I have been watching with fascination and, from time to time, dismay, the reaction to Cardinal Sarah’s talk July 5 at the Sacra Liturgica conference in England.
And there is a new piece at First Things this morning, by Christopher Ruddy! This story show no signs of dying down.
Ruddy writes: Cardinal Robert Sarah’s call on July 5th for a wider celebration of the Ordinary Form Mass ad orientem was predictably dead on arrival, given the lack of support from higher authority and most of the episcopate, as well as the widespread sense among clergy and laity that such orientation represents the priest’s turning his “back to the people” in a pre–Vatican II, clericalist manner.
The swiftness and vehemence, however, with which the Cardinal’s suggestion was rejected remains striking. The intensity of that rejection reveals much about liturgy, the reception of Vatican II, and the Church’s identity and purpose.
On Saturday, July 9th, Pope Francis received Cardinal Sarah in audience. On the following day, July 10th, Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor of Civiltà Cattolica and papal confidant-interviewer, tweeted that the General Instruction for the Roman Missal (GIRM) dictates that the priest must face the congregation at various points during Mass. (Several commentators responded that such instructions presuppose that the priest is otherwise facing in the same direction—ad orientem—as the people.)
That same day, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, in whose diocese Cardinal Sarah had delivered his July 5th address, released a letter to his priests. After noting the importance of dignified liturgical celebration, he claimed that No. 299 of GIRM, which calls for a free-standing altar, holds that versus populum worship “is desirable wherever possible.” (Others have argued that the “desirable wherever possible” phrase pertains not to celebration versus populum, but to the existence of a free-standing altar.) He also warned his priests against a clericalism that would impose the celebrant’s “personal preference or taste” upon the liturgy.
And on the following day, July 11th, the Vatican Press Office Director, Federico Lombardi, S.J., issued a clarification regarding Cardinal Sarah’s original comments and recent papal audience. Father Lombardi reiterated the claim that GIRM No. 299 supports versus populum worship. Stating also that the expression “reform of the reform” should be avoided, he said that “new liturgical directives are not expected.” Pope Francis and Cardinal Sarah, he concluded, were “unanimous” in their agreement on these points. At that point, the Cardinal’s appeal had been totally rejected. The rebuttal was swift, decisive, and total.
Like most people, I was reading about the talk and reaction to it and had only been exposed to brief excerpts of Cardinal Sarah’s. Well, yesterday, I decided to sit down and read the whole talk which is now published at the Sacra Liturgica site in English and in French.
I urge you to read Cardinal Sarah’s talk in its entirety. See how he anchors his explanation of liturgical reform not only in the documents of the Second Vatican Council and post conciliar popes, but also in popes prior to the council. He explains how liturgical reform did not begin at Vatican II, but had already been underway.
He goes back repeatedly to what the Council Fathers had written in their text on the liturgy to discern their intent. His text is an example of what Pope Benedict called a hermeneutic of reform in continuity.
His writing is a marvel of clarity, precision and beauty. What he called for in the text, i.e. an encouragement (not a directive!) for priests to worship ad orientem is already allowed in the General Instructions of the Roman Missal (GIRM) for the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite.
It is saddening to see articles like this about the Cardinal:
Cardinal Sarah quickly made a mark as one of the shrillest voices against “gender ideology,” same-sex marriage, abortion, contraception and other so-called attacks on the family. During the two autumn Synod sessions on the family (2014 and 2015), and even between those sessions, he was among the most visibly active bishops to warn Pope Francis — through books, letters and interviews — not to soften the church’s stance on divorce and remarriage.
People continue to scratch their heads in total confusion as to why Francis gave him such a high-profile post in a pontificate in which Sarah seems so out of step. Some believe it was meant to neutralize the cardinal by putting him in charge of an area of church life (the liturgy) that the pope simply takes for granted and about which he is contemplating no further developments.
Others fear he miscalculated the depth of the cardinal’s commitment to the neo-Tridentinists and the “reform of the reform” movement.
Up until he caused the stir with his recent talk in London, the pope remained remarkably tolerant with him. But that lecture may have been the final straw.
I urge you to read the talk in full and then comment.