Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Book Review: Cardinal Reflections: Active Participation and the Liturgy

Cardinals Arinze, George, Medina-Estevez and Pell. Hillenbrand Books, 2005. 92 pp.

Reviewed by Shawn Tribe
(Originally published in The Catholic Response)

One of the oft quoted phrases of the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy is that which calls for the full, conscious and active participation of the faithful in the liturgy. It is so often quoted, at times we take for granted what it means and how it has been interpreted by many liturgists following the Council. However, there has been a growing chorus of prelates in the Church, and Pope John Paul II himself, who have tried to correct the view that this primarily entails physical activity within the liturgy or the elimination of mystery, rich symbols and ritual. Cardinal Reflections is an attempt to bring together the thoughts of four well respected and well qualified Cardinals on this important subject and, like with so many other things, bring back a proper interpretation and implementation of the Conciliar decrees.

The book is primarily comprised of three papers given by each of the Cardinals in different venues. Cardinal Arinze, the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, gave his address on the occasion of a conference for the "Society for Catholic Liturgy". Cardinal Medina-Estevez , formerly prefect of the same Roman Congregation, contributes an article published in L'Osservatore Romano. Cardinal Francis George, a member of the Vox Clara committee in charge of the new English translation of the Missale Romanum, presents us with an essay that was given at a Vatican conference on Sacrosanctum Concilium. In addition to these three primary contributions, Cardinal George Pell contributes an introduction and summary of the aforementioned papers -- though some of Pell's own assertions about other liturgical matters are most certainly critiquable.

Overall, the consensus found in each of these four presentations is that there has been a stunted and imbalanced view of "active participation" that has been advanced in the years following the Council. This has adversely affected the character of the sacred liturgy. As such, a need exists to develop a more complete and profound understanding of active participation.

There are two issues which this question can be broken down into and which can be drawn from the book. The first is the question of physical activity, or external actions, as "active participation". This is perhaps the most commonly addressed issue within Cardinal Reflections and elsewhere. The problem is that many have equated active participation with external activities. However, each of the Cardinals is clear that a broader sense of active participation needs to be adopted -- one not simply reduced to physical actions, but which also recognizes the role of interior activity, such as prayerfulness, stillness and listening. In short, active participation is not to be confused with a kind of liturgical activism. We must not always be doing something physically, whether that be saying something, singing something, making some physical gesture, or performing some liturgical role, in order to be fully participating in the liturgy.

Of course, external actions do have a place in the liturgy, but their importance is not as an end in itself. Rather, as Cardinal Medina notes, the external activities within the liturgy serve as a means to strengthen our interior disposition and internal participation -- which is what is ultimately of primary importance. After all, external activities alone without the proper interior disposition ends up nothing more than empty ritual and performance. That being the case, Cardinal Medina argues, the interior dimension is itself more properly a participation in the liturgy than are external activities if put on the scale of things. Therefore, to reduce participation merely, or even primarily, to the external actions or movements of those taking part in the liturgy is "unenlightened" and the product of poor theology.

A second issue that surrounds the question of participation relates to our ability to understand the liturgy. Indeed, Cardinal Medina notes that a comprehension of liturgical signs and symbols is a necessary part of conscious and fruitful participation in the sacred liturgy. Unfortunately, this too has been distorted as rich liturgical symbols and actions have been stripped away from the liturgy with the assumption that simple symbols allow for more conscious participation. But Cardinal George, making reference to anthropology, notes that it is not necessarily the case that simplicity in ritual form is more effective than complexity, nor that a simple sign will be necessarily more effective than a multi-faceted one.

Unfortunately, the effect of this assumption is all around us. Latin, Gregorian chant, rich ritual and symbolism have been all but thrown out of our parish liturgies, no doubt in view of this -- and despite what the Church has decreed to the contrary it should be noted. However, as though the word of the Church were not enough, let it be noted that experience itself seems to demonstrate that none of these things are contrary to full, conscious and active participation. In fact, given the primacy of the internal form of participation (as Cardinal Medina suggests) and the role of the external to foster this, a liturgy marked by silence, beauty, pervaded by the prayerful strains of Gregorian chant and rich symbolism can only increase our full, conscious and active participation within the sacred liturgy. These things, after all, serve to draw us deeper inward. By contrast, liturgies marked by near continuous activity, by over-exuberant music, and by the mundane effectively serve as a barrier to this inward participation.

It is unfortunate that because of the misapplication and distortion of liturgical participation, the very idea has tended to be maligned. Barring distortions, genuine liturgical participation is in and of itself a very good thing. As Cardinal Arinze notes in the book, this internal and external participation within the liturgy helps to increase the indwelling of the Holy Trinity within us and serves our sanctification. Moreover, the liturgy is an action of Christ with His Church, and it is anticipatory of the heavenly life which is an eternal liturgy before the throne of Almighty God. As such, we should earnestly desire to participate in this activity. But activity must never be reduced solely to what is external, otherwise we are missing out on the most important activity, that of the soul.

Cardinal Reflections is well written, concise and is primarily intended for a general audience. As an added bonus, it also includes the text of Sacrosanctum Concilium in its appendix for convenient and quick reference. Its subject is one that is in great need of being examined and we are fortunate that a book has finally been put together on the matter. As such it is to be highly recommended.

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