The first, initial, simple – or apparently simple – intention [of the Council fathers] was the reform of the liturgy… Let us begin [there]. After the First World War, Central and Western Europe had seen the growth of the liturgical movement, a rediscovery of the richness and depth of the liturgy, which until then had remained, as it were, locked within the priest’s Roman Missal, while the people prayed with their own prayer books, prepared in accordance with the heart of the people, seeking to translate the lofty content, the elevated language of classical liturgy into more emotional words, closer to the hearts of the people.
But it was as if there were two parallel liturgies: the priest with the altar-servers, who celebrated Mass according to the Missal, and the laity, who prayed during Mass using their own prayer books, at the same time, while knowing substantially what was happening on the altar. But now there was a rediscovery of the beauty, the profundity, the historical, human, and spiritual riches of the Missal and it became clear that it should not be merely a representative of the people, a young altar-server, saying "Et cum spiritu tuo", and so on, but that there should truly be a dialogue between priest and people: truly the liturgy of the altar and the liturgy of the people should form one single liturgy, an active participation, such that the riches reach the people. And in this way, the liturgy was rediscovered and renewed.
I find now, looking back, that it was a very good idea to begin with the liturgy, because in this way the primacy of God could appear, the primacy of adoration. "Operi Dei nihil praeponatur": this phrase from the Rule of Saint Benedict (cf. 43:3) thus emerges as the supreme rule of the Council. Some have made the criticism that the Council spoke of many things, but not of God. It did speak of God! And this was the first thing that it did, that substantial speaking of God and opening up all the people, the whole of God’s holy people, to the adoration of God, in the common celebration of the liturgy of the Body and Blood of Christ. In this sense, over and above the practical factors that advised against beginning straight away with controversial topics, it was, let us say, truly an act of Providence that at the beginning of the Council was the liturgy, God, adoration.
Reflection – First, on a personal note, I survived my trip OK, in spite of very nearly missing the train from Manchester to York due to a criminally slow baggage carousel. I am writing this from the MH Robin Hood’s Bay priest quarters, across from the lovely simply chapel. The village and area await my exploring feet tomorrow.
Meanwhile, it is so wonderful that Pope Benedict should give us his perspective on the Council in these last days of his papacy. The centrality of liturgy is key in this part of his reflection – that before we can know how to carry the joy and beauty of the Gospel to the modern world, we must have this joy and beauty within our hearts and spirits. And we can only have this joy and beauty if our own life is worship is ordered rightly.
‘Save the liturgy, save the world’ is a slogan in some circles today, and there is great truth in that.
If first things are not placed first, if the core relationship, not simply of my own personal life but of the Church’s common life, is not well ordered in truth, beauty, and goodness, then what do we have to offer anyone? How can we preach a Gospel we are not living? And the right worship of God—orthodoxy in its original sense—is at the very heart of living the Gospel.
Catherine Doherty knew this very well. From the beginning of her social justice apostolate in Toronto, she immersed herself and her followers in the very liturgical renewal movement the Pope mentions here. She knew that we cannot work for justice, love the poor, advocate for life, serve one another in generosity and persevere in righteouness if we are not drawing life from God and bringing him our all in all, which happens nowhere more perfectly and truly than in the Mass and in the other liturgical acts of the Church.
So right liturgy is key to the renewal of the Church in the modern world, and I believe Pope Benedict has done more than anyone to work tirelessly for this right renewed liturgy. And… that’s enough for jet-lagged me right now, so I will try to check in tomorrow with our next thrilling instalment of ‘The Council and Me’, by Pope Benedict XVI.