Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Evangelii gaudium and the liturgy: First thoughts

Today, 26 November 2013, Pope Francis’ post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium was released.  The document is supposed to be a wrap up of the 2012 Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization.  But even veteran Vatican watcher John Allen is comparing it to Martin Luther King, Jr’s famous “I have a dream” speech.  Future generations may well seek to discover how much of this document is rehashing what went on in the aula of the Synod of Bishops and how much of it is a programmatic statement of Pope Francis’ vision for his pontificate.  It certainly takes many of the themes we have come to associate with Francis and integrated them into a programme for reform, from the pastors “smelling like the sheep” (24) to his concern for the poor (53-60, 186-216).  It is a far-reaching document, and will certainly give much food for thought for the Church as Francis guides the New Evangelization.  In this article, I would like to focus on how the document treats the sacred liturgy and some of the theological themes surrounding it that might be of interest to Chant Café readers.

Music is only mentioned once in the text (139) and twice in footnotes (69, 131), and only by way of using music as an analogy for good preaching.  While that is certainly an affirmation of the value of music, the text nowhere speaks of the Church’s thesaurus musicae sacrae as a part of, condition of, or fruit of evangelization new or old.  Yet Pope Benedict XVI in an audience given to a pilgrimage of the Associazione Santa Cecilia  mentioned, “The conciliar Constitution on the Liturgy recalls the importance of sacred music in the mission ad gentes . . . sacred music  . . . can have and indeed has an important task: to encourage the rediscovery of God, as well as a renewed approach to the Christian message and to the mysteries of faith.” Pope Benedict’s contention in this message that music “can cooperate in the new evangelization” is entirely absent from this apostolic exhortation. 

Liturgy is mentioned five times in the text.  Let us examine each one of these occasions:

1.    Evangelization with joy becomes beauty in the liturgy, as part of our daily concern to spread goodness. (24)
2.    The Church evangelizes and is herself evangelized through the beauty of the liturgy, which is both a celebration of the task of evangelization and the source of her renewed self-giving. (24)
3.    In some people we see an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time. In this way, the life of the Church turns into a museum piece or something which is the property of a select few. (95)
4.    Let us now look at preaching within the liturgy, which calls for serious consideration by pastors. (135)
5.    When preaching takes place within the context of the liturgy, it is part of the offering made to the Father and a mediation of the grace which Christ pours out during the celebration. This context demands that preaching should guide the assembly, and the preacher, to a life-changing communion with Christ in the Eucharist. (138)

In these five uses of the word liturgy in Evangelii gaudium, we have some interesting themes emerge to the fore.  The first two quotes are principally concerned with one aspect of liturgical celebration, namely its beauty.  The third forms part of a pointed critique entitled “Temptations faced by pastoral workers” (76-109), attempting to diagnose some of the spiritual maladies which compromise the integrity of the Church’s evangelizing mission.  The last two are more directly about the office of preaching, and discuss preaching, not just as part of kerygmatic proclamation of the Gospel, but in the context of the sacred liturgy.

Liturgy and Personal Relationship
One of the things I find fascinating here is that nowhere is the liturgy seen as a source of evangelization itself, nor is it seen as an end towards which evangelization should strive.  Am I to conclude from this that the Bishops at the Synod and/or Pope Francis do not consider the liturgy to be even a part, much less central, to the New Evangelization?  This certainly seems to be distanced from the one of the central themes of Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum concilium: “The liturgy is the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed: at the same time, it is the font from which all her power flows.  For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord’s Supper.” (SC 10).  Is the liturgy as fons et culmen of the Christian life merely taken for granted in this document, or is its omission indicative of a shift of perspective on the role of liturgy in the life of the Church which evangelizes and is evangelized?

Throughout Evangelii gaudium there is an insistence on a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”  As early as paragraph 3, Francis writes, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ . . . every day.”  There is great emphasis on the fact that the Church is a place of encounter, where human being must personally witness to their faith from a place of this relationship with Christ.  The notion of a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” is a very familiar one in evangelical and charismatic circles.  It is also one often described in emotional terms to describe an essentially spiritual experience.

There is certainly an aspect of this personal, emotional, spiritual experience, which is an undeniable part of Christian faith and its presence is a sign of its vitality.  It also, however, can easily remain individualistic, even atomistic.  A personal relationship with Jesus Christ, for the historical Catholic faith, is never set up against or separate from the ecclesial, sacramental, doctrinal and liturgical aspects of that faith.  They are all part of one whole.  EG notes that “secularization tends to reduce the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and the personal” (64), yet it is not apparent that the document considers the personal transformative relationship of an individual with Christ in the context of his encounter with a visible, institutional Church that lives the sacraments and the liturgy of the Church.  Baptism is seen as the door to the Church (47), but the deeper implications of the connection between Baptism, professing the integrity of the faith as handed down from the apostles, and the rest of the sacramental economy, are only vaguely hinted at. 

