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Two Anniversaries and a Reality Check

Commemorative letters exposed late Pope John Paul II's concerns on liturgical matters.
by Father Edward McNamara | Source:
The Late Holy Father, John Paull II, published two letters on liturgical affairs. Both are brief commemorative documents celebrating the anniversaries of earlier pontifical or conciliar publications.

An apostolic letter, dated Dec. 4, 2003, and marking the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council´s constitution "Sacrosanctum Concilium," presents an overview of the principal liturgical questions past and present. The other letter, called a chirograph, and dated Nov. 22, is tailored to the subject of liturgical music and celebrates the centenary of Pius X´s "Tra le Sollecitudine."

Pius X´s document is considered a milestone in the history of liturgical reform, not only in restoring Gregorian chant to pride of place in the Church but in being the first papal document to advocate the "active participation" of the faithful in the sacred rites.

As commemorative letters, their value lies above all in being a brief and synthetic exposition of the Pope´s present concerns in matters liturgical.

The letter celebrating "Sacrosanctum Concilium" is illustrative of this. The first section, "A Look at the Conciliar Constitution," offers a summary of the principal contributions that this constitution made to the theological understanding of liturgy highlighting, above all its placing liturgy in the context of salvation history whose aim is human redemption and God´s perfect glorification.

This salvation is not only recalled, but renewed and made present, in every liturgical celebration in which Christ is made present in a particular way and associates the Church with himself.

The liturgy thus becomes the action of Christ the priest and his Body which is the Church. It is integral public worship, a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy and the summit toward which all the Church´s activities tend and the font from which all her strength flows.

The Holy Father also recalls that the Council opened up a universal prospective for the liturgy by stressing the Church´s mission of prayer and intercession on behalf of all humanity as well as the cosmic dimension of sanctifying time by a renewed attention to the liturgical year.

He furthermore stresses the Council´s teaching that the liturgy, while being the high point of the Church´s life, does not exhaust all its activities and indeed supposes the preaching of and living witness to the Christian life.

Of the many practical recommendations and reforms brought about by the Council, the Pope limits his attention to those which are apparently closest to his heart at this moment: liturgical music and sacred art. He refers principally to the document on music published a few days earlier.

This document reaffirms the principles regulating liturgical music enunciated by Pius X and later Pontiffs, including John Paul II himself who has called for the removal of unsuitable music from the Church´s repertoire.

Pius X summed up the qualities of good liturgical music in three principles: sanctity, goodness of form, and universality.

The sanctity of this music is greater the closer it is wedded to the liturgical action. John Paul II recalls his encyclical "Ecclesia de Eucharistia" in which he affirms that not all forms of musical expression are suitable to the liturgy.

This is correlated to the second principle of "goodness of form." Liturgical music must also be true art and correspond to the sense and meaning of the rites and texts it seeks to express.

While music and song should correspond to the legitimate demands of liturgical adaptation and inculturation, this must be done with great care, fomenting the widest possible level of participation while avoiding shallowness or superficiality.

This means that Pius X´s third principle of "universality" still applies to music destined for the liturgy while leaving ample space for the particular genius of each region to express itself. Universality means that nobody from another nation should be left with a bad impression on hearing the particular music of his hosts. It also means that the liturgy is no place to test new musical forms and expressions which cause unease due to their unfamiliarity.

John Paul II also confirms Gregorian chant´s pride of place as the model of liturgical music and the organ as the primary, but not exclusive, liturgical instrument. He also categorically states that new vernacular compositions should be inspired by Gregorian chant, above all in imitating its spirit and its capacity for merging text and music into a single and religiously expressive whole.

Referring to his Letter to Artists ( 1999 ), he asserts that the purpose and end of liturgical music is above all to assist the faithful´s participation and to favor prayer and, in the final analysis, "the glorification of God and the sanctification of the faithful."

As a result, only composers imbued with the sense of the Church can attempt to perceive and translate into melody the truth of the mystery celebrated in the liturgy. As a note of hope, John Paul II expresses his certainty that such composers are not lacking and he encourages their efforts to add to the Church´s musical treasury.

The importance of conserving and increasing the Church´s patrimony of chant, sacred polyphony and other music leads the Pope to encourage the formation of choirs, especially in larger churches. The role of the choir has not diminished and it has its own proper role besides helping to guide and sustain the song of the assembly.

