The Future of Liturgical Formation and Renewal

An interview with Dom Alcuin Reid about Sacra Liturgia 2013

At the end of June more than 300 people gathered in Rome from over 35 countries to participate in Sacra Liturgia 2013, an international conference on liturgical formation, celebration and the mission of the Church, convened by the bishop of Fréjus-Toulon, France, Bishop Dominique Rey. CWR asked Sacra Liturgia 2013’s principal organizer, Dom Alcuin Reid, about the conference and its impact.

CWR: This was a large international conference. Were the organizers happy with how it unfolded?

Dom Reid: More than happy, yes. Practically speaking, hiring the facilities of the Pontifical University of Santa Croce provided an excellent venue in the heart of Rome and the warm welcome accorded us by the rector of the adjacent Basilica of St. Apollinare gave us a beautiful environment in which to celebrate the sacred liturgy together. Of course, organization can always be improved, but I think we were able to provide delegates with a conference well worth attending and which made a significant contribution to the Year of Faith.

In terms of content we were blessed with first-class speakers from beginning to end. We deliberately varied the topics around different aspects of liturgical formation and celebration and their relationship to the life and mission of the Church in the 21st century so as to provide a wide-ranging “diet,” as it were. This was not a conference for “sacristy specialists” or even necessarily for liturgical experts. Rather it was for those wishing better to understand the unique and fundamental role of the sacred liturgy in the life of the Church—an understanding which his necessary for all of us if we are to form and evangelize others.

CWR: Can you say something about the different participants?

Dom Reid: Delegates came from more than 35 countries and from very different backgrounds. Lay men and women involved in different aspects of ministry in their parishes and dioceses, many priests of course, religious men and women, as well as students and seminarians. Many of these delegates were young—including one group of college students from the United States who saved up to come—showing that the “question of the liturgy” is very much alive for their generation. Some bishops and an abbot came as delegates in order to further their own liturgical formation. So too there were a number of professors of liturgy and liturgical formators from seminaries and universities present. We also were honored by the participation of the ambassadors to the Holy See of Great Britain, Australia, and South Korea.

Speakers too, came from around the globe. Cardinal Ranjith came especially from Sri Lanka, and we were fortunate that Archbishop Sample, Bishop Elliott, and Professor Rowland were all in Rome for other engagements during that week and could join us. Roman residents Cardinals Canizares, Burke, and Brandmueller, Msgr. Heid and Father Gunter joined us. Bishop Aillet and Abbot Nault came from France, Msgr. Newton and Father Lang from England, and others from Italy, Germany, Spain, and the United States.

One thing that struck me about the participants was the overall tone, particularly in the discussions. There was no negativity or focus on past problems. Rather, it was evident that all were looking forward with great hope and confidence to future renewal in liturgical formation and celebration. In a way this encapsulates the spirit of Sacra Liturgia 2013: no one present denied that there have been serious liturgical problems in recent decades, but all were united in the conviction that we must play our part in solving them. There was a tangible spirit, a momentum, in the participants that will bear much fruit in the future.

CWR: You spoke of problems that need to be solved. In the ongoing reform of the liturgy, what still needs to be done, and how?

Dom Reid: There are many things that need to be done, and our speakers each discussed this question according to his own area of competence.

The fundamental reform that is needed is a reform of our understanding of the liturgy itself: what is it? What is Catholic liturgy? If we understand this and imbibe its sprit, if we study the liturgical theology of the Second Vatican Council, of Pius XII’s Mediator Dei, of the popes and authors before that, we discover that they are as one in asserting that the sacred liturgy is the continuing salvific action of Christ in his Church in which we participate by means of our baptism and give Almighty God the worship that is his due. The liturgy is not about us, as Cardinal Ratzinger once said, but about God.

If we have this fundamental orientation correct then the “problems” of liturgical rites, ministries, music, architecture, vesture, language, and so on can be viewed in a clearer light. If I come to the liturgy—cleric, religious, or lay man or woman—as a humble worshipper seeking that living connection with the action of Christ in his Church (which is what “active participation” should mean), then the liturgy does not need to reflect me, my tastes, those of my community or of “modern man,” whatever that might mean. Rather, it needs to speak of God in ways that our Mother the Church has developed in her tradition. It is the Church’s liturgy, not ours, and we must celebrate it according to her ways and spirit.

In this spirit we can see the need for something of an examination of conscience in respect of recent decades, and even for a reform of the reform, as it were.  For some liturgical practices that have been introduced seem to speak more of me, of us, than they do of God.

