THE SILENT ACTION OF THE HEART – CARDINAL ROBERT SARAH’S LETTER ON THE LITURGY TODAY (A MUST READ)
Fifty years after its promulgation by Pope Paul VI will the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy from the Second Vatican Council be read? “Sacrosanctum concilium “ is not de facto a simple catalogue of reform “recipes” but a real “magna carta” of every liturgical action.
With it, the ecumenical council gives us a magisterial lesson in method. Indeed, far from being content with a disciplinary and exterior approach, the council wants to make us reflect on what the liturgy is in its essence. The practice of the Church always comes from what She receives and contemplates in Revelation. Pastoral care cannot be disconnected from doctrine.
In the Church, “that which comes from action is ordered to contemplation” (cfr. n. 2). The Council’s Constitution invites us to rediscover the Trinitarian origin of the liturgical action. Indeed, the Council establishes continuity between the mission of Christ the Redeemer and the liturgical mission of the Church. “Just as Christ was sent by His Father, so also He sent the Apostles” so that “by means of sacrifice and sacraments, around which the entire liturgical life revolves” they accomplish ”the work of salvation”. (n.6).
Actuating the liturgy is therefore nothing other than actuating the work of Christ. The liturgy in its essence is “actio Christi”. [It is]the “work of Christ the Lord in redeeming mankind and giving perfect glory to God.” (n.5) It is He who is the great Priest, the true subject, the true actor in the liturgy (n.7). If this vital principle is not accepted in faith, there is the risk of making the liturgy into a human work, a self-celebration of the community.
By contrast, the real work of the Church consists in entering into the action of Christ, in uniting oneself to that work which He received as a mission from the Father. So, “the fullness of divine worship was given to us” since “His humanity, united with the person of the Word, was the instrument of our salvation” (n.5). The Church, the Body of Christ, must therefore become in Her turn an instrument in the hands of the Word.
This is the ultimate meaning of the key-concept of the Conciliar Constitution: “participatio actuosa”. Such participation for the Church consists in becoming the instrument of Christ – The Priest, with the aim of sharing in His Trinitarian mission. The Church takes part actively in the liturgical action of Christ in the measure that She is His instrument. In this sense, to speak of “a celebrating community”” is not devoid of ambiguity and requires prudence. (Instruction” Redemptoris sacramentum”, n. 42). “Participatio actuosa” should not then be intended as the need to do something. On this point the Council’s teaching has frequently been deformed. Rather, it is about allowing Christ to take us and associate us with His Sacrifice.
Liturgical “participatio” must thus be intended as a grace from Christ who “always associates the Church with Himself.”(S.C. n. 7) It is He that has the initiative and the primacy. The Church “calls to Her Lord, and through Him offers worship to the Eternal Father” (n.7).
The priest must thus become this instrument which allows Christ to shine through. Just as our Pope Francis reminded us recently, that the celebrant is not the presenter of a show; he must not look for popularity from the congregation by placing himself before them as their primary interlocutor. Entering into the spirit of the council means, on the contrary, making oneself disappear – relinquishing the centre-stage.
Contrary to what has at times been sustained, and in conformity with the Conciliar Constitution , it is absolutely fitting that during the Penitential Rite, the singing of the Gloria, the orations and Eucharistic Prayer, for everyone – the priest and the congregation alike– to face ad orientem together, expressing their will to participate in the work of worship and redemption accomplished by Christ. This way of doing things could be fittingly carried out in the cathedrals where the liturgical life must be exemplary (n. 4).
To be very clear, there are other parts of the Mass where the priest, acting “in persona Christi Capitis” enters into nuptial dialogue with the congregation. But this face-to-face has no other end than to lead them to a téte-à-tète with God , who through the grace of the Holy Spirit, will make it ‘a heart to heart’. The council offers other means to favor participation [through] “ the acclamations , responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes.” (n.30).
An excessively quick reading and above all, a far too human one, inferred that the faithful had to be kept constantly busy. Contemporary Western mentality formed by technology and bewitched by the mass media, wanted to make the liturgy into a work of effective and profitable pedagogy. In this spirit, there was the attempt to render the celebrations convivial. The liturgical actors, animated by pastoral motives, try at times to make it into didactic work by introducing secular and spectacular elements. Don’t we see perhaps testimonies, performances and clapping in the increase? They believe that participation is favored in this manner, whereas in fact, the liturgy is being reduced to a human game.
