Thursday, September 14, 2017

“Silence and the Primacy of God in the Sacred Liturgy”: Address by His Eminence Card. Sarah

We are extremely grateful to His Eminence Robert Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, for sharing with New Liturgical Movement the text of the address which he delivered today to the Fifth Roman Colloquium on Summorum Pontificum, held at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum). The talk is entitled “Silence and the Primacy of God in the Sacred Liturgy”; His Eminence wishes it to be understood that this is a provisional text, which will be revised for publication later.

I would urge our readers to take note of several points of this excellent talk. Card. Sarah speaks eloquently against the idea of an anthropocentric liturgy, and the necessity of giving back to God His rightful place at the center of our worship, and against liturgy as “theatre” and “worldly entertainment”, and the noise that “kills” the liturgy, as he also wrote in his fine book, “The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise.” In the final section, under the heading “Some Reflections on the 10th Anniversary of Summorum Pontificum” he states unequivocally that “(t)he usus antiquior should be seen as a normal part of the life of the Church of the twenty-first century.” He also speaks with praise of those communities which celebrate the traditional Mass, and reassures us No one will rob you of the usus antiquior of the Roman rite.” (This is particularly important in light of some highly tendentious and pastorally uncharitable declarations about liturgical reform made in recent days.) We are indebted to His Eminence for these words of encouragement, and his exhortation to share with the whole Church “the profound formation in the faith that the ancient rites and the associated spiritual and doctrinal ambience has given you.”

Cardinal Sarah introduced by Fr Vincenzo Nuara, O.P., at today’s conference in Rome.
The first sentiment that I would like to express, ten years after the publication of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, is that of gratitude to Almighty God. In fact, with this text Benedict XVI wanted to establish a sign of reconciliation in the Church, one that has brought much fruit and which has been continued in the same manner by Pope Francis. God wants the unity of His Church, for which we pray in every Eucharistic celebration: we are called to continue to pursue this path of reconciliation and unity, as an ever-living witness of Christ in today's world.

This initiative of Pope Benedict XVI finds it full explication in an important work of Cardinal Ratzinger. Writing less than a year before his election to the Chair of St Peter, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger took issue with “the suggestion by some Catholic liturgists that we should finally adapt the liturgical reform to the ‘anthropological turn’ of modern times and construct it in an anthropocentric style.” He argued:
If the Liturgy appears first of all as the workshop for our activity, then what is essential is being forgotten: God. For the Liturgy is not about us, but about God. Forgetting about God is the most imminent danger of our age. As against this, the Liturgy should be setting up a sign of God’s presence. Yet what happens if the habit of forgetting about God makes itself at home in the Liturgy itself and if in the Liturgy we are thinking only of ourselves? In any and every liturgical reform, and every liturgical celebration, the primacy of God should be kept in view first and foremost.”
“Forgetting about God is the most imminent danger of our age.” My brothers and sisters these words, utterly true when they were written in July 2004, have become more and more poignant with each passing year. Our world is marked by the blight of Godless terrorism, of an increasingly aggressive secularism, of a spirit of individualistic consumerism in respect of creation, material goods and even human relationships, and of an advancing culture of death which endangers the right to life of the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters: the unborn, the unhealthy and the elderly.

In the face of this increasing godlessness we, Christ’s holy Church, are called by virtue of our baptism and of our own particular vocation to announce and proclaim that “Christ is the Light of nations” (Lumen Gentium, 1), and “to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 1). For the way of Christ and His Church is the path of Truth, Beauty and Goodness, the ultimate consummation of which is unending life in communion with God and all the saints in heaven. Whereas those who choose to walk according to the route laid down by the Prince of Lies risk hell: that ultimate fruit of the free, knowing and willing choice of sin and evil—eternal separation from God and the saints.

My brothers and sisters, we must never forget these eternal verities! Our world has most probably forgotten them. Indeed, particularly in the affluent West, our society seeks to hide these truths from us and to anaesthetise us with the apparent goods it offers to us in its unending cacophony of consumerism, lest we find the time and space to call into question its godless assumptions and practices. We must not succumb to this. We must be untiring in announcing the good news of the Gospel: that sin and death have been conquered by our Lord Jesus Christ whose sacrifice on the Cross has enabled us to gain the forgiveness that our sins demand and to live joyfully in this world and in the sure hope of life without end in the next.

