Rorate Caeli

A broad liturgical program for
the Hermeneutic of Continuity?
Luc Perrin

Luc Perrin, professor of Church History at the Faculté de Théologie Catholique of the University of Strasbourg 2-Marc Bloch, presents a selection, with comments, of the main aspects of the recent interview of the Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW), Archbishop A. M. Ranjith, published by the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN).

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Ranjith’s interview on the apostolic exhortation Sacramentum caritatis:
a broad program to make the December 22, 2005 papal hermeneutics of continuity a reality?

« It truly is a correction of course and should be welcomed, appreciated, studied and put into practice. » (Archbishop Albert Malcolm Ranjith Patabendige Don)

The Sri-Lankan number 2 of the Roman Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments already surprised Catholics last year with two interventions that were blunt. The official Roman language had previously banned serious examination of the so-called «Renewal», especially in the liturgical field. We have in this capital interview a sort of resurrection of a voice many bishops dreaded during 25 years – a voice which some faithful and priests have found, on the other hand, encouraging and conforting: the voice of Cardinal Ratzinger.

Is Archbishop Ranjith the spokesman of pope Benedict XVI? I am not suggesting it: who can tell?... But he is here certainly reflecting the pre-2005 public Ratzingerian way of thinking.


From the very beginning, with his evaluation of the «liturgical renewal initiated by Vatican Council II», Archbishop Ranjith used the 1984 Ratzingerian approach (the famous interview with V. Messori, published in English as The Ratzinger Report). The post-Vatican II Church is «a mixed bag of results»:

Among the positive changes, I see the use of vernacular languages in the liturgy, which helped to lead the faithful to better understand the word of God, the rubrics of the liturgy itself, and a more responsive and shared participation in the celebration of the sacred mysteries.

Adaptations to local cultural practices have also been tried, though not always with good results. The use of the vernacular has at times helped in generating a theological vocabulary in the local idiom that eventually could be helpful to evangelization and the presentation of the message of the gospel to those of non-Christian religious traditions, which constitute the overwhelming majority of the people of Asia.

Some negative aspects have been the quasi total abandonment of the Latin language, tradition and chant; a far too facile interpretation of what could be absorbed from local cultures into the liturgy; a sense of misunderstanding of the true nature, content and meaning of the Roman rite and its norms and rubrics, which led to an attitude of free experimentation; a certain anti-Roman "feeling," and an uncritical acceptance of all kinds of "novelties" resulting from a secularizing and humanistic theological and liturgical mindset overtaking the West.


The spreading of these novelties is clearly linked to «some foreign missionaries who brought them from their own mother countries or by locals who had been to those countries on visits or for studies and had let themselves be uncritically absorbed into a kind of "free spirit" that some circles had created around the Council».

In other words, the corrupted well were Western European and North American Catholic institutions for theological and priestly training: when the Archbishop speaks of Asia, he has always a thought for us in the secularized West. What is said here for Asia could also be applied to Africa —and parts of Latin America— in the past 30 years. One major reorientation of John Paul II was to restore Catholic teaching in the so-called Catholic universities and seminaries (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 1990); the development of an Asian school of theologies, mostly deviant, shows among other examples that there is work to be done to achieve this goal.

Thus, Archbishop Ranjith is at odds with the standard evaluation of this «Renewal», as the second proposition of 2005 Synod repeated it, coined by the neo-liturgists' ideology:

«Proposition 2

The Liturgical Reform of Vatican II

The Synodal Assembly recalled with gratitude the beneficial influence that the liturgical reform carried out since the Second Vatican Council has had for the life of the Church. It has highlighted the beauty of the Eucharistic action that shines in the liturgical rite. Abuses were verified in the past; they are not even lacking today, although they have diminished greatly. However, such incidents cannot darken the goodness and validity of the reform, which still has riches that are not totally explored; rather, they call for greater care in regard to the "ars celebrandi," which favors "actuosa participatio."»


Moreover he links from the beginning the notion of inculturation with the Liturgical Question, and very wisely so. We are here far from some «abuses», which have in no way «diminished», or from a mere «ars celebrandi» problem. We are at the core of the mission, so we are at the core of what the Church is and has to do in this world. Liturgy is a mirror for a comprehensive vision of the Church that has to be corrected: «it truly is a correction of course».

