Cardinal Sarah's unfortunate speech on liturgy

Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, is pictured at the 2016 National Catholic Prayer Breakfast Washington. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, sent a text to a colloquium in Germany called to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI's motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. Much that the cardinal had to say was unexceptional, and I found myself in agreement with parts of the text. But other parts seemed unnecessarily harsh and even foolish. He stated:

Certainly, the Second Vatican Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 1). Certainly, some fine initiatives were taken along these lines. However we cannot close our eyes to the disaster, the devastation and the schism that the modern promoters of a living liturgy caused by remodeling the Church's liturgy according to their ideas.

And later in the talk:

Hence it is necessary to recognize that the serious, profound crisis that has affected the liturgy and the Church itself since the Council is due to the fact that its CENTER is no longer God and the adoration of Him, but rather men and their alleged ability to "do" something to keep themselves busy during the Eucharistic celebrations. Even today, a significant number of Church leaders underestimate the serious crisis that the Church is going through: relativism in doctrinal, moral and disciplinary teaching, grave abuses, the desacralization and trivialization of the Sacred Liturgy, a merely social and horizontal view of the Church's mission. Many believe and declare loud and long that Vatican Council II brought about a true springtime in the Church. Nevertheless, a growing number of Church leaders see this "springtime" as a rejection, a renunciation of her centuries-old heritage, or even as a radical questioning of her past and Tradition. Political Europe is rebuked for abandoning or denying its Christian roots. But the first to have abandoned her Christian roots and past is indisputably the post-conciliar Catholic Church.

These are strong words. And Lord knows we have all seen the video of the clown masses. But such incidents were the exception, a miniscule exception. The reform of the liturgy that began after the Second Vatican Council has been an overwhelming success.

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Don't take my word for it. Consider this apostolic letter of St. Pope John Paul II, issued on the 25th anniversary of the Council's constitution, Sacrosanctum Concilium. After noting some of the adverse reactions to the liturgical changes after the council, on both the left and the right, John Paul II wrote:

This should not lead anyone to forget that the vast majority of the pastors and the Christian people have accepted the liturgical reform in a spirit of obedience and indeed joyful fervour. For this we should give thanks to God for that movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church which the liturgical renewal represents; for the fact that the table of the word of God is now abundantly furnished for all; for the immense effort undertaken throughout the world to provide the Christian people with translations of the Bible, the Missal and other liturgical books; for the increased participation of the faithful by prayer and song, gesture and silence, in the Eucharist and the other sacraments; for the ministries exercised by lay people and the responsibilities that they have assumed in virtue of the common priesthood into which they have been initiated through Baptism and Confirmation; for the radiant vitality of so many Christian communities, a vitality drawn from the wellspring of the Liturgy.

These are all reasons for holding fast to the teaching of the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium and to the reforms which it has made possible: "the liturgical renewal is the most visible fruit of the whole work of the Council". For many people the message of the Second Vatican Council has been experienced principally through the liturgical reform.

Liturgy touches us at the core of our beings. As Catholics, we know that what we do in the Mass is less important than what God does. We know that the Eucharist is, as the council stated, the "source and summit" of the Christian life. Therefore, it is not surprising that people hold strong views about it.

What is surprising is that so many feel the need to denounce those who view liturgical matters differently. The new translation of the missal into English strikes me as clunky in parts; the syntax follows the Latin original and sounds like gibberish in English, but other parts of it are very well done, such as the inclusion of a biblical image right before we receive communion: "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof… ." The previous translation was better in some ways but banal at times, too. What was unfortunate about the changes was that they were rammed through by a group with an agenda that happened to get the ear of key Vatican officials.

Part of the liturgical renewal, and one of the better parts of Sarah's talk, has to do with the multiple ways of participating in the liturgy. Yes, I think it is a good thing that lay people, including women, are now seen on the altar, proclaiming the Scriptures, serving as acolytes, distributing communion. But, I also know that I can "participate" in the singing of the Kyrie just as well when the choir sings a beautiful rendition of the text as when I join in that singing. Yesterday, at St. Matthew's Cathedral, the choir sang the Kyrie from William Byrd's "Mass for Four Voices."

Those plaintive tones warm the heart to the sense of merciful pleading the Kyrie is all about, no? But I also like to belt out the hymns, and if I never got to do that, I would feel like my participation had been circumscribed.

As regular readers know, I usually attend a Novus Ordo Latin Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral here in Washington. My Latin is pretty good, and I can follow along. I do not need to consult the booklet to know what or when to speak the parts we in the pews say or sing. I have brought friends to that Mass over the years, and some people are, like me, transported by the ethereal beauty of the music. Other friends are left cold from the experience. There is no liturgical style that works for everyone, and surely it is a sign of healthy vigor that the church offers a multiplicity of styles of worship. Our unity is founded on Christ whom we worship, not on what songs we sing or the formality of our vestments.

When Pope Benedict issued Summorum Pontificum, he had no intention of starting a movement, still less of ideology. My problem with those who favor the traditional worship of the church is not their taste, it is that they twist that taste into an ideological framework. Cardinal Sarah had no harsh words for the traditionalists, only for the post-conciliar reforms. He was throwing red meat to people who have become a kind of cult, who look down on those who do not share their fondness for the old rite. If the charge of "schism" is to be thrown around, it is misplaced when applied to the vast, vast majority of Catholics who follow the new rite.

Worst of all, Cardinal Sarah and the traditionalists seem to be exercising a variety of secularism in that they believe God has stopped his activity in the world, that he makes himself accessible in the Tridentine rite and that rite only, and all the ills of the church flow from the fact that we have left that "golden age." Leave it we did, and not a moment too soon. The church was well served by Trent, liturgically, doctrinally, pastorally, but no council's perspective lasts forever. In thinking that Trent's rules and rites are the only legitimate ones, the traditionalists seek to bind God in the 1950s. It can't be done, and it is wrong to try. It is God alone who will have the last word, not the cardinal prefect.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at The Catholic University of America's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]


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