A remarkable gathering occurred early in the New Year in Rome: within the walls of the Vatican, the first ever international conference for English-speaking clergy was held, from 4-8 January 2010.
The initiative for the conference was taken within days of Pope Benedict's announcement last year of a special 'Year for the Priest', which commenced last June on the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The executive of the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy resolved to sponsor a gathering in Rome of clergy from throughout the English-speaking world.
The Australian Confraternity's American counterpart was approached and added its enthusiastic support. Participants were drawn not only from Australia and the United States, but also from Britain, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, Nigeria, Italy and Switzerland.
The majority of conference attendees were privileged to reside at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, which is used to house the cardinals during papal conclaves (and is a stone's throw from St Peter's Basilica).
Lectures took place at the Collegio Teutonico, also within the Vatican. All of the talks were of the highest standard, and treated a variety of topics: priestly identity and spirituality, current challenges to the priesthood, and the Sacred Liturgy.
A special highlight was a talk by Msgr Guido Marini, Benedict XVI's Master of Pontifical Liturgical Celebrations. Although Msgr Marini has previously granted a number of interviews, this was the first time since assuming his current position that he has given such a detailed exposition of his understanding of the Sacred Liturgy.
The key theme of his talk, 'Introduction to the Spirit of the Liturgy', was that the 'hermeneutic of continuity', of which Pope Benedict has spoken in relation to the Church's self-understanding, and her understanding of Divine Revelation, must be demonstrated above all in every liturgical celebration:
'[T]here is an urgent need to reaffirm the 'authentic' spirit of the liturgy, such as it is present in the uninterrupted tradition of the Church, and attested, in continuity with the past, in the most recent magisterial teachings: starting from the Second Vatican Council up to the present pontificate.
'I purposefully used the word continuity, a word very dear to our present Holy Father. He has made it the only authoritative criterion whereby one can correctly interpret the life of the Church, and more specifically, the conciliar documents, including all the proposed reforms contained in them. How could it be any different?
'Can one truly speak of a Church of the past and a Church of the future as if some historical break in the body of the Church had occurred? Could anyone say that the Bride of Christ had lived without the assistance of the Holy Spirit in a particular period of the past, so that its memory should be erased, purposefully forgotten?'
Msgr Marini offered this perspective on unauthorised changes to the liturgy:
'[I]t is not difficult to realise how far distant some modes of conduct are from the authentic spirit of the liturgy. In fact, some individuals have managed to upset the liturgy of the Church in various ways under the pretext of a wrongly devised creativity. This was done on the grounds of adapting to the local situation and the needs of the community, thus appropriating the right to remove from, add to, or modify the liturgical rite in pursuit of subjective and emotional ends. For this, we priests are largely responsible ...
'What casual folly it is indeed, to claim for ourselves the right to change in a subjective way the holy signs which time has sifted, through which the Church speaks about herself, her identity and her faith!'
The highlight of the week was of course attendance at the Holy Father's Epiphany Mass at St Peter's Basilica. But consistent with the insights proposed by Msgr Marini, both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite were celebrated during the conference at such splendid churches as Santa Maria in Trastevere and the Lateran Basilica, as well as St Peter's. Sacred Music of the highest calibre was provided throughout by the Lassus Scholars from Dublin.
The conference participants were delighted to be able to reaffirm their affection for and fidelity to the Holy Father, by way of a declaration which was signed by them and delivered to him:
'At this time, which has a most particular significance for both you and us, we wish, most sincerely, to confirm and affirm our fidelity and affection. Likewise, for an increase in vocations and the sanctification of Priests, we pray with the holy Curé d'Ars: 'Blessed be the most holy and immaculate conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. May all nations praise, all lands invoke and preach your Immaculate Heart!'
'Holy Father, by this prayer of the most holy Mother Mary, may Christ the Prince of Priests, grant long life to you in his service. We pray that the Almighty Lord may protect you from all adversity and that He may always direct, enlighten and perfect your will. And so, with John Paul II (of blessed memory), and with one voice, we say to you: 'May theLord lavish his rewards upon you!'.'
The Holy Father has since granted His Apostolic Blessing in response to this attestation.
Enriched by prayer, scholarly reflections and priestly fraternity during these days near the tomb of the Apostle, and inspired by St Peter's Successor, the conference participants departed somewhat reluctantly - but resolved to come together in conference in Rome yet again in 2015!
Fr Glen Tattersall is Deputy Chairman of the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy.