Rorate Caeli

"In the center is the Eucharistic Jesus Christ, the tabernacle, the cross. That is where we must begin. Otherwise we lose the sense of the Divine."

The following is a translation of an interview with Msgr. Nicola Bux published on the blog Disputationes Theologicae on April 24, 2010. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first English translation of this particular interview to be published anywhere. Many thanks to the friends of Rorate who labored on this translation.

The following translations of other interviews with Msgr. Bux can be found on Rorate:

Interview with Monsignor Nicola Bux

In the framework of a deepening of the debate on the liturgy and on the so-called “reform of the reform,” the editors of Disputationes Theologicae have interviewed one of the most prominent liturgists, Monsignor Nicola Bux. Born in 1947, he was ordained a priest in 1975 and has done research at the Ecumenical Institute, at the Biblicum in Jerusalem, and at the Istituto Sant’Anselmo in Rome. He is Professor of Sacramental Theology at the Theological Faculty in Bari (Italy) and is one of the most esteemed collaborators of the Holy Father, Benedict XVI. The author of numerous publications on dogmatic theology and liturgy, he recently published his noted text “The Reform of Benedict XVI.” Msgr. Bux is now a Consultor of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and the Office for Pontifical Celebrations. He is a consultant for the review Communio and also a specialist in the liturgy of the Eastern Rites.

Mons. Nicola Bux
· Monsignor, you are a professor of Sacramental Theology and also said to be one of the experts on the liturgy closest to the Pope. Is this a sign that it is not possible to speak about Liturgy without [sound] doctrine?

It is well known that the liturgy pertains to the dogma of the Church. Everybody knows that the faith of the Church is close to the liturgy and that from prayer one returns to dogma. Everybody knows the saying, “lex orandi lex credendi.” And it is from the way we pray that we understand what we believe, but it is also from the way we believe that we derive the way to pray. This had been taken up and wisely developed in the encyclical Mediator Dei of the Venerable Servant of God Pius XII.

· For a while now even the most tenacious supporters of a “permanent revolution” in the liturgy seem to give in before the wise argumentation of the Pope, of which there’s a clear echo in your book. Are we witnessing a new (or old if you prefer) vision of the liturgy?

Liturgy is, by its nature, of divine institution, based on the unchangeable will of its divine Founder. Because this is in fact the basis of the liturgy, we may affirm that the liturgy is “of divine right.” It is not by chance that the Orientals use the term “Divine Liturgy,” because this is God’s work, the “opus Dei”, as Saint Benedict says. The liturgy is not of a thing of human origin. In the conciliar document on the liturgy, in no. 22, § 3, it is clearly stated that no one, not even a priest, may add, take away, or change anything. Why? The liturgy belongs to the Lord. During Lent, we read the passages from Deuteronomy where God Himself establishes the practical details of worship. In the New Testament, it is Jesus Himself Who tells the disciples how they should prepare the supper. God has the right to be adored as He wishes and not as we wish. Otherwise we fall into a cult of “idolatry” in the proper meaning of the Greek term, i.e. worship made in our own image. When the liturgy mirrors the tastes or creative tendencies of the priest or of a group of the laity it becomes “idolatry.” Catholic worship is worship in spirit and in truth; it is a turning towards the Father, in the Holy Spirit, but it has to pass through Jesus Christ, has to pass through the Truth. Therefore, it is necessary to rediscover that God has the right to be adored as He Himself has established. The ritual forms aren’t a matter “to be interpreted,” because these forms come out of the discerned faith, which becomes, in a certain sense, the culture of the Church. The Church has always been anxious that the rites not be the product of subjective tastes but the exact expression of the entire Church, which is “catholic.” The liturgy is catholic, universal. Therefore, even when we are dealing with a particular celebration held in a particular place, it is not possible to celebrate it in contrast to the “catholic” physiognomy of liturgy.

· Unfortunately, we find ourselves confronted with an attitude of the clergy by which—even if they do not openly deny the efficacy of the Sacraments—they too often leave aside the so-called “ex opere operato” aspect of the Sacrament, so that it is almost reduced to being a mere “symbol.” Is the cause perhaps to be found in the loss of a traditional “rituality”?

The reason for this is that one has forgotten that worship is not given to an imaginary God, but to a God Who is present, a God Who acts, that is to the Lord Jesus. Sacrosanctum Concilium n. 7 even explains to us the modes of this presence. Such an article is almost charged with the weight of Mediator Dei , to which it adds the presence in the Word. It is clearly explained here that the liturgy has its raison d’être in the presence of God; otherwise it becomes self-referential, it becomes empty.

