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A Return to Noble Simplicity  
Thomas Scirghi  
   

With the revision of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) in 2002, and awaiting the new translation of the Roman Missal, there is much discussion over the changes within the liturgy. We hear of the rewording of certain prayers; some of these prayers roll off the tongue while others do not. With the publication of the 2002 GIRM, there have been slight changes in the posture of the assembly and in the position of the ministers around the sanctuary.

With this in mind, Pastoral Liturgy® will look at the liturgy through the lens of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, in order to place in perspective the current transition. To be clear, concerning the liturgy, the Church has never subscribed to the adage "If it isn't broken, don't fix it." Rather, one guiding principle for understanding the liturgy is semper reformanda, that is, the liturgy is "always reforming." It's not that change is welcomed for its own sake; rather, if Christian worship is to remain vital and vibrant, it must adapt to the many cultures in which people seek to encounter Christ in the Eucharist from one generation to the next.

This is the challenge of "tradition." From the Latin word tradere, tradition refers to a "handing on" of teaching, beliefs, and customs. What was handed on by the apostles to the first Christians continues today through the Church's teaching, life, and worship. And this tradition, received from the apostles, develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit as we grow in understanding of what has been handed down (Dei Verbum, 8). How simple it would be if the Lord had handed his disciples a script with stage directions for celebrating Eucharist. Instead, he gave them a model, based on a Jewish family meal, with the command, "Do this in memory of me." For two millennia, the Church has kept faithful to this command as the sacramental celebration moved from a family meal at home in Palestine, to a celebration spread throughout the world. With such growth, change is inevitable. The challenge for the Church is to remain faithful to the message of Jesus Christ as handed down by the apostles. The process of tradition has been described as taking one step backward before taking two steps forward. A theologian will take one step backward, delving into the doctrine and experience of the Church to prepare to take two steps forward to advance the tradition so that Christ's presence is revealed here and now. If we look backward only, the Church will be mired in the past. If we look forward only, the Church will lose its moorings and drift away. So tradition employs a tension connecting the past and future through the present.

In this way, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy is a traditional document. It was born out of the liturgical reform movement of the twentieth century that studied the development of the liturgy over two thousand years and attempted to adapt it for the needs of Roman Catholics in the twentieth century and further. Mindful of the principle of semper reformanda, the Council did not intend to write the definitive word on the liturgy, but to continue the discussion. For 400 years, since the Council of Trent and the Missal of Pope Pius V (1570), the Mass went virtually unchanged. In 1970, the Missal of Pope Paul VI brought radical change to Roman Catholic worship. The opening paragraph of the Constitution states the purpose for this change:

It is the goal of this most sacred Council to intensify the daily growth of Catholics in Christian living; to make more responsive to the requirements of our times those church observances which are open to adaptation; to nurture whatever can contribute to the unity of all who believe in Christ; and to strengthen those aspects of the Church which can help summon all of mankind into her embrace. Hence the council has special reasons for judging it a duty to provide for the renewal and fostering of the liturgy. (CSL, 1)

The new GIRM and the forthcoming Roman Missal offer an opportunity for an evaluation of how the current practice of worship measures up to the objectives of the Second Vatican Council. In a series of three essays, I will discuss two of these objectives, namely, "noble simplicity," "full, conscious and active participation," and the renewed significance of the dismissal rite. We begin with a discussion of the notion of "noble simplicity."

Simple Yet Noble
According to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,

The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people's powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation. (CSL, 34)

The beauty of the Roman Catholic liturgy lies in its simplicity. Here, simplicity refers to intelligibility and clarity, in the ability to understand the meaning and movement of the liturgy for the sake of greater participation. This sentiment was expressed well by Edmund Bishop, a renowned liturgist of the early twentieth century, in the essay, "The Genius of the Roman Rite." He wrote, ". . . [T]he genius of the native Roman rite is marked by simplicity, practicality, a great sobriety and self-control, gravity and dignity . . . . It is precisely in this simplicity . . . that lies the importance of the native Roman rite for the history of public worship."