Cardinal Ranjith underlined the importance of Latin in the liturgy and did this, interestingly, as the bishop of a diocese whose native language has no Latin roots. Yet even for such a people, he pointed out, it serves to enhance peoples’ connection with Christ in the liturgy. We can make the same observation about the celebrant facing East for the offertory and Canon of the Mass: this posture bespeaks worship at a time when the human personality of the celebrant is of no importance and can often get in the way. Professor Steinschulte made a powerful case for the importance of truly liturgical music, as envisaged by the Council, to replace the “de-evangelizing,” relativistic music that we often encounter in our churches.

An honest liturgical examination of conscience will identify other reforms that follow from this principle that enable the spirit and power of the liturgy to touch those who come to our churches and which will empower us for Christian life and mission.

CWR: So the connection between reverent, proper liturgy and a vibrant spiritual life was a constant theme at Sacra Liturgia 2013?

Dom Reid: Without doubt. The conference’s subtitle was “Culmen et fons vitæ et missionis ecclesiæ,” underling that the liturgy is the source and summit of all of the life and the mission of the Church.

Let’s come back to the word “connection.” We all know about connectivity these days and how frustrating it is if our various devices don’t have it. Well, the sacred liturgy is our fundamental means of connectivity with Jesus Christ. Period. Whilst there are differing spiritual practices that can bring us to Christ, the liturgy has absolute primacy in the spiritual life, as the Council said. And if our connection with Christ is somehow impeded or limited, we lack the fundamental means necessary for Christian life and mission: we aren’t in touch with the power source, as it were.

Optimal connectivity is necessary for a “vibrant spiritual life.” Yes, it suffices that Mass and absolution in confession are valid, but these are minimalist concerns—they are “one bar” connections. The sacred liturgy is about nourishing our mind, body and spirit fully—it is a feast, not a fast. That is why our rites and chants, our gestures, our architecture and art, our vessels and vestments have such importance. These things, which have often been devalued in recent years, are in fact the means of our connection with Christ. Abbot Zielinski underlined this in his fascinating examination of “Liturgy, Ritual, and Contemporary Man,” which examined our innate psychological and anthropological need for ritual as human beings.

CWR: Given this, how did the conference explore the relationship between liturgical renewal and the New Evangelization?

Dom Reid: This relationship is the raison d’être for Sacra Liturgia 2013. Bishop Rey is not a liturgical scholar, he is diocesan bishop, and it is from the standpoint of that particular vocation that he so profoundly appreciates the role of the liturgy. As he said in his introduction to the conference: “As a bishop it is my duty to do all I can to promote the New Evangelization initiated by Blessed John Paul II…the New Evangelization must be founded on the faithful and fruitful celebration of the Sacred Liturgy as given to us by the Church in her tradition—Western and Eastern.” When first we discussed the possibility of a conference this focus was clear and we invited speakers to base their considerations on it.

Abbot Nault made some important observations about this. Drawing on the work of Louis Bouyer he noted that the liturgy “cannot be reduced to being an instrument for something else, which would end up being a pick-and-mix of catechesis, formation for Christian living, and ritual;” i.e., the liturgy is not primarily a tool of catechesis or evangelization. Rather, he argued that “a correct ‘use’ of the liturgy” is necessary, “a ‘use’ which can be a source of great pastoral and evangelical fruitfulness.” As he pointed out, “it is only when we let liturgy be ‘useless’ that it reveals the extent of its ‘usefulness’ in the life of the Church and the New Evangelization!”

Professor Rowland made a powerful argument for the role of the usus antiquior—the older liturgical rites—in the New Evangelization, pointing out their value as an antidote to the sterile rationalism of the culture of modernity and as at least a partial answer to the hunger of the post-modern generations for an immersion in a liturgical tradition which is oriented to God and eternity. “The usus antiquior should be a standard element of the cultural capital of all Latin Rite Catholics since it so effectively resists secularism and satisfies the post-modern hunger for coherent order, beauty, and an experience of self-transcendence,” she asserted.

Professor Rowland, who has known and appreciated these rites since her youth, challenged some of the “practices and attitudes” that can deter others from coming to do so. A media interview recently took parts of her nuanced argument about this out of context and caused some controversy. But her point is valid: the riches of the older liturgical rites will remain largely untapped if we who know and treasure them behave like members of a sect or perpetuate a cultural, social, or ideological ghetto. The usus antiquior is too potent a connection with Jesus Christ, too important a basis for Christian life and mission, indeed for the New Evangelization, to be occluded by the limitations and even wounds of some which, given the appalling treatment encountered by many attached to these rites, are understandable, certainly, but not always helpful. Ironically some of the reactions to Professor Rowland’s assertion of this problem proved her point. We need to move beyond this sort of thing.

CWR: Speaking about older rites, what about the worship of the early Church?  There was much talk of going back to its “purer” forms after the Council. Where do we stand with that today?

