Thursday, December 1, 2016

Rector's Conference on Adapting the Liturgy

My December Rector's Conference explored the idea of liturgical inculturation and adaptation. Here's the text.
The Roman Liturgy is different than any other, in that inscribed in the introduction to each of its liturgical books is the demand for inculturation.

In other words, that “the genius and talents of the various races and peoples” (SC 37) must form the language in which the Liturgy is celebrated. And here the Church is not just speaking of the spoken language, but the language of gesture and time and music and art and all the many characteristics which we describe under the category of culture.

All of this is tied up in the very purpose for the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council, as described by paragraph 21 of Sacrosanctum concilium:
In order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the sacred liturgy, holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself. For the liturgy is made up of immutable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change. These not only may but ought to be changed with the passage of time if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become unsuited to it.1

This idea of inculturating liturgy was detailed by the fourth post-conciliar instruction on implementing the liturgical reform, entitled, appropriately enough, Varietates Legitimae.

As a result of this instruction celebrations of the Roman Liturgy are in different spoken and cultural languages, incorporating traditions, ritual forms and other practices consonant with the tradition we have received and the culture of the Roman Rite.

That’s why I will be leading you in my broken Spanish for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in a couple weeks. It is why they carry a statue of Saint Anthony through the streets of the North end and the new Order for Celebrating Matrimony has a rite for exchanging the Arras.

Or as the Council Fathers wrote in an earlier paragraph:
In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy…full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit…2

So, the vision of the Council was of the People of God fully participating in a celebration of the Mass comprehensible to them as they spoke and acted and understood the world. It was, essentially, a recognition or the truth of Augustine's proclamation to the people that the Eucharistic Sacrifice was, in essence, “their own mystery.”

Such participation, the Council Fathers remind us, is first of all interior: a joining of my life to the Cross, my sacrifices to his, and my earthly voice to the grand chorus of praise in heaven. All exterior participation is intended to foster such internal participation, as the internal is ever an instrumental cause of our singing and praying and standing and processing. The correspondence between the internal and the external is what “full, conscious and active participation" is all about.

That means schooling people in the indispensable role of silence in the Liturgy, in how to quiet themselves to listen to God’s words, in truly praying the words they hear and the words they speak. As in all things, you will do this best by example. For you will teach them to sing by your singing, to be reverent by your reverance and to quietly listen to God when you bow your head, close your mouth and listen to his still quiet voice.

So, back to the Council fathers:
In order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the sacred liturgy Holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself.

But not everything is up for grabs:
For the liturgy is made up of immutable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change.

Immutable elements, divinely instituted, which can never be changed. What are these? Well, let’s start with the very words of the Lord at the Last Supper. Take, Bless, Break, Give. The verbs of the Lord at the last supper have determined the structure of every Eucharistic Liturgy to our own day. That’s immutable.

And beyond that, by way of example, is the fact that the Lord used wheat bread and grape wine…so neither rice cakes, nor grape juice nor any other food or drink will do. And there are innumerable other examples of what constitutes the immutable core of the Mass which I will leave to Father McManus’ introduction to the Liturgy for further illustration.

And then there are the immutable elements of the Roman Rite, as suggested by Edmund Bishop, in his late 19th century essay “The Genius of the Roman Rite,” in which he seeks “the native spirit animating and penetrating [the Roman] rite, which differentiates it from others…."

Thus we might posit that among the elements of Latin Liturgy which constitute its unchangeable core are certain immemorial prayers, structures and ritual forms, and, above all, doctrinal assertions which have become incarnated, preserved and expressed in their rites and texts. Doctrines like the nature of the sacred action, the action of Christ the Priest “the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross,”3 present under the Eucharistic species.4 And the Christo-centric and trinitarian dimensions of Roman liturgical action, the anamnesis of the Mysterium Christi celebrated throughout the liturgical day, the centrality of the feast of Easter and its weekly celebration on Sunday, the Dies Dominica, etc. etc. Indeed most of the first thirteen paragraphs of Sacrosanctum Concilium are devoted to an indication of this non-negotiable Latin Core.

So much for the immutable core, but what about those changeable elements, which not only may be changed, but in the words of the council fathers “ought to be changed with the passage of time if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become unsuited to it.”

