A conference like Sacra Liturgia 2013, from which I have just returned, is the kind of thing that arguably could never have taken place during the Jubilee year of 2000 when I entered the seminary in Rome. In fact, it could not have been conceived of even in the wake of the election of Joseph Ratzinger to the throne of St Peter in 2005, just before I was ordained to the priesthood. I was reminded of just how much things have changed when I went this week early in the morning to St Peter’s to offer Holy Mass.
During my Roman years, which was really not all that long ago in a Church that thinks in centuries, I could easily walk into St Peter’s, and a few side altars would be busy at 7am with some few priests, mostly Vatican types or pilgrims, offering the Novus Ordo Mass in various languages. Every once in a while you could spot the Latin edition of the Missale Romanum 2002, but not very often. To even speak of the Missale di San Pio Quinto was to invite a reaction which could quite possibly result in expulsion from the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles. Sure, there were a few brave souls who had the indult who would produce a Missal from within their cassock pocket, but always with the Missal on the left side, and without altar cards, and fudging the rubrics just enough not to get caught.
You can imagine my surprise when I went this time. The sacristy of St Peter’s, which used to be so delightfully quiet on an early weekday morning, is now a hive of activity. Priests and pilgrims from all over the world find themselves at every single usable altar of the Basilica. Altar cards adorn several altars in the North Transept, and one can see several of the Pope’s ceremonieri and other Vatican officials going back and forth from those altars celebrating Holy Mass in the classical Roman rite. More than once I had to wait for an altar, and some priests eventually gave up after waiting in line for more than 2 hours to say Mass. (Private Masses have a very small window of time in the Basilica, and either you get it in between 7 and 9am or you don’t!)
There were celebrations all over the Basilica, in various languages and uses of the Roman Rite, and in Latin in Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms. Many of the kids from the Preseminario San Pio X have now learned to serve the Extraordinary Form, which some of them call, irony of ironies, la Messa nuova. And the queue for the altars reserved for the Extraordinary Form was so long one morning I just gave up and celebrated Mass in Italian.
In the principal church of Christendom, Pope Benedict’s vision of liturgical pluralism had taken root. There were no more suspicious glances, clerical catfights or mutual recriminations. In fact, the spirit of peace and energy that now reigns over St Peter’s on weekday mornings was also very much evident at the Pontifical University Santa Croce this week for Sacra Liturgia 2013.
I cannot for the life of me imagine such a conference being held even a short time ago, at least outside of a dingy ballroom in a minor city with little interest and with some unsavory characters around. But this event attracted not only first-rate liturgists, hierarchs and theologians, but also many laypeople, many of them very young, who were eager to learn and network with other people all over the world who had caught on to Pope Benedict’s vision. And of course, there was the presence of the gliteratti of that new grand salon, the Blogosphere, and the knowledge that every thought, word and deed of the conference was going to reach an audience that it would never have reached before, merely because of advances in technology in service of tradition.
But what was even more amazing than the quality of the speakers at the conference, which I could go on about at length, and the beauty of the liturgies, which were celebrated in both forms, was the spirit which animated it all. A conference which focused so much on the traditional liturgy once upon a time not so long ago would have been the preserve of people who have been caricurated, pilloried and described, sometimes not entirely inaccurately, as rigid, reactionary and schismatic. Now, there are some in the Church today who still have not grown up quite past employing this paradigm for any and every who darken the door of a Mass celebrated according to certain books. But the atmosphere at Sacra Liturgia 2013 was not like that at all.
While there was the occasional barb at liturgical looniness, it was directed, not in the service of a critique borne from a desire to paint the Liturgical Reform as a Masonic plot to destroy the Church, but from a desire to highlight a proper ars celebrandi. And those barbs, few in number, were directed, not only against some of the most bizarre incarnations of the Novus Ordo, but also the hurried, hapless celebrations of the 1962 Missal and the psychopathologies of some who think that traditional Catholicism is a matter of dressing like the Amish. Overwhelmingly, the tone was positive. How can the entire Church develop a liturgical spirit via a beautiful ars celebrandi for the salvation of souls and the regeneration of society? One of the most arresting things I took away from the Conference was the idea that ars celebrandi is not just a matter of externals to which the priest must attend, but a spiritual and theological orientation of the entire Christian assembly.
I must confess that, going to the conference, I wondered whether some of the participants and speakers might see it as a “last hurrah” for the Benedictine liturgical party within the Church, and that it might be seen by its critics as the swan song for the Benedictine reform. I wondered whether we might lose time and energy in harsh denunciations of the liturgical practices of Pope Francis, and turn on each other in division and hatred.
Nothing could be further from the truth. This was a group which truly “thought with the Church”, not in a slavish manner, but as free men and women of God. We were able to raise serious questions about the liturgical reform without having them turn into gripe sessions or anticlerical bashes. There was a profound experience of communion, conviviality, prayer and study.
Why is this important? Well, I think that it is representative of what has happened in the Church because of the Pope in whose honor the conference was called. There are many people who have discovered the beauty of the liturgy conceived, not in restrictive terms as saying the black and doing the red of one particular Missal, but in terms of an ars celebrandi which respects legitimate diversity. A traditionalism which looks only backwards, and only with an eye to criticism, while it may contain some elements of merit with which the Church must dialogue, will eventually run out of steam. But love for the liturgy, for God, for the Church and her shepherds, which is the ultimate goal, not only of various traditionalisms, but of Tradition itself, cannot stop at that. The Conference was proof that traditional liturgy has a powerful dynamism for reform and renewal when it is unshackled from the tired labellings and trench warfare of the past. The sheer diversity of the speakers and participants also point to the fact that the good insights of the traditionalists can be brought in medio Ecclesiae and transform the dialogue over the nature of the Church and her worship in a way which is not tied to the past, but can do good for the future. Far from being critical of Pope Francis, a traditionalism freed from being tied into the critique of Vatican II and crisis rhetoric, embued with a spirit of communion and the spirit of the liturgy, shares in the desire of the Bishop of Rome for the Church to reflect Christ ever more.
Those for whom liturgy is not a battle to be fought over and won by texts and rubrics, but an enchanting participation hic et nunc in the divine life, will anxiously look forward to the publication to the Acts of Sacra Liturgia 2013. There they will grasp a coherent vision of the Church’s life and worship which has, thanks to Pope Benedict XVI, transcended this tumultous time and its wars and opened up a way for the Church, not just towards the future, but towards the final consummation of all things in Jesus Christ.