Rorate Caeli

Mediator Dei - 60th Anniversary - II
Ranjith speaks to L'Osservatore Romano

In a special interview to L'Osservatore Romano, the Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith Patabendige, remembers the 60th anniversary of Mediator Dei and reminds readers that the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum had a double cause: the need to establish a rapprochement with the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X (FSSPX / SSPX) and the abuses in the celebrations according to the Novus Ordo.

By Maurizio Fontana

Sixty years since the publication of Pius XII's encyclical Mediator Dei, the debate on liturgy is alive and open. The recent going into force of Benedict XVI's Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum - which allows celebration of the traditional Mass without asking the local bishop's permission - has fueled a confrontation which has never really died down since the Second Vatican Council.

In the November 18 issue of L'Osservatore Romano, Nicola Bux, referring to Mediator Dei, reaffirmed the importance of a wide-ranging debate on liturgy carried on 'without prejudice and with great charity'. A confrontation, he said, that should be guided by the Congregation for Divine Worship and Sacramental Discipline.

We therefore interviewed Mons. Albert Malcolm Ranjith, secretary of that Congregation.

Let us start with Mediator Dei. Could we summarize its most relevant aspects?

With that encyclical, Pius XII - working also on the basis of what Pius X wrote in his Motu Proprio Tra le sollecitudini - sought to present to the faithful a theological summary of the intimate essence of liturgy. He dwelt on pointing out its origins and defined it as Christ's priestly act to render praise and glory to God and, above all through his supreme sacrifice, to fulfill God the Father's plan for the salvation of mankind. In this sense, Christ is at the center of prayer and the priestly function of the Church.

"The Divine Redeemer," we read in the encyclical, "intended that the priestly life he began in his mortal body with his prayers and his sacrifice, should not cease in the course of centuries in his mystical Body which is the church."

Essentially, the encyclical shows that the rite of worship is not ours, but Christ's, in which we all take part. That is more or less the line that Benedict XVI has offered in his liturgical writings before and after he became Pope: namely, it is not us who carry out the liturgical rite, but in performing it, we are simply conforming to a heavenly liturgical act which happens in eternity.

Pius XII's encyclical on the liturgy preceded Sacrosanctum Concilium of Vatican II by 16 years. What relationship can we find between the two documents? Is there a continuity? And is it true, as Fr. Bux wrote yesterday, that without Mediator Dei, one cannot fully understand the liturgical constitution of Vatican II?

One can definitely say that the pre-conciliar liturgical reform begun by Pius XII was an opening for what would take place in Vatican II.

The fact that Sacrosanctum Concilium was the first document to come out of Vatican II confirms not only the primary importance of liturgy for the life of the Church, but also that evidently, the Council Fathers already had ready instruments at their disposition to proceed to a rapid definition of the issues and the renewal of the liturgy.

One must also remember that most of the experts who worked in the pre-conciliar reform were integrated into the committee that prepared Sacrosanctum Concilium.

In fact, Sacrosanctum concilium - even with its emphasis on the pastoral concern to make liturgy more effective and participatory - expresses the concept of participation in the celestial liturgy quite well. In a way, this aspect of Mediator Dei flows naturally into Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Even in the formulation of the two documents, we can see a more or less identical scheme of composition. The links are quite clear -Sacrosanctum Concilium continues the great tradition of Mediator Dei, just as Mediator Dei itself was in line with preceding Popes, particularly Pius X.

So with this continuity, perhaps some prejudices against the pre-conciliar church, and in particular, against Pius XII himself, may be overcome...

We can certainly hope so. Moreover Cardinal Ratzinger - in The Ratzinger Report - spoke of the difference between a faithful interpretation of the Council and an approach to it that was rather adventurous and unreal, as advanced by some theological circles animated by what they would soon call 'the spirit of Vatican II', but which he instead called an anti-Spirit or Konzils-Ungeist.

The same distinction can be seen relatively to what happened in liturgy. In many of the innovations that have been introduced, one can see substantial differences between what Sacrosanctum Concilium textually says and the post-conciliar reforms that were carried out.

It is true that the document allowed room for interpretation and research, but it was not an invitation to liturgical renewal understood as something to realize ex novo. On the contrary, it declared itself fully within the tradition of the Church.

As you pointed out, from Mediator Dei to the Vatican II documents, the centrality of Christ in the liturgy was always affirmed with clarity and vigor. Has the so-called post-conciliar church been able to embody this?

With this, we touch a sore point. It is, in fact, a practical problem: the value of the norms and instructions given in the liturgical books have not been fully understood by everyone in the Church. Let me make an example.

That which takes place at the altar is well explained in the liturgical texts, but some instructions have not been taken seriously at all. In fact, there has been a tendency to interpret the post-conciliar liturgical reform as if it intended 'creativity' to be the rule. But that is not allowed by the published norms.

So, in many places, the liturgy does not seem to express Christocentrism at all, but rather a spirit of Immanentism and of anthropocentrism.

But true anthropocentrism should be Christocentric. That which is happening at the altar is not something that is 'ours' - it is Christ who acts, and the centrality of his figure takes away the act from our control, so to speak. We are absorbed - and we should let ourselves be absorbed - in that act, so much that at the end of the Eucharistic prayer, we proclaim the stupendous doxology which says, "For him, in him, and with him".

So the 'creative' tendency I referred to is not allowed at all in the instructions found in the liturgical books. Unfortunately, the practice comes from a wrong interpretation of the Council texts or perhaps an unfamiliarity with them and with liturgy itself!

We must keep in mind that liturgy has a 'conservative' character, but not in the negative sense that the word has today.

