On the Liturgical Culture Wars

In its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Second Vatican Council declared

…the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the fount from which all the Church’s power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made children of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of his Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord’s Supper. (n.10)

Anyone reading such a clear and definitive statement would be hard-pressed to underestimate the significance and place of the Church’s liturgical life. It is also easy to understand why many Church members have firm and definite opinions on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of the Church’s liturgy, what it should look like, and how it should be celebrated.

The emergence of what is often referred to as the ‘liturgy wars’ is, of course, not just about liturgy. The experience of conflict and division in liturgical matters often corresponds to firm positions in a range of other areas of Church life, such as the place and power of the Magisterium, the Papacy’s role, and the significance of dissent. Often enough, liturgical preferences were intimately connected with theological and ecclesiological understandings, and the liturgy became a ‘battleground’ that was about more than just the ‘what’ and ‘how’.

The cut and thrust of the ‘liturgy wars’ were often subject to significant influence by the person appointed to head the Church’s Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW). The ability of the CDW Prefect to influence how the liturgy is celebrated in any particular era is significant. That influence can have serious repercussions when personal preferences are given sway over the Church’s understanding of the place of the liturgy in its life.

During the past few weeks, Pope Francis has named a new Prefect for the CDW to take over its administration. The new Prefect, Archbishop Arthur Roche, had been the Secretary of the CDW since 2012 and previously had been head of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. Archbishop Roche has a quiet ‘can-do’ approach, able to get things accomplished as they are requested rather than operating from some personal preference. In this regard, he is different to his predecessor and former boss, Cardinal Robert Sarah, who it must be admitted had adopted a more ‘traditionalist’ approach to the Church’s liturgy.

It must also be admitted that Cardinal Sarah’s approach to liturgical matters was often at odds with the understanding and vision for liturgy held by Pope Francis. Ironically, Archbishop Roche was frequently despatched into the public arena to ‘walk back’ statements made by Cardinal Sarah after a private conversation between Sarah and Pope Francis.

So what does this new appointment mean for the liturgical life of the Church? Anthony Ruff OSB, writing for the Pray Tell website, hints

It seems Pope Francis is slowly but surely moving liturgy to be more aligned with the Second Vatican Council and its reform of the liturgy. In replacing all the consultants to the office for papal liturgical celebration in 2013, and in naming new consultors to the CDW in 2017, Francis has reversed the previous trend of appointing figures skeptical of the liturgical reform or interested in reinterpreting it in a traditionalist vein. This redirection is a delicate task for Francis to carry out, for traditionalist currents have grown quite strong in recent years.

It is to be regretted that the very thing meant to be a source of unity and common worship in the Church’s life has become a source of division and conflict in the years since the Second Vatican Council. The renewal of the sacred liturgy called for by the Council was meant to place the worship of God, as expressed in liturgical celebrations, within the ‘noble simplicity’ that is innate to the Roman Rite. Less encumbered by unnecessary accretions, the revised post-conciliar liturgy was meant to be a return to the inherent beauty of liturgy that is focussed on, and founded firmly in, an awareness of God and our worship of God.

Now granted, some will interpret the various liturgical norms and rubrics one way while others will have a different view. Such interpretations have as much to do with culture and experiences of the Divine as anything else. Such differences in liturgical approaches and interpretations are good and, I would argue, healthy for the life of the Church as a whole. After all, we are called to unity in worship, not uniformity.

However, I would also argue it is to be regretted that far too often an individual’s or a community’s particular preferences in liturgical matters are seen to be more important – to the point of dissent at times – than the participation in a common celebration of the Church’s liturgy which first and foremost is oriented towards God. The Church’s liturgy is far too important as the ‘source and summit’ to be reduced to mere personal or corporate preference. It is not mine, nor yours. It is a treasure that belongs to the Church.

And so we can only hope that the latest appointment by Pope Francis will have long-lasting benefits for the life of the Church, as expressed in its liturgical celebration and life and renew the Church’s commitment to living out the renewed life called for by the Second Vatican Council.