Beyond Ad Orientem: First Gleanings from Sacra Liturgia 2016

The controversy that has been stirred up over Cardinal Sarah’s encouragement to priests to return to the traditional orientation at the altar during Mass has been fascinating, alarming, and perhaps ultimately necessary. It has provoked people on various sides to play their hands: unswerving loyalty to the status quo of liturgical reform, and a willingness to use an iron fist in a velvet glove to defend it; a commitment to reforming this reform to bring it more in line with the explicit intentions of the Council on which the status quo bases its legitimacy;  a rejection even of a reform of the reform and an overriding commitment to the pre-conciliar liturgy as liberated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007; and, incredulity among a minority at this bickering over such a peripheral thing as liturgy —”people are starving”, etc. On the positive side, it has renewed a discussion into what Christian worship is all about, what is its focus and what are its essential principles. This has led some to make more concrete and definitive judgments on related issues on which they had not previously come to any firm and final decision.

However, Sacra Liturgia 2016 had three full days of talks beyond Cardinal Sarah’s controversial address. So to help further the effects and fruits of the conference, I propose to single out what struck me as particularly noteworthy and deserving of ongoing thought and application. These strike me as seeds that deserve the water of our attention, our study and prayer, and our action.

Cardinal Sarah’s call to reorient our worship to God has already been much discussed by me and a galaxy of others. Needless to say it is now effectively the emblem, or is it avatar(?), of Sacra Liturgia 2016.

Perhaps the next most significant contribution is one that has been largely overlooked and really merits further study. It comes from Dr Stephen Bullivant, the young lay (and married) theologian at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. His paper’s title, Especially in Mission Territories (SC38)? New Evangelization and Liturgical (Reform of the) Reform, may well have deceived people into paying it inadequate attention. For it was not about the “missions”.

Dr Uwe Michael Lang introduces Dr Stephen Bullivant

The thrust of his paper, and what really deserves further thought, is challenging. He noted that neo-evangelistic principles had motivated and shaped the conciliar liturgical reforms. As early as the 1940s churchmen were defining their parts of Europe as missionary lands, such was the decline in the practice of the faith. Missionary is here used in the third of the possible situations later described by Pope St John Paul II, namely a land with ancient Christian roots but now largely alienated from the faith, and so in need of re-evanglization, or as we now call it, a new evangelisation. By the 1960s this European self-definition as missionary was more firmly and widely held, especially as the cultural and social revolution of the 1960s took hold.

Given, said Dr Bullivant, that the conciliar aim of promoting full and active participation in the liturgy was raised above all others, it was no wonder that the newly self-defined mission lands of Europe should seek for themselves the concessions made to the developing Church in the mission lands as traditionally understood, such as increased use of the vernacular language and music.

In fact, Dr Bullivant maintains, this missionary self-understanding in Europe, even if only pragmatic rather than conscientious, shaped the liturgical reforms after the Council and made in its name. Thus the Mass was vastly simplified. The vernacular became the de facto norm, as did secular music and instrumentation which were now conveniently classified as vernacular. Though Dr Bullivant did not say this, in this light it is hard not to see the post-conciliar liturgical reforms as based on a sleight of hand. But the ploy was no doubt well-intentioned: to get more people to Mass by allowing them to be more actively involved in the liturgical action.

As Dr Bullivant pointed out, the tree of reform does not come out very well when judged by its fruits. Only 55.8% of cradle Catholics now identify as Catholic, and almost 38% of them have rejected religion entirely. The decline in Mass attendance is well documented and unrelenting. Where there is growth it is generally in places where there has been a return to traditional approaches to worship, not least to the pre-conciliar traditional Latin Mass. In other words, the only real and consistent growth has been among those groups which see the post-conciliar reforms as inadequate.

Dr Bullivant’s conclusion is fresh and challenging. Given the Council’s overriding principle of full and active participation in the liturgy in order to reinvigorate a Church in decline in Europe and to support the growth of the Church in traditional missionary lands, and the fact that since the reforms there has been a consistent and significant decline in the numbers of Catholics even turning up, let alone participating; then this very same  conciliar principle mandates, even requires, a reform of the liturgical reform in order to render the liturgy effective in restoring full and active participation by as many Catholics as possible. In this view, the conciliar liturgical reforms having not met the goals set for them by the Council, it is time to express a more fundamental loyalty to the Council by reassessing the liturgical reforms made in its name in order to make them more fit for (the conciliar) purpose.