If the objective of the New Evangelization were merely to introduce the non-believer to the person of Jesus to begin some form of relationship with Him, it would be hard to find the difference between it and the admirable forms of evangelization already done by our Protestant brethren.  But if its objective is full communion with the Catholic Church, it is hard to see how the New Evangelization can ignore the fact that the liturgy is not tangential to it, but part and parcel of it.

As Christians, we do not just encounter Christ on an individual emotional level.  We encounter Him in medio ecclesiae as part of the Ecclesia Orans which transforms us into the Body of Christ by the sacramental economy.  As Kevin Irwin in his talk “Intellectual Tasks of the New Evangelization” points out: “Through the liturgy we experience an immediate and direct engagement with and participation in the mystery of salvation through Christ’s paschal mystery.  But we always experience that immediate encounter through two important tenets of Catholicism – namely mediation and sacramentality.  The theological concepts of mediation and sacramentality are necessary to understanding how Catholics can have a relationship with Christ.  To minimize or ignore them is to risk grafting an essentially Evangelical theology of grace onto the way we explain the rapport between God and man. In consequence, the sacraments become less the divinely instituted means to an end of union with God which effect the union, and more merely customary pledges of our own interior conversion.  The liturgy becomes less the space of encounter between God and man, and little more than external rites and ceremonies whose value stems from how relevant we see them in terms of our own estimation of our own spiritual conversion. 

In short, the liturgy and the sacramental economy can be drastically marginalized in terms of their impact on the life of the Church and the individual believer. 

Liturgy and Beauty
Note that the first two uses of the word liturgy in EG are not about the liturgy as such, but about one characteristic of the liturgy, beauty.  Of course, avid students of Benedict XVI will appreciate the nod to beauty as an essential characteristic of the liturgy.  EG is replete with numerous allusions to beauty as part of the New Evangelization, and in fact, Francis writes, “A formation in the via pulchritudinis ought to be a part of our effort to pass on the faith.” (169) 

Here, however, nowhere is the liturgy considered in and of itself, but only by way of the transcendental beauty.  In the first quote, we read that “Evangelization with joy becomes beauty in the liturgy, as part of our daily concern to spread goodness.  This is a beautiful sounding statement, but what does it mean?  How does the one become the other, or is it a case of the former leading to the latter?  “L’evangelizzazione gioisa si fa belleza nella Liturgia” in the Italian version can be translated as become, but farsi has a connotation by which it is better to render it, “Joyful evangelization leads towards the beauty of the liturgy.”  That very nuanced translation alone would do much to correct the impression that EG identifies few points of causality between evangelization and liturgy.  Had the Italian version used the verb diventare, like the English becomes, the sentence appears to say that joyful evangelization itself at a certain unknown point then becomes beauty in the liturgy.  The question then becomes, “How does that happen, exactly?”

In the second quote we read, “The Church evangelizes and is herself evangelized through the beauty of the liturgy, which is both a celebration of the task of evangelization and the source of her renewed self-giving.  It is striking that the text uses a transcendental of the liturgy, and not the liturgy itself, in describing how the Church evangelizes and is evangelized.  While it is certainly true that beauty has that power, it seems odd to mention that, when the goodness and truth of the liturgy, also transcendentals, are excluded, and when the liturgy considered in and of itself is not considered to be an agent of evangelization.  It raises the question of how the text would define beauty.  “Is the liturgy Beauty itself?”, which would indicate a very high theology of the relationship between the action of Christ in the Liturgy and its essential beauty.  Or does the text merely recognize that sometimes liturgies are beautiful in terms of how they move the human heart, and thus have power to proclaim Good News.  The two ideas need not be mutually exclusive. But given the text’s seeming relegation of the liturgy and sacramental economy to a secondary place in the effects of evangelization, it would seem that a consideration of the beauty of the liturgy flows less from the Mysterium Pulchritudinis that is the Christ of the Liturgy and more of the effects beauty, that can sometimes be seen at celebrations of the liturgy, has in inciting a deeper personal relationship with God.

Also, it is unclear whether the phrase “which is both a celebration of the task of evangelization and the source of her renewed self-giving” refers to the liturgy considered in se or to the beauty of the liturgy.  Either way, the question becomes: in what way does the liturgy celebrate the task of evangelization?  This is an important question, because it involves the notion of active participation.  Can one actively participate in the liturgy if one has not been evangelized?  Does our active participation depend in some way on the extent to which we are evangelized?  Is participation in the liturgy not in some way an act and a deepening of the Mystagogia of the initiation rites?  The assertion that the liturgy is the source of the Church’s renewed self-giving is certainly true.  But to whom does the Church give herself?  Is it self-referential, as the Church gives herself to herself?  Is it a manifestation of a personal relationship, as I “give my heart to Jesus”?  Or is it merely indicative of the Church giving herself in love to the world, an interpretation plausible given the context of paragraph 24?  Where is the connection between this and the Eucharistic Sacrifice?

