When writing yesterday’s post, I had not yet read the English translation of the Holy Father’s Address to the Curia, delivered annually just before Christmas and serving as the ecclesiastical equivalent of the queen’s speech from the throne or president’s state of the union address. Pope Benedict also referred to liturgical matters in his address and the words are worth considering.
He spoke at length about Africa, which he visited early in the year, and because the Synod of Africa dominated the latter half of the year. But here is one of the things he said about his visit, and I quote it at length because there is not a single word that can be left out: "The memory of the liturgical celebrations made a particularly deep impression on me. The celebrations of the Holy Eucharist were truly feasts of faith. I would like to mention two elements that strike me as particularly important. First of all there was a great shared joy which was also expressed bodily, but in a disciplined manner, directed to the presence of the living God. With this, the second element already became apparent: the sense of sacredness, of the mystery of the living God's presence, fashioned, as it were, each individual action. The Lord is present the Creator, the One to whom all things belong, from whom we come and towards whom we make our pilgrim way. I spontaneously thought of Saint Cyprian's words; in his commentary on the "Our Father" he wrote: "Let us remember we are in God's sight. We must be pleasing in God's eyes, both in the attitude of our bodies and in the use of our voices" (De Dom. Or., 4 : CSEL III, 1, p. 269). Yes, we had this awareness that we were standing before God. The result was neither fear nor inhibition, nor external obedience to rubrics nor much less the need of some to show off to others or to shout out in an undisciplined manner. Rather, there was what the Fathers called "sobria ebrietas": a sense of joyfulness that in any case remains sober and orderly, uniting people from within, leading them to a communal praise of God, a praise which at the same time inspires love of neighbour and mutual responsibility."
If you recall those liturgies, they were not something designed to warm the heart of the Lefebvrists. There were dummers. There were people waving their arms to and fro. There was liturgical dance, previously the cause of conservative snickering. There was also joy. I have never been to Mass in Africa but I remember the images from the television. They made me think of a Mass I attended at St. Mary Star of the Sea, in New London, Connecticut. The archbishop of San Juan, Puerto Rico had come to say Mass for the Hispanic community in New London, and he was greeted by mariachis. There were drums and tambourines. There was no liturgical dance but at the end of the Mass the archbishop led the congregation in a round of "Vivas!" for the local bishop ("Viva Opispo Miguel Cote!"), the parish priest, the musicians, etc. It was not like the more staid and solemn liturgy I normally attend but the joy was evident and contagious and it was, like the liturgies in Africa about which the pope spoke, seized with an awareness of God’s presence.
I will pass over without comment the Pope’s derogatory remark about "external obedience to rubrics" and "the need of some to show off to others." But, I will bet everyone reading this has a mental picture of someone afflicted with the disease the Pope is here diagnosing.
The orientation to Christ, the awareness of God’s presence, this is the criterion. It is that - not our language, not our music, not our dancing or lack thereof – only the awareness of God’s presence made manifest in Christ that unites us with the Church in Africa, and with the Church in Africa of the third century when Saint Cyprian wrote his beautiful words.
In seminary, a student had an idea. He thought that just as we carry the paschal candle into the sanctuary at the beginning of the Easter Vigil, and keep it there thru the Easter season, the paschal candle should lead the procession out of the church, taking the place of the crucifix, at the close of the Mass for Pentecost. It is a lovely idea except for one thing. It is not in the tradition. We can’t just make things up out of whole cloth and insert them into the liturgy. Yes, there is inculturation and pluralism: We Irish and Germans who hail from northern climes will probably never be entirely comfortable with liturgical dance. But, it is important to know that not every dance is appropriate for Mass either.
Let’s take a more controversial example. Vatican II retrieved the idea of the Church as the People of God, an idea deeply rooted in the Bible, first for the Jews and then for the early Church. This idea corresponded to the emphasis on baptism and the baptized that so characterized Vatican II. It did not replace, but it certainly counter-balanced, the idea of the Church as a perfect society. After the Council, some understood the People of God to warrant a more democratic ethos for the Church. This affected the design of churches which came to look like little House of Representative chambers with the seats laid out in auditorium style. Of course neither Biblical Israel nor the early church were democracies, and the idea of the people of God had no essential democratic content. Yes, the rise of liberal democracies has been an achievement of the highest order in terms of advancing freedom and human rights, and it qualifies as one of the signs of the times that Pope John XXIII called the Council to examine. But, you can see how differing understandings of the phrase "the people of God" has caused confusion in the past forty years.
The Vincentian canon is always a good guide. The Holy Father is positing in his address that this joyful awareness on the part of the people and the sense of the sacred are the essential parts of our liturgical tradition. The cultural manner of expression of that joy and that sense can be widely diverse because the forms themselves are inessential, so long as they are authentic, not "external obedience to rubrics" or "showing off." And, in all liturgies, there must be charity, first the charity of Christ for us, and because of that prior charity, the charity we can now share as co-heirs of the Kingdom.