Cardinal Sarah’s Ambitious Liturgical Reform

“Education,” according to Plato’s Socrates, “is not what the professions of certain men assert it to be”—it is not the putting of knowledge into the soul “as though [one] were putting sight into blind eyes.” Rather, education is the art of turning souls around so that our natural human powers, directed toward “what really is,” may “couple” with reality and give birth to intelligence, truth, and justice. Though it involves human interaction, what defines education is the reorientation by which it facilitates a union between the human and the superhuman.

A closely analogous dynamic is—or should be—at the heart of our Catholic worship. Correctly understood, the Mass is a place where we turn away from the ephemeral and the finite and come into contact with the God who made us for himself, and who instituted the sacred liturgy precisely in order to lead us to him. Though the liturgy contains elements that are human and changeable, these elements must always remain subordinate to the theocentric orientation by which it points us toward the true source of our salvation.

Far from separating us from reality, this encounter with our Creator and Redeemer is educational in the deepest sense, for it enables us to “comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth, and length, and height, and depth” of all things (Eph. 3:18). The Mass is the font and summit of Christian life, as the Second Vatican Council taught, because through our participation in it “the Gospel enters into our life, it disrupts it, it transforms it. It gives it a new direction, new moral and ethical orientations.”

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By contrast, an “anthropocentric liturgy,” even when it focuses on otherwise good things such as culture, “good will, or cooperation in apostolic works,” disrupts our relationship with God. It encourages us to reduce God to a means of pursuing our ends, if not to forget him entirely. Indeed, the “many distortions of the liturgy” experienced “throughout the Church today” are in no small part responsible for the “silent apostasy” of a modern Western culture plunged into the darkness of nihilism, relativism, and pragmatism, and attempting to live “as if God did not exist.”

So says Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, in his recent address, “Towards an Authentic Implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium.”

There has been much controversy surrounding the cardinal’s speech, most of it centered on his appeal to pastors to return, beginning in Advent of this year, to the ancient posture whereby priests and people together face the liturgical East, toward the Lord. While that appeal and our response to it are very important, however, the full significance of Cardinal Sarah’s speech cannot be grasped without a careful consideration of the numerous theoretical insights and practical suggestions it contains.

The scope of the cardinal’s address is breathtaking, and its depth incisive. Beginning with Pope Francis’s observation that “there remains much to be done for a correct and complete assimilation of [Vatican II’s] Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy,” Cardinal Sarah proceeds to review that document, Sacrosanctum Concilium. Firmly establishing that the Council Fathers affirmed the centrality of Christ in the liturgy, he makes clear that contemporary practices that place man at the center of the Mass stem not from the (authentic) spirit of the Council, nor from the Holy Spirit, but rather from “the zeitgeist of the 1960s.” Going beyond this familiar theme of a hijacked Council, however, the cardinal adds that even reforms called for in Sacrosanctum Concilium are properly understood as “subordinate to the fundamental intentions of the Council,” and that “the experience of the past five decades” may require us to reconsider some of them. For example, abuses associated with “large-scale concelebrated Masses” may necessitate a rethinking of the Council’s call to expand such celebrations.

The cardinal’s next line of questioning is aimed at the revised liturgical books of 1969. Noting that the commission entrusted with these revisions “was certainly subject to influences, ideologies and new proposals that were not present in Sacrosanctum Concilium,” he calls for the careful study of “very serious concerns” regarding the construction and revision of prayers and other features of the reformed Missal—referencing here the famous intervention of Cardinal Ottaviani. While confirming the liceity and validity of the Missal of Blessed Paul VI, Cardinal Sarah notes that Pope Francis has asked him to embark on the “long and delicate work” of considering “the possibility and desirability of an official reform of the liturgical reform” to bring it into line with the true intentions of the Council. Though the Holy See Press Office swiftly retorted that “it is better to avoid using the expression ‘reform of the reform’ with reference to the liturgy,” on this point as well as others it pointedly failed to contradict the substance of the cardinal’s claims.

Given the “long and delicate” timeframe of which the cardinal speaks, these remarks might at first glance seem to be of largely theoretical value. In light of his status as prefect of the congregation entrusted with the care of the Church’s worship, however, and combined with his other observations, they also carry immediate practical implications for the way Catholics worship—of which the desirability of turning again to the East is only one.

