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 — which is nearly always the case — 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.