In the past 36 hours, the solemnity of Our Lady’s Assumption, the Summer School here at La Garde-Freinet has celebrated 3 solemn liturgies, each involving at least one greater prelate. Others took the photos and can offer a better review in detail. What follows is more by way of reaction and reflection from one who is something of an outsider.
Two particular and abiding resonances stand out for me. One is from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2010) #16 which, drawing abundantly from the documents of Vatican II, describes the Mass this:
The celebration of Mass, as the action of Christ and of the People of God arrayed hierarchically, is the centre of the whole of Christian life for the Church both universal and local, as well as for each of the faithful individually.
The second resonance is of our Lord’s prophetic promise to Peter in John 21:18:
Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.
Let me explain before you come to any precipitate conclusions about these resonances.The action of Christ and his Body the Church hierarchically arrayed. How often do you hear this in modern treatments of the liturgy? But this understanding of the essence of the liturgy is essential if our worship is to be authentic and fruitful. Cardinal Burke last night gave a talk in which he considered the liturgy of the Church in relation to the ius divinum, which means literally the divine law but also involves the divine right, the giving to God what is his due. In regard to this resonance from the Instruction to the post-conciliar Novus Ordo Missal, it raises the truth that the Church’s liturgy is above all both the work of Christ in the midst of his Church, and thus is something we receive rather than create for ourselves. It can never be a liturgy locally created afresh and anew if it is to be the Church’s liturgy rather than our own little ritual.
Moreover, however attractive and engaging such a little quasi-liturgical ritual of our own might be, it would not be the Church’s liturgy, and God has a right to be worshipped through the Church’s liturgy, which then imposes on us, individually and collectively, an obligation to give unto God what is God’s, namely the worship he has ordained and which the Church has received.
So you might say, if the Church is the Body of Christ and thus protected from error then it can ordain new rites for the worship of God, and change old ones. After all, whereas God is seen taking great care to set out before Israel how he is to be worshipped in the Old Testament, in the New Christ bestows on the Church, the new Israel, the barest outline for worship, an offering of bread and wine that becomes for us his Body and Blood offered for our redemption on the Cross.
Does this apparent absence of new divine legislation for the liturgy imply a freedom given to the Church to arrange things liturgical however she may wish? Though it may seem a logical conclusion it is far from the correct one, it seems to me at least. Christ came to fulfill the Old Law not to abolish it, and the New cannot be properly understood without referring to its origins in the Old. To get even a little more theological, we could say that the Old Testament is the necessary hermeneutic for interpreting the New. Christ, and the Evangelists who recorded his saving work, did not set out detailed laws of worship because the liturgical context of the Old covenant was assumed, as something given to the Church and received by her, that at its heart had been a radical change. The sacrifice now was not one of animals offered endlessly and anew, but one sacrifice of one Body perpetually renewed. The Church thereafter, in each place she found herself, came to an inspired understanding of how to renew the old in light of the new. Having discovered a fruitful and faithful form of worship, the various local churches left their rites substantially untouched thereafter.
Once you understand this, we understand better the current situation in the western Church. Vatican Council sight to refine not recreate the liturgy of the Church. The Consilium charged with varying this out gave us something very different, very new, and to so many, very shocking. Yes, Lefebvre signed the conciliar decree on the liturgy. He recoiled from the Consilium’s reforms because they did not express the conciliar decree faithfully. And we know the rest of that story, thus far at least.
So it is ironic that the description of the liturgy quoted above from the Instruction to the new Missal should have been so fully expressed in the celebration of the old Missal here for the Assumption. The Church was indeed hierarchically arrayed, from cardinal through bishop, then through the various grades of clergy and liturgical ministers, through to the choir and to the congregation actively attending to the action of worship and singing and responding lustily.
There was another dimension of Church array to be appreciated, namely the international character of the Church assembled for these rites, and its age spread. There were those of very mature age, some of us squarely in middle age, and many – mark this – many of a young age, on whom in fact much of the burden of the liturgical action fell, in the singing and the ministry at altar and throne. The Gregorian schola was a marvelous mix of nations and ages, producing thrilling chant; the polyphony provided by the young Britons of Floreat Cantus was no less thrilling and beautiful, not least in the four separate settings of Ecce Sacerdos Magnus they were called upon to sing; and the young organist must have fingers of steel to have kept up the beautiful but heavy load laid on the organ; the young servers, again of international character, so able, so reverent, so sane; and the scared ministers themselves, well drilled and obedient to their proficient MCs, were almost all up to the occasion.
I say almost, because not all were up the mark. This brings me to the second resonance, of Peter’s being clothed and led along a way he would not choose. For, you see, for two of these three solemn liturgies of the Assumption, your writer was involved. As celebrant of the Second Solemn Vespers in the presence of Cardinal Burke he was not too far off familiar paths, but as deacon of the pontifical solemn Mass in the Extraordinary Form he was, despite the best efforts of MCs and assisting clergy, on a wholly new and unfamiliar highway. I managed to chant the gospel and Ite in a way roughly faithfully to the music, though in a rather strangled voice, and even the complex choreography of the multi-minister gospel procession came off well, but at the altar Dom was not waving but drowning, both metaphorically and literally as I perspired by the gallon. I do recommend being a nervously incompetent minister at a solemn pontifical liturgy if you want to lose weight.
I was clothed by hands not mine and led down a path unfamiliar to me. I survived (there is no question of having succeeded!) only by the communion of support I received from the assisting ministers both younger and riper in age. Later, when apologising to a most gracious and forgiving cardinal, they came from me an anguished cri de coeur which I have never really articulated, a buried resentment that I, and much of my generation, were denied the experience and formation of the fullness of the Church’s liturgy. At my monastery I have been able to catch to some degree. These past few days have made me realise how much of it I do not know. The theology of it not the problem, but the practice. My liturgical orthodoxy is not matched by my liturgical orthopraxis. And it is hard not to envy the youngsters here who have been allowed what I was denied.
But envy is of the devil. And, moreover, despite my imperfections, yesterday was gloriously beautiful and uplifting. To see first-hand, fit example, the rites surrounding the cappa magna, how the prelate is literally stripped of the early honour of his office as he enters that extension of the heavenly kingdom that is the church sanctuary to perform the sacred mysteries of the Cross in persona Christi; this was a revelation and an education. As was the whole liturgical progression of the feast, its symbolic richness and its musical beauty. Above there must abide a great sense of gratitude and, dare I say it, privilege.
Add to this some new friends made, and some Facebook friends met in the flesh at last, and I’ve nothing more to complain of than my own ignorance and fatigue, and these need not endure. Lord, it was good to be here.