The Fathers go on:

In this restoration, both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify; the Christian people, so far as possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community.

And what are these elements subject to change? They are the same elements which have changed innumerable times in the course of the Sacred Liturgy. Language, the details of the Order of Mass, the order of the Lectionaries, the nature of the homily and innumerable other elements, among them the nature of sacred art and music.

And while time does not permit a full treatment of what the Council Father changed, I would remind you that the third edition of the Roman Missal which guided our celebration of the Mass this morning incorporated three kinds of changes or adaptations to the Liturgy:

The first are the changes the Church made to the Missal in 1970, 1975 and, most recently in the editio tertia of 2001. These changes include the selection of prayers and the restructuring of the Offertory and Communion rites and have sought to fulfill the Council mandate. And, I would add, these changes have met with (to excuse a bad pun) an extraordinary success.

Not that the liturgical reform was perfect. The testimony of two post-conciliar revisions to the Concilium’s work are enough testament to that. But the reform has worked, and as a side note, while I would encourage you to become familiar with the 1962 Missal as a service to the people whom you will serve, never fall into the trap of rejecting the teachings of the Council Fathers and the Popes who have faithfully implemented them. For while the celebration of the extraordinary form by those with a particular affection for this form was rightly fostered by our beloved Pope emeritus, it was that same Pope who reminded us in the letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum that “it is clearly seen that the new Missal will certainly remain the ordinary Form of the Roman Rite…”5

So, the base adaptations have been made to the Liturgical Books by the Holy See, as the sole competent authority. But there are two additional types of adaptations that follows.

Second, there are the adaptations to the Missal left to the discretion of Episcopal Conferences, including the gestures and postures of the faithful, the ways in which the altar and the book of the Gospels are venerated, the texts of the opening chants, the song at the preparation of the gifts and the communion song, the rite of peace, conditions regulating communion with the chalice, the materials for the construction of the altar and liturgical furniture, the material and form of sacred vessels, liturgical vestments. Episcopal conferences can also determine the manner of distributing communion.

Finally there are the limited number of adaptations left to the discretion of the Bishop and the adaptations left to the priest at each celebration of the Mass.

What does this mean? That each Priest will, according to his likes and dislikes, impose changes on the People of God? God forbid!

For it is not good enough for the priest to impose changes simply because “that is what my professor taught me in the seminary,” or “that is what I know is correct.” None of these reasons, by themselves are ever sufficient to justify disturbing the peace of a praying community.

Rather, as the General Instruction of the Roman Missal makes clear:
The pastoral effectiveness of a celebration will be greatly increased if the texts of the readings, the prayers, and the liturgical chants correspond as aptly as possible to the needs, the preparation, and the culture of the participants. This will be achieved by appropriate use of the many possibilities of choice described below.7

The next sentence is the most important and, sadly, the least applied:
Hence in arranging the celebration of Mass, the Priest should be attentive rather to the common spiritual good of the People of God than to his own inclinations. He should also remember that choices of this kind are to be made in harmony with those who exercise some part in the celebration, including the faithful, as regards the parts that more directly pertain to them.8

What does that mean? It means that the kind of liturgy you celebrate is not delimited by your comfort zone, but by the needs of the People of God.

An example:

I am not, and never have been, the image that first comes to your mind when you think of a charismatic healer. I always found the emotional effusion and lack of structure a bit scary. Actually, I was petrified at the sound of the girl next to be speaking in tongues, the guy behind me singing in an indecipherable language and the long line of people being slain in the spirit as the hands of the guy with his eyes closed descended upon their heads.

So, the Lord, in his infinite wisdom, convinced the Bishop to assign me as associate to a priest who was a charismatic healer. We got along well, and Brian was an excellent pastor to all appearances, each Tuesday night attracting a couple hundred people from all over New England to his Healing Mass. After Communion they would line up, accompanied by red-coated ushers, and approach Father Brian to be healed. He would pray over them, sometimes in tongues, and when he laid his hands on them they would fall backwards into the arms of the waiting ushers. They called it being slain in the Spirit.

The first few times I concelebrated to see what this was all about, but to be honest, this was my quasi-monastic phase spiritually and I was much more comfortable in the gothic silence of a Trappist monastery early in the morning than in the raucous emotional-laden atmosphere of the charismatic healer.

