Liturgy and unity

Anthony Towey

The stunning bronze reliquary beneath the altar of the Venerable English College Chapel in Rome is one of its most striking features. ‘Blessed are those called to the wedding feast of the Lamb’ is the text engraved thereupon, linking the sacrifice of the English martyrs with the white robed army of the faithful depicted in Revelation 19.19. No one could say it isn’t worthy, but with the benefit of hindsight, the text not chosen, Sint Unum – ‘May they be one’ (Jn 17.21), might have been preferable.

I was reminded of this ‘lost text’ when, as Britain enjoyed a typically insipid summer, temperatures on Catholic social media across the globe were raised to unprecedented levels by reactions to the somewhat unexpected Motu Proprio on the Liturgy, Traditionis Custodes. Although it did follow a consultation with bishops across the world, it nonetheless felt abrupt in its imposition of stricter guidelines regarding celebration of the 1962 Tridentine rite. Issued on July 16, Traditionis Custodes led one colleague to lament – ‘Rome has spoken, the case is closed, and I am sad.’

Sadness is one thing, but madness is another, and as some of the faithful took to social media to question loudly and at length the Catholicity of the Pope, it seemed clear that attention to the letter accompanying the Motu Proprio was somewhat lacking. In quoting 1 Corinthians, ‘I am for Paul, I am for Cephas, I am for Apollos’ Francis is not primarily concerned with the issue of language but is clearly referencing the issue of ecclesial unity as the origin and aim of Traditionis Custodes. Globally, the concerned urgency of the letter may surprise the average Catholic in the average parish but probably not the average bishop in the average diocese.

An opportunity offered by St. John Paul II and, with even greater magnanimity, by Benedict XVI, intended to recover the unity of an ecclesial body with diverse liturgical sensibilities, was exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division ... I am nonetheless saddened that the instrumental use of the Missale Romanum of 1962 is often characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself.

In some quarters it has, unfortunately, become a commonplace to adduce the current travails of the Church to the reforms of Vatican II. In this view, the changes epitomised and experienced most vividly in the Novus Ordo Liturgy approved in 1970 are at best a form of misguided modernism and at worst attributable to a deliberate Masonic plot. Inevitably the 1962 Missal has become something of a symbol of resistance to the calamity, and on this view, being ‘a real Catholic’ demands commitment to the same.

Bishops, particularly in the West, are having to manage such tensions in the face of cultural changes which for the last half century have proved inimical to the kind of belief-and-belonging systems hitherto presumed. They have equally decimated Christian Churches which were not reshaped by Vatican II and likewise affected allegiance to entities such as political parties and trade unions. In an era when simpler identities defined around sexuality, vegetarianism and sport have been able to harness specific commitment without comprehensive confession, the last thing bishops need is division fomented around the altar itself.

In truth, liturgical form has never quite defined Catholic life as clearly as one might think, as distinct liturgical diversity – whether Ambrosian, Dominican, Syriac, Eastern Catholic and more – continue to evidence. Ecumenically, Christian diversity is even more evident in a world where the portal of Orthodox liturgy can vector heaven for some and Hillsong worship can attract a billion hits from others. Withal, it does make sense that in accordance with the document, bishops are already granting permissions for presbyters to continue using the 1962 Missal where pastorally appropriate, which in some places has helped reposition the Ordinary as first ‘custodian of the tradition’ as the Motu Proprio intends.

Yet whichever rubrics are being observed, on every Sunday, in every church, all over the world, clerical and lay Catholics gather as imperfect people in imperfect circumstances to contemplate eternal glories. In so doing we are seeking a deeper unity, despite disagreements minor and major which are a feature of every family and have always been present in Christian communities ab initio (1 Cor. 11.17–34). In this understanding, the contours of a Catholic heart cannot be fully described by a rubric, but by our commitment to Christ and his Church exemplified by the martyrs and the divine plea ‘May they all be one’.

And so if our Sunday parish liturgy demands that we too die a little to ourselves, because of the rubric, because of the language, because of the architecture, because of the presider or because of the music, it does at least mean that in some small way, we are imitating the mystery we celebrate – ‘a living sacrifice’ offered by the faithful, one in union as the Body of Christ.