Ostentatious Preoccupation for the Liturgy
In paragraph 95, we read, “In some people we see an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time. This can be read after the previous paragraph, which condemns as worldliness “the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past.”  Francis names it as one manifestation of “anthropocentric immanentism.”  

Some commentators will seize upon this as a condemnation of traditionalist elements in the Church who seek to preserve the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.  But it can just as easily be applied to those today who pine after the heady days after Vatican II when self-styled experts invented their own rites and ceremonies because they were “truly liturgical” and putative restorations of practices in Christian antiquity.  The fact that the quote can be used as a weapon by two groups within the Church diametrically opposed to each other’s visions of Church reform means that this section of EG is hardly poised to fulfill Francis’ vision in paragraph 165: “All this demands on the part of the evangelizer certain attitudes which foster openness to the message: approachability, readiness for dialogue, patience, a warmth and welcome which is non-judgmental.”     
It is difficult to understand how a document which radiates a desire for warmth and dialogue can also make such a sweeping judgment.  This is especially so when EG 171 declares, “Today more than ever we need men and women who, on the basis of their experience of accompanying others . . . We need to practice the art of listening . . . Our personal experience  . . . will teach us to be patient and compassionate with others, and to find the right way to gain their trust, their openness and their readiness to grow.”

There are many people in the Church now, who were not only not listened to as they struggled with their faith in the face of the ideological manipulation of everything they were taught was good and holy, but ridiculed.  To the extent that self-absorbed promothean neopelagianism (which as a label begs to be defined explicitly if it is to be remotely helpful in diagnosing a spiritual disease) exists, it is hardly the kind of illness that can be cured by throwing fuel onto fire, and one which, like all spiritual malaise, can only be cured by the grace of Christ and cooperative witnesses of meekness and humility.  Many of the same people who are so attacked, and often react by attacking others, have a genuine concern for the liturgy, doctrine and the Church.

In this paragraph there is no indication of what a healthy concern for liturgy, doctrine and the Church might look like.  Would it not be more pastorally sensitive to suggest how the New Evangelization should approach these things?  If not, true ideologues can easily coopt this phrase to sow more disunity among Christians by over-interpreting any expression of doubt, consternation or anxiety as evidence of a psychopathological heresy.  Also, as far as anthropocentric immanentism is concerned, is one of its manifestations not that radical ideal of liturgical reform which banished the transcendent from the liturgy, the experience of which has produced such a bitter reaction in some of the faithful?  Should the Church not be concerned with all forms of anthropocentric immanentism, and not merely those which influence Catholics who are just trying to make their way through the day with their faith intact?

Preaching and the Liturgy
In paragraphs 135-144, EG discusses the homily.  The section starts out with the words “let us now look at preaching within the liturgy.”  This implies that there are forms of preaching that are not intraliturgical.  The experience of many contemporary Catholics is that preaching, such as it is, takes place almost exclusively within the Mass.  The New Evangelization can benefit from the liberation of preaching from Mass-only occasions.  But EG also points out the special place of preaching at Mass, “When preaching takes place within the context of the liturgy, it is part of the offering made to the Father and a mediation of the grace which Christ pours out during the celebration.” (138) In fact, “the homily has special importance due to its Eucharistic context.” (137)  This is where EG most strongly makes the essential connection between the Eucharistic liturgy and the Sacrificial Oblation.  But it is unclear who is doing the offering here.  Preaching is “part of the offering made to the Father.”  A sacrificial understanding of the Mass posits that Christ is the One who makes the offering, and that we participate in it, as co-offerers of that sacrifice.  The text goes on to say that preaching is a mediation of the grace of Christ.

The question rises: How?  Is preaching in and of itself a mediation of the grace of Christ, or only insofar as the Word is communicated to the faithful?  Does that mean that all who hear the homily are graced?  What extent does one have to enter into the homily to receive grace?  Also, does the mediation of grace depend on the quality of the preacher, of his “closeness and ability to communicate to his people”? (135)  We read that “preaching should guide the assembly, and the preacher, to a life-changing communion with Christ in the Eucharist.” (138)  Does that mean that, if the preacher’s message is not received as it should be by the faithful in such a way as to change their lives, does that have any effect on the mediation of the grace of Christ that preaching is, according to 138?  Is Christ’s grace somehow compromised or attenuated by bad preaching?