The Church is called to announce this good news in every possible way, to every human person in every land and in every age. These essential missionary and apostolic endeavours, which are nothing less than an imperative given to the Church by the Lord himself (cf. Mt 28:19-20), are themselves predicated on a greater reality: our ecclesial encounter with Jesus Christ in the Sacred Liturgy. For as the Second Vatican Council so rightly taught: “the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10).

We might ask: if the Church’s missionary vitality has diminished in our time, if the witness of Christians in an increasingly godless world has become weaker, if our world has forgotten about God, is this perhaps because we who are supposed to be “the light of the world” (Mt 5:14) are not approaching the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed as we should, or not drawing sufficiently deeply from the font from which all her power flows so as to bring all to enjoy that “spring of water welling up to eternal life”? (Jn 4:14)

For Pope John Paul II, these were not questions but tragic results of the crisis of faith and of our betrayal of the Second Vatican Council. He said, in fact:
In this “new springtime” of Christianity there is an undeniable negative tendency, and the present document is meant to help overcome it. Missionary activity specifically directed “to the nations” (ad gentes) appears to be waning, and this tendency is certainly not in line with the directives of the Council and of subsequent statements of the Magisterium. Difficulties both internal and external have weakened the Church's missionary thrust toward non-Christians, a fact which must arouse concern among all who believe in Christ. For in the Church’s history, missionary drive has always been a sign of vitality, just as its lessening is a sign of a crisis of faith.
If this is indeed so, if the Church of our day is less zealous and efficacious in bringing people to Christ, one cause may be our own failure to participate in the Sacred Liturgy truly and efficaciously, which is perhaps itself due to a lack of proper liturgical formation—something that is a concern of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, who said:
A liturgy detached from spiritual worship would risk becoming empty, declining from its Christian originality to a generic sacred sense, almost magical, and a hollow aestheticism. As an action of Christ, liturgy has an inner impulse to be transformed in the sentiments of Christ, and in this dynamism all reality is transfigured. “our daily life in our body, in the small things, must be inspired, profuse, immersed in the divine reality, it must become action together with God. This does not mean that we must always be thinking of God, but that we must really be penetrated by the reality of God so that our whole life...may be a liturgy, may be adoration.” (Benedict XVI, Lectio divina, Seminary of the Diocese of Rome, 15 February 2012)
It is necessary to unite a renewed willingness to go forward along the path indicated by the Council Fathers, as there remains much to be done for a correct and complete assimilation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy on the part of the baptized and ecclesial communities. I refer, in particular, to the commitment to a solid and organic liturgical initiation and formation, both of lay faithful as well as clergy and consecrated persons.

It may also be because too often the liturgy as it is celebrated is not celebrated faithfully and fully as the Church intends, effectively ‘short-changing’ or robbing us of the optimal ecclesial encounter with Christ that is the right of every baptised person.

Many liturgies are really nothing but a theatre, a worldly entertainment, with so many speeches and strange cries during the mystery that is celebrated, so much noise, so many dances and bodily movements that resemble our popular folk events. Instead the liturgy should be a time of personal encounter and intimacy with God. Africa, above all, and probably also Asia and Latin America, should reflect, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and with prudence and with the will to bring the Christian faithful to holiness, about their human ambition to inculturate the liturgy, in order to avoid superficiality, folklore and the auto-celebration of their culture. Each liturgical celebration must have God as its centre, and God alone, and our sanctification.

Today, the 10th anniversary of the coming into force of the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum of Pope Benedict XVI, also raises the question of the implementation of the liturgical reform called for by the Second Vatican Council and of what one might call the liturgical and pastoral ‘fallout’ of those years. They are not peripheral questions of importance only for liturgical specialists or of interest solely for so-called “traditionalists,” for, as Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in 1997, “the true celebration of the Sacred Liturgy is the centre of any renewal of the Church whatever.”


