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Getting Our Priorities Right In The Sacred Liturgy

October 19, 2017 Frontpage No Comments

By JAMES MONTI

(Editor’s Note: For four of James Monti’s sources, books from the late sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, the passages quoted are from pages lacking page numbers or folio numbers, so he had to give the “signatures” of the pages instead. This involved some odd-looking designations utilizing colons and parentheses — they may look like typographical errors, but actually they’re not.)

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As someone who has tended to focus upon the “nuts and bolts” of the development of the Church’s liturgical ceremonies over the centuries, I found I had much to learn from the presentations during the recent three-day annual conference of the Society for Catholic Liturgy in Philadelphia (September 28-30). For in the talks I attended, the focus was largely upon the overriding principles of fitting celebration, genuine renewal, and authentic participation in the sacred liturgy.
Among the presenters was Fr. Cassian Folsom, OSB, founder of the Monastero di San Benedetto in Norcia, Italy. In his plenary address, Fr. Cassian observed that the postconciliar concept of retooling the liturgy to conform it to the alleged “needs of modern man” ought to be reassessed. For is “modern man” so different from his forefathers, he asked, that he really needs a radically new way to worship God?
Indeed, an age that brags of its “modernity” has fallen into the temptation that we all face when we are young, the trap of thinking of death and our eternal destiny as so far off in the distant future that we needn’t concern ourselves much with such things, that what really matters is neither the past nor the future, but rather the here and now.
The quest to seek the things that are above gets replaced with fallacies such as those of liberation theology, which offers a merely secular salvation of earth-bound priorities.
Ironically, for well over a century now, this historical age within which we find ourselves has been called “modern.” But “modernity” is growing so old, so decrepit, that it has become necessary to speak of a new age of “post-modernity,” which was in fact the theme of the presentations at the Philadelphia conference.
Another important observation offered by Fr. Cassian in his address at the conference concerned the problems created by overemphasizing the verbal texts of the liturgy to the derogation of its ceremonial dimension, a stress on what is said during the liturgy to the point of minimizing the importance of its richly symbolic ritual actions.
Closely associated with this issue is that of fidelity to the rubrics, the instructions of the Church that govern the ritual actions of the liturgy. For several decades now, rubrics have been looked upon by some as little more than pharisaic rules that hinder liturgical “creativity” (i.e., reinventing the liturgy every Sunday in order to gratify the celebrant’s ego and entertain the “faith community”).
In this regard the greatest liturgical commentators of our time, most notably Pope Benedict XVI and Robert Cardinal Sarah, have masterfully refuted this anti-rubrical mentality, offered compelling insights as to why the faithful, reverent celebration of the liturgy in conformity to the rubrics matters so much.
There are, in fact, voices from another “Postconciliar Era” that further make the case for faithfully “doing the red” as it is sometimes called, the celebration of the sacred liturgy in loving and unfailing fidelity to the rubrics.
During the years following the Council of Trent, dioceses and religious congregations across Europe and beyond published “local editions” of some of the liturgical books promulgated by the Holy See, editions that carefully followed the Roman prototype but which also included local liturgical rites and customs permitted by the Holy See.
Often in the opening pages of these books can be found a preamble composed by the bishop of the diocese or the compilers of the book expressing the underlying reasons for providing these volumes to the clergy. These introductory remarks go a long way toward explaining the importance of the uniform celebration of the sacred liturgy.
Thus in a 1775 expanded edition of Pope Benedict XIII’s 1725 Memoriale Rituum (a manual of ceremonies for parish churches) issued for the Capuchin Order, we read:
“Now nothing recalls the majesty of God more clearly to the minds of the faithful, and nothing more expressly shows forth the glory paid to God, the honor and worship to be offered to Him, and augmented, and also in like manner the duty of the law fulfilled, and its necessity, than the legitimate and exact practice of the sacred rites in ecclesiastical functions, of those ceremonies which, as we may say with the supreme Pontiff Sixtus V [1585-1590], the Church, instructed by the Holy Spirit, from apostolic tradition, and discipline, actually employs in the administration of the sacraments, the divine offices, and everything of God, and of the veneration of the saints” (Memoriale Rituum sive Caeremoniale pro aliquibus praestantioribus sacris functionibus persolvendis in minoribus Ecclesiis parochialibus, Rome, 1775, preface, p. iii).
The concept expressed in the above text, that the well-ordered celebration of the liturgy through the “exact practice” of its rites gives glory to God, is similarly voiced by Bishop Joseph Benedikt von Rost (+1754), who in the preface to the 1732 edition of the Rituale Romano-Curiense for his own Diocese of Chur, Switzerland, explains:
“…Nothing would advance in like manner the glory of God and the dignity of the Catholic Church in the eyes of men, as the complete observance, the exact conformity, of those things that pertain to the worship owed to God, and a full concord in the rite of worshipping God, in those things especially, which are done in public.”
It is to achieve this end that he is issuing the ritual to his clergy, for he sees as the very “reason” for his episcopal vocation “the glory of the Divine name and the salutary direction of the people” entrusted to him (Rituale Romano-Curiense, Chur, 1732, preface, sig. )(o)2r ).
The underlying reason why order in the liturgy gives glory to God is that order is an aspect of beauty. This understanding of rubrics as imparting beauty to the sacred liturgy is explicitly stated in the introduction to the 1662 Rituale Ratisbonense for the German Diocese of Regensburg. Speaking of the need for “conformity of sacred ceremonies and rites” in divine worship and the administration of the sacraments, the ritual explains:
“By a singular prerogative the Church is compared to the Bride, who enters in clothed as in a gown interwoven with gold; thus she strives to preserve for gracefulness all bodily splendor, that she should indeed wish no blemish to remain in her; whereupon when the Bridegroom Christ Our Savior would have cast His eyes upon her more intensely, greatly gladdened by the beauty of His Bride, He says, ‘Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in thee’ (Song of Sol. 4:7). Therefore unto this care the supreme pontiffs have diligently applied themselves, lest such splendid ornaments of the Bride, just as almost all things fade with time, are ever able to be obscured” (Agenda seu Rituale Ratisbonense, ad usum Romanum accomodatum, Regensburg, 1662, preface, sig. ):(2r-):(3r ).