The unspoken question lurking like an elephant in the room must be confronted: how many bishops in England and Wales (and beyond) ready to obey the conciliar mandate and promote a reform of the ordinary form, or even the traditional extraordinary form? Some have shown themselves at least partly willing. Many others are most clearly not open to proceeding along these lines, perhaps seeing in such an approach an implicit admission of the failure of the post-conciliar liturgical reforms even when judged by conciliar standards.

Whether encouraging more Catholics back to Mass is achieved better by a reform of the reform or by the pre-conciliar Extraordinary Form is another, ongoing debate.

Either way what is being proposed is a fidelity to the Council that needs further articulation. After all, as Dr Bullivant quoted Newman, we will look rather foolish standing here without the laity.

In part 2 the main insights of the remaining papers will be briefly described to spur even further your own researches and meditations.





4 thoughts on “Beyond Ad Orientem: First Gleanings from Sacra Liturgia 2016

  1. Fr. Hugh, you write “Given, said Dr Bullivant, that the conciliar aim of promoting full and active participation in the liturgy was raised above all others, it was no wonder that the newly self-defined mission lands of Europe should seek for themselves the concessions made to the developing Church in the mission lands as traditionally understood, such as increased use of the vernacular language and music.”

    The thought that sprung immediately to my mind is that the use of he vernacular language and music in the developing Church is analogous to feeding pablum to a baby -i.e. the developing Church. However, feeding pablum to an adult will not provide the nourishment to contribute to a healthy adult. Also, note that pablum is only fed to the baby in the first few months of its birth, and solid food introduced as soon as possible.

    I have until now only experienced the NO Mass – and my parish is one that celebrates the NO Mass very reverently. I thought that Jesus in the Host was most important, all else did not matter. However, when recently, I attended my first TLM Mass, I almost burst into tears at the consecration. The priest with his back to us, offering the Host to the Father…. I could almost see that the priest was doing this on our behalf, the sacrifice of Christ being offered to the Father, and along with that sacrifice, us, as the Mystical Body of Christ, were also offered to the Father. And the Father responded saying, “This is my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased”

    While I have always been encouraged to offer up everything when the priest raised the Host in the NO Mass, the context in which I was doing so hit home when I attended the TLM. It is ONLY with Christ that we and our offerings are acceptable to the Father, and it is essential that we remain united with Christ in all that we do, while offering all to the Father. The orientation is important, as it UNDERSCORES the offering to the Father.

    In short, I should have started on solid food (the TLM), a long time ago, and I would definitely encourage others to do so. (With good catechesis ofcourse, explaining it all).

    My theology may be wrong, but that is what I experienced


  2. P.s. It is my first visit to your website, and I only read this post before I responded. I would like to add that hile I think the TLM is for me, I know older people who experienced the TLM, but prefer the NO Mass. And they are solid Catholics. Given this, I think that Cardinal Sarah’s suggestion to reorient our worship is a good one that can be incorporated into the NO Masses.

    I’m glad I found your blog. Very informative. Thank you.


  3. Your thoughts prompt a question from an outsider: (I am an Anglican seminarian and a student of the history of liturgy)

    Is the growth of the Extraordinary Form rooted in genuine numerical growth – as in people who would not otherwise being going to church – or is it rooted in what we might broadly call proselytisation – bringing in people who were previously at other congregations whether Roman Catholic or of other denominations?

    My other question is to what degree is the growth statistically significant? Of course, every soul saved matters. But if we are trying to work out what ‘works’ as liturgy in a missionary context, we need to consider the big picture too. Are EF congregations attracting a number of new people that is significant percentage of the local Catholic population (nominal or otherwise)/Christian population/population at large compared to those numbers for the ‘normal’ congregations?

    I am conscious as someone who has changed my own worshipping patterns (I grew up Methodist) that the two are not clearly divided. I was on the verge of giving up on church-going altogether before I settled in the Church of England, and so in some ways would fall very definitely in my second category, but if it had taken any longer would have been in the former.


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