The spiritual contribution of music in the liturgy depends on the coordination and the pertinent musical and liturgical formation of all those concerned in the celebration. The musical aspect of the celebration should not improvised but carefully prepared.

Above all, the Holy Father renews the call that seminarians and male and female religious receive an adequate musical formation so as to better fulfill their liturgical roles.

Finally he encourages the establishment or strengthening of episcopal commissions at both national and local levels to supervise liturgical compositions and requests the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments to become more involved in this sphere.

When discussing sacred art in his Dec. 4 apostolic letter, the Holy Father promotes the establishment of formation programs to train artists and architects to fulfill the particular requirements of the liturgy.

The second section of the apostolic letter, entitled "From Renewal to a Deeper Understanding," proposes an examination of conscience regarding the reception of Vatican II in the Church and how liturgy is lived today. To wit:

-- Is the liturgy lived as summit and font of the Church´s activities according to the teachings of "Sacrosanctum Concilium"?

-- Has the Council´s rediscovery of the value of God´s Word led to a positive response within our celebrations?

-- Up to what point has the liturgy entered concretely into the lives of the faithful and set the rhythm of each Christian community?

-- Is the liturgy understood as a road to sanctity and the inner strength of the Church´s apostolic dynamism and missionary character?

As the answer to these questions is not wholly positive, the Holy Father proposes several means in which the aims of Vatican II may be achieved.

One means is a deepening in our understanding of the renewed liturgical books so as to make better use of the possibilities they offer. This must be based on a spirit of fidelity to sacred Scripture and to liturgical tradition as interpreted by the Church. The primary protagonist of this effort must be the bishops, whose task is to both regulate the liturgy as well as assure that each member participates as fully as possible according to his particular mission.

This requires a concerted effort to assure the adequate liturgical formation of both ministers and faithful.

It also demands an adequate pastoral liturgy that, while remaining faithful to the liturgical books, seeks to foment and cultivate an increased interest in God´s Word. This can be achieved by making full use of the possibilities already available in the lectionaries as well as by means of an explanation that moves the Christian to bring to his life what he has heard in the liturgy.

This response must also lead to a renewed evaluation of Sunday as the center of the Christian life, another theme dear to the heart of John Paul and to which he has already dedicated an apostolic letter, "Dies Domini."

Finally, in this section the Holy Father renews the exhortation made in his programmatic document "Novo Millennio Ineunte" for the Church to recover and foment the art of prayer -- both liturgical prayer and popular devotions, especially the rosary.

The final section "Perspectives" looks at some of the challenges facing the liturgy if it is to fulfill its mission in the new evangelization.

Although it might appear that our highly secularized world has sidelined the liturgy, the Holy Father proclaims that it is still the best means of slaking the thirst for God that continues to permeate our society and of sharing Peter´s experience on Tabor: "Lord, how good it is to be here."

In order to do so, pastors have to cultivate once more the "mystagogical art," so dear to the early Church Fathers, by bringing the liturgy to life through opportune and enriching explanations and making the sense of the mystery penetrate the conscience of the faithful.

One aspect which the Holy Father insists must be encouraged with greater effort in our liturgies is the "experience of silence."

At a time when several forms of meditation are being promoted in modern society, not all of them of Christian matrix, the Church must offer and promote a true pedagogy of silence within the coordinates of its own tradition. The liturgy must also participate in this recuperation of silence by making full use of the suggestions offered in the liturgical books.

In concluding this section John Paul returns once more to the importance of forming a "taste for prayer" among the faithful. This is achieved by explaining the rites and above all by introducing the faithful to praying the Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours, as an outstanding source of piety and a means of nurturing personal prayer, while not excluding other forms of prayer and devotion.

The Holy Father´s emphasis on the subject of prayer in this and in other recent interventions clearly shows that he considers it to be a principal element in the Church´s mission and in the personal mission of each Catholic.

The onus of educating the faithful in prayer falls above all upon the Church´s pastors whose actions also guarantee the assistance of the Holy Spirit. The harmony between leaving space for a certain degree of creativity and a normative structure also assures the conservation of the liturgy´s identity as prayer of the Church. Failure to observe the liturgical norms can lead to grave abuses which cast a shadow over the truth of the mystery and cause distress and tensions among the People of God.