If the word liturgy appears five times in EG, so does the word devotion.  Two of those are in the same footnote (41) and one (285) concerns Jesus’ devotion to His Mother, in terms of His love and care for her.  There other two uses of the word in the text, however, are illuminative in terms of assessing EG’s take on the liturgy.

1.    There is a kind of Christianity made up of devotions reflecting an individual and sentimental faith life which does not in fact correspond to authentic “popular piety”. Some people promote these expressions while not being in the least concerned with the advancement of society or the formation of the laity, and in certain cases they do so in order to obtain economic benefits or some power over others. (70)
2.    Genuine forms of popular religiosity are incarnate, since they are born of the incarnation of Christian faith in popular culture. For this reason they entail a personal relationship, not with vague spiritual energies or powers, but with God, with Christ, with Mary, with the saints. These devotions are fleshy, they have a face. They are capable of fostering relationships and not just enabling escapism. (90)

These two quotes indicate that there is a true and a false devotion.  While EG does not define devotion, it seems here to be identified with popular piety, which often expresses itself in devotions, plural.  Francis declares as one of the characteristics of false devotion its individualistic lack of concern with others and their needs.  This is interesting. The above quotes on the liturgy seem to indicate a subordination of the public prayer of the Church, described only in terms of beauty and not in its connection to sacraments or rites and ceremonies, to a personal relationship with Christ.  Here we have almost a reversion of the public prayer of the Church to its individual appreciation in personal faith, and the exaltation of devotions, which by their nature are private and not public, when they are expressions of genuine community.

No mention is made of the clear stipulation of Sacrosanctum concilium 13 that “devotions should . . . accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since, in fact, the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them.” 

In paragraph 90 we see that devotions are valued essentially because of their private nature, their connection with popular culture, “they entail a personal relationship . . . they are capable of fostering relationships.”  Devotions, we read, “are born of the incarnation of Christian faith in popular culture.”

Here we have a reversal of the worldview of SC 13.  According to the conciliar constitution, the liturgy is the source and summit of Christian faith, the public prayer of the Church, and hence accorded pride of place.  All popular forms of piety are secondary, and must be ordered from and towards the liturgy, to be considered authentically Catholic, ecclesial.  The perspective of EG is different.  The liturgy is a means to an end of personal relationship with Christ, and it is unclear how it is related to the sacramental economy and ecclesial life.  Its chief value is in the fact that its beauty can bring one to God.  Devotions are prized precisely because they are expressions of peoples.  Any ordering of them is not towards the liturgy, but towards other people so they do not become individualistic exercises for escapism.    

In the last chapter of EG, Pope Francis writes, “”I do not intend to offer a synthesis of Christian spirituality, or to explore great themes like prayer, Eucharistic adoration or the liturgical celebration of the faith.  For all these we already have valuable texts of the magisterium and celebrated writings by great authors.  I do not claim to replace or improve upon these treasures.” (260)  This statement is a powerful affirmation of all of the good liturgical theology that has been done.  Detailing which texts he felt were treasures might help us understand better the matrix from which EG does its liturgical theology.  It is also a buffer against those who might want to use EG as a pretext for rupture with the work done by Benedict XVI.

Evangelii gaudium is one of those documents that I am sure will be studied and picked apart for years to come.  As it gathers together many of the fragments of Francis’ personal approach to ministry into a vision for the New Evangelization, it will be closely identified with him as much as, or even more than, the Bishops who participated in the Synod.  There are many theological and practical insights for the life of the Church, which will undoubtedly have a positive effect on the future of Catholicism.

The Sacred Liturgy, however, never appears to have any pride of place in the New Evangelization as described here.  Even though it is recognized as the public prayer of the Church and as having the attractive power of beauty, it is secondary to that popular piety which manifests the particular genius of various peoples, as well as the need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Although I doubt that a Church made in the image and likeness of Evangelii gaudium would ever dispense with the Sacred Liturgy, it is clear that the perspective of the document indicates a different one than that outlined in Sacrosanctum concilium.  It is also hard to see how EG’s liturgical thought is in continuity with the broader aims of the classical or the new liturgical movements, or the liturgical theology of Pope Benedict XVI, even if EG, in many other areas, is most definitely in continuity with many insights of Ratzinger and the broader theological movements of the last century and today.  In some way, EG’s liturgical theology could be said to be the triumph of an unintended by-product of the Catholic Reformation: an ecclesial culture where liturgy is merely what one has to go through to confect the Eucharistic species, and what is often set aside so people can go about the devotions of their own devising.  Liturgy in EG appears far from being fons et culmen.  Pope Benedict XVI’s assertion that the liturgy is a powerful element of the New Evangelization has been only weakly, if at all, carried over into the charter of that New Evangelization for our time.  But that it has not, does not negate the truth of what the liturgy is in itself and its power to evangelize and equip disciples.  


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