“Silence is not a virtue, nor noise a sin, it is true” says Thomas Merton “but the continuous turmoil, confusion and noise in modern society or in certain African Eucharistic liturgies are an expression of the atmosphere of its most serious sins and its impiety and desperation. A world of propaganda and never-ending argumentations , of invectives, criticisms, or mere chattering, is a world in which life is not worth living. Mass becomes a confused din, the prayers an exterior or interior noise.” (Thomas Merton, “The Sign of Jonah” French edition, Albin Michel, Paris, 1955 – p. 322).
We run the real risk of leaving no space for God in our celebrations. We risk the temptation of the Hebrews in the desert. They attempted to create worship according to their own stature and measure, [but] let us not forget they ended up prostrate before the idol of the Golden Calf.
It is time to start listening to the Council. The liturgy is “above all things the worship of the divine Majesty” (n.33). It has pedagogic worth in the measure wherein it is completely ordered to the glorification of God and Divine worship. The Liturgy truly places us in the presence of Divine transcendence. True participation means renewing in ourselves that “wonder” which St. John Paul II held in great consideration (Ecclesia de Eucharistia” n. 6). This holy wonder, this joyful awe, requires our silence before the Divine Majesty. We often forget that holy silence is one of the means indicated by the Council to favor participation.
If the liturgy is the work of Christ, is it necessary for the celebrant to introduce his own comments? We must remember that, when the Missal authorizes an intervention, this must not turn into a secular and human discourse, a comment more or less subtle on something of topical interest, nor a mundane greeting to the people present, but a very short exhortation so as to enter the Mystery (General Presentation of the Roman Missal, n.50). Regarding the homily, it is in itself a liturgical act which has its own rules.
“Participatio actuosa” in the work of Christ, presupposes that we leave the secular world so as to enter the “sacred action surpassing all other” (Sacrosanctum concilium, n.7). De facto, “we claim, with a certain arrogance, to stay in the human – to enter the divine.” (Robert Sarah, “Dieu ou rien”, p. 178).
In such a sense, it is deplorable that the sanctuary (of the high altar) in our churches is not a place strictly reserved for Divine worship, that secular clothes are worn in it and that the sacred space is not clearly defined by the architecture. Since, as the Council teaches, Christ is present in His Word when this is proclaimed , it is similarly detrimental that the readers do not wear appropriate clothing, indicating that they are not pronouncing human words but the Divine Word.
The liturgy is fundamentally mystical and contemplative, and consequently beyond our human action; even the “participatio” is a grace from God. Therefore, it presupposes on our part an opening to the mystery being celebrated. Thus, the Constitution recommends full understanding of the rites (n.34) and at the same time prescribes that “the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.” (n.54).
In reality, the understanding of the rites is not is not an act of reason left to its own devices, which should accept everything, understand everything, master everything. The understanding of the sacred rites is that of “sensus fidei”, which exercises the living faith through symbols and which knows through “harmony” more than concept. This understanding presupposes that one draws close to the Divine Mystery with humility.
But will we have the courage to follow the Council up to this point? Such a reading, illuminated by faith, is however, fundamental for evangelization. In fact, “to those who are outside as a sign lifted up among the nations under which the scattered children of God may be gathered together “ (n.2). It [the reading of S.C.] must stop being a place of disobedience to the prescriptions of the Church.
More specifically, it cannot be an occasion for laceration among Catholics. The dialectic readings of “Sacrosanctum concilium” i.e. the hermeneutics of rupture in one sense or another, are not the fruit of a spirit of faith. The Council did not want to break with the liturgical forms inherited from Tradition, rather it wanted to deepen them. The Constitution establishes that “any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.” (n.23).
In this sense, it is necessary that those celebrating according to the “usus antiquior” do so without any spirit of opposition, and hence in the spirit of “Sacrosanctum concilium”. In the same way, it would be wrong to consider the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite as deriving from another theology that is not the reformed liturgy. It would also be desirable that the Penitential Rite and the Offertory of the “usus antiquior” be inserted as an enclosure in the next edition of the Missal with the aim of stressing that the two liturgical reforms illuminate one another, in continuity and with no opposition.
If we live in this spirit, then the liturgy will stop being a place of rivalry and criticisms, ultimately, to allow us to participate actively in that liturgy “which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle.” (n.8).
June 12, 2015
Cardinal Robert Sarah,
Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.