December 2010 – January 2011
Vol. XVI, No. 9
Liturgy – the Splendor of Truth, the Soul of Christian Life
The primacy of the liturgy in the life of the Church was emphasized by Pope Benedict XVI in his November 4 message to the Italian bishops’ conference, gathered in Assisi for their 62nd general assembly. Excerpts from his message, addressed to conference president Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco and all the Italian bishops, appeared in the English edition of Sandro Magister’s www.chiesa web site, and appear here with permission. (Translation by Matthew Sherry for www.chiesa).
In these days you have gathered in Assisi, the city in which “a sun was born to the world” (Dante, Paradiso, Canto XI), proclaimed patron of Italy by venerable Pius XII: Saint Francis, who preserves intact his freshness and his relevance — the saints never fade away! — due to his being conformed totally to Christ, of whom he was a living icon.
Like our own, the time in which Saint Francis lived was also marked by profound cultural transformations, fostered by the birth of the universities, by the rise of the townships and by the spread of new religious experiences.
Precisely in that season, thanks to the work of Pope Innocent III — the one from whom the Poverello of Assisi obtained his first canonical recognition — the Church undertook a profound liturgical reform.
Its highest expression is the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), which numbers among its fruits the “Breviary”. This book of prayer incorporated the richness of the theological reflection and prayer experience of the previous millennium. By adopting it, Saint Francis and his friars made their own the liturgical prayer of the supreme pontiff: in this way, the saint assiduously listened to and meditated on the Word of God, to the point of making it his own and then transposing it into the prayers he authored, and into all of his writings in general.
The Fourth Lateran Council itself, devoting particular attention to the sacrament of the altar, inserted into the profession of faith the term “transubstantiation”, to affirm the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic sacrifice: “His body and His blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar, under the species of the bread and wine, because the bread is transubstantiated into the body and the wine into the blood by divine power” (DS, 802).
From attending holy Mass and receiving holy communion with devotion arose the evangelical life of Saint Francis and his vocation to retrace the steps of Christ Crucified: “The Lord”, we read in the Testament of 1226, “gave me such faith in churches that I would simply pray and say: We adore you, Lord Jesus, in all of your churches in the whole world, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world” (Fonti Francescane, no. 111).
This experience also gave rise to the great deference that he showed for priests, and his orders to the friars to respect them always and no matter what, “because I see nothing bodily of the Most High Son of God in this world, if not His Most Holy Body and Blood that they alone consecrate, and they alone administer at the altars” (Fonti Francescane, no. 113).
Before such a gift, dear brothers, what responsibility of life follows for each one of us! “Be mindful of your dignity, brother priests”, Francis moreover urged, “and be holy, because He is holy!” (Letter to the General Chapter and to all of the friars, in Fonti Francescane, no. 220).
Yes, the holiness of the Eucharist demands that one celebrate and adore this mystery mindful of its greatness, importance, and efficacy for Christian life, but it also demands purity, consistency, and holiness of life from each one of us, in order to be living witnesses of Christ’s one sacrifice of love.
The saint of Assisi never stopped contemplating how “the Lord of the universe, God and Son of God, is so humble as to conceal Himself, for our salvation, in the paltry appearance of bread” (ibid, no 221), and vehemently asked his friars: “I beg you, more than if I were doing it for myself, that you humbly beseech the priests that they venerate above all things the Most Holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the holy names and the words written of Him that consecrate the body” (Letter to all the Custodians, in Fonti Francescane, no. 241).
The authentic believer, in every time, experiences in the liturgy the presence, the primacy, and the work of God. It is “veritatis splendor” [splendor of truth] (Sacramentum Caritatis, 35), nuptial event, foretaste of the new and definitive city and participation in it; it is the bond between creation and redemption, heaven open to the earth of men, passage from the world to God; it is Pascha, in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ; it is the soul of the Christian life, call to follow, reconciliation that moves to fraternal charity.
Dear brothers in the episcopate, your coming together places at the center of the work of the assembly an examination of the Italian translation of the third standard edition of the Roman Missal. The correspondence of the prayer of the Church (lex orandi) and the rule of faith (lex credendi) shapes the thought and sentiment of the Christian community, giving form to the Church, the body of Christ and temple of the Spirit. Human expression can never stand completely outside of its time, even when, as in the case of the liturgy, it constitutes a window that opens to what is beyond time. Giving expression to a perennially valid reality therefore demands a wise balancing of continuity and newness, of tradition and revitalization.
The Missal itself takes its place within this process. Every true reformer, in fact, is obedient to the faith: he does not act in an arbitrary manner, he does not appropriate any discretion over the rite; he is not the owner, but the custodian of the treasury instituted by the Lord and entrusted to us. The whole Church is present in every liturgy: adhering to its form is a condition of authenticity for what is celebrated.