A suggested agenda for the new prefect for Congregation for Divine Worship

by Thomas Reese

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With a vacancy at the head of the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, Pope Francis has an opportunity to restart liturgical renewal, which was stalled by the papacies of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

The purpose of liturgical reform is not only to translate old Latin texts into good English, but to revise liturgical practices to allow people to celebrate their Christian faith in ways that better fit contemporary culture.

The former prefect, Cardinal Antonio Canizares Llovera, has been appointed archbishop of Valencia in eastern Spain. His conservative liturgical views were more in sync with those of Pope Benedict than of Pope Francis. Canizares, who was appointed prefect in 2008, supported expansion of the Tridentine Mass (aka the Extraordinary Form), and in his most recent letter said that the kiss of peace should be done with greater sobriety.

The good news is that Francis is no fan of the Tridentine Mass. Yes, he did say Mass in Latin in Korea, but that was because he did not know Korean, and they did not know Italian or Spanish. As archbishop of Buenos Aries, Argentina, he forbade the Tridentine Mass in his archdiocese until Pope Benedict mandated that it be available throughout the universal church whether bishops wanted it or not. Francis has never celebrated it (he was ordained in 1969) and never will. He hopes it will fade away.

Nor is he happy with the push for literal translations, including translating pro multis as "for many" rather than "for all." As a result, the Vatican push for new Italian, German, and other translations has been put on hold.

Francis also prefers a simple liturgical style and has no qualms about breaking liturgical rules for pastoral reasons. For example, as pope and as archbishop of Buenos Aries, he washed the feet of women on Holy Thursday even though the rules say that males (in Latin, viri) are to have their feet washed.

More recently, in Korea while saying Mass, he wore a butterfly pinned to his chasuble in honor of the Korean "comfort women" who were sex slaves to Japanese soldiers during World War II. That is a liturgical no-no.

The bad news is that there is no indication that liturgical renewal is a major priority for Pope Francis. In Argentina, progressive intellectuals criticized him for his support of popular devotions. The poor he so loved in the slums of Buenos Aires were more likely to turn out for a procession or devotion than for the Eucharist. They did not connect with either the old or the renewed Eucharist. Hopefully, this disconnect will lead him to look for a prefect who is more interested in what works pastorally, especially with the poor, than in what either conservative or liberal ideologues want.

The greatest challenge facing the new prefect is to develop a new way of managing liturgical change in the church. Although the changes following the Second Vatican Council were eventually embraced by the priests and people, there was some confusion when the changes were not well explained. Also, the church should have initially been more generous in allowing the old Latin Mass to continue during the transition, especially for the elderly. Conservatives also complained of priests experimenting on their own.

The Vatican response was to stop all change, crack down on experimentation, and force reluctant bishops to provide the Tridentine Mass to anyone who wanted it long after the vernacular language had firmly taken hold. It also pushed through literal translations of liturgical texts that were difficult to understand. This overreaction caused heartburn among liturgical scholars and, more importantly, pastoral problems in parishes.

A more intelligent and pastoral approach to liturgical change would include three things: centers for liturgical research and development, market testing, and enculturation.

Every successful business does research and development on new products. While there are liturgical scholars who do research, they are forbidden to take the next step in developing and trying out new liturgical practices. New liturgical practices require testing to find out what works, but not every priest has the training and skill to do this.

What is needed are centers for liturgical R&D where scholars and artists can collaborate with a willing community in developing new liturgical practices. Seminaries and universities with liturgical scholars are obvious places for this, but some parishes might be willing to be beta sites for new practices, especially if they were allowed to give feedback.

Bishops should be allowed to set up centers for liturgical R&D, operated by creative experts with appropriate supervision and review. Once new liturgical practices are developed and accepted by church officials, they should be market tested in a variety of pastoral settings before being offered to the rest of the church. Only the most arrogant business rolls out a new product everywhere in the world at the same time without market testing it.

Finally, the most difficult challenge is developing liturgy that fits the local culture. This is very difficult in multicultural countries like the United States and India. In the U.S., liturgy has to be sensitive to cultural differences based on race, language, ethnicity, age, education, and social background. What is appropriate at a high school may not be appropriate at a retirement home. In India, liturgical sensitivity to Hindu culture may be offensive to minorities who feel oppressed by the Hindu majority.

Such countries may require multiple liturgical forms to serve multiple cultures. Enculturation is easier to talk about than to do, which is why we need centers for liturgical research and development.

Besides developing a better system for managing liturgical change, I hope the new prefect reviews the latest English translation of the liturgy. Is it working? I don't think so.

Many priests complain about the difficulty of proclaiming the prayers because the wording is convoluted and sometimes unintelligible. This makes it often impossible for the people in the pews to understand the prayers when they are prayed out loud. The prefect should encourage bishops to be generous in allowing priests to use the old translation if they find the new translation problematic pastorally.

The prefect should also take another look at the 1998 translation of the Sacramentary done by the International Committee on English in the Liturgy and approved by most English-speaking bishops' conferences but rejected by the Vatican. This translation is substantially better than both the new and old translations and has wonderful opening prayers that match the readings for each Sunday of the three-year cycle.

And despite Canizares' circular letter, the new prefect should reopen consideration of moving the kiss of peace. Pope Benedict and former Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments prefect Cardinal Francis Arinze reportedly favored moving the kiss to the end of the Liturgy of the Word, but backed down when a majority of the episcopal conferences said to leave it alone.

Trying out different settings for the kiss is an ideal project for the centers for liturgical research and development, as are the other suggestions I give below. 

One of the reasons for moving the kiss of peace is that it would open up space for a more expansive rite at the breaking of the bread prior to Communion. This would require bread that actually looks like bread. 

Another project I hope is on the new prefect's agenda is the drafting of new "Prefaces" and new Eucharistic Prayers besides the 13 already approved for use.

Different Prefaces could be prepared for each Sunday of the three-year cycle, which would pick up on the Scripture readings for that Sunday. More effort is needed to keep themes from the Liturgy of the Word alive in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. This is done on many feast days, and it could be done on ordinary Sundays.

More eucharistic prayers could be written, especially some that follow the "proclamation and response" pattern of the eucharistic prayers for children. I also dream of eucharistic prayers that are based on the language and theology of each Gospel and some of the Pauline letters.

Too many people (and priests) think that the eucharistic prayer is the priest's prayer. Priests say it quickly in a monotone, and people tune out. We need more eucharistic prayers that actually engage both the priests and the people. 

Any work on the Sacramentary should also have as a priority the development of common texts with other churches, a priority that has recently been ignored.

The new prefect also has to look at how is his congregation is run. He needs to replace many of the consultors and staff whose only qualification as liturgist is their support for the Tridentine Mass. It would also make sense to have the chairs of bishops' conferences' liturgy committees as members of the congregation rather than cardinals who have no expertise in liturgy.

The congregation should function as a midwife to liturgical renewal and stop playing liturgical cop. This means more consultation and entrusting more liturgical changes directly to episcopal conferences, which was the original intent of Vatican II, rather than micromanaging things from Rome.

Despite my hope that the new prefect would take up such an agenda, we need to recognize that even if we had perfect liturgical texts and ceremonies in the Sacramentary, liturgy lives or dies at the local parish. What the people want is good music, good preaching, and a sense of belonging, which cannot be prepackaged in Rome. Parishes that are welcoming and have good music and good preaching see their pews filled. We cannot blame Rome for everything that is wrong in the liturgy.

That is my agenda for the new prefect. What is yours? Share them with us in the comments section below. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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