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Pope Francis recently said that certain liturgical reforms in the wake of Vatican II were "irreversible," but African Cardinal Robert Sarah is providing a different perspective.
Speaking last Thursday of liturgical changes that followed Vatican II, the Holy Father raised eyebrows when he alleged, "[W]e can assert with certainty and magisterial authority that liturgical reform is irreversible."
One canonist discussed how a "process like 'liturgical reform'" isn't a point that can be asserted with infallible certitude under the weight of magisterial authority.
Many liturgical changes in the last 50 years weren't penned by the Council Fathers in their document on liturgical reform, Sacrosanctum Concilium. This document actually says that "the Latin language is to be retained" and "Gregorian chant ... should be given pride of place in liturgical services."
Contrary to the Council, Latin wasn't retained, and Gregorian chant was replaced by modern music. Innovations not mentioned in the document that have become widespread include receiving Holy Communion in the hand and under the species of wine from Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist. Removing altar railings, turning altars around and putting tabernacles off to the side not only weren't mentioned at the Council but were never authorized.
These aren't called aspects of legitimate reform but rather liturgical abuses that became so widespread as to become institutionalized. Such novelties as liturgical dancing, bad translations of liturgical prayers and "doing your own thing" are just more indications that whatever "reform" was envisioned at the Council didn't get implemented coherently.
Pope Francis did say in his speech that we must rediscover the "reasons for the decisions" made in the liturgical reform intended by the Council Fathers. He further stated that we must overcome "unfounded and superficial readings, partial revelations and practices" that have disfigured this so-called reform. Traditional-minded Catholics hope that such "practices" include the above-mentioned abuses so commonplace in the liturgy today.
Ambivalent popes may come and go, but theological truth perdures. It's on this account that we turn to Cdl. Robert Sarah, whom Pope Francis has appointed head liturgist in Rome. This illustrious cardinal has been advocating for a return to a God-centered liturgy, which focuses on God rather than man. The view he expresses, founded on truths that can't change, will carry on to the next pontificate and the future life of the Church.
His reflection was presented in July on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Pope Benedict's Summorum Pontificum, which put the Traditional Latin Mass back in use for many priests. In his address, he draws out some natural consequences of Benedict's document.
The cardinal is calling for a unified common rite, something that was unquestionably the intention of the Council Fathers. "It is urgent," writes Cdl. Sarah, "that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we examine in prayer and in study how to return to a reformed common rite." This reunion of extraordinary and ordinary form, of course, would assume that the above-mentioned abuses, and many others, cease entirely.
The emphasis of a God-centered liturgy has always been a distinguishing aspect of Cdl. Sarah's liturgical priorities. He explains the adage, as you pray, so you live: "The Church is in danger when the primacy of God no longer appears in the liturgy, and as a result in life. The deepest cause of the crisis that has shaken the Church is found in the obscuring of the priority of God in the liturgy."
To enrich the ordinary form, commonly called the Novus Ordo Mass, and make it conformable to the extraordinary form or TLM, the cardinal calls for liturgical silence with an emphasis on being in God's presence and less on doing things while at Mass. Concerning this silence, Cdl. Sarah then quotes Cdl. Joseph Ratzinger from his book Spirit of the Liturgy, "Anyone who experiences a community united in the silent prayer of the Canon knows that this represents an authentic silence. Here the silence is at the same time a powerful, penetrating cry lifted up to God, and a communion of prayer filled by the Spirit."
Cardinal Sarah envisions a mutual enrichment of liturgical forms by seeing that the so-called New Rite returns to ad orientem liturgy, whereby the priest faces liturgical east, that is towards the tabernacle while praying with the people. He also calls for a return to sacred attitudes still practiced in the TLM such as "keeping the hands together after the consecration, genuflecting before the elevation or after the "Per ipsum," receiving Communion while kneeling, receiving Communion on the tongue and allowing oneself to be fed like a child."
The cardinal ultimately wants a unified liturgy, which also unifies Catholics:
The liturgy must never become the standard of a party. For some, the expression "reform of the reform" has become a synonym for the dominion of one party over another, so this expression risks becoming inopportune. I, therefore, prefer to speak of liturgical reconciliation. In the Church, the Christian has no enemies!