Sacra Liturgia 2013 – Why liturgy matters

“[T]he liturgy is the celebration of the central event of human history, the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. Thus it bears witness to the love with which God loves humanity, to the fact that human life has a meaning and that it is through their vocation that men and women are called to share in the glorious life of the Trinity. Humanity needs this witness.

People need to perceive, through the liturgical celebrations, that the Church is aware of the lordship of God and of dignity of the human being. She has the right to be able to discern, over and above the limitations that will always mark her rites and ceremonies, that Christ “is present in the sacrifice of Mass and in the person of the minister” (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 7).”

– Pope Benedict XVI to a group of French bishops on their ad limina visit,
17 November 2012

sacraliturgia_logoIn the coming weeks I will be writing about the Sacra Liturgia conference that will be held in Rome from 25 to 28 June. The conference “on liturgical formation, celebration and mission” is the brainchild of Bishop Dominique Rey of the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon in France and draws its inspiration in part from the teaching and person of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who strongly encouraged Bishop Rey’s initiative.

Why a major conference on the liturgy, and why special attention to it in this blog? Pope Benedict has spoken about it many times, both during his pontificate and as priest, bishop and cardinal. The quote I chose to place at the top is only the most recent I could quickly find, but it does give an indication of the reason. Our faith comes from God; it is His gift to us. In the liturgy, centered around the sacrifice of the Eucharist, God comes very near to us, nearer than we can ever hope to come to Him if left to our own devices. Since God is near to us, we must take care to show that in how we celebrate and participate in the liturgy. And because this is the place where God is tangible for us, the liturgy takes up a central place in our faith and life as Catholics. That means that we can’t take it for granted, but should treat the liturgy as an opportunity to learn and grow, and that is what the conference wants to aid in.

During the conference, various speakers will address a proper selection of liturgy topics. Standing out for me, upon a reading of the list of speakers, are Cardinal Raymond Burke (Liturgical law in the Mission of the Church), Archbishop Alexander Sample (The Bishop: governor, promoter and guardian of liturgical life of the diocese), Monsignor Guido Marini (Ars celebrandi in the Sacred Liturgy), Monsignor Stefan Heid (The Early Christian Altar – Lessons for Today), Father Uwe Michael Lang (Sacred Art and Architecture at the service of the Mission of the Church), Father Paul Gunter (Academic Formation in the Sacred Liturgy), Father Nicola Bux (Liturgical catechesis and the New Evangelisation), Dom Alcuin Reid (Sacrosanctum Concilium and Liturgical Formation) and Mr. Jeffrey Tucker (The Liturgical Apostolate and the Internet), although any choice here is strictly based on the various topic titles. I will be profiling several of the speakers in the coming weeks, with, obviously, a special focus on their thoughts and actions regarding the liturgy.

All the relevant information regarding prices, accommodation and, certainly not least, the speakers and their topics can be found via the link I supplied above. Personally, I would have attended if it was within my means, but I’ll have to make do with a digital presence, via this blog and various social media.

A problematic manifesto

A group of professors (retired and otherwise) in the Netherlands have joined forces and written a manifesto to the Dutch bishops to voice their concerns about the ongoing effort of consolidating and merging parishes and faith communities in the Dutch Church province. They warn that mergers, which are ongoing or planned in virtually all dioceses, will destroy the “flourishing, sparkling and adult faith communities, in which lay faithful contribute in modern ways, adapted to local circumstances to faith life and liturgy, in open communication with local authorities” that have sprung up in the second half of the previous century.

Although the professors’ concerns are undoubtedly genuine, there are a number of problems with the manifesto, which I will outline below.

First there is the outline of the problem, which I have summarised above. The existence of such “flourishing communities” is considered “a great good”: they offer a home to active Catholics, which has g”reat existential value”. But, the professors say, the bishops are intent on destroying that by creating enormous parishes with a single council. And the reason that the bishops are doing this? The shortage of priests.

This is a clear untruth. As many bishops, confronted with similar concerns in their own dioceses, have said time and again: parish mergers are chiefly dictated by financial and demographical concerns: small parishes will, in the future, no longer have the financial means to support themselves, and the number of faithful is expected to drop over the coming years. It has been doing so for years already. And yes, the number of priests is certainly relevant in that context. But it is not the sole reason for consolidating and merging parishes and communities.

What the professors completely miss or ignore in their manifesto is the bishops’ duty to communicate and protect the faith. They say that the mergers are smothering the specific identities and expressions of parishes and communities. Measures imposed from above destroy the unique expressions of faith in these small communities. But what if these expressions are at odds with the teachings of the Church, with the faith that the bishops are tasked to protect? I would dare say that that is the case in too many communities in the Netherlands and Europe as a whole. Imposed measures, of whatever nature, are not so one-dimensional as to merely want to limit identity and expression. They can, and often also do, serve to assure the continued existence of such expressions, but always in union with the Church that Christ established.

Another odd conclusion that the manifesto describes is that the macro level (the Church province) which, the professors say, is characterised by bureaucratic and financial structures and cultures, can’t intrude on the micro level, the local faith communities, which are characterised by communicative action, mutual understanding, agreement and meaningfulness. But neither level exists in isolation, so some level of “intrusion” must occur, since both levels are interdependent. A model by which a group of faith communities continues to exist under one parish council, as is foreseen in virtually all the plans for mergers, will allow the micro level to continue operating as it should, and will prevent the problems that are now looming on the horizon: lack of financial means and a dearth of volunteers as the number of faithful drops.

As I have said, the concerns of the professors are undoubtedly genuine, but their cause is not served by inaccurate projections of reality. All the bishops who are currently facing the prospect of parish mergers have been quite open about the reasons behind it, and in many cases they have emphasised the need for thriving communities on the local level. Placing them under a unified parish council within the larger framework of the diocese does not mean their end. Bishops can’t end that, but neither can they be solely responsible for the communites’ continued existence. That is in the hands of the communities themselves. In many placers, things can’t continue for very long as they are now, but they can if the structures that are needed are in place, and if faithful everywhere work towards it, keeping their communities alive in Christ. Only they, and He, can do that. A bishop can’t, and neither can he prevent it.