Departing from «a kind of empiricist horizontalism» to go back to the real Vatican II Council would be the key and Ranjith looks at the exhortation as a crowning achievement of the Wojtylian struggle:

One could, in a certain sense, state that documents such as Ecclesia de Eucharistia ("The Church [draws her life] from the Eucharist," encyclical "On the Eucharist in its Relationship to the Church," Pope John Paul II, April 17, 2003), Liturgiam Authenticam ("Authentic Liturgy", instruction "On the Use of Vernacular Languages in the Publication of the Books of the Roman Liturgy," Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, May 7, 2001), and Redemptionis Sacramentum ("Sacrament of Redemption," instruction "On certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist," Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, April 23, 2004) already started the needed adjustments reflective of the indications of the Council.

Sacramentum Caritatis crowns it all with a truly profound, mystical and yet so very easily understandable catechesis on the Eucharist ... .


The Archbishop gives some examples from the Asian experience which are valid everywhere: these examples are give some concreteness to the general concept of the hermeneutics of continuity.

Among those mentioned:

  • « As I mentioned, Asia is deeply mystical and conscious of the value of the Sacred in human life, moving a human being to look for the deeper mysteries of religion and spirituality. The tendency to banalise the celebration of the Eucharist through a somewhat horizontal orientation, often visible in modern times. is not consonant with that search. Hence, the general orientation of the document is good for Asia. » [and, we can say, good for the whole Church.]


  • Here is an idea of this general orientation : «In mind and heart, however, we follow secular ways and values. If we are truly Asian, we should focus more attention on the mysticism of Jesus, His message of salvation, the great value of prayer, contemplation, detachment, simplicity of life, devoutness and reflection and the value of silence, and forms of liturgical celebration that focus great attention on the sacred and the transcendent. We Asians cannot be secularists who do not see anything beyond the visible and the tangible».


  • Ranjith often praises the positive, necessary, role of Tradition: «People in Asia are a worshipping people, with worship forms that are centuries old and not inventions of any single individual.» ; «a treasure handed down to the Church by its bi-millennial tradition».


  • Rubrics are praised, which is the opposite of what neo-liturgical theory teaches: «Adherence to rubrics in the other religious traditions in Asia is strict. Besides, their rubrics are profoundly reflective of the special role of the sacred. Thus, the seriousness recommended by the Supreme Pontiff is very much in consonance with Asian ways of worship».


  • Stricter guidelines, «parameters», to inculturation: «Yet, already Sacrosanctum Concilium indicated clear parameters within which the adaptations of the liturgy to local cultural patterns are to be carried out. (...) Sacramentum Caritatis follows the same line, that adaptations of liturgy to local cultural traditions be handled according to the stipulations of the various directives of the Church and in keeping with a proper sense of balance "between the criteria and directives already issued and new adaptations" [no. 54], and these too "always in accord with the apostolic see" [ibid. 54]. In short, inculturation through adaptations, yes, but always within clear parameters that ensure nobility and orthodoxy ». We are very often far from such parameters: «A closer spirit of cooperation with the Holy See in this matter would be needed. There is too much drifting in the matter and even an attitude of "who cares?" that leaves everything to free interpretation and the creativity of single persons». This «who cares?» attitude is certainly not restricted to Asia, alas!


  • On a very practical level, the Archbishop notes the relevance of Liturgical gestures, vestments, and utensils: «By inconsistency I mean practices we introduce as adaptations but per se are incompatible with our culture, like just a bow instead of genuflection or prostration before the holy Eucharist, or communion in the hand received standing, which is far below levels of consideration given to the sacred in Asia. In some countries, instead of introducing liturgical vestments or utensils reflective of local values, their use has been reduced to a minimum, or even abandoned. I was at times shocked to see priests and even bishops celebrating or concelebrating without the proper liturgical attire. This is not inculturation but de-culturation, if such a word exists ».


