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

Cardinal Sarah, Part Three: on Keeping the Liturgy Sacred

Today we read the third, penultimate section of Cardinal Sarah’s wonderful article on the liturgy. 

Again he calls us to hear the true teaching of Vatican II, according to which liturgy is “above all things the worship of the divine majesty.”  What does it mean to worship?  Cardinal Sarah gives a fine encapsulation of Ratzinger’s teaching on the golden calf: the problem was not just the idol, but the people’s insistence that liturgy revolve around their interests, rather than worship of God. 

The Cardinal adds some concrete ideas on preaching (let it talk about God, not just about us), the sanctuary (let it look holy in the first place, and let its holiness be preserved by the way we approach it), and readers (let them be dressed as if they were performing a sacred function).  But always, he keeps these practical issues subject to the bigger liturgical vision of true participation in the liturgy.

Here’s Cardinal Sarah:


406-4515-cardinal-sarah-003We run the real risk of leaving no room for God in our celebrations, falling into the temptation of the Israelites in the desert. They sought to create a cult of worship limited to their own measure and reach, and let us not forget that they ended up prostrate before the idol of the golden calf.


The hour has come to listen to the Council. The liturgy is “above all things the worship of the divine majesty” (§33). It can form and teach us only insofar as it is completely ordered to divine worship and the glorification of God. The liturgy truly places us in the presence of divine transcendence. True participation means the renewal in us of that “amazement” that St. John Paul II held in such high regard (cf. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, §6). This sacred amazement, this joyous reverence, requires our silence before the divine majesty. We often forget that sacred silence is one of the means indicated by the Council to foster participation.


If the liturgy is the work of Christ, is it necessary for the celebrant to interject his own comments? We must remember that when the Missal authorizes commentary, this must not become a worldly, human discourse, a more or less subtle pronouncement on current events, or a banal greeting to those present, but rather a very brief exhortation to enter into the mystery (cf. General Introduction of the Roman Missal, §50).


As for the homily, it too is a liturgical act which has its own rules. The participatio actuosa in the work of Christ presupposes that one leaves behind the profane world in order to enter into “sacred action surpassing all others” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, §7). In fact, “we claim somewhat arrogantly to remain in the human sphere so as to enter into the divine” (Robert Sarah, God or Nothing, Ignatius Press, Chapter IV).


In this sense it is deplorable that the sanctuary in our churches is not strictly reserved for divine worship, that people enter it in worldly garb, that the sacred space is not clearly delineated by the architecture. And since, as the Council teaches, Christ is present in his word when it is proclaimed, it is equally harmful when readers are not dressed in a way that shows they are pronouncing not human words, but the Word of God.


Cardinal Sarah, Part Two: on Facing the Lord

ad orientemToday we continue our reading of Cardinal Sarah’s explanation of the liturgy.  In this second part of his article, the Cardinal continues his discussion of true “participation” in the liturgy by discussing the direction we face.  This is the finest thing I’ve read on an important topic.

Liturgy fans like to talk about “ad orientem” liturgy: when the priest, perhaps with his “back toward the people,” faces the same direction as the people.  This is an important issues, but there are many confusions.  First is the question of building churches that face east, also an important issue, but a different one; the priest can face the same direction as the people, or face the people, whether or not the Church faces east.   Second is the distinction of different parts of the Mass.  Sometimes it is appropriate for the priest to face the people: Vatican II did not “turn the altars” around, but one of its most important insights is that the ambo, from which Scripture is read, did need to be turned toward the people. Ratzinger is strong on this point, but Cardinal Sarah’s brief statement here is even stronger.

Finally, there is the question of the goal.  Ultimately, liturgy is not primarily about externals; sometimes we get so caught up arguing which direction the priest faces that we forget to lift up our hearts to the Lord.  Again, Cardinal Sarah’s formulation is fabulous: face-to-face leads to tete-a-tete leads to heart-to-heart.  Externals matter – when they help us internally.  And so this section concludes with a fine quotation from Thomas Merton, not on liturgy wars, but on recollection.

Here’s Cardinal Sarah:


406-4515-cardinal-sarah-003Liturgical participatio must therefore be understood as a grace from Christ who “always associates the Church with himself” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7). It is he who takes the initiative, who has primacy. The Church “calls to her Lord, and through Him offers worship to the Eternal Father” (§7).

The priest must thus become this instrument that allows Christ to shine through. As our Holy Father Pope Francis recently recalled, the celebrant is not the host of a show, he must not seek the affirmation of the assembly, standing before them as if they were called to enter into dialogue primarily with him. To enter into the spirit of the Council means—on the contrary—to efface oneself, to renounce the spotlight.

Contrary to what has sometimes been maintained, it is in full conformity with the conciliar Constitution—indeed, it is entirely fitting—for everyone, priest and congregation, to turn together to the East during the penitential rite, the singing of the Gloria, the orations, and the Eucharistic prayer, in order to express the desire to participate in the work of worship and redemption accomplished by Christ. This practice could well be established in cathedrals, where liturgical life must be exemplary (cf. §41).

