The controversy that has been stirred up over Cardinal Sarah’s encouragement to priests to return to the traditional orientation at the altar during Mass has been fascinating, alarming, and perhaps ultimately necessary. It has provoked people on various sides to play their hands: unswerving loyalty to the status quo of liturgical reform, and a willingness to use an iron fist in a velvet glove to defend it; a commitment to reforming this reform to bring it more in line with the explicit intentions of the Council on which the status quo bases its legitimacy; a rejection even of a reform of the reform and an overriding commitment to the pre-conciliar liturgy as liberated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007; and, incredulity among a minority at this bickering over such a peripheral thing as liturgy —”people are starving”, etc. On the positive side, it has renewed a discussion into what Christian worship is all about, what is its focus and what are its essential principles. This has led some to make more concrete and definitive judgments on related issues on which they had not previously come to any firm and final decision.
However, Sacra Liturgia 2016 had three full days of talks beyond Cardinal Sarah’s controversial address. So to help further the effects and fruits of the conference, I propose to single out what struck me as particularly noteworthy and deserving of ongoing thought and application. These strike me as seeds that deserve the water of our attention, our study and prayer, and our action.
Cardinal Sarah’s call to reorient our worship to God has already been much discussed by me and a galaxy of others. Needless to say it is now effectively the emblem, or is it avatar(?), of Sacra Liturgia 2016.
Perhaps the next most significant contribution is one that has been largely overlooked and really merits further study. It comes from Dr Stephen Bullivant, the young lay (and married) theologian at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. His paper’s title, Especially in Mission Territories (SC38)? New Evangelization and Liturgical (Reform of the) Reform, may well have deceived people into paying it inadequate attention. For it was not about the “missions”.
The thrust of his paper, and what really deserves further thought, is challenging. He noted that neo-evangelistic principles had motivated and shaped the conciliar liturgical reforms. As early as the 1940s churchmen were defining their parts of Europe as missionary lands, such was the decline in the practice of the faith. Missionary is here used in the third of the possible situations later described by Pope St John Paul II, namely a land with ancient Christian roots but now largely alienated from the faith, and so in need of re-evanglization, or as we now call it, a new evangelisation. By the 1960s this European self-definition as missionary was more firmly and widely held, especially as the cultural and social revolution of the 1960s took hold.
Given, said Dr Bullivant, that the conciliar aim of promoting full and active participation in the liturgy was raised above all others, it was no wonder that the newly self-defined mission lands of Europe should seek for themselves the concessions made to the developing Church in the mission lands as traditionally understood, such as increased use of the vernacular language and music.
In fact, Dr Bullivant maintains, this missionary self-understanding in Europe, even if only pragmatic rather than conscientious, shaped the liturgical reforms after the Council and made in its name. Thus the Mass was vastly simplified. The vernacular became the de facto norm, as did secular music and instrumentation which were now conveniently classified as vernacular. Though Dr Bullivant did not say this, in this light it is hard not to see the post-conciliar liturgical reforms as based on a sleight of hand. But the ploy was no doubt well-intentioned: to get more people to Mass by allowing them to be more actively involved in the liturgical action.
As Dr Bullivant pointed out, the tree of reform does not come out very well when judged by its fruits. Only 55.8% of cradle Catholics now identify as Catholic, and almost 38% of them have rejected religion entirely. The decline in Mass attendance is well documented and unrelenting. Where there is growth it is generally in places where there has been a return to traditional approaches to worship, not least to the pre-conciliar traditional Latin Mass. In other words, the only real and consistent growth has been among those groups which see the post-conciliar reforms as inadequate.
Dr Bullivant’s conclusion is fresh and challenging. Given the Council’s overriding principle of full and active participation in the liturgy in order to reinvigorate a Church in decline in Europe and to support the growth of the Church in traditional missionary lands, and the fact that since the reforms there has been a consistent and significant decline in the numbers of Catholics even turning up, let alone participating; then this very same conciliar principle mandates, even requires, a reform of the liturgical reform in order to render the liturgy effective in restoring full and active participation by as many Catholics as possible. In this view, the conciliar liturgical reforms having not met the goals set for them by the Council, it is time to express a more fundamental loyalty to the Council by reassessing the liturgical reforms made in its name in order to make them more fit for (the conciliar) purpose.
The unspoken question lurking like an elephant in the room must be confronted: how many bishops in England and Wales (and beyond) ready to obey the conciliar mandate and promote a reform of the ordinary form, or even the traditional extraordinary form? Some have shown themselves at least partly willing. Many others are most clearly not open to proceeding along these lines, perhaps seeing in such an approach an implicit admission of the failure of the post-conciliar liturgical reforms even when judged by conciliar standards.
Whether encouraging more Catholics back to Mass is achieved better by a reform of the reform or by the pre-conciliar Extraordinary Form is another, ongoing debate.
Either way what is being proposed is a fidelity to the Council that needs further articulation. After all, as Dr Bullivant quoted Newman, we will look rather foolish standing here without the laity.
In part 2 the main insights of the remaining papers will be briefly described to spur even further your own researches and meditations.