The Pursuit of Good Liturgies
What's at stake? Nothing less than preserving the fountainhead from which all the Church's strength flows
Following is the third in a series of excerpts from the Statement of Conclusions issued regarding four days of meetings between the bishops of Australia and the Cardinal Prefects of the Congregations in Rome:
In Australia, as elsewhere, experience bears out the Holy Father's observation that the vast majority of “the pastors and the Christian people have accepted the liturgical reform in a spirit of obedience and indeed joyful fervor. For this we should give thanks to God for that passage of the Holy Spirit through the Church which the liturgical renewal has been” (Apostolic Letter Vigesimus Quintus Annus 12).
It is a pressing need that these positive results be built upon. The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has already planned to set aside significant resources to produce educational materials on the Mass which can be used at a diocesan or parish level. Other concrete initiatives will also be devised to ensure the quality and authentic fidelity of liturgical celebration and sacramental practice as the third Christian millennium dawns.
Liturgy: The Life of the Church
It is important that the sacred Liturgy as a whole be appreciated in all its profundity and mystery. The Liturgy is more than a recollection of past events, a means of imparting knowledge or a vehicle for expressing the faith and life of the celebrating community. It is fundamentally the manifestation of God's initiative and his loving will to save, expressed in the Paschal Mystery of our Lord Jesus Christ, made present and efficacious by the Holy Spirit. In the Liturgy, Christ's work is carried forward by the Church until the end of time.
The Council spoke therefore of the Liturgy as the summit or high-point toward which the activity of the Church tends and the fountainhead from which all her strength flows (cf. Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium 10; cf. Apostolic Letter Dies Domini 32). By their participation in the earthly Liturgy all the faithful are formed in right conduct and prepared for that Liturgy in the heavenly city to which we journey as pilgrims (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium 8; Dies Domini 37).
The celebration of the Liturgy is therefore never a private action of the celebrant or of the community gathered in a particular place, but an act of the Church as such (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium 26), in intimate union with Christ her Head. Accordingly, an insistence on “good liturgy” is right and useful as long as the expression is not misunderstood as meaning a human virtuoso, external performance or “choreography.” Rather, all participants should accommodate and subordinate themselves and their manner of thinking, acting, and speaking to the great gift and mystery of God's Redemption, and to the person of Christ, our sole Savior, with a special reverence for the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist at the Mass and reserved in the tabernacle.
Since it lies at the center of the Church's life, the Liturgy manifests the Church's very nature and directs it consciously and explicitly toward its ultimate goal. The Church is seen most perfectly in the celebration of the Eucharist, presided over by the bishop of the diocese, surrounded by his priests, deacons and the community of the faithful (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium 26, 41; Dies Domini 34).
This ideal phenomenon is realized in varying degrees in circumstances where the bishop is not able to be present and where he is represented ordinarily by a priest. Even in such circumstances, the bishop remains the essential point of reference and the celebration necessarily reflects the nature of the Church as a “structured communion” whose nature is reflected in an “ordered exercise of liturgical action” (On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests, n. 6, ß 1-2; cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 26; Lumen Gentium, nn. 10-11).
It is when each takes part in the Liturgy according to his or her specific role in the Body of Christ that the whole Body is built up most effectively.
In today's rapidly changing world it is all the more necessary to return constantly to the authentic teaching of the Church on the Liturgy, as found in the liturgical texts themselves and, among many other authoritative sources, as reaffirmed and explained in a lucid and accessible manner in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Many people today call for a more “transcendental” Liturgy, and indeed liturgical celebrations must be permeated with a proper religious sense born of faith in unseen realities (cf. Dies Domini 43). Care must be given to the beauty and elegance of the vestments, sacred vessels, surroundings, furnishings, and to the eloquence of the words and actions themselves, to factors which will encourage the participation of the faithful, and to catechesis concerning the meaning of the liturgical signs (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium 11, 14; Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, Inaestimabile Donum 16-17; Dies Domini 35).
At the same time the Liturgy must be a living event, accessible to the people. There is a need in catechesis, in all pastoral care, and in liturgical celebration itself to involve all Catholics, above all the young, more fully in the Liturgy and help them to understand and live out its meaning. The Church in Australia, as in other countries, faces a notable decline in recent years in the numbers of Catholics attending Sunday Mass, a situation which calls for a pastoral response (cf. Dies Domini 36, 46-49).
