a community that we hear the voice of God most clearly.
And I trust our Pope. I trust him to bring the wisdom of the whole of the Catholic imagination to bear in the liturgical life of the Church of today. I trust that he understands well how creativity and genius are not enemies of the tradition but part of it, and that they are its lifeblood because in them the Spirit is active. For he is no reactionary traditionalist, nor is he a tangential liberal. Rather, he is a wise householder who knows when, creatively, ingenuously and led by the Spirit, to bring forth what is new and what is old.