However, along the way of history, the liturgy expanded and grew complex. Pope John XXIII called attention to this problem in his apostolic letter Rubricarum Instructum (1960). He explained that the constant duty of the papacy, especially since the Council of Trent, has been

to define more accurately and arrange more suitably the body of rubrics by which the Church's public worship is ordered and governed. Thus many things have been emended, changed and added in the course of time. The consequent growth of the system of rubrics has sometimes been unsystematic and detrimental to the original clarity and simplicity of the whole system.

The rites should be simple yet noble. The nobility of our worship challenges any attempt to interpret simplicity as casual or even careless. It warns against practicing a worship of convenience and settling for what is cheap. So we should be generous with our symbols, such as the bread and wine, water, and oil; these symbols should "speak." The vessels and vestments, along with the furnishings, need not be lavish but should be dignified, suggesting the significance of the celebration. In a word, "nobility" reminds us of the reverence with which we approach the eucharistic celebration. We should enter the liturgy with a proper disposition of respect and dignity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1186, explains that we cross a threshold when we enter the church, passing from the world burdened by sin to a new life in which the Lord wipes away every tear and feeds us with eternal life.

Biblical Nature of Worship
This crossing over the threshold highlights one reason for the revision of the liturgy, namely, the concern for the biblical nature of Roman Catholic worship. Here we enter the world of the Bible. The liturgy is imbued with scripture. We find it not only in the readings for the day, but throughout the prayers—the Opening Prayer, the Prayer over the Gifts, and the Closing Prayer—as well as with the greeting and dismissal. So the revision of the prayers expresses a more literal translation of scripture.

For one example, at the conclusion of the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest holds up the host and declares, "This is the Lamb of God . . . ." This statement will be revised to read "Behold the Lamb of God . . . ." We realize that it is not a matter of the risen Lord being confined to the round host, but an awareness of the One who stands in our midst. The change from "This is" to "Behold" may prove more faithful to the scriptural account in which John the Baptist, seeing Jesus coming toward him, declares to those around him: "Look, the Lamb of God, the One taking away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). The change in wording opens the meaning of the proclamation. Generally speaking, the pronoun "this" can be problematic: it begs the question, exactly to what are we referring? Notice, that some time ago, the phrase ending the scripture readings was changed, from "This is the word [or Gospel] of the Lord" to simply "The word [Gospel] of the Lord," suggesting that the risen Lord is present to us in the hearing of the Word. Here, "this is" has been omitted.

The response to the prayer, "Behold the Lamb of God . . ." may generate some discussion. Currently, the congregation responds, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed." The suggested alteration reads, "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed." We find this expression of faith in the account of Jesus' healing the centurion's slave (Luke 7:1-10). While this longer phrase may be a more literal translation of the scripture than the current one, some ask if it will enhance the meaning of the prayer.

One of the more controversial changes arises from the Latin phrase, pro vobis et pro multis, "for you and for many," spoken in each Eucharistic Prayer during the words of institution. Currently, the priest prays over the cup, saying, "Take this, all of you and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all [italics added] so that sins may be forgiven." The revised reading changes "for all" to "for many." Proponents of the change show that the wording "for many" follows a literal reading of the scripture, as found in Matthew 26:28 and Mark 14:24, as well as of the Latin phrase. Moreover, Cardinal Francis Arinze of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments explains that the revised phrasing reflects the fact that while salvation is offered to all, some may freely choose to refuse the offer. Critics of the change claim that it sounds exclusive, denying that Jesus died for all people (see John 11:52; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15; Titus 2:11; 1 John 2:2). Moreover, within the biblical context, "many" is contrasted with "few" and is equivalent to "all." For example, how should we understand Jesus' admonition in his parable of the wedding feast, "For many are called, but few are chosen" (Matthew 22:1-14)? Similarly, what of Ezra's claim, "Many have been created, but few will be saved?" (We find this statement in the collection of deuterocanonical books, either as 4 Ezra 8:3 or 2 Esdras 8:3.) In this case, "many" implies "all." Some catechesis will be necessary to introduce this change.