Weaknesses and Correctives
A weakness in parish liturgical celebrations in Australia is the tendency on the part of some priests and parishes to make their own changes to liturgical texts and structures, whether by omissions, by additions or by substitutions, occasionally even in central texts such as the Eucharistic Prayer. Practices foreign to the tradition of the Roman Rite are not to be introduced on the private initiative of priests, who are ministers and servants, rather than masters of the sacred Rites (Sacrosanctum Concilium 22, ß 3; Instruction Inaestimabile Donum 5). Any unauthorized changes, while perhaps well-intentioned, are nevertheless seriously misguided. The bishops of Australia, then, will continue to put their energy above all into education, while correcting these abuses individually. Such education and corrective action are also the effective means for the pastoral care of those at the parish level who criticize and report the efforts of others, sometimes justly, but sometimes in a judgmental, selective, ill-informed and unproductive manner. A return to a real sense of the Church and of Liturgy is the most effective path to overcoming obstinacy in personal tastes and to setting aside arbitrary action, fault-finding, conflict and division. Both in regard to the Liturgy and other questions in the life of the Church, there is a need for fidelity to the mind of the Church and willingness to dialogue with others, above all the pastors and bishops.
For authenticity in the Liturgy, it is essential that the translation of the texts not be so much a work of “creativity” as of a faithful and exact vernacular rendering of the original text, which itself is the fruit of the liturgical renewal and draws upon centuries of cultural and ecclesial experience.
While fully respecting the genius of each language and avoiding a rigid literalism, an appropriate translation also carefully avoids paraphrase, gloss or interpretation. The explanation of the riches contained within the liturgical texts is the concern not of liturgical translation, but of the homily and of sustained catechesis.
The substantial unity of the Roman Rite is an expression of the theological realities of communion and of ecclesial unity and contributes to the rich plurality of the Church. Within their respective historical and cultural contexts, of course, the same may be said for the other Catholic liturgical families of venerable antiquity. To this end, the practice of the recognitio of the Holy See as desired by the Second Vatican Council (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium 36; cf. Sacred Congregation. of Rites, Instruction Inter Oecumenici, 20-31; canon 838) stands as a guarantee of the authenticity of the translations and their fidelity to the original texts. By means of this practice, a concrete sign of the bond of communion between the successor of Peter and the successors of the other Apostles, translations become truly the expression in the local Churches of the heritage of the universal Church. The Holy See may not divest itself of this responsibility, and the bishops, who bear the responsibility of overseeing and approving the translations, likewise regard their own role as a direct and solemn trust. In this delicate work, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference will continue to cooperate in English-language questions in so far as possible with other English-speaking Episcopal Conferences.
Sacramental Confession and the Sense of Sin
Many bishops in Australia and elsewhere have noted a decline in the sense of sin, stemming from the deeper reality of a crisis of faith, and having grave repercussions for the sacrament of Penance. The situation calls for a renewed and energetic catechesis on the very nature of sin as opposed to salvation, and thus for a focus in sacramental praxis not only on the consolation and encouragement of the faithful, but also on instilling a true sense of contrition, of authentic sorrow for their own sins.
Catholics should come to understand more deeply Jesus’ death as a redeeming sacrifice and an act of perfect worship of the Father effecting the remission of sins. A failure to appreciate this supreme grace would undermine the whole of Christian life. They should be made fully aware, too, of the indispensable role in the reconciliation of sinners which Christ has entrusted to His Church.
Individual confession and absolution remains the “sole ordinary means by which one of the faithful who is conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and with the Church” (canon 960; cf. Rituale Romanum, Ordo Paenitentiae, n. 31; canon 960; Catechism of the Catholic Church 1484). Energetic efforts are to be made to avoid any risk that this traditional practice of the sacrament of Penance fall into disuse.
The communal celebration of Penance with individual confessions and absolution should be encouraged especially in Advent and Lent, but it cannot be allowed to prevent regular, ready access to the traditional form for all who desire it. Unfortunately, communal celebrations have not infrequently occasioned an illegitimate use of general absolution. This illegitimate use, like other abuses in the administration of the sacrament of Penance, is to be eliminated.
The teaching of the Church is reflected in precise terms in the requirements of the Code of Canon Law (cf. esp. canons 959-964). In particular it is clear that “A sufficient necessity is not … considered to exist when confessors cannot be available merely because of a great gathering of penitents, such as can occur on some major feast day or pilgrimage” (canon 961, ß1).
The bishops will exercise renewed vigilance on these matters for the future, aware that departures from the authentic tradition do great wrong to the Church and to individual Catholics.
So that the faithful may be sure to receive from their priests an authentic and informed ministry and teaching, insistence will continue to be placed upon the stipulation of the Council's Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium (n. 16), that the sacred Liturgy be regarded as one of the principal subjects in major seminaries, a requirement that is the subject of further guidelines offered by the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education's Instruction, In Ecclesiasticam (June 3, 1979).
Such liturgical formation needs to be followed through in all the different sections of the Catholic community and at the various levels in a consistent and permanent fashion. Only in this way will communities and individuals be brought to a deeper understanding of the Liturgy. Likewise, only by sustained programs of this kind can the Church in Australia be assured of a sufficient pool of resource persons to sustain the different areas of liturgical development.
- January 17, 1999