The Pope expresses the desire that a new liturgical spirituality will be developed that is fully aware of Christ´s role as primary "liturgos" who ceaselessly acts in the Church and the world through the power of the continual celebration of the paschal Mystery, and who associates the Church to himself to the praise of the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

* * *

Follow-up: Non-Catholics Distributing the Precious Blood

A reader from California asks for further information regarding the practice of giving Communion to non-Catholics at Mass.

She writes: "I have been to a handful of Catholic Masses in the last year where -- for instance -- a Presbyterian minister, a Quaker, an atheist, etc., have all been given Communion. In each case, the congregation was small enough that the celebrant was fully aware that the communicants were non-Catholics, but chose to give them Communion anyway, sometimes repeatedly at consecutive daily Masses. I find this very disturbing, but have been ridiculed by priest-celebrants, deacons and fellow Catholics for objecting to what they staunchly defend as an ecumenical gesture."

While these and similar actions can cause distress and even indignation to Catholics, in general I would say that the Catholic should not refrain from receiving the gift of Communion unless participation were to indicate some degree of approval of the misguided celebrant´s actions.

As we stated the other week (see Dec. 2 ), the casual distribution of Communion to non-Catholics -- no matter how well intentioned -- is in fact anti-ecumenical. Such an act shows a lack of appreciation of the importance the Eucharist holds for Catholics as a central tenet of our faith.

For some non-Catholics, receiving Communion is a sign of Christian fellowship. But a Catholic, while admitting this element, knows that the Eucharist is far more.

As the Holy Father has so beautifully reminded us in his encyclical "Ecclesia de Eucharistia":

"The gift of Christ and his Spirit which we receive in Eucharistic communion superabundantly fulfills the yearning for fraternal unity deeply rooted in the human heart; at the same time it elevates the experience of fraternity already present in our common sharing at the same Eucharistic table to a degree which far surpasses that of the simple human experience of sharing a meal. Through her communion with the body of Christ the Church comes to be ever more profoundly ´in Christ in the nature of a sacrament, that is, a sign and instrument of intimate unity with God and of the unity of the whole human race.´

"The seeds of disunity, which daily experience shows to be so deeply rooted in humanity as a result of sin, are countered by the unifying power of the body of Christ. The Eucharist, precisely by building up the Church, creates human community" (No. 24).

In No. 46 of the same encyclical the Pope reminds us of those rare cases, and under what conditions, non-Catholic Christians may be admitted to the sacraments of the Eucharist, reconciliation and anointing of the sick. This administration is limited to "Christians who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church but who greatly desire to receive these sacraments, freely request them and manifest the faith which the Catholic Church professes with regard to these sacraments. Conversely, in specific cases and in particular circumstances, Catholics too can request these same sacraments from ministers of Churches in which these sacraments are valid."

It adds: "These conditions, from which no dispensation can be given, must be carefully respected, even though they deal with specific individual cases. That is because the denial of one or more truths of the faith regarding these sacraments and, among these, the truth regarding the need of the ministerial priesthood for their validity, renders the person asking improperly disposed to legitimately receiving them. And the opposite is also true: Catholics may not receive ´communion´ in those communities which lack a valid sacrament of orders."

While Protestants who fulfill these conditions are sparse, the case is different for Eastern Orthodox and other Eastern Christians whom the Catholic Church admits to Communion if they are unable to assist at their own liturgy. Some Eastern Churches, however, discourage their members from availing of this possibility.

It is therefore clear that a cavalier attitude in administrating Communion to non-Catholics is not in conformity with a truly Catholic concept of ecumenism. True ecumenism cannot brook any watering down of essential Catholic doctrines in order to accommodate those of other faiths.

Indeed, those of our Protestant counterparts with a grasp of Catholic eucharistic theology are often perturbed by such laxity.

There is, unfortunately, much ignorance and no small measure of relativism in this field even among ecclesiastics and otherwise fervent Catholics who staunchly, but wrongly, believe that they are doing what is right.

At the same time, a priest who knowingly and deliberately ignores these norms is guilty of a grave abuse, as demonstrated by a recent case of a German priest whose bishop finally had recur to suspension after his admonitions were publicly slighted.

* * *

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