The Unity Of The Church

Another major reason given in the post-Trent liturgical books for uniformity in the celebration of the sacred liturgy is that it echoes the unity of the Blessed Trinity, the unity of the Church, and the uniformity of Catholic doctrine. In the preface to the 1625 Pastorale for his Diocese of Freising, Germany, Bishop Veit Adam Gepeckh von Arnsbach (+1651) observes that the Church Triumphant in Heaven exults in “the unity of love-filled joy” and “the unity of the divine essence,” and that the choirs of angels “with one mouth, or better, with one mind, and also one praise all cry out, ‘Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God Sabaoth’ (cf. Isaiah 6:3).” This unity in Heaven, the bishop continues, has its counterpart on Earth:
“Thus the Church Militant on earth rejoices in unity of faith, it is enlarged in a unity of souls, it is preserved in unity of doctrine, made firm in the unity of her head, enriched in a participatory unity of merits, it triumphs in the unity of peoples, it is blessed in the unity of God…this unity can be discerned in two things most clearly, namely in the harmonious preaching of salutary doctrine, and in the similar observation [conformity] of ecclesiastical rites” (Pastorale ad usum Romanum accommodatum canones et ritus ecclesiasticos…in Diocesi Frisingensi, Ingolstadt, 1625, preface, sig. (a)1r-(a)2r ).
When in 1591 the primate of Poland, Archbishop Stanislaw Karnkowski of Gniezno (+1603), promulgated a uniform ritual of rites and ceremonies for his nation, he stressed this same concept of liturgical uniformity as an outward expression of the Church’s unity:
“It is indeed fitting, that those who are bound together in confession of faith unto God, on the solid rock of the one Catholic Church, in only one union of body, these same with that head should concur in the external worship of the true God, and in the souls of these men, in likeness to the holy city of the blessed, in the fixed practice of holy things and in the order of ascribing them, and anointed with the plenitude of heavenly grace, even to the likeness of dew, flowing from it to all sides, they should be daily sustained, and be armed against all the powers of darkness.
“This indeed is the extraordinary ornament and honor of the Catholic Church, this sign of unity and sanctity, this most certain proof: to be sustained and governed by the dominion of the Holy Spirit and the living God, who is the author of unity and concord” (Agenda seu ritus caeremoniarum ecclesiasticarum ad uniformem Ecclesiarum par universas Provincias Regni Poloniae usum, officio Romano conformati, Krakow, 1591, preface, sig. *2v ).
With the five hundredth anniversary of what ultimately proved to be Martin Luther’s declaration of war upon the Church less than two weeks away, we could all use these reminders of why unity in faith and worship is integral to our faith, no matter how much our pluralistic age may revel in its “diversity.”

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Postscript: Presentations from the September 2017 Society for Sacred Liturgy conference are to be published in forthcoming issues of the liturgical journal Antiphon.

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