In the citation from Cardinal Ratzinger with which I opened this address, the Cardinal asks: “What happens if the habit of forgetting about God makes itself at home in the Liturgy itself and if in the Liturgy we are thinking only of ourselves?” This may seem to be a strange question, but it arises out of a real tendency in recent decades to plan and hold liturgical celebrations where the focus is mostly on the celebrating community, almost at times to the apparent exclusion of God. I say “apparent” because I do not wish to judge the intentions of those who promote or celebrate such anthropocentric liturgies: they themselves may be the victims of a poor or even deficient theological and liturgical formation.

Nevertheless, such celebrations are unacceptable because they reduce something which is of its very essence supernatural to the level of merely the natural, contrary to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (and before that of the Encyclical Mediator Dei of the Venerable Pius XII), that:
The liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. In the liturgy the sanctification of the man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs; in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members.
From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7).

As I said in my 2016 address to Sacra Liturgia in London, England:

Catholic liturgy is the singularly privileged locus of Christ’s saving action in our world today, by means of real participation in which we receive His grace and strength which is so necessary for our perseverance and growth in the Christian life. It is the divinely instituted place where we come to fulfil our duty of offering sacrifice to God, of offering the One True Sacrifice. It is where we realise our profound need to worship Almighty God. Catholic liturgy is something sacred, something which is holy by its very nature. Catholic liturgy is no ordinary human gathering.

...God, not man is at the centre of Catholic liturgy. We come to worship Him. The liturgy is not about you and I; it is not where we celebrate our own identity or achievements or exalt or promote our own culture and local religious customs. The liturgy is first and foremost about God and what He has done for us. In His Divine Providence Almighty God founded the Church and instituted the Sacred Liturgy by means of which we are able to offer Him true worship in accordance with the New Covenant established by Christ.

Therefore, God must come first in every element of our liturgical celebration. It is for love of Him and so as to worship Him all the more fully that we set aside and consecrate people, places and things specifically for His service in the Sacred Liturgy. Our desire to “dare to do as much as we can” (cf. St Thomas Aquinas, Sequence of the Feast of Corpus Christi) in praising and adoring God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in the Sacred Liturgy, is itself an interior act of worship. It follows naturally that this disposition should be given external expression. And so our churches should be beautiful expressions our love of God, our liturgical ministers—ordained and lay—should expend time in training and preparation; all their liturgical actions, including their dress, should radiate reverence and awe for the divine mysteries which they have the privilege to serve and minister.

The ‘things’ we use in the liturgy should similarly tell of the primacy of God: nothing is too good, beautiful or precious for His service. Howsoever humble they must be according to the means at our disposal, our liturgical vessels, vestments and other items should be things of quality, worth and beauty that bespeak both the love and sacrifice we offer to Almighty God by means of them. So too our chant and music should raise our hearts and minds to Him, and not—as has happened altogether too frequently—merely reflect the human sentiments or mores that predominate in our society or culture.

You are aware that in recent years I have spoken often of the importance of the restoration of the priest and people facing East, of turning ad Deum or ad orientem during the Eucharistic liturgy. This posture is almost universally assumed in celebrations of the usus antiquior—the older form of the Roman rite—made freely available to all who wish to benefit from it by Pope Benedict XVI by means of Summorum Pontificum. But this ancient and beautiful practice, which speaks so eloquently of the primacy of Almighty God at the very heart of the Mass, is not restricted to the usus antiquior. This venerable practice is permitted, is perfectly appropriate and, I would insist, is pastorally advantageous in celebrations of the usus recentior—the more modern form of the Roman rite—as well.

Some may object that I am paying too much attention to the small details, to the minutiae, of the Sacred Liturgy. But as every husband and wife knows, in any loving relationship the smallest details are highly important, for it is in and through them that love is expressed and lived day after day. The ‘little things’ in a marriage express and protect the greater realities. So too in the liturgy: when its small rituals become routine and are no longer acts of worship which give expression to the realities of my heart and soul, when I no longer care to attend to its details, when I could do more to prepare and to celebrate the liturgy more worthily, more beautifully, but no longer want to, there is a grave danger that my love of Almighty God is growing cold. We must beware of this. Our small acts of love for God in carefully attending to the liturgy’s demands are very important. If we discount them, if we dismiss them as mere fussy details, we may well find, as sometimes very tragically happens in a marriage, that we have ‘grown apart’ from Christ—almost without noticing.

