More Christ, Less ‘Worldly Entertainment’ at Mass, Says Vatican’s Head of Worship

by Ryan Fitzgerald  •  •  August 17, 2015   

"We run the real risk of leaving no room for God in our celebrations"

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VATICAN CITY, August 17, 2015 ( - The Church still hasn't seen a genuine implementation of the Second Vatican Council's teachings on the Mass, says Cdl. Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

In a recently translated document published in L’Osservatore Romano, the African cardinal asserts that in spite of all the liturgical changes witnessed since the 1960s, the Church has yet to authentically realize the Council's understanding of what the liturgy actually is.

So, Cdl. Sarah says, "The hour has come to listen to the Council." He focuses on Sacrosanctum Concilium, a Vatican II Constitution pertaining to the liturgy — specifically, to greater "active participation" by the laity in the liturgy.

"Sacrosanctum Concilium," writes Cdl. Sarah, "is not in fact a simple catalogue of 'recipes' for reform, but a true and proper Magna Carta for all liturgical action."

He states, "Far from contenting itself with a disciplinary and external approach to the liturgy, the Council summons us to contemplate the liturgy in its essence."

Then, rejecting a recent trend popping up elsewhere in certain heterodox theological circles, he affirms, "Pastoral practice cannot be divorced from doctrine."

One of the main points the cardinal wishes to emphasize is that "the Council affirms continuity between the mission of Christ the Redeemer and the liturgical mission of the Church."

What is the essence of the liturgy, according to Cdl. Sarah and Sacrosanctum Concilium?

"The liturgy in action is ... none other than the work of Christ in action. The liturgy is in its essence actio Christi: 'the work of Christ the Lord in redeeming mankind and giving perfect glory to God' (§5)." Jesus Christ, he stresses, "is the High Priest, the true subject, the true protagonist of the liturgy (cf. §7)."

"If this vital principle is not embraced in faith, one risks reducing the liturgy to a human action, to the community's celebration of itself," warns Cdl. Sarah.

"This," he says, "is the ultimate meaning of the key concept of the conciliar Constitution, participatio actuosa [active participation]. For the Church, this participation consists in becoming an instrument of Christ the Priest, so as to participate in his Trinitarian mission."

True active participation, Cdl. Sarah reminds us, means becoming the graceful instrument of Christ. And thus "language about the 'celebrating community' can carry a degree of ambiguity requiring true caution (cf. the Instruction Redemptoris sacramentum, §42). Participatio actuosa must not be understood, therefore, as the need to do something."

This of course brings to mind many attempts in modern Catholic parishes to engage the laity in all sorts of superficially active exterior movements out of the desire to include them in the Mass. Cardinal Sarah, however, says, "On this point the teaching of the Council has often been distorted."

He explains that active participation is more about "allowing Christ to take hold of us and to associate us with his sacrifice."

"The priest must thus become this instrument that allows Christ to shine through."

"[T]he celebrant is not the host of a show," notes Cdl. Sarah, citing recent words from Pope Francis. "[H]e must not seek the affirmation of the assembly, standing before them as if they were called to enter into dialogue primarily with him. To enter into the spirit of the Council means — on the contrary — to efface oneself, to renounce the spotlight."

The Vatican's head of worship then proceeds to call for a return to the more traditional style of liturgy, in which the priest, instead of facing toward the people most of the Mass (versus populum), is directed toward the east (ad orientem), from which direction Christ will return at His Second Coming.

Contrary to what has sometimes been maintained, it is in full conformity with the conciliar Constitution — indeed, it is entirely fitting — for everyone, priest and congregation, to turn together to the East during the penitential rite, the singing of the Gloria, the orations, and the eucharistic prayer, in order to express the desire to participate in the work of worship and redemption accomplished by Christ. This practice could well be established in cathedrals, where liturgical life must be exemplary. (cf. §41)

Cardinal Sarah believes a dangerous secular trend has infected many Masses today. "A hasty and all-too-human reading of the Constitution," he says, "has led to the conclusion that the faithful must be kept constantly busy."

He notes how a lot of times a priest will try too hard to enthrall or be relevant to his flock.

The contemporary Western way of thinking, shaped by technology and dazzled by the media, has wished to turn the liturgy into a lucrative production. In this spirit, many have tried to make the celebrations festive. Prompted by pastoral motives, liturgical ministers sometimes stage celebrations into which elements of worldly entertainment are introduced. Have we not witnessed a proliferation of testimonials, acts, and applause? It is imagined that this will foster the participation of the faithful, when in fact it reduces the liturgy to a human plaything.

Hence, Cdl. Sarah thinks, "We run the real risk of leaving no room for God in our celebrations, falling into the temptation of the Israelites in the desert. They sought to create a cult of worship limited to their own measure and reach, and let us not forget that they ended up prostrate before the idol of the golden calf."

"True participation means the renewal in us of that 'amazement' that St. John Paul II held in such high regard (cf. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, §6)," he states. "This sacred amazement, this joyous reverence, requires our silence before the divine majesty. We often forget that sacred silence is one of the means indicated by the Council to foster participation."

Cardinal Sarah thus criticizes the way some priests will, although often with kind intentions, seek to insert their own personalities into the Mass.

"If the liturgy is the work of Christ," he wonders, "is it necessary for the celebrant to interject his own comments?"

Cardinal Sarah proclaims, "We must remember that when the Missal authorizes commentary, this must not become a worldly, human discourse, a more or less subtle pronouncement on current events, or a banal greeting to those present, but rather a very brief exhortation to enter into the mystery (cf. General Introduction of the Roman Missal, §50)."

He then turns to the irreverent practice of letting nearly anyone enter into the sanctuary to participate in artificial ways, especially when the person isn't properly suited for the task.

It is deplorable that the sanctuary in our churches is not strictly reserved for divine worship, that people enter it in worldly garb, that the sacred space is not clearly delineated by the architecture. And since, as the Council teaches, Christ is present in his word when it is proclaimed, it is equally harmful when readers are not dressed in a way that shows they are pronouncing not human words, but the Word of God.

Having outlined the authentic understanding of active participation in the liturgy, Cdl. Sarah asks, "[W]ill we have the courage to follow the Council all the way to this point?"

A positive outcome, he says, will require that the Mass "must cease to be a place of disobedience to the prescriptions of the Church."

"More specifically," he cautions, "the liturgy cannot be an occasion for divisions among Christians. Dialectical readings of Sacrosanctum Concilium, or the hermeneutics of rupture in one sense or another, are not the fruit of a spirit of faith."

In fact, as Pope Benedict XVI often noted and Cdl. Sarah reminds us, Vatican II never at all aimed at or endorsed a radical overhaul of liturgical tradition.

The Council did not intend to break from the liturgical forms inherited from tradition — indeed, it desired to deepen them. The Constitution establishes that 'any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing' (§23). In this sense, it is necessary that those who celebrate according to the usus antiquior [older use] do so without a spirit of opposition, and thus in the spirit of Sacrosanctum Concilium.

That last point, he says, is not a knock against the older form. On the contrary, he insists that "by the same token, it would be a mistake to consider the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite as deriving from a different theology than that of the reformed liturgy."

He adds: "And one could hope that a future edition of the Missal might include the penitential rite and the offertory of the usus antiquior, so as to underscore the fact that the two liturgical forms shed light one upon the other, in continuity and without opposition."

Therefore, Cdl. Sarah concludes, "If we live in this spirit, the liturgy will cease to be the locus of rivalries and criticisms, and we will be brought at last to participate actively" at Mass.


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