The crux of these implications can be gleaned from Cardinal Sarah’s approach to the “solid and organic liturgical initiation and formation” for which Pope Francis has called. In a comment reminiscent of Socrates, the cardinal observes that this formation cannot be reduced to abstract ideas, but rather must be based in “immersion in the liturgy, in the deep mystery of God our loving Father.” As his address makes clear, however, the liturgy today is compromised not only by outright violations of current liturgical law, but also to some extent by the exercise of valid options (such as the priest facing the people, or standing for Holy Communion), and even by some of the “officially promulgated reforms” in the new Missal. Where then will we find liturgies capable of providing the necessary formation?

Significantly, Cardinal Sarah turns here to the Extraordinary or older form of the Roman Rite, “the full and rich celebration” of which he says constitutes “an important part of [the] liturgical formation” necessary to bring the reformed Roman Rite into continuity with “the beauty of the liturgical tradition,” and hence with the wishes of the Council.

That this suggestion is shocking to some is clear from the response of the Vatican Press Office, which made a point of insisting that “the ‘extraordinary’ form, which was permitted by Pope Benedict XVI for the purposes and in the ways explained in his Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, must not take the place of the ‘ordinary’ one.”

As with the Press Office’s other statements, however, this one is both moot and misleading. It is moot since Cardinal Sarah never claimed that the Extraordinary Form should replace the Ordinary Form. It is misleading because, as the cardinal himself noted, Summorum Pontificum does not claim to permit the use of the Extraordinary Form for limited purposes, but rather clarifies that, due to its great antiquity and sanctity, it was in principle always permitted by the Church, and is now to be made “available without restriction to those individuals and groups who wish to draw from its riches.”

Here is where we arrive at the true root of the controversy over Sarah’s speech. The Council Fathers, he notes, never meant to revolutionize the liturgy by abandoning what we now call the Extraordinary Form. Rather, they “intended to promote legitimate development (such as the increased use of the vernacular) in continuity with the nature” of the liturgy itself and “in the tradition of the Church.” Behind the “ideologies” informing some changes to the Missal of Blessed Paul VI, however, and driving “some very serious misinterpretations of the liturgy [that] emerged and took root in different places throughout the world” afterwards, is precisely the notion that (as Pope Benedict put it) the Church’s traditional liturgy was to be “entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”

However we refer to it, the reform of the reform will be, as Cardinal Sarah notes, a “long and delicate work,” though to some the inevitability of this task has long been clear. There are two things that the faithful—priests and laity—can do in the coming months and years, however, to render our worship more authentic, appealing, and efficacious.

First, we can make use of “the full and rich celebration of the more ancient use of the Roman Rite,” which—despite what many in positions of authority may insinuate—is now “available without restriction to those individuals and groups who wish to draw from its riches.” Recovering the widespread and worthy celebration of the usus antiquior will require a great deal of effort, but this labor is more than justified by the immediate spiritual benefits it will bring as well as the long-term contribution it will make to the restoration of the Council’s vision for the liturgy.

Second, we can not only insist upon the banishment of various errors and abuses undermining the proclamation of the Eucharistic mystery, sadly noted and denounced years ago by St. John Paul II, but also insist on the exercise of the more theocentric options existing within the current rubrics of the Ordinary Form. Here again the path will not be easy, as evidenced by the present campaign to pretend (falsely, as some have amply shown) that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal favors a versus populum Mass posture. Once again, however, the proven spiritual value of such practices as the use of Latin and Gregorian chant, ad orientem worship, and kneeling for Holy Communion render the effort well worthwhile.

Catholics around the world ought to study the words of Cardinal Sarah and take courage from them. Though the liturgical reorientation of the West will require many sacrifices of us, the time to begin this most essential of tasks is now!

(Photo credit: Wikicommons)


  • L. Joseph Hebert

    L. Joseph Hebert is Professor of Political Science and Leadership Studies and Director of Pre-Law Studies at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, IA. He is former Editor in Chief of The Catholic Social Science Review published by the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. Dr. Hebert is the President of Una Voce Quad Cities and author of More Than Kings and Less Than Men (2010).

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