Oct 15, 2006

To the Heart of the Mystery

Online Edition – October 2006
Vol. XII, No. 7

To the Heart of the Mystery
Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith,
Secretary, Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments —
Address to the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Convention, September 2006

Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith was appointed Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments by Pope Benedict XVI, beginning his service in this office in February 2006. The archbishop, a native of Sri Lanka, was the first Bishop of the Diocese of Ratnapura (1995-2001). In 2001, he became Adjunct Secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples; and in 2004 he became Apostolic Nuncio to Indonesia and East Timor.

His address, prepared for the 29th Annual Convention of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, held in Kansas City, Missouri September 22-24, appears here with the archbishop’s kind permission.


Dear Participants,

It is my great pleasure to send greetings to all who take part these days in the 29th Annual Convention of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, and especially so since you have chosen on this occasion for your theme “Sacrosanctum Concilium and the Reform of the Liturgy”.

The very mention of the liturgy takes us to the heart of the sacred mystery, which in the first place is not a goal that the men and women of our fevered and pragmatic age set themselves to reach, but the pure and unimaginable gift of God, bestowed upon us along the inscrutable highways and byways of our personal histories.

Already the very fact of our existence in this wonderful world prompts us to direct our gaze to the heavens and utter our hymn of praise. But the supreme motive of our thanksgiving is the relentless action of God’s grace, the course as it were of Francis Thompson’s “hound of heaven”, pursuing us along the inscrutable highways and byways of our personal histories and pointing us, nuzzling us, sometimes almost frighting us in the direction of a mountain that all must climb, Mount Calvary where Christ Jesus our Lord has been raised up between heaven and earth, drawing all the sons and daughters of God’s adoption to Himself.

It is to this pinnacle of Calvary that the Conciliar Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, takes us. And that in various senses.

Firstly, of course, we recall that pithily expressed intuition that the Sacred Liturgy is the fountainhead and culmination (fons et culmen) of the whole of the Church’s activity, an intuition then applied in other documents of the Council and the popes in a special way to the celebration of Holy Mass,

Then, the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium proved to be itself, providentially, in some sense, a fountainhead and culmination, or at least a starting point and point of conclusion. For the work on the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy served to lead the Fathers into the work of the Council and to orient them by means of a debate and study that while concentrating on the specific question of the Liturgy, also opened up a pastoral vista of the interplay between the eternal truths of faith, our understanding of them at the successive moments of God’s grace, and the challenges we face in an ever-changing age to further the sanctification of the world. In that sense, the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, like the liturgy it treats, is certainly a fruitful point of departure for a constantly renewed attempt to understand the theology of the Church, its mission and pastoral action.

I may permit myself here to note in an aside the great importance I see in another affirmation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, namely that the celebration of the liturgy does not exhaust the activity of the Church. Doubtless the Council Fathers intended to recall those wonderful words of Saint Paul to the Romans, that in order for the world to have faith, and — we might add — for that faith to be celebrated in the Eucharist, the faith has to be preached to them, through all the channels of human communication. With hindsight we can link this affirmation to the damage done by uncomprehending in some places attempts to lever into the liturgy everything from talent contests to political debate, thus almost squeezing out the essential, the mystery of God.

It was perhaps an easy temptation to seize upon the Liturgy Constitution as a rough-and-ready manual, a sort of loose-leaf binder of instructions of the kind that used to accompany children’s toy construction sets. My own view is that far from being the triumph of pragmatism, the Liturgy Constitution reveals more of its true self if read as a “mystical” document, one that opens the eyes of faith, the eyes of the Church, to an enrapturing vision of what the Liturgy naturally is. It seems to me that Sacrosanctum Concilium most importantly plays the chords of a marvelous sacred symphony of the truth as expressed in the different books of the divine Scriptures, from the evangelistic longings of Isaiah, to the cosmic ecclesiology of the Letters to the Colossians and the Ephesians, to the irruption of God’s light and love in the Johannine writings, to the sacrificial theology of Christ the Eternal High Priest in the Letter to the Hebrews, all as it were caught up into the great panorama of the Book of the Apocalypse, linking as it does the definitive victory of the Son of God over all evil with the outplaying of the drama of the heavenly Liturgy.

