The visit of a group of American Bishops for their ad limina visit to Rome in October provided Pope John Paul II with an opportunity to once again express his concerns about the current state of the liturgy. The text of the Holy Father's address to the bishops was published in full in L'Osservatore Romano (14 October 1998).
That the Pope was unhappy at the outset of his pontificate with aspects of the implementation of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II was evident in two early liturgy documents, Dominicae Cenae and Inaestimabile Donum (both from 1980). In the former, he took the unprecedented step of apologising for all the liturgical abuses since Vatican II that had harmed the Church's Eucharistic faith:
"I would like to ask forgiveness - in my own name and in the name of all of you, venerable and dear Brothers in the Episcopate - for everything which, for whatever reason, through whatever human weakness, impatience or negligence, and also through the at times partial, one-sided and erroneous application of the directives of the Second Vatican Council, may have caused scandal and disturbance concerning the interpretation of the doctrine and the veneration due to this great Sacrament [the Eucharist]. And I pray the Lord Jesus that in the future we may avoid in our manner of dealing with this sacred mystery anything which could weaken or disorient in any way the sense of reverence and love that exists in our faithful people" (n. 12).
Eighteen years later, to judge from the Holy Father's comments to the delegation of US Bishops, little had changed for the better.
Having made a few preliminary remarks on the overall benefits of the liturgical reforms, he observed: "... in some cases there has been a misunderstanding of the very nature of the liturgy, leading to abuses, polarisation and sometimes even grave scandal." The "challenge" today, he said, is to reach "the proper point of balance." [All italics are the Pope's own emphases]. This involved "entering more deeply into the contemplative dimension of worship, which includes the sense of awe, reverence and adoration which are fundamental attitudes in our relationship with God."
The Pope reminded the Bishops that "liturgical law [should] be respected", adding that "the priest, who is the servant of the liturgy, not its inventor or producer, has a particular responsibility in this regard, lest he empty liturgy of its true meaning or obscure its sacred character." The ministerial priesthood, he noted, is to be distinguished from the priesthood of the baptised, since it is "rooted in the apostolic succession" thus making a priest, "not just one who presides, but one who acts in the person of Christ."
A major area, according to the Holy Father, where a lack of liturgical balance has occurred is in the "full, conscious and active participation" called for by Vatican II. Here, the Pope reminds us, this "does not mean that everyone does everything, since this would lead to a clericalising of the laity and a laicising of the priesthood; and this was not what the Council had in mind."
While "active participation" can include words, song, gestures and service on the part of the worshipping community, this did not "preclude the active passivity of silence, stillness and listening: indeed, it demands it." The Holy Father continued: "In a culture which neither favours nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see how the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be counter-cultural."
"Conscious participation" required that the faithful be "properly instructed in the mysteries of the liturgy, lest the experience of worship degenerate into a form of ritualism." But this did not mean "a constant attempt within the liturgy itself to make the implicit explicit." This could often lead "to a verbosity and informality which are alien to the Roman rite and end by trivialising the act of worship." This, one supposes, refers to the practice of some celebrants adding their own comments and explanations to the stipulated wordings of the Mass.
The introduction of the vernacular had, the Pope noted, "certainly opened up the treasures of the liturgy to all who take part," but this did "not mean that the Latin language, and especially the chants which are so superbly adapted to the genius of the Roman rite, should be wholly abandoned." The liturgy should strike a balance "between a spareness and a richness of emotion: it feeds the heart and the mind, the body and the soul."
In the area of preaching, said the Pope, the Council called for an opening of Scripture's "inexhaustible riches to the faithful." But this involved not only training in "good use of the Bible" but the clergy's "familiarity with the whole patristic, theological and moral tradition, as well as a penetrating knowledge of their communities and of society in general." Inadequacies in this area could convey the impression "of a teaching without roots and without the universal application inherent in the Gospel message."
The Holy Father remarked that "the excellent synthesis of the Church's doctrinal wealth contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church has yet to be more widely felt as an influence on Catholic preaching." It needed to be kept "clearly in mind", he said, that "the liturgy is intimately linked to the Church's mission to evangelise." This was especially so with the younger generation which "yearns for a deep and demanding faith in Jesus Christ." They would respond if they experienced the liturgy "as capable of leading them to a deep personal relationship with God" and this, in turn, would contribute to "priestly and religious vocations marked by true evangelical and missionary energy." Today's young Catholics are, he said, "unburdened by the ideological agenda of an earlier time," enabling them "to speak simply and directly of their desire to experience God, especially in prayer both public and private."
The Holy Father was no doubt alluding to the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s and early 1970s which impacted on the attitudes of many Catholics (including clergy and religious) and on the manner in which the Council's call for liturgical renewal was interpreted and implemented. It was this which had contributed to the "unbalanced" character of some of today's liturgical celebrations which prompted John Paul II's latest words on the subject.