Forgetting, under-valuing the Lord’s presence, which is at its fullest in the Eucharist, where He is truly, really, and substantially present, is the reason for the drifting away you mention. With such a deformation, one ends up defining the liturgy [erroneously] as a conjunction of symbols and signs, as one can sometimes hear people say; in this framework, “sign” is understood only as “something which refers to something else.” The idea that the sign is at one with what it signifies is not present. That, though, is where [the notion of] the Sacrament arises. When this aspect is lost, the Sacraments are reduced to mere symbols. One loses the sense of their “efficacy,” of the effects that they cause. There is no longer an understanding of the Lord Who “acts,” Who “works” through the Sacraments. This is the meaning of the classical expression “ex opere operato,” which is a bit strange, but which means that the efficacy of the Sacrament derives from Him who operates in it. I will take the example of a drug [medicine]. In appearance you see a bottle or a pill or a liquid, but it is not only the symbol of the remedy which the doctor wants to bring about, because we assume that if we take them they will cure us and heal us; that is, the effects take hold. The author of this effect is the Lord, Who is present and operating in the sacramental rite. St. Leo the Great, who is cited in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, says that after the Ascension, all that was visible of the Lord here on earth passed into the Sacraments. It is in this way that the Lord continues to be present and visible to us in our own days. It is necessary that we look at things in this light if we wish to understand Saint Thomas [Aquinas] when he speaks of the “matter” of the Sacraments. If we do not return to this kind of realistic expression, we will not be able to understand the Sacraments. The divine presence is not only something that we look at as something “symbolic” but as something which touches human beings by means of the Sacraments. It is something active. I myself can attest, and many other priests along with me, that people suffering from an illness recover after having received the Anointing, but also that there is a recovery of the soul after Confession or because of their frequenting the Eucharist. The Sacraments have an effect; they have consequences because they are causes. These are consequences of the divine presence, which is what acts in the divine liturgy. The Pope said to the parish priests of Rome this year that the Sacraments are meant to lead us into Christ’s being, into into the divine existence.

· Apart from certain utopians, who lack pastoral sense and would like an immediate restoration of everything, should we not ask ourselves how to act gently but firmly in order to improve gradually certain aspects of the liturgy? How should we act in this necessary but lengthy process? How should we adapt ourselves to reality without resorting to thousands of compromises?

It is necessary to take into account the historical moment in which we are living, where we have a general crisis of authority, be it that of the father, of the State, or of the Church (even within the Church). As we have said, we risk ending up with a kind of “do-it-yourself” approach. Today we are living in a state of wide-spread lawlessness, even though everybody appeals to law when their own rights are being trampled on.

The rights of God, however, are always forgotten. How would it possible to demand observance of the liturgical norms if we do not first explain what the “jus divinum” [divine right] of the liturgy is? Today nobody knows it any more. Thus it is first of all necessary to explain the meaning of the rules. It is somewhat like moral theology: the determination of a law is first of all based on the comprehension of its principles. And it is a well-known fact that when we talk about the liturgy and the Sacraments there are moral aspects. At first, I would say, it is necessary to understand that the meaning of the rules comes from the conviction that the “first law” is to love God: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; and Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” It is not possible to worship according to one’s own image; if you do, then you distort [the image of] God. In our days, not only do we imagine a god and afterwards invent a cult around that figure, but we even imagine worship for which we then invent a corresponding god. Idolatry means “a distorted idea of God.” This is the reality which surrounds us.

In his letter to the bishops, where he explains the meaning of the lifting of the excommunication of the bishops consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre, Pope Benedict XVI wished to explain to those who reproached him for being concerned with secondary problems—such as those relating to the liturgy—that at a time when the meaning of the Faith and of the Sacred is everywhere becoming extinct, the privileged place for encountering God must be found precisely in the liturgy. The liturgy is and remains the most suitable place to encounter God; therefore, the Pope, when treating of the liturgy, is not dealing with secondary problems but with essential questions. If even the liturgy begins to speak the language of the world, how can it help man? We have to remind the “utopians” that it is necessary to have what Benedict XVI calls “the patience of love.”

· The old Offertory rite spoke eloquently to mankind about God, using profound expressions about the sacrificial power, about the nature of the Mass as a sacrifice offered to God. Can a correction in this sense be considered for the new rite [of Mass]?

It is important that the old Mass (also called the Tridentine rite but more appropriately the “rite of Gregory the Great”) become [better] known, as Martin Mosebach has recently said. This Mass received its form already under Pope Damasus and afterwards, in fact, under Gregory [the Great], and not under Saint Pius V. The only thing Pope Pius V did was to make some adjustments and to codify what already existed, retaining the enrichments of earlier centuries and putting aside what had become obsolete. With that understood, we can consider this rite of Mass, an integral part of which is the Offertory. There have been many papers written by great scholars on this subject and many have asked themselves whether it would be opportune to bring back the old Offertory, which you mentioned. However, the Holy See alone has the authority to act in this way. It is true that the logic which dictated the liturgical reform after the Second Vatican Council led to a simplification of the Offertory, because it was thought that there were several [alternative] forms of offertory prayers. In this way, the two prayers of blessing with a Judaic flavor were introduced. The secret prayer remained and became the “Prayer over the Gifts”; also the “Orate, fratres,” and those were considered to be more than sufficient. However, this simplicity, which was understood as a return to the purity of the origins, collides with liturgical tradition, with the Byzantine tradition, and with other Oriental and Occidental liturgies. The structure of the Offertory was seen by the great commentators and theologians of the Middle Age as the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem, Who goes to be immolated in a sacrificial offering. It is for this reason that the offerings are already called “holy” and that the offertory was of great importance. The modern simplification, which I have described, has led many people to demand the return of the rich and beautiful prayers of the “Suscipe, sancte Pater” and the “Suscipe, Sancta Trinitas,” to mention only a few.

