Liturgical Renewal—and Every Other Kind—In the Light of Christ

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By Dr. Jeff Mirus, Catholic Culture, Aug 25, 2017

Phil Lawler has already commented ably on Pope Francis’ statement that “we can assert with certainty and magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.” Of course saying that he can assert something magisterially is not the same thing as asserting it, which in any case cannot be done in an address to a particular group. Moreover, the irreversibility of a particular reform is not something even the Magisterium can guarantee. In addition, as Phil pointed out, there is the very real question of what the Pope actually meant.

I take the statement primarily as a manifestation of this pope’s personality in addressing a particular group. Everyone knows that Francis enjoys speaking categorically whenever he is rebuking his more traditional critics, but his central point was actually well-taken as part of an address to participants in the 68th Italian National Liturgical Week: The challenge today is not so much in rethinking various choices as in acquiring a deeper understanding of what the Church, through the Second Vatican Council, has prescribed for liturgical renewal.

Everybody knows that what the Council prescribed was not, in several key respects, what was actually done. To take just three examples, the Council stated that (a) a significant amount of Latin should be preserved; (b) the Church’s patrimony of sacred music, especially Gregorian chant, should be given pride of place; and (c) the process of renewal should be well-ordered and organic—not a liturgical free-for-all. I won’t argue that the ordinary form of the Roman Rite is “inorganic” in its essentials, for it clearly is not. But perception of its links to the past has often been deliberately obscured, and the process of liturgical renewal was anything but well-ordered in the generation following the Council. As for points (a) and (b), it is obvious that the Church is batting nearly zero.

On the other hand, several initial goals have largely been achieved over time, not only on paper but in many well-led dioceses. These include:

  • A greater emphasis on essentials, that is, a kind of “cleaning up” of the Roman rite, in its tradition of noble simplicity, to bring out the most important elements of the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist;

  • A greater emphasis on the Word of God in Scripture, including the use of a far larger percentage of Scripture throughout the liturgical cycle;

  • Insistence on the homily as an integral part of the Mass, by which the Word of God should be further infused, as it were, into the lives of the faithful;

  • A greater stress on the liturgy as a work of the whole People of God, not just of the clerical estate;

  • Revision of the saints celebrated in the liturgical calendar, eliminating those about whom little is known or who are less relevant to us today, and taking advantage of more contemporary figures representing more regions and states of life;

  • A greater emphasis on the centrality of Sunday in the liturgical rhythm of the Church;

  • And of course greater intelligibility through wide use of vernacular languages—languages people understand.

Sadly, in the turmoil of a secularizing Western culture, which exploded publicly at long last beginning in the 1960s, there were many abuses as the liturgical pendulum swung past a reasonable point of balance. Pope Benedict XVI stressed this problem when he gave broad permission for use of the Extraordinary Form in 2007. Among such abuses were:

  • Denigration of the sacrament of Holy Orders and of the role of priests;

  • Diminution of reverence for the Eucharist as the Real Presence of Christ;

  • A misplaced celebration of the community rather than of the community’s incorporation into the sacrifice of Christ;

  • Vernacular translations that were denuded and even desacralized, clearly designed to make the liturgy seem “ordinary” within our secular cultural experience;

  • A dramatic plunge in the quality of liturgical music;

  • Preaching that tended to focus more on worldly ideas than on Christ;

  • A corresponding crisis of catechesis which either left the Catholic understanding of the faithful to outside cultural influences or, very frequently, deliberately destroyed that understanding;

  • Unbridled experimentation, according to the whims of both liturgists and celebrants.

Further, we still face the large question of “inculturation”, a concept that has also been mightily abused. The Council Fathers clearly saw the need to allow legitimate expression of cultural differences into liturgical celebration. Obviously, the use of the vernacular was an important step in this direction, as was the cautious admission of different forms of liturgical music without sacrificing the Church’s musical patrimony. But does acculturation mean both the vernacular and liturgical dance? Does it mean both localized music and balloons? Are we talking about the beautiful…or the banal? And how are such questions to be decided, especially under the influence of the West, where faith suddenly revealed itself to be so extraordinarily weak?

Actually, the Council Fathers did give us a clue to their vision of inculturation, and not only by their advocacy of more input from various conferences and councils in the life of the Church at every level. This clue came not in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy(Sacrosanctum Concilium) (December 4, 1963) but in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) (December 7, 1965):

The Gospel of Christ constantly renews the life and culture of fallen man, it combats and removes the errors and evils resulting from the permanent allurement of sin. It never ceases to purify and elevate the morality of peoples. By riches coming from above, it makes fruitful, as it were from within, the spiritual qualities and traditions of every people and of every age. It strengthens, perfects and restores them in Christ. Thus the Church, in the very fulfillment of her own function, stimulates and advances human and civic culture; by her action, also by her liturgy, she leads them toward interior liberty. [n. 58]

This is why the official Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches the following: “Through the liturgical life of a local church, Christ, the light and salvation of all peoples, is made manifest to the particular people and culture to which that Church is sent and in which she is rooted. The Church is catholic, capable of integrating into her unity, while purifying them, all the authentic riches of cultures” (n. 1202).

No current of genuine reform and renewal should be reversed; but all currents of genuine reform and renewal are inescapably both enriched and impoverished in the process of cultural perception and cultural reception. We cease at our peril to assess and purify in the light of Christ, which it is the Church’s Divine mission to shed upon the world. Then only do we go backwards. Even in the liturgy—perhaps especially in the liturgy—there are ways to increase or decrease our reception of grace. They are not always the same for everyone. But the increase always comes through purifying both the forms and the participants, not in the weak and diffuse light of an allegedly superior human culture (which we see advocated daily), but in the brilliance of the light of Christ.

If you need a refresher on the documents of the Second Vatican Council, my series in 34 bite-sized parts begins with A funny thing about Vatican II….

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.