The Sacra Liturgia Conference From Afar

You might expect Benedictines to have a keen interest in liturgy, to be concerned about its reverent performance, to take trouble to be informed not just about liturgical rubrics but also the theology behind the rubrics; and you’d be right. Our community, tiny though it is, has always tried to ensure that our liturgy is all that it should be: orthodox, reverent, beautiful, unhurried. Following the Sacra Liturgia conference from afar, however, has been a mixed experience. The five points made by Cardinal Sarah highlighted as being of special importance are not a problem to us. Our oratory is arranged for celebration ad orientem and always has been; we regularly use Latin and Gregorian chant in our worship, not as self-conscious revivals but as the natural expression of our monastic tradition; silence and pauses to allow reflection and prayer are easy to us; and we probably kneel more often, and longer, in the course of a day than many others do in the course of a week*. So, why do I describe following the Sacra Liturgia conference at a distance as a mixed experience?

First, there is the fact that we have only had edited highlights so far, plus the reports and photos of Social Media friends who have attended. Context and nuance are important, and we haven’t been able to assess those. More significant is the fact that the liturgy we experience daily is of two types. The monastic liturgy of the choir, the Divine Office, fulfils all the desiderata Cardinal Sarah has specified. But for the liturgy of the Mass and sacraments we are dependent on others. That is the situation of most nuns and nearly all laity (i.e those who don’t have chaplains but are dependent on the parish system for Mass and the sacraments). That means that there can be a dichotomy between the monastic liturgy of the Divine Office and the ecclesial liturgy of the Mass.

Even inside the monastery we can experience such a dichotomy. Only very rarely is Mass celebrated in our oratory but, when it is, the visiting priest is free to decide how it should be celebrated. Usually, priests who wish to say Mass for us are in sympathy with our monastic ideals, but sometimes it is a case of gritting one’e teeth and muttering ex opere operato to oneself. When we go out of the monastery for Mass β€” which is nearly always the case β€” we have to accept whatever is offered, which can be problematic, especially if, as sometimes happens, liturgical rules are flouted or we simply find ourselves out of sympathy with the tone of the celebration.

I remember talking once with a very liturgically-minded deacon and suddenly realising that for him the historical locus for liturgical celebration was the late sixteenth and early seventeetnth centuries, whereas for me it was a long way further back. For him a sanctuary crowded with male servers and Baroque splendour was the ideal he carried in his mind’s eye, whereas for me it was the sparer forms of Late Antique Rome. We both know that the objective character of the liturgy is supremely important. It is not what we like or don’t like that matters, but we each have our preferences. As a member of the clergy, my deacon friend has much more chance of influencing how the liturgy is performed than I do; and that is where I see a possible difficulty arising.

We have a much better educated, more articulate, laity than fifty years ago, one in which women are accustomed to taking their place alongside men rather than always being subordinate to them. Above all, we have a laity used to deciding things for themselves and acting accordingly. We don’t change from being one type of person outside church to being another inside. Those who don’t like how Mass is said in parish X will often choose to go to another. If they don’t like how things are done at parish Y, or have some quarrel with Church teaching, they will stop putting their hands in their pockets. And, there is the awkward fact that arguments about liturgy can seem very remote to people with more immediate concerns about their mortgage or the future of their country outside the E.U. In this context, I wonder whether some of the liturgical principles being advanced at the Sacra Liturgia conference are going to find a somewhat stony reception.

Calls for more, and better, liturgical formation have resounded throughout my lifetime, but rarely have they been effectively heeded. As I say, I have been following the conference from afar and it may be that there is a plan to improve liturgical formation in this country. I hope so, because liturgical practices that aren’t fully understood or embraced as an expresion of living faith have a tendency to alienate people. Some will dismiss Cardinal Sarah’s remarks, and the lectures given by others, as an unwelcome return to the past; others will use them as a way of castigating those they regard as ‘not true Catholics’ or as an excuse for introducing a very subjective approach to the liturgy, quite contrary to what was intended. The truth is, all liturgy is about becoming closer to God and being transformed by him into his image and likeness. It is easy to make a great deal of noise about it; much harder to allow the liturgy to do its intended work in us. That is what I suggest we must pray about today and every day.

