On August 24, Pope Francis gave an important address to participants in the National Italian Liturgical Week. We all, of course, read papal documents through our own personal and theological lenses, hopefully seeking not only confirmation of our own views, but also challenges to them.
I find it amusing, however, to note that several commentators, representing the emergent ultramontanism of the Left, immediately pounced upon this statement by Francis: “We can affirm with certainty and with magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.”
[Note: “Ultramontanism” was a movement emphasizing the authority of the pope that crested in 1870 at the First Vatican Council with the declaration of papal infallibility, and today refers to Catholics who accent the primacy of the pope and the Vatican over local churches.]
One commentator even seemed to relish that, among authorities cited in the document’s footnotes, no reference was made to Benedict XVI, thus implicitly, and insouciantly, pitting one magisterial authority against another.
I fear that, once again, in our perpetually polarized state, we may fail to address the crucial theological-pastoral issues the pope’s address lays before us.
It’s one thing for liturgists solemnly to intone the fervent desire of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (echoed by Pope Francis), “that the faithful do not assist as strangers and silent spectators to this mystery of faith, but, understanding it well through rites and prayers, participate in the sacred action knowingly, piously, actively.”
It’s quite another, as the pope mentions later in his address, to move beyond abstract notions and rote platitudes to actual experience.
We’re bound to ask concretely how successful the reform of the liturgy actually has been in leading priest and people to a fuller understanding and an active personal appropriation of “the mystery of faith” which the liturgy celebrates. More concretely still, how aware are we, in our Sunday liturgy, of that which the pope identifies as the fundamental and defining reality of the liturgical celebration: The living presence of the risen Lord?
Francis writes: “The liturgy is ‘living’ because of the living presence of Him who ‘dying has destroyed death and rising has restored life to us again.’ Without the real presence of the mystery of Christ, there is no liturgical vitality. As without a beating heart there is no human life, so without the pulsating heart of Christ there is no liturgical action.”
After the typical parish Sunday Mass, is that how the participants, leaving the church, would express what they had just celebrated? Have they encountered the living Christ, and recommitted themselves to taking on the mind and heart of Christ?
In brief: How Christologically vital are our liturgies?
Further, in our too often self-selecting communities, how many of us truly endorse what the pope proclaims, with magisterial authority: “The ‘popular’ scope of the liturgy reminds us that it is inclusive and not exclusive, promoting communion with all without, however, homologizing, because it calls each one, with his vocation and originality, to contribute in building the Body of Christ”?
Or, do we insist, instead, on exercising our preferential option for “homologized” communities – made up of those who think and talk and look like us?
Finally, how strongly do we appreciate (or even comprehend) the pope’s recommendation of “the mystagogic catechesis practiced by the Fathers”?
To celebrate the liturgy, Francis contends, “is truly to enter into the mystery of God; to let oneself be led to the mystery and to be in the mystery.” And, though the pope does not explicitly say this here, he has spoken elsewhere of the crucial importance of contemplative silence to enter into the mystery. Indeed, he too has inveighed against what his Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship provocatively has called “the dictatorship of noise.”
It would suffice, in this regard, merely to re-read chapter six of Francis’s Encyclical, Laudato si’. This splendid chapter is entitled: “Ecological Education and Spirituality.” It advocates fostering a contemplative gaze in the midst of the noise pollution of contemporary culture.
The pope writes: “Nature is filled with words of love, but how can we listen to them amid constant noise, interminable and nerve-wracking distractions, or the cult of appearances?”
Sadly, many of us do not check that “constant noise” or those “nerve-wracking distractions” at the door of the church, as we scurry into liturgy, often arriving late and thus missing the desperate plea to “turn off your cell phones!”
In one of the last catechetical talks Pope emeritus Benedict XVI delivered, he spoke of a topic particularly dear to his heart – the liturgy. He said: “The liturgy is not the memory of past events, but the living presence of the Paschal Mystery of Christ who transcends and unites times and places.
“If, in the celebration, the centrality of Christ did not emerge, we would not have Christian liturgy, totally dependent on the Lord and sustained by his creative presence. God acts through Christ and we can act only through and in him. The conviction must grow within us every day that the liturgy is not our or my ‘doing,’ but rather is an action of God in us and with us,” Benedict wrote.
Francis may not have cited Benedict by name on Thursday, but the address deeply reflects this Benedictine conviction.
May Ultramontanists of both left and right pay heed to the magisterial Christological discernment of Benedict and Francis. May priests and preachers, liturgical ministers and musicians, be permeated with those mystagogic sensibilities and aptitudes that can evoke and elucidate the one Paschal Mystery, whether celebrated in Latin or English, ad orientem or versus populum.
What’s at stake is nothing less than the true spirit of the liturgy.