Cardinal Ratzinger insisted that “in any and every liturgical reform, and every liturgical celebration, the primacy of God should be kept in view first and foremost.” If we apply this principle in liturgical matters great and small God shall indeed have the primacy that is rightly His in the Sacred Liturgy. And he will enjoy the same primacy in our hearts and minds. Both our liturgical celebrations, and we ourselves, shall become the beautiful icons of His saving presence through which those who do not know Christ and His Church can find the beautiful path to salvation.


This ‘setting apart’ of created realities for the worship of Almighty God was something demanded of our Jewish ancestors by the Lord God Himself and was appropriately adopted by the Church in her earliest centuries as she came to enjoy the freedom to worship in public. We use the term “consecrated,” from the Latin verb sacrare—to make holy or to dedicate to a particular service—to describe the persons, places and things set apart for the worship of Almighty God.

Once these goods of God’s creation are thus consecrated they are no longer available for ordinary or profane use; they belong to God. This is true of the monk and the nun, of the deacon, priest and bishop and it is (or it should be) reflected in their very dress and comportment even when they are not ministering in the Sacred Liturgy. It is also true of all the various things, great and small, used for liturgical worship. One of the treasures of the usus antiquior is the large corpus of blessings and consecrations for items destined for liturgical use given in the Rituale Romanum and in the Pontificale Romanum. How moving it is to see the revival of the custom of a soon-to-be-ordained priest bringing his chalice and paten to a bishop for consecration before his ordination. And what a beautiful expression of faith and love it is when new items are generously offered for the worship of Almighty God and are brought to the priest to be given the Church’s blessing before they are used.

These small and too often forgotten rites and customs teach us eloquently that the liturgy is, as a whole, something essentially sacred, something set apart from our ordinary, day to day way of acting. Indeed, they remind us that in the Sacred Liturgy, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, it is God who is acting—not us (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7, cited above).

It is He who blesses us with his grace, with salvation, in our very midst in the Sacred Liturgy. As the Council teaches: “every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7).

And so when a celebration corresponds to what it must be constitutively, that is, to the "whole public worship" and to a "sacred action surpassing all others" (SC n ° 7), it can only manifest and promote the adoration of the One and Triune God, shine in the majesty of gestures and signs, express how it is not a mere human action, but "action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church" (SC n. 7), educate man to true life, which is fundamentally ordered to God (ordo ad Deum). This Primacy of the Absolute, of the Eternal, is found only in the humble awareness of priests and lay people that the liturgy is not the place for creativity or adaptation but the place of that which has been ‘already given’, where past, present and future touch each other in an instant that is in reality timeless.

Before the theophany of the burning bush the Lord instructed Moses: “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Ex. 3:5). The same injunction applies even more to the ongoing theophany of God made man for our salvation that takes place every day throughout the world when the Sacred Liturgy is celebrated faithfully, according to the norms laid down by the Church.

But there is one important difference from the burning bush: we are invited to “come near”, we are invited to feast at the sacred sacrificial banquet of the Lord’s Body and Blood. This unprecedented invitation should not breed over-familiarity in us! Profound humility and awe before God are required if we are to participate fruitfully in the life-giving Supper of the Lamb, the fount of life (cf. Rev. 19:9).