*Cardinal Sarah’s remarks about kneeling were in the context of receiving Holy Communion. We follow the practice of whichever church we are attending for Mass.


7 thoughts on “The Sacra Liturgia Conference From Afar”

  1. Great, well-balanced, piece. Thank you.

    I have found from listening carefully to fellow layfolk, that most people accused of being ‘Modernists’ in terms of Liturgy are treated as if there was something wilful about their position when, more often than not, it is based in poor liturgical formation, or more sadly, a defensive reaction to having a ‘certain liturgical position’ rammed down their throats thirty years ago. People’s memories can be long when it comes to vicious attacks on what is essentially, their character. In short, it’s bloody-mindedness, rather than ‘liturgical heresy’.

    Understanding the cultural milieu, as well as gentle and loving liturgical formation, as you suggest, and in the way you suggest, seems basic common sense. Yet clearly, not to some. πŸ™

  2. I know that I don’t or didn’t know enough about Catholic or Protestant liturgy, as a boy and even an adult. This despite the best efforts of the Sisters of Mercy and Clergy who taught us as children. In the same way, I wasn’t familiar with the bible until I became an Anglican, when suddenly scripture came alive for me.

    I have learned a huge amount in the last 8 years, which I know, I should have known before, but since I had decided to stop having God in my life, that natural growth and teaching was missing or at least stunted.

    Now the beauty of the Daily Office (Anglican version) either from the Book of Common Prayer or Common Worship feature daily. I have learned to love and to appreciate the beauty of liturgy and it has contributed to my growth in faith, belief and understanding. You speak of preferences, and as an Anglican, I love Anglo Catholic worship, which owes much to Catholic Liturgy. But in my middle of the road parish, we still do worship and liturgy well and our distinct identity means that this tradition of things being done well and no corners being cut nourishes those who worship with us, and even visitors have been known to comment that they wish it was done as well where they normally worship.

    For me that demonstrates some uneasiness in them about their own context, and perhaps that the particular liturgy expressed in that place isn’t done as well as it could be. but we are a diverse church with different heritages and traditions, held together in tension, which works, as we serve God together in our own places.

    While my personal preference is for Anglo-Catholic worship, it doesn’t stop me worshipping in other ways, and the spread of faith traditions in my training makes that a joy as we share each others traditional liturgy and worship.

    I think that we do a disservice to God and to each other if liturgy isn’t done well – but we rely on the Clergy and Lay leaders to do this, so all being human, we’re bound to experience differently each place that we go.

  3. As someone who had some of the same monastic-based liturgical training as D. Catherine, with formal training at Notre Dame Institute for Pastoral Liturgy, several music degrees, and a lifetime of work in parishes as music and liturgical director, I find the liturgy as its celebrated in the parishes highly problematic. Thanks to D. Catherine for pointing out that within a universal Church, what seems to rule the quality and reverence of Mass celebration in parishes is the level of liturgical education of each priest, their teachability and openness of each to what the liturgical documents and rituals actually say, and their willingness to celebrate accordingly. Far, far too often it’s a case of “how Father likes it.”

    Choosing to follow our “likes” rather than Church teaching and liturgical norms, is proving disastrous because it robs us of our Catholic heritage. In this country (US), the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued binding teachings on the liturgy and liturgical music, but the level of observance of these norms is highly variable. This is very disturbing, as D. Catherine has pointed out.

    In my professional experience in the Church in the US, it is most often a case of a lay music and/or liturgy director who has explored these teachings, understood their wisdom, has excellent musical skills/training, and been hired for their expertise. When the time comes to work in the parishes and implement the teachings and norms, a large majority hit the wall of “Father wants it this way,” or “we’ve ‘always’ done it this way!” Even with the greatest sensitivity, working with clergy and laity whose liturgical and/or musical and artistic tastes have been more formed by the ubiquitous pop culture than any tradition of musical quality and prayerful reverence is certainly swimming upstream!