Along with the liturgical prayers, certain practices will be revised for the sake of noble simplicity. The liturgical reform movement restored some practices of early Christian worship, for example, the Prayer of the Faithful and the reverence for the Book of the Gospels. The Prayer of the Faithful provides an exercise of the office of the baptismal priesthood of the laity (GIRM, 69). Here, responding to the proclaimed word of God, the people offer prayers to God for the salvation of all (John F. Baldovin, SJ, Bread of Life, Cup of Salvation: Understanding the Mass [Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003], 85-87). Also, the restored prominence of the Book of the Gospels, with procession and incense, recalls an ancient custom of reverence for this symbol of Christ's presence. (Notice that the priest or deacon will kiss the Book of the Gospels, not the ambo.)

Accretions
In the revision of the liturgy, we should be aware of "accretions," that is, those elements that creep into our worship and become regular practice. This is not to imply that we should do away with all accretions, but we should be aware of them in order to evaluate them according to the principle of noble simplicity. For example, during the praying of the Lord's Prayer it is common to see people holding hands; sometimes the assembly is invited to join hands. And in the Communion line, it is common to find some people, especially children who have not yet received First Communion, presenting themselves to the minister with their hands folded across the chest, requesting a blessing. These gestures are fairly commonplace, yet there are no rubrics for them. Perhaps motivating these two accretions is a felt need to foster a sense of belonging: the joined hands form a sign of solidarity; the blessing welcomes those not yet ready for full participation in the Eucharist. To be clear, this is an observation—not a criticism—of how a practice is unofficially made routine within Christian worship.

Other accretions are more problematic. The Sign of Peace, for example, has been judged by some to be extravagant. The GIRM (82) explains that it is "to be given in a manner established by Conferences of Bishops in accordance with the culture and customs of the peoples. It is, however, appropriate that each person offer the sign of peace only to those nearest and in a sober manner." We need to ask if the Sign of Peace distracts the assembly from the movement toward the table of the Eucharist. In some cases, the length of time and the expression of enthusiasm given to the Sign of Peace overwhelm the reception of Communion. A visitor here could think that the focal point for the celebration is the act of sharing peace rather than receiving the body and blood of the Lord.

Another problematic accretion is commonly heard when the assembly joins in saying aloud the Doxology. Sometimes this participation comes at the invitation of the presider. The problem here is that the doxology is part of the Eucharistic Prayer that is to be read aloud by the priest, after which the assembly responds with the great "Amen."

The goal of the current revisions within the liturgy is to develop the sense of noble simplicity in our prayer and practice. They should enable the faithful to hear clearly the call of the Lord to them in word and sacrament and to respond as one people joined in the body of Christ. Specifically, the practice of noble simplicity should foster a greater sense of full, conscious, and active participation, which will be the subject of the next discussion.

Questions for Reflection
1. Which changes in the liturgy have been most challenging, to you personally, and to your worship community as a whole?

2. Are there other "accretions" in your community's liturgy that should be evaluated?

3. Are there other ways by which we may foster a sense of "noble simplicity" in our worship?

4. What are some of the clear signs of reverence in your community's worship?

5. How much does culture or ethnic identity influence the practice of the liturgy?

6. What would you think of moving the Sign of Peace to earlier in the liturgy, for example, for it to be placed within the time of the Preparation of the Altar and the Gifts?

Thomas Scirghi, SJ,
is an associate professor of liturgical theology at the Jesuit School in Berkeley, where he teaches sacramental theology, liturgical theology, and presiding for ordination and for lay ecclesial ministry. He was ordained a priest of the Society of Jesus in 1986. He earned an MDiv from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, an STL from the Weston Jesuit School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a ThD from Boston University in 1996. Before moving to the Bay Area, he taught sacramental theology in the graduate school of Fordham University in New York City.

This is the third in a series of six articles reflecting on the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. Those using the study guide may find it helpful to read the document, which can be found online at the Vatican's web site, www.Vatican.va.

Part I: Why Study the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Today?
Part II: Finding the Heart of the Matter: The Spirituality of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy
Part III: A Return to Noble Simplicity
Part IV: The Presence of Christ in the Assembly
Part V: The Intimate Connection between Word and Rite in the Liturgy
Part VI: Go in Peace: The Relationship of Liturgy to Justice

 
         
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