However, only through a wider diffusion of the old Mass will this “infection” of the new Mass by the old be possible. Therefore, the reintroduction of the “classical” Mass – if you will allow me the expression – may be a factor of great enrichinment. It is necessary to facilitate a regular Sunday [festiva] celebration of the traditional Mass, at least in every cathedral of the world, but also in every parish. This would help the faithful get used to Latin and to feel themselves part of the Catholic Church. And as a practical matter, it would help them participate in Masses held during international gatherings at [various] shrines. At the same time, I think we have to avoid re-introducing things “out of context.” By this I mean that there is a an entire ritual context connected with the things expressed [by the prayers], which cannot be brought back simply by inserting a prayer; a more complex kind of work is involved here.
· The series of gestures and orientation certainly are of great importance, because what the faithful see is a reflection of an invisible reality. Is having the cross at the center of the altar a way to call to mind what the Mass is?

In the photo: the Pope celebrating Mass towards the cross

Yes, having the cross at the center of the altar is a way to bring to mind what the Mass is. I do not speak of a “miniature” cross but of a cross such as can be seen. The dimensions of the cross should be proportional to the ecclesial space. It should be brought back to the center [of the altar], aligned with the altar, and everybody must be able to see it. It should be the focal point of the faithful and of the priest, as [the former Cardinal] Joseph Ratzinger says in his Introduction to the Spirit of the Liturgy. It should be in the center, independently of the celebration, even if it is Mass “facing the people.” I insist on a cross that is clearly visible. Otherwise, what is the use of an image that cannot be sufficiently profited from? Images refer to the prototype. We all know that historically there have been those who were against the use of images, for example Epiphanius of Salamis, or even the Cistercians; however, the cult of images prevailed at Nicea II in 787, on the foundation of what Saint John Damascene said: “The image recalls the exemplar.” This is still valid for our so-called Civilization of the Image. In an era in which vision has become the favored medium of our contemporaries, it does not suffice to have a little cross that lies flat or an illegible “sketch” of a cross, but it is necessary that the cross, along with the figure of the Crucified, be clearly visible on the altar, regardless of the angle from which it is viewed.

· Regarding the rediscovery of the exigencies which you have mentioned, there is, however, a difficult step to take, namely the practical choices to be made. How should one proceed?

In my humble opinion, the priority must be to make the faithful understand the sense of the Divine. Man seeks God, seeks the Sacred and that which is the sign of the Sacred. In his natural need to turn to God and to worship Him, man seeks the encounter with God in the sacred forms of [the Church’s] rites. If one obscures the true sacrality of Christian worship, man will continue groping about, but in a distorted way because he is lost. How then can man respond correctly to this need? Above all he should be able to find in the Church that which is the definition par excellence of the Sacred: the Eucharistic Jesus. The tabernacle must return to the center. It is true, historically, that in the great basilicas or in cathedrals the tabernacle was placed in a side chapel. It is well known that with the Tridentine reform the preference was instead to place the tabernacle in the center, also in order to oppose the Protestant errors on the real, true and substantial Presence of the Lord. But it is also true that today the outlook of those around us disputes not only the Real Presence but even the presence of the Divine. In religion man naturally seeks the encounter with the Divine, but this presence of the Divine cannot be reduced to something purely spiritual. This presence must be “touched” and this is not done with the help of a book. It is not possible to speak of the presence of the Divine only in terms relating to the reading of Sacred Scripture. When the Word of God is proclaimed, then naturally it is correct to speak of the presence of the Divine, but it is a spiritual presence, not the real, true and substantial presence of the Eucharist. Therefore, it is essential that the tabernacle be placed in the center, thereby showing the central importance of the presence of the Body of Christ. The central place cannot be the chair of the celebrant; at the center of our Faith there is not a man but Jesus in the Eucharist. Otherwise, we end up making the church like a lecture hall, like a worldly tribunal, at the center of which is a man.

The priest is a minister and cannot be in the center. In the center is the Eucharistic Jesus Christ, the tabernacle, the cross. That is where we must begin. Otherwise we lose the sense of the Divine. The tabernacle is what must draw the eye by being in the center of each church.

· In his homily of Sepember 24, 2007, in Saint-Eloi, Cardinal Castrillon said that the Church needs institutes that “specialize” in the traditional liturgy. Do you think that institutes linked to the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei may play a key role today in the formation of priests or in the rediscovery of the riches of Tradition?

Certainly! These institutes exercise a charism of their own, and a charism is something within the Church and at the service of the Church. It can be considerably advantageous to a diocese to make use of their assistance. What would have happened to the Franciscan order had the Pope not recognized it and made it available for the good of the entire Church?