    It is also increasingly difficult in our modern techno-culture to find the kind of deliberate, slower, and reflectively-paced celebration that I believe the hearts of many Catholics long for. They also long for reverence amid the clamor of modern society, recognize when it happens, and are drawn to it.

    As someone who made a career in Roman Catholic liturgical music, so often the problem of the quality of liturgical celebrations rests on the budget. When we can’t/won’t hire well-trained organists and directors, you get whoever wanders in. Often those hired or in leadership lack basic musical skills, have “untrained” and “unformed” musical and liturgical tastes, and a poor sense of reverence. I began to work in an Episcopalian (US = Anglican) cathedral two-thirds of the way through my career. I was much better paid for the first time, and my expertise was sought after and respected, something that did not happen when I worked in the Roman church. I have so many colleagues whose careers have followed the same paths.

    The Catholic church is losing its well-trained and competent sons and daughters, who started out happy to work as musicians and liturgists, to the problem of poorly- trained clergy who have not been imbued with or well-educated in the spirit of a reverent Roman liturgy, but have taken their own tastes for their guides.

    A recent experience allowed me to reflect on all this. My dear friend, Stephen Sloper, a classically trained and wonderfully talented musician, who had given 25 years of high-quality and reverent service in Catholic parishes, suddenly died. He was well-loved, and recognized as one of the musical leaders in this diocese. I volunteered to sing in the 50+ choir at his funeral. The large church was full of mourners.

    He and I had worked together to choose our funeral music. The music presented at his funeral was not what we discussed and had chosen. It was “standard parish,” pop-culture-immersed, and worn out music. Those leading rushed at double speed through every selection, even though the musical markings showed the composers’ intents. Their musical ability to play and sing was of a shockingly poor standard.

    The lone voice for beauty, pace, deliberation, and reverence was the presider, retired bishop Vincent Rizotto, who had worked with Stephen in several parishes. The bishop’s own prayer life was clearly in evidence, and I understood why he and Stephen had worked so well together. They could minister to the people of God with the reverence, love, and skill that we all deserve. The bishop’s demeanor was at a complete contrast to those singing and playing. I felt called to prayer by the first, and scattered to the winds by the second.

    Let us hope that reforms and education can guide all our steps!

    • In the UK, music as a taught subject in our secondary schools is dying out in favour of ‘academic’ subjects. The only Catholic high school in our county has been asked to provide the music and choir for a forthcoming diocesan event but is unable to muster enough people to undertake this ministry. This has a knock on effect to parishes who have no organist (we hire an Anglican) or choir to lead the musical liturgy. Worse still, we now have a laity that only recalls the hymns from their primary school and/or does not participate in singing at Mass. We are a rural county and whilst the cities and oratorios may have beautiful liturgical music, the laity and parish priests in the rest of the country have to use whatever talent (if any) is available.

      To be honest, we are just pleased to still have a parish and a priest available to celebrate Sunday Mass, whatever form that may take!

  4. Ah, the old joke”What’s the difference between a terrorist and the parish liturgist? You can sometimes negotiate with a terrorist.”
    Having been educated by Jesuits in the 1970s, I’ve seen as some, er, varied liturgical practice. As the director music in a tiny parish now there has been much to learn. It is easy to get steamed up about the practise of liturgy, we have to always look into these hearts of those performing it and consider how, with the greatest kindness, we can gently steer them in there right direction without demeaning their sincere efforts.

  5. Dame Catherine, your points are so we’ll made. As a lay person who is trying to grow in my relationship with God and trying to encourage others to start to getting t o know Jesus these comments from the Cardinal are difficult to understand and accept. It is a bit like offering a starving man caviarre. It seems there is a gulf between where I am ands where he is. I do want to grow in my faith, and I do want to follow the teaching of the church, but I sometimes wonder if we are in the same boat. We need to be careful we stay open and welcoming while still being reverent in our worship and praise. Thank you for the understanding you show in this post. I’ll keep hanging on!

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