Well, to make a long story short, Brian left the parish and the priesthood and I was made administrator, and soon after, pastor. And I had to figure out what to do about all the people who so relied on his prayer and now stood devastated…literally, sheep without a shepherd.

So, I sat down and prayed, and tried to call to mind their faces, their aching hearts and their really deep desire for God to heal them in so many different ways. After skipping just one week, I resumed the healing services, making just one change. The red-blazered catchers stayed at the door and those on whom I laid my hands would kneel in their pews so that when they fell back they would just be sitting in their pews. But I tried, oh how I tried, to enter into their prayer and their song and their swaying. I never got to the point of speaking in tongues (Saint Paul says, after all, that not all receive the gift) but I was their priest…not on my terms, but on theirs.

And anything I did right in those days (I won't tell you about what I didn't do right) was because I realized it wasn't about me, but about Jesus and each of those people. My job was not to be the destination or even the origin…my job was to be the bridge. I have always tried to lay down and be the bridge. And, to paraphrase Robert Frost, it has made all the difference.

That means that the needs, preparation and culture of the people at the 8 o’clock Mass and not my own needs have been primary in making any liturgical decision. It means that the common spiritual good of the people at the 10 have determined what kinds of songs or Mass setting or vestments or gestures or homily or any other liturgical choice I have tried to make and not my personal preference.

Remember the promise made at ordination to the Priesthood when the Bishop will, God willing, ask you:
Do you resolve to celebrate faithfully and reverently, in accord with the Church's tradition, the mysteries of Christ, especially the sacrifice of the Eucharist and the sacrament of Reconciliation, for the glory of God and the sanctification of the Christian people?

The purpose of my being consecrated to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy is twofold: the glory of God and the sanctification of the Christian people There’s nothing there about whether I am charismatic or traditional, or come from Life Teen or the Latin Mass at Saint Paul’s.

That means that the choices I make in adapting the Sacred Liturgy are not one size fits all, but that the Spanish Mass Mass at noon is going to feel different in so many ways from the Family Mass at 10 or the Vigil with all the retirees on Saturday night. It means that everything from the length and tone of the homily to the choice of music, vestments and texts will be adapted, within the confines of liturgical law, to each particular group.

Ahhhh. within the confines of liturgical law! This legitimate plurality of liturgical forms at the service of the people of God cannot be achieved without an intimate knowledge of the liturgical books. It demands coming to know, front to back as the British say, the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, the General Introduction to the Liturgy of the Word, the General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours, and the introductions to all the liturgical books. It isn’t enough to read a few blogs or magazines on liturgy, or to imitate what others have done. Answering the question “how can this particular people God has placed in my care be best led to him?” is a form of pastoral charity which you will, God willing, someday exercise on behalf of the people he has placed in your care to shepherd and love.

That is the Liturgy of the Roman Rite. It is not a play or a concert performed for silent spectators, but a grand chorus of joyous praise at which the people of God, gathered in this particular place at this particular time bring their voices, their hearts, their minds, their bodies and their whole selves as an offering to God. Whatever voice God have given you, you give back to him, whatever crosses he has called you to carry you join with his and the sacrifices you have offered are placed upon the altar and joined with his.

Nor is each celebration with a particular group at a particular place and with a particular people always the same, for we are called to observe what the Church has called a Progressive Solemnity in the Sacred Liturgy.

Let me use the example of Music. While “music should be considered a normal and ordinary part of the Church’s liturgical life…the use of music in the Liturgy is always governed by the principle of progressive solemnity,”8 listen to the U.S. Bishops’ Guidelines on Music in the Liturgy, entitled Sing to the Lord:
Progressive solemnity means that between the solemn, fuller form of liturgical celebration, in which everything that demands singing is in fact sung, and the simplest form, in which singing is not used, there can be various degrees according to the greater or lesser place allotted to singing.9
Progressive solemnity includes not only the nature and style of the music, but how many and which parts of the rite are to be sung. For example, greater feasts such as Easter Sunday or Pentecost might suggest a chanted Gospel, (see the Book of Sung Gospels.) but a recited Gospel might be more appropriate for Ordinary Time. Musical selections and the use of additional instruments reflect the season of the liturgical year or feast that is being celebrated.10
Solemnities and feasts invite more solemnity. Certain musical selections are more capable of expressing this solemnity, adding an extraordinary richness to these special celebrations…At other times, the liturgical season calls for a certain musical restraint…11
And this principle of progressive solemnity applies to all the choices made in preparing the Liturgy, including the number of candles on the altar, the nobility of the vestments worn, whether I use incense, the length of the processions, etc. In other words, the Mass of the third Monday in Ordinary Time at 7:00am is a quite different creature than the principle Mass of Christmas Day.

