Fr Joseph Fessio in Australia: Principles of genuine liturgical reform

Fr Joseph Fessio in Australia: Principles of genuine liturgical reform

Michael Gilchrist

Fr Joseph Fessio's highly successful lecture tour of Australia culminated in Melbourne on July 24, 1996, with 1,500 present at a packed Camberwell Civic Centre to hear his address and to welcome the newly-appointed Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr George Pell, who was present to give the vote of thanks to Fr Fessio. His lectures were also well-attended in Brisbane and Sydney (with about 500 at each) and in Armidale, Ballarat and Bendigo. Fr Fessio had been invited to Australia by the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy as a featured speaker at their annual conference in Brisbane. The Thomas More Centre sponsored Fr Fessio's talks in the other centres.

To those familiar with Fr Joseph Fessio's work in publishing, higher education and liturgy, the success of his lecture tour of Australia last July would have come as no surprise (see July AD2000). His most recent initiative has been to help promote a new liturgical movement designed to "reform the reform" of the Catholic liturgy to accord with the intentions of the Second Vatican Council. This has emerged through a new organisation, and journal of the same name, Adoremus.

Reflecting his current priority, Fr Fessio's lectures concentrated on the question of authentic liturgical renewal as an area of central importance for a recovery of Catholic faith and practice in Western nations. Central to this liturgical renewal should be a widened use of Gregorian chant in parish life, something which Vatican ll's liturgy document, Sacrosanctum Concilium, had clearly called for.

Fr Fessio noted that whereas the majority of complaints from American Catholics up to ten years ago had related to defective catechetics, today the area of greatest concern had become liturgy. For example, Mother Angelica and her cable television network EWTN were receiving thousands of calls every month about liturgical abuses from across the US.

Fr Fessio then referred to a talk given last year by Fr Brian Harrison, Dean of Theology at the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, at a conference in Colorado Springs. This talk, titled "On the Reform of the Reform of the Roman Liturgy" was, said Fr Fessio, not only "a perfect representation of the problem," but also offered "reasonable solutions".

Fr Harrison had argued that any comprehensive return to the "preconciliar" Mass was not an ultimate solution to the present problem, even if a continued and widespread exercise of this option, as allowed for by the Pope, was to be desired. To seek this as a long-term solution would be to bypass the Council and its key statement on liturgical reform - signed even by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre - which sought more than a mere continuance of the 1962 Missal (the Tridentine Mass).

On the other hand, equally unsatisfactory as a long-term solution was a mere reliance on a tightened observance of the present regulations governing celebrations of the Novus Ordo Mass. For certain aspects of the approved post-Vatican II liturgical changes needed serious re-evaluation.

Fr Harrison proposed as the best course to follow that the Church re-read and reflect upon the Vatican II liturgical document in the light of both the old Mass and what has occurred since the Council and then consider what the Vatican II document would really have envisaged for today's liturgy: what should a truly reformed liturgy be looking like today?

Fr Fessio revealed that he had sent a copy of Fr Harrison's proposals to Cardinal Ratzinger in 1995 and received a reply indicating complete agreement with what the Cardinal called "the way to true reform of the reform," which would require "a new liturgical movement." He strongly endorsed Fr Fessio's proposal to found a new organisation to advance this "movement".

Armed with this mandate from Cardinal Ratzinger, Fr Fessio launched Adoremus, an organisation which now has 15,000 members worldwide and continues to grow rapidly.

Fr Fessio next turned to what he believed Vatican II had actually called for in liturgical renewal. The overriding principle, he said, was that "before all else" there should be a "full and active participation" in the liturgy. But this "positive goal" was meant to be constrained by par 23 of Sacrosanctum Concilium which directed that "no innovations" should be introduced "unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them" and that any "new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing".

It is quite clear that these two limiting principles have been almost totally overlooked since the Council.

The expression "active participation," said Fr Fessio, had appeared in a number of earlier Church statements on liturgy, ranging from Pope St Pius X in 1903, through Pope Pius XI and Pius XII. It was clear from these, that "active participation" involved dispositions of reverence and awe in the face of heavenly mysteries and the sacrificial character of the Mass. And such participation necessitated use of the Church's musical heritage, particularly Gregorian chant. Vatican II had said (par 116): "... other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services."

Jewish roots

It is, he said, difficult to see how the Church can be faithful to the Council without "some effort to restore chant." Its almost complete absence in today's churches was a "glaring example" of a failure to implement the Council's liturgical reforms.

According to an expert on Jewish temple liturgy at the New York Hebrew Academy whom Fr Fessio consulted, the psalms sung at the time when Jesus and Mary were on earth would have sounded very much like Gregorian chant. "You got it from us," was the expert's comment. Far from being "medieval," it had its roots in "Jewish hymnody and psalmody."

With recent CDs of Gregorian chant selling in the millions it was difficult to sustain the view that this type of music was remote and unpopular for today's Catholics. No 'modern' Catholic hymns could boast of such commercial success.

To prove his point, Fr Fessio concluded his address by asking the audience to stand and sing portion of a Gregorian Kyrie after him. The task was carried out with relative ease.

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