The action of the Holy See, likewise, important as it is, cannot exhaust the activity of the Church. It is all the more urgent that gatherings such as yours assist by their labors and prayers the pastors and the bishops to glimpse the heart of the mystery, so that throughout the Church we can all be open in every age to its self-revelation.

The Holy See has been engaged with the bishops in drawing attention to the singular importance of the Sacrament of Sacraments, the wondrous Sacrament of the Most Blessed Eucharist, in unfolding an understanding of its treasures and in safeguarding them from the abusive inroads of superficiality and arbitrariness, oftentimes a result of yielding to the temptation for “quick results”. It is singular how in the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia the late Pope John Paul II stresses so delicately and yet so powerfully the dimension of “awe” or “astonishment” that the Eucharist should inspire in the Church as a whole and in the individual believer. This deep sense of “awe” does help us to achieve an attitude of silence and listening and engaging in a “conversational attitude” before the Lord. This is to be always cultivated.

Besides, the Holy See has also launched a wide campaign to ensure that the liturgical life of the Church be given more importance and that everything be carried on with an even greater sense of seriousness. It is good to see that with the assistance of the world’s bishops this campaign is gradually bearing fruit. The Holy See is also engaged with the struggle to ensure that the translations of the Liturgy in the various authorized languages convey faithfully that astonishing web of words of wisdom that the Fathers of the Church by their contemplation and pastoral experience drew from the Sacred Scriptures and fashioned to be the Church’s expression of faith in the course of liturgical celebration. This was the Council’s intention, and now correcting our sights through experience, I believe we are making progress toward improvement in this area too.

In two other areas to which your gathering intends to dedicate attention, that of sacred art and architecture, and that of sacred music, the interventions of the Holy See have, shall we say, been less programmatic, even if the basic principles have been steadily and repeatedly evoked. Since in both these sectors the true path has not rarely in practice been lost from view, there is wide scope for the investment of further energy in a way that starts with deepened reflection on the realities of the faith and on the effective needs of liturgical celebration.

I should like to draw a certain connection between the promotion of authentic sacred art and sacred music on the one hand, and what has happened, on the other, in the matter of Eucharistic adoration, where we have seen in recent years a groundswell of spontaneous commitment on the part of so many Catholic families and individual laypeople in so many regions of the world. These families did not wait for the Holy See to issue new documents, but rather pressed their priests to provide for their needs according to the existing provisions. They have organized groups, they have published and disseminated hymnals and prayer books. I know that many of you who take part in this gathering have given your energies to this holy enterprise, and been richly rewarded.

It seems to me the time is right for those who have even modest natural talent in the fields of sacred art and sacred music on the one hand, to engage under the action of God’s grace in promoting a renewal in the parishes. The products taken up, packaged and commercialized in these years have not always been happily devised, either in visual art, in the form and adornment of our churches, or in the kind of music introduced into the liturgy. On the other hand, when true art has emerged, visual or musical, it has often too easily been shunted off into what is in effect the world of the art exhibition or the concert, a product to provoke our applause of the artist rather than thanksgiving to Almighty God.

Prompted by that notion of “noble simplicity” that the Council Fathers made their own in Sacrosanctum Concilium (n. 34), it is time for us to take stock of our patrimony, but also to make a gift to God of the talents and the cultural currents of our time among all the different peoples in whom the Gospel has taken root. Incidentally, we can begin to draw encouragement from the freshness and spontaneity of the short occasional messages and addresses, which our Holy Father Pope Benedict has addressed to choirs and musical gatherings since his election.

My recent appointment by the Holy Father as Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments assigns me an institutional role in these questions within the activity of the Holy See, but perhaps you see between the lines of my message that my interest in the liturgy is far from a merely formal one. Having been privileged to serve as diocesan bishop and to serve in areas of the world where Catholic life is not always easy, I have seen at first hand how the Church’s stress on the crucial importance of the liturgy rings true.

The fact of your faithfully organizing a meeting on these matters, as in the past you have done on other realities of Catholic life, does you all great credit and is a clear sign of hope. It augurs well for the Church. I send you my warmest personal wishes for a successful convention, accompanied by the sincere assurance of my prayers.

May God bless you all!
+Malcolm Ranjith
Archbishop Secretary



The Editors