Take Sunday for example, the Lord’s Day, the First Day of the Week, the Day of the Resurrection. How can we teach people to experience it as something other than just another day of the week, a day off, the day that Costco’s opens at noon. How can we help our families to give this day over to God as a day of prayer, charity, rest, and family? One way is by the way we celebrate the Liturgy, as truly the source and summit of our day and of our lives. Which takes days and weeks of preparation to make the Sunday celebration the one from which the rest of the week flows by the solemnity with which it is celebrated in word, song, music, silence, art, environment, and gesture.

So, four presuppositions, all designed to help you build the Liturgy into a bridge between the lives of your people and the great heavenly Liturgy:


So what does this all mean? It means that there are certain presuppositions which should undergird all liturgical celebrations, even those in the Seminary:

1. The Liturgy is not regulated by a rigid uniformity but is made up of both divinely instituted and changeable elements, adapted and inculturated for each celebration by the Holy See, the Episcopal Conference, the Bishop and even the individual Priest celebrant. There will be legitimate plurality in the forms of the Roman Rite depending on time, place, community, and culture.

2. The purpose of the Liturgical Reform as initiated by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council is to foster the full and conscious participation of the entire gathered assembly through the adaptation of the rites, prayers and songs of the Sacred Liturgy.

3. The Priest makes choices in the adaptation of the Sacred Liturgy with the good of the People in mind, considering their needs and not his own, with full knowledge of the liturgical books and of the particular people God has placed in his care in this particular time and place.

4. Among those choices to be made for the benefit of popular participation is the application of a Progressive Solemnity, whereby each Liturgy is celebrated with the degree of solemnity befitting the particular feast or occasion.

A final story. It was my first assignment and, never more self-assured as a budding liturgist, I set off to to make the Liturgy of Webster, Massachusetts a model for the post-conciliar reform.

Lotsa stuff I did well, and it lasted. And then there was the other stuff. Like the Advent purple bunting.

It was my first Advent in the parish, and so I went out and bought enough Advent purple cloth to start a shirt factory. Actually, I got it free from Cranston Print, the local factory that made cloth for Wal-Mart.

It took me three days with the youth group and the men's club to put hooks on every pillar and then drape the cloth from pillar to pillar, clothing the entire Church in the same color which the Altar and the priest would wear for this season of joyful hope. It was a great idea and I was ready to send a picture in to Liturgical Arts magazine in case they needed a cover story.

So, it’s Saturday afternoon, the vigil of the First Sunday of Advent and I go over for confessions. No one showed up, except for Anna, the kindly old ninetyish Italian lady who always sat in front of the Sacred Hearty altar. My newly ordained heart, aching for an affirmation of my brilliant efforts at liturgical adaptation decided to fish for a compliment.

I went up to her and said, “Buona sera, Anna.” “Good afternoon, Father,” she smiled back at me. What do you think of all the purple cloth for Advent? She looked back over her shoulder and said, “Looks like a big circus tent!”

I crawled away and hid in the confessional. You win some and you lose some. But you never stop trying to be faithful to the Council and to the Liturgy, “in order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces…”

Thank you.


1 - Sacrosanctum concilium [SC], no. 21.

2 - SC, no. 14.

3 - Council of Trent, Session XXII, Doctrine on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, c. 2.

4 - SC, no. 7.

5 - Pope Benedict XVI, “Letter to the Bishops on the Occasion of the Publication of the Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum.” (1970)

6 - General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM], no. 352.

7 - GIRM, no. 352.

8 - Sing to the Lord: USCCB Guidelines on Music in the Liturgy [SL], no. 110.

9 - Cf. Musicam sacram, no. 7; Cf. General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, nos. 271-273.

10 - SL, no. 112.

11 - SL, nos. 113-14.