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Friday, May 6, 2011

Looking at Blessed John Paul's Liturgical legacy

Even six years removed from the death of Blessed John Paul II, most of the focus of the Holy Father's contributions to both the Church and the world center on the fall of communism, the revised Catechism of the Catholic Church  and World Youth Day.   However, it seems to me that when discussing John Paul's legacy, the question of liturgy sometimes falls through the cracks.

While one can argue that there were times when the Papal liturgies celebrated by Pope John Paul II took on a rather interesting life of their own, towards the end of his papacy, the venerable pontiff wrote about liturgical matters with a keen sense of urgency, almost dire.

In his last encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia,  John Paul urged the Church to take greater care in the manner in which the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is celebrated.  He noted that even in the Gospels, solemnity plays a huge role in worship:

47. Reading the account of the institution of the Eucharist in the Synoptic Gospels, we are struck by the simplicity and the "solemnity" with which Jesus, on the evening of the Last Supper, instituted this great sacrament. There is an episode which in some way serves as its prelude: the anointing at Bethany. A woman, whom John identifies as Mary the sister of Lazarus, pours a flask of costly ointment over Jesus' head, which provokes from the disciples ­ and from Judas in particular (cf. Mt 26:8; Mk 14:4; Jn 12:4) ­ an indignant response, as if this act, in light of the needs of the poor, represented an intolerable "waste". But Jesus' own reaction is completely different. While in no way detracting from the duty of charity towards the needy, for whom the disciples must always show special care ­ "the poor you will always have with you" (Mt 26, 11; Mk 14:7; cf. Jn 12:8) ­ He looks toward His imminent death and burial, and sees this act of anointing as an anticipation of the honor which His body will continue to merit even after His death, indissolubly bound as it is to the mystery of His person.

The account continues, in the Synoptic Gospels, with Jesus' charge to the disciples to prepare carefully the "large upper room" needed for the Passover meal (cf. Mk 14:15; Lk 22:12) and with the narration of the institution of the Eucharist. Reflecting at least in part the Jewish rites of the Passover meal leading up to the singing of the Hallel (cf. Mt 26:30; Mk 14:26), the story presents with sobriety and solemnity, even in the variants of the different traditions, the words spoken by Christ over the bread and wine, which He made into concrete expressions of the handing over of His body and the shedding of His blood. All these details are recorded by the Evangelists in the light of a praxis of the "breaking of the bread" already well-established in the early Church. But certainly from the time of Jesus on, the event of Holy Thursday has shown visible traces of a liturgical "sensibility" shaped by Old Testament tradition and open to being reshaped in Christian celebrations in a way consonant with the new content of Easter.

Unfortunately, as the Holy Father points out, there has been a trend to downplay the formal and the solemn in our liturgies:

52. All of this makes clear the great responsibility which belongs to priests in particular for the celebration of the Eucharist. It is their responsibility to preside at the Eucharist in persona Christi and to provide a witness to and a service of communion not only for the community directly taking part in the celebration, but also for the universal Church, which is a part of every Eucharist. It must be lamented that, especially in the years following the post-conciliar liturgical reform, as a result of a misguided sense of creativity and adaptation there have been a number of abuses which have been a source of suffering for many. A certain reaction against "formalism" has led some, especially in certain regions, to consider the "forms" chosen by the Church's great liturgical tradition and her Magisterium as non-binding and to introduce unauthorized innovations which are often completely inappropriate.

Unfortunately, this informality led to introducing elements that are, as John Paul wrote, "completely inappropriate", as if we, ourselves, could improve upon what the Church has already given us.   In the last paragraph of this section on the dignity of liturgical celebrations, Pope John Paul II writes that:

The path taken by the Church in these first years of the third millennium is also a path of renewed ecumenical commitment. The final decades of the second millennium, culminating in the Great Jubilee, have spurred us along this path and called for all the baptized to respond to the prayer of Jesus "ut unum sint " (Jn 17:11). The path itself is long and strewn with obstacles greater than our human resources alone can overcome, yet we have the Eucharist, and in its presence we can hear in the depths of our hearts, as if they were addressed to us, the same words heard by the Prophet Elijah: "Arise and eat, else the journey will be too great for you" (I Kg 19:7). The treasure of the Eucharist, which the Lord places before us, impels us towards the goal of full sharing with all our brothers and sisters to whom we are joined by our common Baptism. But if this treasure is not to be squandered, we need to respect the demands which derive from its being the sacrament of communion in faith and in apostolic succession.

