Cardinal Sarah, Part Four: The Hermeneutic of Continuity

Today we read the final section of Cardinal Sarah’s article on liturgy.  Here he discusses Pope Benedict’s grand idea of “the hermeneutic of continuity.”  A hermeneutic is how you read things, the assumptions you bring to a text.  Too often both conservatives and liberals bring to Vatican II a “hermeneutic of rupture,” an assumption that it was a break with the past, not a rediscovery of the tradition. 

But even worse, and more common today, both conservatives and liberals bring this “hermeneutic of rupture” to the liturgical reform Vatican II gave us (derisively labeled Novus Ordo, to make it sound Masonic) – something that Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict always warned us to avoid.   

At the service of true participation, the Council called for better understanding of the rites.  Cardinal Sarah glosses this with the idea that true understanding has always been the understanding of faith and love.

The Council called for the liturgy to be an instrument of evangelization – but that does not mean dumbing it down, it means lifting it up.  Non-Christians should not feel at home in the liturgy – they should feel called to discover our true heavenly home, in which the liturgy participates.

Finally, Benedict famously allowed a freer use of the usus antiquior, the Mass as it was before Vatican II.  But again, conservatives and traditionalists have overwhelmingly betrayed Benedict’s insight by reading this move with a “hermeneutic of rupture,” as if the point is to pit one form of the Mass against the other.  Cardinal Sarah warns both sides against this rupture.  

Rather, we must rediscover the one Roman Rite, brilliantly renewed by the call of the Council.  To this end he suggests one more fine practical detail – perhaps in the future the revised rite will allow an option for the penitential rite or the offertory as they were before the Council: these are the two parts of the Mass that were most changed.  The point is, the revised prayers are not in opposition to the old; they go together.


Cardinal Sarah:


406-4515-cardinal-sarah-003The liturgy is a fundamentally mystical and contemplative reality, and thus beyond the reach of our human action; even participatio is a grace from God. It presupposes on our part openness to the mystery being celebrated. For this reason the Constitution encourages full understanding of the rites (cf. §34) and at the same time prescribes that “the faithful…be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them” (§54).


In reality, an understanding of the rites is not achieved by human reason left to itself, as if it could grasp everything, understand everything, master everything. An understanding of the sacred rites is the fruit of the sensus fidei, which exercises living faith through symbol and understands more by affinity than by concept. Such understanding presupposes that one draws near to the mystery with humility.


But will we have the courage to follow the Council all the way to this point? Yet it is only such a reading, illumined by faith, which constitutes the foundation for evangelization. Indeed, “the liturgy… shows forth the Church to those who are outside as a sign lifted up among the nations, under which the scattered children of God may be gathered together” (§2).


It must cease to be a place of disobedience to the prescriptions of the Church. More specifically, the liturgy cannot be an occasion for divisions among Christians. Dialectical readings of Sacrosanctum Concilium, or the hermeneutics of rupture in one sense or another, are not the fruit of a spirit of faith.


The Council did not intend to break from the liturgical forms inherited from tradition – indeed, it desired to deepen them. The Constitution establishes that “any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (§23). In this sense, it is necessary that those who celebrate according to the usus antiquior do so without a spirit of opposition, and thus in the spirit of Sacrosanctum Concilium.


By the same token, it would be a mistake to consider the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite as deriving from a different theology than that of the reformed liturgy. And one could hope that a future edition of the Missal might include the penitential rite and the offertory of the usus antiquior, so as to underscore the fact that the two liturgical forms shed light one upon the other, in continuity and without opposition.


If we live in this spirit, the liturgy will cease to be the locus of rivalries and criticisms, and we will be brought at last to participate actively in that liturgy “which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle” (§8).



12 June 2015


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