HE LAST 150 years or so have been a very significant period as regards the sacred liturgy. Throughout that time, a Liturgical Movement has been afoot, striving to improve the manner and quality of our worship.
But how does one “improve” the liturgy? What does it even mean to speak about improving public worship?
Consider this perspective from the liturgical scholar, Robert Taft, SJ:
For over a century now the Christian Churches, first of the West, then also of the East, have been preoccupied with liturgical renewal, under the influence of what is known as “The Liturgical Movement,” a worldwide effort dedicated to making Christian liturgy better. But good liturgy is liturgy that glorifies God and sanctifies those glorifying him, and that is his gift to us, not ours to him. For we can glorify God only by accepting the unmerited gift of sanctification he freely gives us. If it is God who does it, how could it be better? It could be better from our side, for we too have a part in the liturgy, which is neither magic nor unconscious. So God’s part would better achieve its aim if we would drink more fully from the saving waters he offers us in the liturgy via a participation that would be more active, more conscious, more communal. 1
A similar outlook is encapsulated in a reflection by Pope Benedict XVI on the Regensburg tradition and the reform of the liturgy. The Pope Emeritus writes this:
Liturgy presupposes . . . that the heavens have been opened; only if this is the case is there liturgy at all. If the heavens are not open, then whatever liturgy was is reduced to role playing and, in the end, to a trivial pursuit of congregational self-fulfillment in which nothing really happens. The decisive factor, therefore, is the primacy of Christology. Liturgy is God’s work, or it does not exist at all. With this “first” of God and of his action, which looks for us in earthly signs, the universality of all liturgy and its universal public nature are given. . . . By opening up the heavens, [Christ] is also the one who does away with all earthly limitations.” 2
We can look back upon the last century and a half and evaluate the progress of the Liturgical Movement in the light of these two reflections, which place primacy on the action of God at work in the liturgy. In this process of evaluation, it would be easy to identity both strengths and weaknesses.
Looking forward, though, is always more of a challenge. What is the present course of the liturgical movement? What steps are we taking to better “our side” of the liturgy, as Taft calls it? In what ways are we striving to drink more fully from “God’s part”? In what ways is the Liturgical Movement making us more aware of God’s action of opening the heavens to us in the liturgy?
One encouraging sign is that proper liturgical formation is receiving greater emphasis in seminaries and among the laity. Surely, this should be one of the most important areas of concentration in any effort to renew the liturgy.
Another equally important dimension of the way forward is the need to return to the writings and vision of the leaders of the Liturgical Movement over the last century. We must become more familiar with such figures as Pope Pius X, Romano Guardini, Lambert Beauduin, Louis Bouyer, and Pope Benedict XVI, among many others. Doing so will ground us more deeply in the vision expressed in the two quotes above.
The era of Summorum Pontificum is still relatively young, and its impact has not yet fully unraveled. Sorting out the tensions caused by it (and by Anglicanorum Coetibus) will surely be a major part of the way forward in the Liturgical Movement.
Perhaps a wider understanding of “organic development” as it applies to sacred liturgy is a goal for which we might also hope. More systematic treatments of this topic would surely be welcome.
What other features or priorities do you envision for the future of the Liturgical Movement? Please feel free to comment with your thoughts.
Instaurare omnia in Christo
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Robert F. Taft, S.J., Through Their Own Eyes: Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It (Berkeley, CA: InterOrthodox Press, 2006), 1.
2 Joseph Ratzinger, “The Regensburg Tradition and the Reform of the Liturgy,” in Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy, vol. 11 (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2014), 466-467.