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Vol. II, No. 4: July/August 1996
The Credibility of the Liturgical Reform
Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments
Following is an editorial that appeared in Notitiae , the official publication of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (28, 1992, 25-628.) Translation by Adoremus Bulletin.
Thirty years is more than enough time to be able to evaluate the repercussions of an event, especially in our modern society, in which ready information and public reactions to it accelerates every development. Thirty years have already passed since the first decisions of the Second Vatican Council in the area of liturgy. Entirely new generations, without any experience of the ecclesial event that Vatican II was, now begin to enter upon positions of responsibility in the Church. In addition to this first observation, there is another fact of our times which invites reflection. Almost everywhere a more or less explicit criticism of the liturgical reform has arisen. This criticism is found in periodicals and magazines which have a wide circulation among Catholics; it is found in publications by groups that have never accepted the liturgical reform; but it is also found in the conversations of bishops and priests.
The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments cannot remain -- and does not remain -- deaf to these reports. A major part of its history goes back to the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, created by Pope Paul VI in 1969. One of the tasks which was entrusted to that dicastry then, from which the present task derives, was precisely that of completing the application of the liturgical reform which was called for by the Council, and begun by the Consilium ad exsequendam Constitutionem de Sacra Liturgia .
In becoming aware of the above-mentioned criticisms, one cannot help but be profoundly perplexed: to whom, exactly, are these criticisms addressed? When one criticizes the liturgical reform, what precisely is being criticized? Many times, it is clear from the context that people are simply talking about a vernacular version, or of a more or less widespread manner of celebrating the Eucharist, or of music introduced in a certain church, or again of a specific style of sacramental practice. All of this takes place after the liturgical reform, certainly; but not all that takes place can be considered an application of the liturgical reform.
Unfortunately, it is easy to cite examples. Here is one: In many churches there are two altars in the sanctuary: the old altar with the cross and huge candlesticks, one might say all ready for the celebration; and the new altar turned toward the people, of tiny dimensions, with only two candlesticks and a bunch of flowers, the whole thing truly insignificant in comparison to the old -- but it is precisely on this altar that the Eucharist is celebrated.
Is this what the liturgical reform had in mind? Certainly not. It is sufficient to read the Ordo dedicationis ecclesiae et altaris to know how the liturgical reform intended the space of the celebration to be arranged; and especially what it intended for the altar as the spiritual center of the church.
It would take too long to cite other examples; it would also be tedious. Assuredly there are more relevant facts which demonstrate on the one hand how the application of the liturgical reform still requires a long effort of delving deeper into the very meaning of the liturgy of the Church, and on the other, how the credibility of the liturgical reform is endangered after thirty years of uneven application. It is useful to dwell a little upon this danger, so as to become more aware of the extent of the problem.
The liturgical reform -- as with all reforms, but especially those which concern areas imbued with a greater identifying power (religious reforms are precisely this type) -- needs the kind of clarity of decision and consistency of application which allow for a new education, because such reforms offer a new identification. In this sense, the liturgical reform was clear in introducing the language of the people, the celebration facing the people, and a few other things. But, to tell the truth, the initiatives of individuals or groups concerning 1) the celebrations themselves; or 2) local customs, sometimes without legitimate foundation; of 3) the form itself which the celebration assumed, different according to the place (different perhaps even in the same church, depending on the schedule) -- these constitute significantly disruptive elements for the faithful people, all of which adds to the illegitimacy of such initiatives.
If we enter into the area of sacramental practice as it has been laid out by the Ordo of the Rituale Romanum , we are made aware, once again, of the variety of interpretations which circulate, even within a single diocese, city, or parish. Given this state of affairs, it is almost impossible to achieve an education of the faithful which truly corresponds to the program of the liturgical reform. Usually, the result instead is that which is characteristic of institutions which are internally divided: the loss of credibility, disaffection about the institutions themselves, and finally, distance and loss of contact. At a time when the entire Church is sensitized to the necessity of a more intense evangelization, we cannot forget the evangelizing power of the liturgy, especially in the Sacraments which the majority of the baptized still want to receive. This power, however, is in large part linked to a unified picture of the sacramental practice of the Church.
Fear of a uniformism which excludes adaptation is too simplistic an excuse, just as it is simplistic to justify one's own choices by referring to "pastoral sensitivity" or "the spirit" of the liturgical reform. When such assertions are encountered, it is necessary to ask whether it would not be more truly "pastoral" to strive to celebrate the liturgy exactly the way the pastors of the church have presented it to us, beginning with the Pope -- as if there could be some other reference point for understanding the "spirit" of the reform other than that which is contained in the liturgical books published precisely by the legitimate authority that was charged with the reform's application.
In this regard, the situation is different in different parts of the Church. It is also true that the proliferation of subjective initiatives in the area of liturgical celebrations is not as widespread now as it was some time ago; but it is necessary to pay attention to a fact which is based on the very passing of time. It is of the nature of things that liturgical practices, even incorrect ones, tend to become fixed. Thirty years is too long for this to continue.
Abnormalities which saw the light of day in the first years of liturgical reform remain still, and bit by bit as the new generations succeed the old, these practices could become, as it were, the rule. Thus the letter and the spirit of the liturgical reform, in a few cases, remain in the shadows; and habits are established, which, to be sure, originated after the liturgical reform, but not in the genuine spirit of that reform -- and with more negative consequences, in terms of liturgical formation, than those habits of liturgical practice prior to Vatican Council II.
The Congregation has the duty to present these reflections to everyone, and in the first place, to take them to heart itself, inasmuch as it has the task of reviewing the liturgical books in the light of the experience of the first Typical Editions [of the Roman Ritual] and of the editions in various languages; it has the task of maintaining fidelity to the tradition of the Roman rite.
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