Rorate Caeli

The liturgy cannot be poor

Watch out! The liturgy cannot be poor, 
its opulence is a symbol of otherness and divinity
Mattia Rossi

Pieter Claeissens the Elder
The Mass of Saint Gregory

On the back-cover of the eleventh volume of Joseph Ratzinger’s Opera Omnia, on the “Theology of the Liturgy”,  there is this not even thinly-veiled declaration: “The fate of the Faith and the Church hangs upon the relationship with the liturgy.”

These first days of Pope Franciss’ pontificate render the above tremendously current and oblige us to reflect on the relationship between poverty (not pauperism) and the liturgy. A reflection that, not to be taken too lightly, is between a human dimension, poverty, and a divine one, liturgy. 

Yes, in these years of post-conciliar convulsions, the exquisitely divine nature of the liturgy has slipped away: i.e. the appearance of Heaven on earth - the earthly prefiguration of Jerusalem and which, accordingly, must evoke majesty and glory. In the liturgy - the unbloody presentation of the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross - it is God Who encounters man: it is not done by man – otherwise it would be idolatry. It is Divine Work as even Vatican II recalls.

In this perspective, also the issue regarding vestments is evidently raised to a notable importance. Annalena Benini has already masterfully highlighted this in her “Benedictine Nostalgia” in Il Foglio [March 23]: “Benedict XVI was adorned in symbols and traditions showing everyone that he no longer belonged to himself, nor even to the world.” He was of Christ, he was “alter Christus” who is the Priest in the liturgy. With the vestments he is no longer a private man, but “prepares” (adorns) the place for someone else; and that someone else is the King of the Universe. Impoverishing the majesty of vestments signifies impoverishing Christ. And it is actually Christ Himself that separated personal poverty from that of the Church’s institution.

He does so in the Gospel of John, where he accepted the anointing by the woman of Bethany: “Mary therefore took a pound of ointment of right spikenard, of great price, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. Then one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, he that was about to betray him, said: Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? Now he said this, not because he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and having the purse, carried the things that were put therein. Jesus therefore said: Let her alone, that she may keep it against the day of my burial. For the poor you have always with you; but me you have not always. (12, 3-9) 

Firstly, He justifies worship with costly ointments and also the existence of a common purse among the twelve emerges (and, strangely enough, John records that it was Judas who complained about the waste of money which could have been given to the poor). Are we going back to “the origins?” Well, then we must return to the drapes of gold and purple found in Peter’s tomb.

It is obvious, then, that pauperism is not a distinctive trait in the cultural life of the Church, because She “hands on what [She] has received,” to use one of St. Paul’s statements (1Cor 15,3). Pius XII, emblem of liturgical opulence, is said to have slept on planks of bare, rough wood and followed an extremely modest diet. In private, however.

The liturgical anchorage of tradition, made up of mozzette, chasubles and fanons is a partial manifestation of the heavenly Jerusalem, of the liturgy of the angels - as St. Gregory says. A tradition made up of Gregorian Chant, which is the ‘sonant incarnation’ of the Word of God and guarantee of a correct response to the same Word. A tradition made up of a sacred language, Latin, immutable, in which every word is already theology itself.

Benedict XVI taught us this magnificently at the liturgical school of papal Masses: by re-establishing the primacy of the liturgy, source and summit of the life of the Church and the primacy of Christ. “It is not I who live, but Christ Who lives in me,” St. Paul affirms. The priest, in vestments, puts on Christ (Gal 2, 20), the new man (Eph. 4,24) in order to become for Christ, with Christ, and in Christ. And, as Joseph Ratzinger taught us, the merciful father, after having embraced the son on his return, which is a spiritual resurrection, orders him to go and put on “the best robe” (Luke 15,22).

This is nothing other than the application of the Second Vatican Council that so many refer to in order to demonstrate the definitive abandoning of traditional sacred art: “Ordinaries must be very careful to see that sacred furnishings and works of value are not disposed of or dispersed; for they are the ornaments of the house of God.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 126). Moreover, in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal [we find]: “On the most solemn days, the most festive precious vestments can be used” (n.346).

[Il Foglio, April 3, 2013. Translation and tip: Contributor Francesca Romana]