To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Liturgy, a day-long conference sponsored by the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW), was held at the Vatican on 4 December 2003.
The opening address at the conference was given by Cardinal George, who heads the US Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, is a member of the CDW and US representative to the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, which provides English-language liturgical texts. His remarks therefore carry considerable weight. His address was published in full in the US-based Adoremus Bulletin.
Liturgical renewal after the Council, he suggested, had shown in hindsight a "kind of naive innocence", with inadequate "thought being given to what happens in any community when its symbol system is disrupted."
The liturgical calendar was an example. For since the Liturgy "is the place where time and eternity meet", changing the liturgical calendar, he said, "means to change our way of relating to God".
This can flow over to thinking on doctrinal matters. "Pastorally, every bishop has been asked: 'Since we no longer recognise certain saints on the Church's calendar, why can't the Church correct her teaching on sexual morality, on women's ordination and on other difficult doctrines?'"
He continued: "A change in space, in architecture and in the placement of altars and other liturgical furnishings has similar effect, as has a change in language, which carries and conditions our thinking and evaluating. A change in Liturgy changes the context of the Church's life.
"Recently, introducing the changes mandated by the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal (third typical edition), I remarked that the changes were 'minor'. A lay woman of the Archdiocese of Chicago corrected me: 'Cardinal there are no minor changes in Liturgy'. She is correct."
Other deficiencies in the period since Vatican II, according to Cardinal George, included "a limited understanding of the 'People of God'", which had "often led to a limited, horizontal concept of the subject of the Liturgy." It was "extremely important", he said, that the "wonderfully complete vision of the Liturgy, earthly united to heavenly", as set out in the Vatican II Liturgy Constitution and later in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "become better known and then internalised and lived".
Another problem area has been participation, "perhaps the overriding preoccupation of Sacrosanctum Concilium," which had been "rather reticent" on the specifics of how such participation can take place. The past 40 years had provided "examples of participation which range from the sublime to the ridiculous".
Cardinal George developed this theme at some length: "By understanding the Liturgy more easily, so the reasoning goes, the Christian believer is better able to participate in it. While the conciliar text mentions interior as well as exterior participation and states that sacred silence is also a form of participation, the emphasis is on verbal response and physical gesture, and in fact, the post-conciliar experience is one of an extremely verbal Liturgy with much activity going on. The more profound understanding of participation, not in the external, visible sense, but in the sacramental, internal and invisible dimension is not elaborated by Sacrosanctum Concilium.
"What is needed, therefore, is a more unified vision of man and a more profound understanding of liturgical participation. The human person understands the Liturgy by means of reason, without a doubt. The best and brightest intellect has ample material for reflection in the rich complex of truths which the Liturgy expresses.
"At the same time, the human person experiences the Liturgy through emotion and feeling, through an aesthetic appreciation of beauty, through the intuitive making of connections, through associations which take place on the subliminal level. This kind of human knowing should not be undervalued. And finally, man experiences the Liturgy through the five senses, which is the human foundation of the sacramental system."
Another aspect of significance was ritual: "The ritual assembly participates in the Liturgy according to a complex set of rules and roles. The activity is ceremonious, formal, repetitive. What happens this Sunday is the same as what happened last Sunday, for authentic ritual functions according to disciplined patterns of habit and continuity. This kind of participation avoids spontaneity and on-the-spot adaptation in favour of the predictable and the familiar.
"The vehicle of expression includes words, but relies more heavily on symbols and symbolic actions. The more profound symbols have many levels of meaning, are 'opaque' in that sense, are not susceptible to superficial and easy understanding. The qualities of beauty and holiness are communicated by signs which are the product of the highest cultural achievement. Immersion in the ritual action takes the participants out of themselves and transforms them.
"On the other hand, numerous and rapid changes in ritual forms can produce estrangement and anomie - an experience reported by many of the faithful in the post-conciliar years."
It was not, he added, "self-evident that simplicity in ritual form is more effective than complexity. It is not clear that a sign which is immediately intelligible will be more effective than a multi-faceted symbol which reveals its meaning only over time." Simplifying ritual action would not "necessarily bring about the greater understanding and more active participation desired by the Council."