Monday, December 13, 2010

Book Review by Dr. Alcuin Reid: Liturgical Essays of Yves Congar

At the Heart of Christian Worship: Liturgical Essays of Yves Congar, Translated and edited by Paul Philbert OP, Liturgical Press 2010 $24.95

Reviewed by Dr. Alcuin Reid

It is all to the good that seminal writings from the twentieth century theological ressourcement and liturgical movement are being translated and published in English. Congar is more theologian than liturgist, but that by no means detracts from his five succinct essays that touch on the liturgy here.

“Touch on the liturgy” is perhaps the wrong expression. Rather, they locate the sacred liturgy in its ecclesial context, affording a theology of the liturgy that is ecclesial, or a liturgical ecclesiology if you will. The dynamic between the two is often forgotten, in both current debate and in the study of the two, not unrelated, movements of the twentieth century. Congar’s contribution to our understanding of this remains important: as the book rightly points out, Vatican II theology didn’t just drop down from the skies.

There is rather a lot of editorial material here, especially for the price. The introduction situates the essays and Congar well. A conclusion seeks “to point out some of the pastoral implications of the ground Congar has covered.” A somewhat laboured “Agenda for Personal and Group Reflection” is added to the end of each essay. My preference would have been to allow the essays stand alone, simply with an historical introduction. In any case one can wade through all of this to Congar himself.

When one gets to him, Congar’s writing is challenging, theologically and liturgically. There are those who will find in what he writes a straightforward theological justification of the sweeping liturgical reforms of the second half of the twentieth century, yet, as with many of the pre-conciliar liturgists and theologians, matters are not that simple. His essays are certainly agitating for reform, for what he calls “liturgical ‘realism’”, which is “the internalisation of worship by the faithful, the development in their hearts of the fruitfulness of their prayer and their love.” There is no problem at all here! And indeed, he insists that he does not “underestimate the immense value and priceless heritage” of the “treasure” of the Church’s liturgical rites (he was writing in 1948).

But we know that within three decades of this essay’s appearance that priceless heritage had been radically worked over, and that its technicians were motivated by a new theological outlook. Congar was directly neither an architect nor a technician of these reforms, but his theology played its part in shaping their perceptions.

In the task of calmly and clearly looking again at all that happened at that time, and of sifting the theological and liturgical wheat of that period from the chaff, it is indeed good to have these brief essays to hand, for there may well be more wheat than chaff here.

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