Liturgy—The Basics and the Historical Richness.

On the occasion of the publication of the T&T Clark Companion to Liturgy, the companion’s editor, Dom Alcuin Reid, O.S.B., gives this interview in which he provides a back-to-the-basics reminder of what liturgy is: “Liturgy is … the public ritual worship of the Church in and through which … we hold that Christ acts in a singularly privileged way in our world today.”

Since this action is Christ’s, it “facilitates our own sanctification and empowers us for Christian life and mission.” This is why then-Cardinal Ratzinger “emphasised that [liturgy] is the ‘centre of any renewal of the Church whatever.’ If we get the liturgy wrong our connectivity to Christ is impeded. And without optimal connectivity to Christ we, and those so in need of the mission of the Church today in the various and complex situations that the 21st century presents, will lack something essential, we will suffer.”

Many would have no difficulty assenting to all of this. Questions arise, however, when there are different ideas of what constitutes ritual action that is of the Church as opposed to actions imposed by powerful/influential, but misinformed, individuals. This is not an easy question to answer even within the scope of the Western Catholic tradition alone—and Dom Alcuin points out that the T&T Clark Companion to Liturgy addresses only liturgy in the Western Catholic tradition—since we now have three forms of the Latin Rite and there is legitimate, healthy diversity of charisms and spiritualities, a number of which have their own liturgical expressions. (E.g., the ancient differences—mentioned in an earlier post—between cathedral and monastic prayer.)

I’m therefore encouraged that this new companion to liturgy seeks to engage critically “with the liturgical and theological principles operative in history in … making a critical assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of our current ritual and pastoral practice.” A reason for being hopeful are the words “operative in history,” which I dare to understand as embracing all of history. Much of the rhetoric of the “liturgy-wars” of the past several decades seems unaware of the fact that the Western Catholic tradition includes the experience of two millennia—all two thousand-and-sixteen years—not solely the past 500 years, not solely the past 50 years, and not solely the first 300 years (whether available to us via dodgy scholarship or not). True, we are no longer in the 300s, 800s, 1600s, the 1950s, or the 1970s. But that doesn’t mean the “liturgical and theological principles operative” in all of those eras have nothing to say to us now.

A concern I have is that the massiveness of the “‘troubles’ following the Second Vatican Council” in the Catholic context has created a context that, even decades later, is going to tend to co-opt the Ordinariate form of the Latin Rite into being little more than a Jacobean-English inflection of either the EF or the OF. I hope the historical scholarship of which Dom Alcuin speaks will help check this tendency and allow the Church of the 21st century to go deeper into history so as to have a richer future.  To paraphrase Newman, to be deep in history is to become more liturgically Catholic.

(The photo is of an altar at Ingatestone Hall in Essex, England, where the Elizabethan–and Catholic–composer William Byrd was a frequent guest.  The altar remains from England’s Recusant era and is thus disguised as an ordinary side table.  Thanks to the gracious hospitality of Lord Petre, whose family owns the estate, I was able to organize a small choir that sang Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices in the context of a liturgy that was celebrated there.)

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