Dom Alcuin, your T&T Clark Companion to Liturgy has just been published. Can you tell us something about its origins please?
The Companion was the idea of Tom Kraft, a T&T Clark editor some years ago, who wanted a volume in the series which would present something of the status quaestionis of liturgical studies in the Western Catholic Church at the beginning of the twenty first century. Undoubtedly Tom’s approach came in the light of the impetus given to these questions by the election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. As Cardinal Ratzinger he had taught for many years that “the true celebration of the Sacred Liturgy is the centre of any renewal of the Church whatever.” Western Catholics have endured a number of decades of liturgical turmoil since the middle of the twentieth century, and what is “the true celebration of the Sacred Liturgy” was then—and still is—very much a live issue.
Tom asked—well really, he insisted—that I compile and edit the volume. That commenced (too many) years of work with many generous contributors and others who gave of their talents eventually to produce what we hope will provide students and those generally interested in Western Catholic liturgy with a resource that contains some of the best theological, historical and pastoral liturgical scholarship available today, which does not ignore the liturgical issues of recent decades, and which will serve as a guide towards further study in these areas.
So what is “liturgy”?
The best answer to that question is found in the first chapter, “Liturgical Theology,” by Professor David Fagerberg of Notre Dame University, USA. Shorter answers are found in the A-Z section of the book. Liturgy is, of course, the public ritual worship of the Church in and through which, in Catholic theology, we hold that Christ acts in a singularly privileged way in our world today. Our optimal participation in the liturgy, our connectivity with this divine action, facilitates our own sanctification and empowers us for Christian life and mission. That’s why Cardinal Ratzinger emphasised that it is the “centre of any renewal of the Church whatever.” If we get the liturgy wrong our connectivity to Christ is impeded. And without optimal connectivity to Christ we, and those so in need of the mission of the Church today in the various and complex situations that the 21st century presents, will lack something essential, we will suffer.
Academically, where does the Companion stand in the field of liturgical studies?
Firstly I must emphasise that this is a companion to liturgical studies in “the Western Catholic tradition.” Some commentators have already noted that this subtitle is unfortunately missing from much of the Companion’s promotional material. The book neither sets out to ignore the Churches of the East nor to minimise their venerable and rich liturgical traditions. Really, another Companion should be commissioned for the great Eastern liturgical tradition.
In the light of what some have termed the “liturgy-wars” of recent decades, contemporary studies in Western liturgy have tended to be fairly ‘safe,’ avoiding critical analysis of the “troubles” following the Second Vatican Council. If you can regurgitate your professor’s take on the liturgical reform following the Council you will pass your seminary course. If you do higher studies in liturgy and do a purely historical analysis of rites or aspects of them, or “engage” with “liturgical sources” (demonstrate a knowledge of ancient liturgical texts), you will receive your degree without difficulty. But should you use history, theology or pastoral practice critically to question the status quo of liturgical thought or practice in your diocese or academic institution, you will often encounter an intolerance that verges on totalitarianism: “Don’t mention the war!” The situation is improving, certainly, but this problem persists amongst a certain generation and school of liturgists.
The Companion moves beyond this academic impasse. Many if not most of its contributors are indeed prepared to “mention the war,” and even to admit that it has occasioned severe casualties. The motivation for this is a positive one—academically and pastorally. The academic questions to which the situation of Western liturgy since the Council has given rise must be studied. The conclusions of such studies must be taken into account in decisions in respect of future liturgical life and reform. So too the associated pastoral issues must be addressed. Yes, a sound knowledge of liturgical history is very important. The ability thoroughly to engage in liturgical sources is certainly a skill and informs the historical study of liturgy. More important today, however, is the ability critically to engage with the liturgical and theological principles operative in history in a making a critical assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of our current ritual and pastoral practice. If the Companion helps to form a generation of liturgical scholars who are open to such and approach it will have made a significant contribution.
What do you think is the Companion’s unique contribution?
I think that is, really, the shift from “safe” liturgical study to “critical” liturgical study that I was just talking about. Part III of the Companion, “The Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council,” contains two chapters by Dom Anscar Chupungco OSB (†2013). They take a very different stance to my own chapter and to that of Fr Thomas Kocik in the same section. Students should read them all, attentively and critically. Identifying our different approaches, sources and assumptions will be instructive, indeed I hope it will be formative in acquiring not only a broad appreciation of differing scholars’ stances, but more importantly in developing a critical ability to engage with the sources, underlying principles and realities. This will indeed help to form better scholarship and pastoral practice.
Is there anything else you would like to highlight about the Companion?
The Companion is a large reference book. As such it has many uses—from studying particular chapters according to given interests and needs, to quickly referring to terms and concepts in the A-Z section, as well as making use of its extensive bibliographies for further research. But it also provides something of course for studies in liturgical theology, history and contemporary issues. Certainly, it does not and could not contain all that one could study— and that is not its purpose. Its purpose is to accompany, to be a companion for, the student of Sacred Liturgy so that he or she will be well equipped to pursue further studies in the field. I hope and pray that we have, at least in part, achieved that aim.