By giving the Eucharist the prominence it deserves, and by being careful not to diminish any of its dimensions or demands, we show that we are truly conscious of the greatness of this gift. We are urged to do so by an uninterrupted tradition, which from the first centuries on has found the Christian community ever vigilant in guarding this "treasure". Inspired by love, the Church is anxious to hand on to future generations of Christians, without loss, her faith and teaching with regard to the mystery of the Eucharist. There can be no danger of excess in our care for this mystery, for "in this sacrament is recapitulated the whole mystery of our salvation".104

These words seem to have been written with a sense of urgency.  It was as though this was John Paul's liturgical last will and testament, so to speak, even though it was written two years prior to his death.  What strikes me the most is this line:  "Inspired by love, the Church is anxious to hand on to future generations of Christians, without loss, her faith and teaching with regard to the mystery of the Eucharist."  Here, I believe that he is speaking to the group that was closest to his heart, the youth.   Unfortunately, this particular part of his encyclical seems to be on the verge of getting lost on the very group the Holy Father loved.  Not a few of the youth-oriented Masses feature shadows that taint the integrity of the Holy Sacrifice:  youngsters gathered around the altar and substandard music that is incompatible with the sacred rites.  While trying to make the Mass "more relevant" to the youth, organizers have wound up harming the very act that Pope John Paul II was trying to protect and defend in his last years.

Shortly after Pope John Paul II wrote Ecclesia de Eucharistia, he ordered the writing and promulgation of another document, Redemptionis Sacramentum.  He assigned the task of formulating this document to not one, but, two discasteries, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  Perhaps it was providential that the Prefect of the CDF at that time was the man who would later succeed John Paul as pope, the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.   The combination of these two Congregation was not some mere coincidence. We pray was we believe, lex orandi, lex credendi.   Prayer and belief go hand in hand.  In his wisdom, Blessed John Paul II wanted to ensure that both of these important components were taken into account.  When the liturgy is fragmented, the Faith suffers. 

In 2004, when Pope John Paul II promulgated Redemptionis Sacramentum, he gave the Church the antidote to combat liturgical abuse and insure the integrity of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.   If Ecclesia de Mysterio was the liturgical last will and testament of Blessed Pope John Paul II,   Redemptionis Sacramentum represents his vision for the  It would fall to his friend and  successor, Pope Benedict XVI, to ensure the integrity of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

But, Redemptionis Sacramentum is not the final gift that Blessed John Paul II gave to the Church.   English-speaking Catholics the world over will soon use a revised translation of the Roman Missal.  In 2001, the Holy Father ordered the promulgation of the document Liturgiam Authenticam that provides norms and guidelines for translations of all sacred texts meant for liturgical use.  John Paul also ordered the re-configuration of the International Commission on the English Language and created the Vox Clara committee to help guide ICEL's trannlsation.  In the United States, we will experience the fruits of John Paul's handiwork in November.  South Africa was the first, followed by New Zealand.  Australia will begin usage of the revised translation on Pentecost, while England and Wales will usher forth their books in September and November.  Pope Benedict unveiled the revised Ordinary during his historic visit to Great Britain back in September 2010.

While the media focuses its attention on the more widely-known contributions that Blessed John Paul II made, it's the more spiritual ones, such as those concerning the Liturgy, that will continue to bear fruit for generations to come.  The best way that we can show our gratitude to God for the gift of this beloved Pope is to carry out John Paul's last wishes, namely, to hand down the liturgy, as we have received it, in integrity and in love, to the next generation.  Only then, can we fulfill both his mandate of protecting the liturgy and ensuring that the youth will treasure their birthright as Catholics.

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