I am very pleased to be able to post the address given by Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, the Secretary of the Congretation for Divine Worship, on the occasion of the launch of the Italian edition of the book by Fr Michael Lang "Turning Towards the Lord". (Thanks to Sandro Magister.)
Fr. Michael Lang’s book “Turning towards the Lord” – which is now being published in Italy – traces the Church’s reasons and practices, since the first centuries, relating to the direction of liturgical prayer.
The book’s objective and lucid approach will certainly make it a helpful tool for those who want to deepen their understanding on the subject. It demonstrates how the orientation of liturgical prayer as established by postconciliar reforms does not reflect the Council documents, a surprising fact.
In fact, in the preface to the book Benedict XVI, writing when he was still the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, asserts:
“To the ordinary churchgoer, the two most obvious effects of the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council seem to be the disappearance of Latin and the turning of the altars towards the people. Those who read the relevant texts will be astonished to learn that neither is in fact found in the decrees of the Council. The use of he vernacular is certainly permitted, especially fro the Liturgy of the Word, but the preceding general rule of the Council text says, ‘Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites’ (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 36.1). There is nothing in the Council text about turning altars towards the people; that point is raised only in postconciliar instructions.”
Sacrosanctum Concilium did not call for foolhardy attitudes in this area, but for an objective and deliberate implementation of the reform. Furthermore, liturgical reform did not begin only after Vatican Council II, but had already been in motion to some extent since the time of Pius X. Both in the process of reform preceding the Council and after it, as the Council itself intended, liturgical changes were supposed to emerge organically, and not in sudden haste. But, unfortunately, not everything went as it should have. And now some are speaking of corrections, or of a reform of the reform.
Leaving aside this reform of the reform, Fr. Lang’s book can be considered a catalyst for further improvement in the current liturgical practice of the Church. Maybe this is the reason why, in the preface, the pope expresses his hope for attentive, objective, and passionate study of this topic. In his view, we must be able to see the positive value in what happened in the past, and listen to everyone, including those who do not agree with us, without becoming partisans labeled as “preconciliar” or “postconciliar,” “conservative” or “progressive.” Objectivity is the key. Benedict XVI affirms this when he says: “The quest is to be achieved, not by condemning one another, but by carefully listening to the internal guidance of the liturgy itself.”
And the Church has always understood that its liturgical life must be oriented toward the Lord, and brings with it a profoundly mystical atmosphere. It is in this reality that we must find the answers. For this reason, instead of a spirit of “free fall” that leaves everything to creativity and innovation without roots or depth, we must bring ourselves into harmony with the orientation mentioned above, and bring it to full blossom.
The pope affirms the importance of this dimension when he says that the natural direction of liturgical prayer is “versus Deum, per Jesum Christum [toward God, through Jesus Christ],” even if the priest does in fact face the people. It is not so much a question of form as of substance.
Fr. Lang’s book shows how throughout its history the Church has understood the importance of always directing its prayer toward the Lord, in terms of both content and gesture.
In order to grasp the profoundly spiritual and practical value of the Church’s liturgical life, we need not only a spirit of scientific or theological-historical research, but above all an attitude of meditation, prayer, and silence. Those who study the historical journey of the liturgy and strive to contribute to its progress must place themselves in a posture of humbly listening to the evolution of the Church’s liturgical traditions down through the centuries, and of the important role of the magisterium. They must also pay attention to the gradual development of these traditions within the ecclesial community, and arm themselves with a spirit of intense prayer and adoration of the Lord. This is because what happens in the Church’s celebrations of praise is not simply an earthly and human reality. And if these mystical aspects are not betrayed, everything will become a source of edification rather than disorientation and confusion. Arbitrariness, haste, and emotional excitement should have no place in this search. The conciliar constitution on the sacred liturgy affirms this point when it says:
“That sound tradition may be retained, and yet the way remains open to legitimate progress. Careful investigation is always to be made into each part of the liturgy which is to be revised. This investigation should be theological, historical, and pastoral. Also the general laws governing the structure and meaning of the liturgy must be studied in conjunction with the experience derived from recent liturgical reforms and from the indults conceded to various places. Finally, there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 23).
This is why this same conciliar constitution offers clear and stringent norms on who is truly competent to make decisions on liturgical innovations, asserting, among other things, that “therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 22).
This great sense of reverence toward what is being celebrated stems not only from the fact of the centrality of the liturgy in the Church’s life, affirmed by the principle “lex credendi, lex orandi,” but also from the conviction that the liturgy is not a purely human act, but a reflection of what is happening, as Sacrosanctum Concilium itself says, “in that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims.”
The liturgy is also that which is given as a gift to the community of the Church, the bride of Christ and the heavenly Jerusalem.
Unfortunately, for various reasons, which are sometimes well-intentioned, there are priests and bishops who introduce every sort of experiment and change, diminishing the sense of the sacred and mystical nature of what is depicted in the Church’s liturgical celebrations. The temptation to become the leading actors in the divine mysteries, and to seek to control even the action of the Lord, is strong in a culture that divinizes man. In some countries, the situation is or is becoming truly dramatic. Every trace of the sacred often disappears in these so-called “liturgies.”
One of the most beautiful of flowers, the lotus flower, grows in Asia. But it grows in the mud. Even though mud is not beautiful, the flower grows out of it and orients itself toward the sun, spreading its petals and imparting beauty to its surroundings. I see a comparison to human life in this. What truly liberates man is not what keeps him immersed in the slime of his weaknesses and decisions, but the capacity he acquires to liberate himself from these and direct his life toward the infinite and toward his Creator. It is not by lowering the sense of the divine to the human level, but by seeking to raise ourselves to supernatural levels that we will succeed in making contact with the divine mystery.
The liturgy is not what man decides it is, but what the Lord brings about within him: an attitude of adoration toward his Creator and Lord, liberating him from his slavery. If the liturgy loses its mystical and heavenly dimension, what will help man to free himself from the mud of egoism and slavery? If the Church does not insist upon the mystical and profoundly spiritual dimensions of life and the celebration of life, who will? Is this not our duty to a world that is closed off within itself, becoming disoriented, insecure, locked in its own prison? If man presumes to understand everything that the Lord does, then it is not God who judges history, but man himself. Is this not the ancient idolatry denounced by the prophets?
The Church, which must reflect the constant presence of Christ in the world, is placed at the service of humanity in order to help it to free itself from the prison of being closed in on itself, to discover its vocation to the fullness of life in the Lord, and to open itself to the joyous embrace of the infinite. Its intimate communion with its Spouse, which is reflected and nourished above all in its liturgical life, becomes the powerful manifestation of the infinite freedom that humanity always has the possibility of reaching through it.
For this reason, preserving and enriching the spiritual mysticism of the liturgy is no longer an option for us, but a duty. If the world falls into the pit of human self-sufficiency, thus becoming more thirsty for the infinite, the Church cannot help but offer the liturgy, because in Christ humanity is raised up into the divine presence. It is not by lowering itself to superficiality that the liturgy will motivate us to reflect the values of the infinite to the world, but by affirming these mystical and divine dimensions more and more. Today more than ever, this becomes a reflection of the prophetic role of the Church as well.
Thank you, Fr. Lang, for this book which will help us to turn our gaze ever more toward the Lord.