The address of Pope Benedict XVI, from 6 May 2011, to members of the St. Anselm Liturgical Institute, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its foundation got my attention as it did that of many others. It started me on a reflection which ranges a bit farther afield but which I gladly share and hope that it elicits a constructive thought or two from those who read it.
The quotation from that talk which drew the most attention would have to be these words of the Holy Father, where referring to events following upon the conciliar reform he says:
“Unfortunately, perhaps, also for us pastors and experts, the liturgy was taken more as an object to be reformed than as a subject capable of renewing Christian life, in that ‘a very close and organic bond exists between the renewal of the Liturgy and the renewal of the whole life of the Church.’ The Church takes from the liturgy the strength for life."
The Holy Father added most significantly:
“The liturgy, summit to which the action of the Church tends and at the same time source from which her virtue springs, … thus becomes the great educator in the primacy of faith and of grace.”
To state that "The liturgy (is) the great educator in the primacy of faith and of grace" puts us at odds with all who would tinker with something as big as life, namely liturgy.
There is a direct correlation between the willfulness of a lot of folk’s approach to life and the way they see liturgy. If once again liturgy were, as it should be, out of bounds and linked to tradition as it had been practically for most of the Church’s history, there would probably be more awareness of who we are in God’s world. Maybe there would be fewer abortions, fewer in vitro fertilizations and less plastic surgery, with no talk of euthanasia or assisted suicide. To the extent that improvisation rules the day in liturgy it is not hard to see why we pretend in life as well to have to answer to no one when it comes to life issues; we become practical atheists or agnostics simply for the casual or inattentive way we behave in church (Please excuse all of the logical leaps in this brief paragraph!).
Were liturgy “…a subject capable of renewing Christian life…” restored to its pedestal and could it regain its historical moorings then life would be better as well. Respect for life, awe before the human person could more easily be recovered or established, because the arbitrary in life as posture would simply give way to our absolute accountability to the One Who sits upon the Throne.
With each passing day I become more aware that the fundamental difficulty or misunderstanding marking people’s very different attitudes toward Divine Worship has no small amount to do with what we understand by those words from Sacrosanctum Concilium “summit” and “source”. If you’ll permit me to play with the word a bit, understanding the role of Liturgy in renewing the whole life of the Church depends on our understanding what a “summit” is. It is a high point and the substantive of those two words is not high but point. The source and summit cannot be the dwelling place or experiential platform of our lives but rather the anchor for our lives or that momentary but unforgettable climax in the day to day or week to week. God does not will us to be “church mice”, if you will, but calls us out of the world to refresh and renew us and then to send us back again.
In a sense it’s as simple as the distinction between traditional or classic Catholic worship described as chanting and Reformation worship reduced to hymn singing. Chanting antiphons in particular is shorter and integrally bound to the ordinary of the Mass by reason of the texts involved which work as modifiers or specifiers and not carriers of the action. Genuine Catholic hymns are few and mostly were used to embellish popular devotion and processions. Our tradition is that of the chanted verse and the great silence. The high point or summit and source is just that and not a continuum. Progress in electronics is evident where recharging batteries or energy cells takes less time and you go farther on a charge. St. Peter was just simply reeling when in his confusion he volunteered to set up tents on the mount of Transfiguration; Jesus quickly got the three of them back down to the plain and to work casting out demons.
The noble simplicity desired by the Fathers of the Council needs to be recaptured for liturgy and instilled in the lives of God’s People. “The Church takes from the liturgy the strength for life."
I too am looking forward to the publication of this coming Friday’s official refresher to Summorum Pontificum. The joyous and unhindered celebration of the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite is the welcome and needed challenge to caprice and improvisation (there is something of the two-edged sword in that statement). May we all be aided and encouraged in our quest to be nourished by God in and through the great mysteries the Only Begotten Son has entrusted to His Church! No longer church mice nor theater troupes, but heirs of the Kingdom!