Apr 15, 2003

Liturgy, the Living Heart of Catholic Tradition

Online Edition

– Vol. IX, No. 2: April 2003

Liturgy, the Living Heart of Catholic Tradition

Father Louis Bouyer

, a former Lutheran minister who converted to Catholicism, became one of the mid-twentieth century’s most respected liturgical theologians. A patristics scholar and member of the Oratorian fathers, he taught for many years in the United States, until his retirement several years ago to his native France.

As his 1955 book, Liturgical Piety (University of Notre Dame Press) reveals, his liturgical insight was profound, and remains timely today. This brief passage is from Chapter 6: "The Catholic Tradition Concerning the Shape of the Eucharist". – Editor


In approaching the reform of the liturgy, we must, first of all, keep in mind the danger of either a false traditionalism, on the one hand, or of a rash modernism, on the other. The spirit of false traditionalism would reduce the liturgy to a sort of framework to be accepted purely on authority, a completely stylized, purely external routine — in other words, something virtually dead. Rash modernism, at the other extreme, would, by reaction, awaken in the people the desire for a "new" liturgy — a so-called "living" liturgy — and then satisfy that desire with "paraliturgies" which spring full-fledged from their sponsors’ minds, regard having been paid, not to tradition, but only, under the pretext of meeting the needs of the present, to expediency or even to momentary fashion…

But if the Church were ever to acquiesce in such a state of things, she would abandon her most sacred duty and practically give up everything for which she was designed by her divine Founder.

Here, then, we come to the necessity for a rediscovery in the field of the liturgy itself, which is its principal locus, of what tradition truly is, and what are its authentic relations both to authority and to individual initiative and personal needs. For tradition is not a dead thing to be accepted blindly only under the external pressure of authority. Nor, in order to bring it to life again, should tradition by any subterfuge be taken away from the regulation of authority and developed by anybody in his own irresponsible way.

The true idea of tradition held by the Council of Trent in entrusting the Holy See with a much needed reform of liturgical books, was equally opposed to both mistakes. The Council of Trent was far from allowing any individual the freedom to make up a liturgy or paraliturgy of his own which would usurp the place of the Church’s one whole liturgy. But it was far from any desire to impose any prefabricated and immovable liturgy on the Church. The authority of the Council and its appeal to the authority of the Holy See itself was to be understood as the safeguard at once of the genuine authenticity and of the continual adaptability of tradition. And this has always been the case with authority and always will be in the Catholic Church.

Therefore… the authority attached to the liturgy is not dependent completely and solely on that of the actual Popes or Bishops who have canonized such and such books with their rubrics, or who have guaranteed such and such answers of any commission, from the Sacred Congregation of Rites down to the commission appointed for the reformation of the Parisian liturgy… No, the authority attached to the liturgy was for these men fundamentally that of tradition itself. And it was only as the guarantor of tradition under both its aspects of permanence and of living adaptability that the authority of Popes and Bishops gave their sanction to the liturgy.

More exactly — as can be seen in the statements of the Council of Trent and in the detailed formulation of the various Pontifical bulls canonizing the Missal and Breviary of Pius V, and, finally, in the Encyclical Mediator Dei — in the field of liturgy as in every other, the living authority of the Holy See itself and of all the bishops, at Trent and elsewhere, intervenes precisely in order to canonize what it considers to be the most perfect vehicle available in our age for the maintenance of the tradition which through Christian antiquity has come down from the Apostles themselves…

Just because the liturgy is in no way merely a detail of discipline to be changed at will either by authority with no precedent to guide it, or by individuals deferring to their own irresponsible hobbies, just because the liturgy is the living heart of the Catholic tradition, that is, because it embodies the ultimate revelation of the eternal Word of God to His people, while it includes the act of redemption and new creation realized by that selfsame Word — the liturgy shows the distinctive features of the Catholic tradition in its most solemn form.

The Catholic tradition is not a thing of the past, fixed once for all in detailed written form, never to change or progress. Neither is it a changeable thing to be remodeled at will either by individuals or by an authority which, if it did such a thing, would be as unfettered and irresponsible as an individual. This tradition is, rather, a living pattern given once for all in its essentials by Christ and His apostles. And this pattern has to be lived out through all the ages, not by individuals separately, but by a living community, grounded on Christ and His Apostles through being always in communion and one with the successors of the Apostles and the vicars of Christ.

In this living communion, the Popes and the Bishops are not to do everything while the rest are to accept their governance in a purely passive way. Nor are individuals allowed to do as they like. Still less is the authority meant to be all-powerful in some field isolated from real life, while the individuals are left alone to do everything or nothing in all other fields of activity.

Rather, we may apply here most effectively Newman’s fruitful statement about the two component parts of tradition in the Church and their mutual and necessary interplay. As he says, there is only one tradition, which is that of the whole body, head and members; but this tradition takes two complementary forms which are never to be confounded, which can never be reduced to one, and which are never to be separated from each other…

Now we can see how the individual in the Church is meant to respond to the stimulation given by authority, especially in the field of the liturgy. He is not meant to answer by a strictly correct but purely passive and external adherence to the material injunctions of authority. He is, rather, to make an ever-renewed effort to know, to understand in a living way, to keep faithfully, by adapting it to new needs, "the faith once given to the saints", not as a naked and abstract idea but as a living body… In so doing, far from ever coming into into conflict with authority, we shall be preparing the way for it…

[W]e must realize that the important point for us is not so much any particular detail of our own tentative work, but rather the promotion of that true spirit of living and faithful orthodoxy in regard to the liturgy which we have been at such great pains to define.



The Editors