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Do freedom and spontaneity undermine liturgy?


Do freedom and spontaneity undermine liturgy?When he was Cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI often criticised the contemporary emphasis on spontaneity and on creativity in liturgy. His criticism, however, stands in tension with the qualities that the liturgical texts require of priests and, implicitly, of the congregations they serve.

For Cardinal Ratzinger, spontaneity and creativity undermines the central reality of liturgy. Liturgy is a gift that we receive, and we participate in it by being receptive, not creative. We do not shape the liturgy, but liturgy shapes us. The Cardinal compared the rites of the Church to the Creeds, which may not be altered.

He does not give detailed examples of misplaced creativity. He focuses his criticism on an attitude he believes to be widespread. This approach holds that local congregations and priests can adapt the liturgy, changing texts and modifying ritual in order to speak to their own situations. Inherent in such an attitude is a theology that is essentially not Catholic: it gives priority to the congregation over the Church, and minimises the distinctive status of the priest.

Before the changes to ritual introduced through Vatican II, Cardinal Ratzinger’s blanket opposition to creativity and spontaneity was more easily sustainable than it is today. Then sacramental rites were covered by black letter law that prescribed what should be done under every circumstance. But the new rites after Vatican II, as he has occasionally lamented, both imply and demand a degree of creativity and spontaneity on the part of the celebrant. Correlative to this creativity is the need to consult the community when shaping celebration.

This is evident, for example, in the instructions that introduce the marriage rite. The priest is instructed to go to the door of the church or, if more suitable, to the altar. There he greets the bride and bridegroom in a friendly manner. Where it is desirable that the rite of welcome be omitted, the celebration begins with the Mass. If there is a procession, the ministers go first, and according to local custom, the couple may be escorted by their parents etc. If incense is used, the priest incenses the altar.

Do freedom and spontaneity undermine liturgy?These instructions require the celebrant to choose between options. In ordering the alternatives, he needs to show creativity. In greeting the bride and bridegroom, he is given no words, and will need to show spontaneity. Furthermore, in making decisions about which options to follow, wise celebrants will speak with the couple. Wise couples will consult their families who form the core of the congregation.
What is true of marriage is true also of the other revised Catholic rites.

They allow a choice between some prayers and readings, encourage celebrants to adapt instructions in their own words, and offer optional rituals. If celebrants are to allow the rites to speak powerfully, they will need to prepare the liturgy with their people. In the celebration, there will inevitably be elements of creativity and spontaneity.

It is less helpful, therefore, to ask whether spontaneity and creativity are appropriate, than to ask what kinds of spontaneity and creativity are appropriate.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s general remarks about liturgy are helpful in answering this question. He rightly emphasises the integrity and the predictability of liturgy. This excludes arbitrary surgery that changes the sets of complex relationships that constitute liturgy. The freedom given within the rite, however, means that small variations generally do not change these sets of relationships.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s also rightly insists that in the liturgy it is Christ who acts. In the Eucharist we are taken into the mystery of his life and death. This implies that the Eucharist is about life and death matters, and demands seriousness in celebration. Seriousness, however, encompasses moments of lightness as well as of solemnity.

Finally, he insists on the given part that the ordained ministry plays within the Church and within liturgy. This implies that in presiding at the liturgy and in gathering the congregation to plan the liturgy, the priest has a distinctive responsibility. It does not show, however, that he has the sole responsibility.

The liturgy is both stable and flexible. It may be less helpful to imagine it as a statue which is cast in a single mould, than as a mobile whose stability is given by the harmony between many sets of relationships.



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Existing comments

Wise words. From an Anglican perspective, in which Communion there is much less of a sense today of what a 'proper service' is, the art of learning what is appropriate spontaneity is much needed.
The provision of texts in electronic form (epray for Australian Anglicans, LabOra Worship for RCs, Uniting in Worship on disk for the UCA - projects in which I admit my own involvement and so bias towards) raises the issues even more sharply. Using these, texts can all the more easily be edited, omitted, supplemented etc. Yet this provision should better be seen as an 'act of trust' on the part of church authorities, that the sources of liturgy, prepared prayerfully by 'experts', are able to be shared and shaped locally. Has the relevant Congregation in Rome set out guidelines for these texts, now available to German and US RCs as well as Australia?

Charles Sherlock | 07 March 2007  

Whatever else the Liturgy is, and it is more than I could say, it is a human action in relationship with faith, belief, others and God. I don't think it should be owned by any company or person.

marie rewell | 09 March 2007  

Dear writer,
I thank the Present Pope for this article. I quite agree with it. I suggest that more of this kind of article should be sent directly to the Priests in Nigeria to help forestall their rate of Liturgical abuse. When celebrating Mass, some of them like to change the ribrics by adding their own spontanious prayers. If this abuse is not quickly checked, it may discourage some faithful from getting the Liturgical fulfillment. this happens very often with the young Priests. Being the Chairman of my Parish liturgy Committee head, I should be grateful if could be getting more information on Liturgical instructions through my email address.

Conerned Catholic Faithful.

Alexander Opara | 10 March 2007  

This is a really pertinent article, why only apply it to marriage rite? Do many of the clergy read your excellent publication or take heed of such objective writing? Thanks for you always thoughtful and thought provoking articles.Every Blessing to all. RK.

Rosemary Keenan | 13 March 2007