  • More extensively, Ranjith points to the ordinary use of religious garb in non-Christian Asian religions: «Take, for example, the large scale abandonment of the cassock or religious garb by many priests and religious in Asia, even missionaries. They hardly understood that in Asian culture, persons dedicated to God or religion are always visible in his or her own garb, like the Buddhist monk or the Hindu sannyasi (holy man). This shows we do not understand what inculturation truly means ». Even outside Asia, the religious garb is making religion visible and perfectly understood as such.


  • Ranjith provides an apologia for a strict reading of Vatican II constitution on Liturgy, for example regarding the use of Latin: «The point is that the vernacular is not the normal language of the liturgy for Sacrosanctum Concilium but Latin, with permission being granted for the vernacular to be used in specific areas such as the readings, some prayers and chants and parts that pertain to the people. What is remarkable is that it advocates the use of Latin even in "those parts of the ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them" [SC 54]».


  • Then he goes as far as this, once again thinking upon the Asian reference where Latin, like everywhere else, was banned from the Liturgical life: «This is rather unfortunate. I am not sure if there is a marked yearning for a return of Latin in the liturgy in Asia. I hope it would be so. Some Catholics who are aware of the beauty of Latin do express such a desire. They have seen or come to experience liturgies celebrated in Latin in Rome or elsewhere and are fascinated by it. Others are fascinated by the old Latin rite, the Pius V Mass now being celebrated in some places of Asia. But the larger portion of Asian Catholics is still unaware of the value of Latin in the holy Mass. I wonder what they would say if some form of Latin is reintroduced. They might like it and, knowing the spirit of devotion that Asian Catholics carry within themselves, it would certainly help deepen their faith even further. Our people know that not all divine realities are within the reach of human understanding and that there should be room for some sense of spiritual mystery in worship. Besides, it would be good for the Church in Asia not to remain cut off from new trends emerging universally, one of which is a fresh appreciation of the church's bi-millennial Latin heritage. This is not to say we ought to abandon the vernacular and embrace Latin in toto. A sound and sober use of Latin as well as the vernacular, on the lines of Sacrosanctum Concilium, would be a gain for all. Besides, in Asia some other religions have preserved an official "liturgical" language, like Sanskrit for Hinduism and Pali for Buddhism. These are not spoken languages but are used only in worship. Are they not teaching us a lesson that a "liturgical language" which is not in common use can better express an inner mysticism of the "sacred" in worship?».


  • Then we find a fervent defense of the demand on training future priests in Latin and singing Gregorian chant. To the question «Will Asia's seminaries welcome it?», Ranjith responds and the whole text is worth to be read by North and South Americans, Europeans, and Africans just as well: «There is no question of a welcoming. I think it is a need, and rather than falling into a well of isolationist narrow mindedness or a purely empiricist approach to faith that, by the way, is not Asian and does not leave room for an understanding of that which is transcendent, our priests and seminarians should be encouraged to open out to the wider reality of their faith, which is Catholic and universal, its bi-millennial roots and development and its mystical and sacred dimensions. And since Latin has been at the very root of much of the developments in theology, liturgy, and ecclesial discipline all along, seminarians and priests should be encouraged to learn and use it.

    «This would help the church in Asia not only to grasp better the content of the depositum fidei (deposit of faith) and its development, but also discover a theological language of its own, capable of presenting the faith to the peoples of Asia convincingly [cfr. Ecclesia in Asia 20]. Learning Latin is in no way a going backward but, on the contrary, going forward. Only thus could a truly profound process of inculturation take place. Any so-called theology not rooted in the fonts of sacred scriptures and the tradition of the Church, prayed on one's knees and illumined by the light of a holy life is but empty noise-making and would lead only to disorder and confusion.

    «The same is true of liturgy. Latin is the ordinary liturgical language of the church. In the origin and development of the Roman rite, it had a major role to play. Thus, a sufficient knowledge of this language would facilitate a better understanding and appreciation of the beauty of what is celebrated. As the holy father stated, "the beauty of the liturgy is part of this mystery; it is a sublime expression of God's glory and, in a certain sense, a glimpse of heaven on earth" [Sacr. Carit. 35].