The Old Testament shows us the great faithfulness [of the Jews] to their rites, and Jesus himself continued to observe the rites of his ancestors faithfully. Therefore, the Church followed such examples.

St. Paul says, "I pass on to you that which I received" [Tradidi quod et accepi] (1 Cor 11,23), not 'that which I made up'. This is very central. We are called on to be faithful to something that does not belong to us, but which is given to us. We should be faithful to the seriousness with which the sacraments should be celebrated. Why should we fill up page upon page of instructions if everyone thinks he is authorized to do as he pleases?

After the publication of Summorum Pontificum, the debate between so-called traditionalists and innovators has re-ignited. Is there a sense to this?

Absolutely not. There was not and there is no break between the before and after, there is a continuous line.

With respect to the traditional Mass, there had been a growing demand for it over time, which also became more organized little by little. At the same time, faithfulness to the standards of celebrating the sacraments was falling. The more such faithfulness diminished, along with the beauty and wonder of liturgy, the more some Catholics looked back to the traditional Mass.

So in fact, who have been asking for the traditional Mass to be made more easily available? Not just the organized groups, but even those who have lost respect for Masses that are not performed with appropriate respect for the actual norms of the Novus Ordo.

For years, the liturgy has undergone so many abuses, and so many bishops have simply ignored them. Pope John Paul II made a heartfelt appeal in Ecclesia Dei afflicta, which called on the Church to be more serious about the liturgy. And he did it again in the Instruction Redemptionis sacramentum. But many liturgists and diocesan offices of liturgy criticized the Papal documents.

The problem then is not so much about the traditional Mass, but an almost unlimited abuse of the nobility and dignity of the Eucharistic celebration. And this was something about which Pope Benedict could not be silent, as we saw in his explanatory letter to the bishops and in his many speeches. He feels a great sense of pastoral responsibility.

Therefore, this document, beyond being an attempt to bring back the Society of Saint Pius X into the Church is also a gesture, a strong call from the universal Pastor for a sense of seriousness about the liturgy.

Is it also a reflection on those who are responsible for the formation of priests?

I would say so. Moreover, in the face of some arbitrary concessions in liturgy that one cannot take seriously, one must ask what are they teaching in seminaries now?

One cannot approach liturgy with a superficial, 'unscientific' attitude. That goes both for those who have a 'creative' interpretation of liturgy as well as for those who presume too easily that they are recreating liturgy as it was in the early days of the Church. In liturgy, one always needs careful attentive exegesis; one cannot launch into fanciful and ingenuous interpretations.

Above all, there is a tendency in some liturgical circles to undervalue how much the Church matured in the second millennium of its history. They talk about impoverished rituals, but this is a very banal and simplistic conclusion.

Instead, we believe that the Tradition of the Church manifests itself as a continuous development. We cannot say that one part of tradition is better than another. What matters is the action of the Holy Spirit through the highs and lows of history. We should be faithful to this continuity of tradition.

Liturgy is central for the life of the Church: lex orandi, lex credendi, but also lex vivendi. For a true renewal of the Church - as Vatican II intended - liturgy must not be limited only to being an academic study. It should become an absolute priority in the local Churches.

That's why it is necessary that the proper importance should be given at the local level to liturgical formation according to what the Church teaches.

After all is said and done, the priestly life is tightly related to what the priest celebrates and how he does it. If a priest celebrates the Eucharist well, then one can be sure that he is disposed to consistency (with the Church) and that he indeed becomes part of the Sacrifice of Christ. And so, the liturgy can be that fundamental in the formation of priests who are holy.

And that is a great responsibility for the bishops who, in this way, could do so much for a renewal of the Church.

An aspect that is not secondary in this debate on liturgy is on sacred art, starting with the important matter of liturgical music. Recently, this newspaper confronted this issue and reported some considerations by Mons. Valentín Miserachs Grau which were hardly reassuring.

The Congregation is still studying the document for the new antiphonal, and we have consulted the Pontifical Institute for Sacred Music; we hope to come to a quick conclusion.

To sing is to pray twice, Saint Augustine said, and I think this is very true, especially of Gregorian chant which is a priceless treasure.

In Sacramentum Caritatis, the Pope spoke clearly about the need to teach Gregorian chant and Latin in seminaries. We should guard, preserve and value this immense patrimony of the Catholic church and use it to praise the Lord. But we certainly need to do much work on this aspect.

Of course, there are many songs used in Church which are not in the Gregorian tradition. We have to make sure they are truly edifying for the faith, that they provide spiritual nourishment to those who participate in the liturgy, and that they truly prepare the hearts of the listeners to listen to the Word of God.

In any case, the contents of songs used in Church should be watched closely by the bishop to avoid, for instance, New Age concepts. In this respect, a great sense of discretion is necessary with respect to musical instruments that are appropriate for Church, that they can serve to edify the faith.

In terms of church architecture, the dialog with the specialists is pretty well delineated. More difficult is that with figurative artists. While some leading contemporary artists appear to be involved in works that interpret sacred themes, they seem to be far less involved when it comes to works specifically intended for places of worship. Is it simply a matter of commissions or does the dialog with modern artists that was so dear to Paul VI need new impetus?

The Council dedicated an entire chapter to sacred art. Among the principles stated is the relationship between art and faith. Dialog is essential. Every artist is a special individual, with his own style of which he takes great pride. So we must be able to enter the artist's heart with the dimension of faith. It's not easy, but the Church should find a way to carry on a more profound dialog.

In fact, on December 1, the Congregation is sponsoring a day of 'study' at the Vatican on this matter. We hope this will be an occasion to give new impetus to the dialog with artists and to the promotion of sacred art.

(L'Osservatore Romano - 19-20 November 2007)

Interview: in Italian (permanent link).