Dom Reid: Cardinal Ranjith spoke of this issue in his keynote address, decrying “a kind of false archaeologism which echoed the slogan: ‘let us go back to the liturgy of the early Church.’” His Eminence continued: “In this theme was a hidden understanding that only what happened in liturgy in the first millennium of the Church was valid. This was supposed to be part of the process of aggiornamento. Mediator Dei indicates that this view is in error when it states: ‘the liturgy of the early ages is most certainly worthy of all veneration. But ancient usage must not be esteemed more suitable and proper, either in its own right or in its significance for later times and new situations, on the simple ground that it carries the savor and aroma of antiquity’ [MD 61]. Moreover, since information on the liturgical practice of the early centuries is not so clearly attested to in the written sources available to us from that era, the danger of a simplistic arbitrariness in defining these practices is greater and runs the risk of being pure conjecture. Besides, it is not respectful of the natural process of growth of the traditions of the Church over the subsequent centuries. Neither is it in consonance with the belief in the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church down the centuries. It is also highly pedantic and unrealistic.”

Of course, today we know that what scholars 50 years ago thought was the liturgy of the early Church is not necessarily what scholars hold now. The clearest example of this is the so-called Eucharistic prayer of Hippolytus, which was assumed to be the earliest example of a Roman anaphora and was accordingly used as the basis for the creation of Eucharistic Prayer II promulgated by Paul VI. Today scholars recognize that these assumptions were inaccurate, which is embarrassing to say the least. So too the assumption that the early Church celebrated the Eucharist “facing the people” in the manner that became popular in the 20th century has been shown to be false. These are the dangers and limitations of archaeologism—as opposed to respecting the organic development in the liturgy in history.

CWR: As well as conference presentations Sacra Liturgia 2013 involved liturgical celebrations. Can you tell us something about them?

Dom Reid: As Bishop Rey said in his introduction to the book printed for the conference liturgies, “Before we speak about the liturgy, we must be liturgical.” We opened the conference with solemn Vespers, celebrated two Masses and closed the conference with solemn Vespers, Te Deum, and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The first two celebrations were according to the modern rites, the last two according to the older ones.

The splendid Basilica of St. Apollinare enabled the dignified celebration of these liturgies and the assistance of a Roman choir comprising some members of the Sistine Chapel choir and others ensured the chant and polyphony, though it was very moving to hear our participants singing Vespers and the Gregorian Mass common together, without rehearsal.

The liturgies were celebrated in Latin—as Sacramentum caritatis recommends for international gatherings—and ad orientem. Comprehension of the liturgical texts was facilitated though the translations in the five conference languages printed in the liturgy book. Photographs of the liturgies—and of the conference itself—can be viewed on Flickr

All in all the liturgical celebrations were sober—as befits the Roman rite—worthy and beautiful, and I think it is fair to say that our large and diverse gathering were able to participate fully in them. Please God we all came closer to Christ through them.

CWR: What are the most evident fruits of the conference?

Dom Reid: In some ways that question is premature. Certainly those who participated seem to have come away encouraged and better equipped to promote and insist on the absolute necessity of sound liturgical formation and the celebration of the liturgy as the Church gives it to us, as the necessary foundation for Christian life and mission.

In a way this marks a significant development in what has begun to be called the “New Liturgical Movement”—something Cardinal Ratzinger called for. This is a movement insisting that the Sacred Liturgy is the true and necessary foundation for the whole of Christian life, for the New Evangelization and for any of the Church’s activity. It is a movement which insists on the necessity of liturgical formation as envisaged by Sacrosanctum Concilium, and which knows that the true celebration of the liturgy—everywhere—in accordance with the Church’s norms and the true spirit of the liturgy is crucial. To borrow Cardinal Ratzinger’s words, it is “a movement toward the liturgy and toward the right way of celebrating the liturgy, inwardly and outwardly” [The Spirit of the Liturgy, pp. 8-9]

I think that Sacra Liturgia 2013—and especially its published proceedings—will help to connect our efforts towards liturgical renewal today with the broader liturgical tradition in line with the best intentions of Sacrosanctum Concilium. It will enable clergy, religious, and faithful to look again at the liturgical reform and see what needs to be done to enrich the liturgical life of our parishes and chapels so that all of Christ’s faithful are more fruitfully nourished through the liturgical rites.

The book that will result (to be published by Ignatius Press, hopefully in 2014) will also serve as something of a textbook for liturgical formation. As I said above, the topics are wide ranging and each of the 19 speakers’ presentations is worthy of careful study. They will provide students, pastors, and others involved in liturgical ministry and formation much from which to draw in the future. 

CWR: Finally, are there plans for “Sacra Liturgia 2014” or other similar initiatives?

Dom Reid: Sacra Liturgia 2013 was a one-off international event. Perhaps similar events could be organized at a national level for different language groups? We have no plans for future initiatives at present, though with Bishop Rey one never knows what may be next!

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