    «Celebrating in Latin thus would help build a sense of awe and respect as well as a profound spiritual link with what the Lord himself inspired the Church to assume as its form of worship. This openness to Latin would also help the students appreciate better the role of Gregorian chant in the church. The holy father wishes that it "be suitably esteemed and employed" as it is the "chant proper to the Roman liturgy" [Sacr. Carit. 42]. Learning the simplicity and beauty of this great body of chant would also help musically talented priests and seminarians in Asia to be inspired by it and be able to compose dignified and prayerful chant forms that can harmonize better with the local culture. It would be presumptuous to assume that using Gregorian chant would harm inculturation of the liturgy. It could actually be beneficial.»

But the gentle Archbishop kept a final "bouquet of lights", as in a display of fireworks: we have in this interview a sort of reference book for the so-called «reform of the reform», which Joseph Ratzinger wanted to launch in 2001. Archbishop Ranjith Patabendige Don also confirms his own evaluation, exposed in the Summer of 2006.

This final note is the quotation, by Ranjith, of a genuine prophecy by cardinal Antonelli, who belonged to the Bugnini Consilium of 1964-1969 [it seems the publication of the thesis from which Antonelli’s words were taken, Il Card. Ferdinando Antonelli e gli sviluppi della riforma liturgica dal 1948 al 1970 (Studia Anselmiana, Roma, 1998), authored by Nicola Gianpietro, was not welcome by the then secretary of CDW, a Bugnini disciple].

We are here closer to J. Ratzinger's The Spirit of The Liturgy (2000) than the self-praise of the original second proposition of the 2005 Synod.

«The post-conciliar reform of the Liturgy, though laudable in some aspects, had not been all that faithful to the spirit of the council.

As Cardinal Ferdinando Antonelli, a member of the commission that worked on the reform then, attested: "I am not happy about the spirit. There is a spirit of criticism and impatience towards the Holy See which would not augur well. And then, everything is a study on the rationality of the liturgy and no concern for true piety. I am afraid that one day one would say of all this reform what was said about the reform of the hymns at the time of Urban VIII: accepit liturgia recessit pietas (as liturgy progresses, piety goes backward); and here accepit liturgia recessit devotio (as liturgy progresses, devotion goes backward). I hope I am wrong" [from the diaries of Cardinal Antonelli, April 30, 1965].

We have seen a lot of banalization and obscuring of the mystical and sacred aspects of the liturgy in many areas of the church in the name of a so-called "Konzilsgeist" (council spirit).

In the last 20 years or so, the Church has sought to set the course of liturgical reform straight and in line with the indications of Sacrosanctum Concilium. Documents such as Liturgiam Authenticam, Varietates legitimae, Redemptionis Sacramentum and Ecclesia de Eucharistia are part of that attempt, and Sacramentum Caritatis, which is a collegial document in that it collects the propositions of the bishops' Synod on the Holy Eucharist, is the culminating moment, I would say, of that course of "setting things right." It truly is a correction of course and should be welcomed, appreciated, studied and put into practice.

The cultural heritage of Asia is deeply religious and conscious of the value of the sacred and mystical in human life. So the church in Asia should welcome this document and its orientations, which are directed very much towards a restoration of the profound values of spirituality and faith into liturgy most wholeheartedly and take necessary steps to implement its indications as zealously and as faithfully as possible.

This is my wish for the Church in Asia, the continent of mysticism».

It is undoubtedly the wish of many for the whole Church. The main interrogation remains, just as for all previous documents: will it be «welcomed, appreciated, studied and put into practice»? Have we got an episcopate able to welcome, appreciate, study, and put into practice this crucial «correction of course»?

The fact that this interview is given in a somewhat discreet mode, the other fact that this broad and wise interpretation is, for the moment, expressed only by the secretary of CDW, and pretty much ignored by the episcopal college – both considerations show there is much work to be done, either in Rome to provide proper workers to the Lord's vineyard or in our various communities to promote the need for a «correction of course».

The repeatedly postponed «motu proprio» freeing the Traditional Roman Rite, which is not mentioned in Sacramentum caritatis, is also a proof that not everyone has understood, as the Archbishop did, the dynamics of «new trends emerging universally, one of which is a fresh appreciation of the Church's bi-millennial Latin heritage ».

1 comment:

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