Rorate Caeli

“Onion liturgy: Francis and nervousness about form” — Scorching article by Luisella Scrosati

Francis’s speech, delivered May 7 and addressed to the faculty and students of the Pontifical Liturgical Institute Anselmianum [text here], suggests some nervousness. Decades of improvised liturgical interventions to erase all traces of adoration, reverence, sacred awe, and connection with Sacred Tradition; synods and meetings to no end, to mortify what is branded as the Catholic “right” in order to extinguish it... and then, having to realize that the ancient Mass is not only enduring, but spreading more and more; that young families - and even young vocations - are irresistibly attracted to a liturgy full of sacredness, all oriented to God. On the contrary, the magnificent progressive dream, the new Jerusalem made of meetings, offices, and paper gives birth to its sad sterility, its inability to know how to attract, instead spreading boredom, desertion, apostasy everywhere.

A therefore understandable nervousness, which a Pastor of the Church externalizes in his public speeches, thereby risking hurting people and, even worse, missing the opportunity for a healthy reflection on the problems that really plague the Church’s liturgy. The real sore point of that speech is not the present errors, to which the present pontificate has accustomed us, as has been promptly pointed out (see here); nor is the sore point the pontiff’s invectives mortifying his “opponents” with sharp labeling, such as calling those who simply raise issues about the liturgical changes of the last century “closed minds.”

All this aside, then, Pope Francis’s speech contains a structural problem that, truth be told, is not so original, but simply “formalizes” a widespread misperception that is literally killing the liturgy and thus Christian life: “I would like to point out,” the Pope said, “the danger, the temptation of liturgical formalism: to go after forms, formalities rather than reality, as we see today in those movements that try a bit to go backwards and deny precisely the Second Vatican Council. Then the celebration is recitation, it is something without life, without joy.”

What, then, is this formalism so stigmatized by the Pope? Actually, Bergoglio does not offer a clear definition of it. Indeed, what does it mean in the liturgical context to “go after forms rather than reality”?

Let us start from the exemplification given by the Pontiff himself, namely that this formalism would take the shape of “going backwards” and “denying the Second Vatican Council.” If one reads carefully the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the same Council, one realizes that each of its six chapters consists of a first part that offers the liturgical principles and a second part that indicates the concrete orientation of the ritual form. This translates a very simple truth: the liturgy is not a meditation on the mysteries of faith; neither is it a time of common prayer, or a mere celebration. It is precisely Vatican II that “goes backwards,” defining the liturgy in the way the Church has always understood it, that is, as an actio sacra praecellenter (SC 7; cf. also SC 9) of the entire Mystical Body of the Lord, that is, the Church (SC 26), which has as its principal end the “worship of the Divine Majesty,” as well as consequently also having a pedagogical value (SC 33). The noun actio, appropriately declined, recurs somewhat throughout the Constitution, emphasizing that the Council takes for granted that the liturgy is primarily a cultic action: worship directed to God, accomplished precisely by means of ritual elements, through gestures, signs, words, songs. In short, forms. This means that “going after forms,” to borrow the Pope’s language, is simply going after the liturgy, which makes us serve the Most High God precisely through ritual action. Liturgy is lived religion, in the proper sense of the term religion and the adjective that accompanies it.

One does not want to deny that in this care for forms there may be deviations, perhaps recognizing nevertheless that the most widespread and deep-rooted problem lies in the fact that everyone does with these forms as he or she pleases, even to the point of what Mosebach had called the “heresy of formlessness.” Beginning with those who have decided not only to throw away but even to persecute to extinction two of the forms absolutely recommended by the same Council, namely, Latin and Gregorian chant. These are the people who deny the Council. And in Rome no one bats an eye.

Let us go to the other extreme: is there a possibility that form becomes the ultimate goal of the liturgy, that we stop at it and no longer turn to the One we serve through the form? Yes, there is; but the solution does not lie in raging against form, to the point of de-formation, which has led to liturgies - or supposed liturgies - that drown in words but become increasingly impoverished of properly liturgical actions.

Is not Creation the first liturgical structure, where every creature offers worship to its Creator and refers back to Him? And is it not true that a good part of us men stop at Creation, turning it into an idol, without rising up to God through it? Yet it does not seem that the good God, in order to solve the problem, decided to annihilate Creation or disfigure it. Perhaps an example could be taken. True liturgical reform does not consist in changing the forms of the liturgy, but in reforming man, so that he re-learns to be liturgical, precisely by allowing himself to be re-formed by the forms of the liturgy.

The preservation of form in the rite is therefore simply what constitutes the liturgy as such, as an act of public worship related to the concept of religio, which is not something that is known (thus, a wisdom), but something that is done, precisely an actio. Johannes Nebel had published a masterful article in which he tried to lead the liturgy back to the trinomial actio-religio-pietas, after the misstep not so much of Vatican II but of the liturgical reform.

Of course, rites can be modified - and in fact have been modified - over the centuries. But what happened with the liturgical reform and afterwards is something quite different. Mosebach had been able to grasp one of the problems (in truth, denounced years earlier by Ratzinger as well): “Transformations over a very long course of time, occurring through the shaping hand of history, have no author, remain anonymous, and are [...] invisible to their contemporaries; they become conscious of them only after generations. Such transformations and gradual changes are never ‘reforms,’ since there is no intention behind them to do something better.” This is a principle that helps to evaluate a reform that was done at the work desk with an eagerness to change (read Louis Bouyer’s Mémoirs) and that provoked immediate contestations that still tear the Church apart today. The least that can be said is that many changes characteristic of the modern reform did not at all go unnoticed by contemporaries....

Then, instead of hurling barbs at the formalists, we should seriously begin to ask ourselves whether by any chance formalism - the one that is actually wrong - is not actually an adverse reaction against such reform. And understand that in liturgy, form is substance. Today’s liturgy has gone the way of the onion: remove one layer and then another and then another, with the excuse that “the layer is not the onion anyway,” and we have nothing left in our hands anymore.

Luisella Scrosati
La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana
May 10, 2022