Of course it is understood that there are other parts of the Mass in which the priest, acting in persona Christi Capitis, enters into nuptial dialogue with the assembly. But this face-to-face has no other purpose than to lead to a tete-à-tete with God, which, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, will become a heart-to-heart. The Council thus proposes additional means to favor participation: “acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons and songs, as well as…actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes” (§30).

A hasty and all-too-human reading of the Constitution has led to the conclusion that the faithful must be kept constantly busy. The contemporary Western way of thinking, shaped by technology and dazzled by the media, has wished to turn the liturgy into a lucrative production. In this spirit, many have tried to make the celebrations festive. Prompted by pastoral motives, liturgical ministers sometimes stage celebrations into which elements of worldly entertainment are introduced. Have we not witnessed a proliferation of testimonials, acts, and applause? It is imagined that this will foster the participation of the faithful, when in fact it reduces the liturgy to a human plaything.

“Silence is not a virtue, noise is not a sin, it is true,” says Thomas Merton, “but the turmoil and confusion and constant noise of modern society [or of some African Eucharistic liturgies] are the expression of the ambiance of its greatest sins—its godlessness, its despair. A world of propaganda, of endless argument, vituperation, criticism, or simply of chatter, is a world without anything to live for…. Mass becomes racket and confusion; prayers—an exterior or interior noise” (Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas [San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1953, 1981], passim).


Introducing Cardinal Sarah

406-4515-cardinal-sarah-003A student recently brought to my attention a fabulous article published in June in the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, by Cardinal Robert Sarah.

In the next few days I will repost it here in full.  I share this article first of all to share the best short piece I have ever read on the liturgy.  This is phenomenal, and key to the vision we are trying to cultivate on this web page.

I share it also to bring your attention to Robert Cardinal Sarah.  As Benedict’s point man for Catholic charities, he did important things to cultivate the union of faith and action that is so fundamental to true Catholicism – and in so much need of recovery.  At last year’s Synod he was one of the most powerful and thoughtful voices in witness of Christian marriage.  And now as Pope Francis’s appointee to oversee the liturgy, he gives us the very best on that topic.

Above all, we should try to live this vision of the liturgy.  But we might also pray that this great African pastor may be our next Holy Father – perhaps as Gregory XVII?


Part One: Vatican II on True Participation

The first thing I love about this article is Cardinal Sarah’s insistence that we actually read Vatican II’s fabulous Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which liberals and conservatives alike ignore based on wrong assumptions. 

In this first section, Cardinal Sarah explains that Vatican II, far from just naming a couple things we should do, above all gives an authoritative teaching on the nature of the liturgy.  At the heart of that teaching is actuosa participatio, “active participation.”  Vatican II says of its liturgical reforms, “In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else.”  But Vatican II’s vision of active participation is not about the secularized activity we so often experience.  True active participation, as Cardinal Sarah says, means “entering into the action of Christ.”



Cardinal Sarah on Vatican II on True Participation

FIFTY YEARS AFTER its promulgation by Pope Paul VI, will the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy finally be read? Sacrosanctum Concilium is not in fact a simple catalogue of “recipes” for reform, but a true and proper Magna Carta for all liturgical action. In that Constitution, the Ecumenical Council gives us a masterful lesson in methodology. Far from contenting itself with a disciplinary and external approach to the liturgy, the Council summons us to contemplate the liturgy in its essence. The Church’s practice always flows from what she receives and contemplates from Revelation. Pastoral practice cannot be divorced from doctrine.


ad orientemIn the Church, “action is directed to contemplation” (cf. §2). The conciliar Constitution invites us to rediscover the Trinitarian origin of the work of the liturgy. Indeed, the Council affirms continuity between the mission of Christ the Redeemer and the liturgical mission of the Church. “Just as Christ was sent by the Father, so also he sent the apostles,” so that “by means of sacrifice and sacraments, around which the entire liturgical life revolves” they might “accomplish the work of salvation” (§6).


The liturgy in action is thus none other than the work of Christ in action. The liturgy is in its essence actio Christi: “the work of Christ the Lord in redeeming mankind and giving perfect glory to God” (§5). He is the high priest, the true subject, the true protagonist of the liturgy (cf. §7). If this vital principle is not embraced in faith, one risks reducing the liturgy to a human action, to the community’s celebration of itself.


On the contrary, the true work of the Church consists in entering into the action of Christ, participating intimately in the mission he has received from the Father. Thus “the fullness of divine worship was given to us,” because “his humanity, united with the person of the Word, was the instrument of our salvation” (§5). The Church, the Body of Christ, must in turn become an instrument in the hands of the Word.


This is the ultimate meaning of the key concept of the conciliar Constitution, participatio actuosa. For the Church, this participation consists in becoming an instrument of Christ the Priest, so as to participate in his Trinitarian mission. The Church participates actively in the liturgical work of Christ insofar as she is his instrument. In this sense, language about the “celebrating community” can carry a degree of ambiguity requiring true caution (cf. the Instruction Redemptoris sacramentum, §42). Participatio actuosa must not be understood, therefore, as the need to do something. On this point the teaching of the Council has often been distorted. It is a question, rather, of allowing Christ to take hold of us and to associate us with his sacrifice.