This invitation should, however, bring forth our generosity. In response to the invitation to the Supper of the Lamb we are called to offer the Lord nothing less than our “first fruits” (cf. Prov. 3:9) both materially and spiritually. We can all contribute, according to our means and God-given talents, to the material of the liturgy. But let us never forget the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount that we must first be reconciled and liberated from all resentment by God before offering our gift at the altar (cf. Mt. 5:24). Indeed, all our external offerings, including what we give through any liturgical ministry we exercise, must be a reflection of our internal relationship with the Lord. They should arise in humility from the “acceptable sacrifice” of a “broken and contrite heart” of which the psalmist sings (cf. Ps. 50[51]:19). Otherwise there can be the danger of hollow ritualism, even of a form of ‘liturgical materialism’ or Phariseeism. What we give to God for the Sacred Liturgy, what we do in public service in His Church, must be the best that is possible, certainly, but they must be in complete harmony with our Christian life and mission so that our external liturgical actions are imbued with an integrity which is itself something holy, something sacred, and which itself sings of the glory of God alive and working in His Church in our day.


In the Book of Revelation we read that when the Lamb opened the seventh and final seal on the scroll, “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (Rev 8:1). Why this silence, coming after the cosmic upheaval ushered in by the opening of the sixth seal? Scholars tell us that this is the silence of expectation, of the anticipation of God’s vindicating judgement for the martyrs throughout Christian history. It is the silence of awe, of adoration, in the silent presence of Almighty God who is present and who is about to act.

When we encounter the sacred, when we come face to face with God, we naturally fall silent and kneel in adoration. We kneel in humble awe and in submission to our creator. We await His Word, His saving action, in awe and anticipation. These are fundamental dispositions for how we approach the Sacred Liturgy. If I am so full of myself and of the noise of the world that there is no space for silence within me, if human pride reigns in my heart so that it is only myself of whom I am in awe, then it is almost impossible for me to worship Almighty God, to hear His Word or to allow it space to take root in my life.

As Romano Guardini says: “If someone were to ask me what the liturgical life begins with, I should answer: with learning stillness. Without it, everything remains superficial, vain.” But what is silence? Silence is the calm of inner life, the depth of a hidden stream, it is the gathering presence, openness and availability. Only silence can build up what will support the sacred celebration, that is, the liturgical community, and create the space in which this celebration will come to fruition: the Church. It can be said without exaggeration that silence is the first act of sacred service.

Now, however, let us consider it from another point of view; silence involves a close relationship with the verbal act and with the Word itself. A word does not acquire the importance and the power that are proper to it unless it comes from silence, but the opposite is also true in this case: for silence to be fruitful and to acquire its creative power, it is necessary for the word to be expressed in a spoken word. Although much of the liturgy consists of words spoken by God or addressed to Him, it is always necessary to practice silence for the benefit of the word and to hush the noise in any liturgical celebration. Noise in fact kills the liturgy, kills prayer, tears us and exiles us far away from God, who does not speak at all in the impetuous wind and in the earthquake, whose force and violence break the mountains and break the rocks, but speaks with the voice of a subtle silence (cf. 1 Kg 19:12). The importance of silence for the sacred celebration cannot be underestimated, whether it is during its preparation or during its function. Silence reveals the inner source which begets the word that becomes prayer, praise and silent adoration.

Silence is the key: the silence of true humility before my Creator and Redeemer which expels false pride and shuts out the clamour of the world. The demands of my vocation may require much activity from me and even mean that I am surrounded by worldly noise from day to day. The gifts given to me by Almighty God may mean that I receive just praise for what I have been able to do in His service. But even in these circumstances it is possible to preserve the silence of true humility before the Lord. Indeed, this approach is absolutely necessary if I am to worship Him and not myself, or even no one at all.

Our liturgical rites themselves, as the Church’s realisation and celebration of the most sacred realities we shall encounter in this life, must be themselves imbued with this silence and awe of God. I speak more of their having texture of the numinous, of the transcendent than of imposing specific periods of silence, which can at times be artificial. For I can be silent of heart and mind and body and yet be caught up in the awe of God at the Sacred Liturgy: provided that is celebrated optimally with that ritual multivalency which facilitates this so well. The solemn celebration of the Holy Mass in the usus antiquior is an excellent paradigm for this, with its layers of rich content and the many different points of connectivity which the action of Christ affords us, and which allows us to achieve this silence of heart, mind and body. This is certainly a treasure with which it can enrich some of the more horizontal and noisy celebrations of the usus recentior.

So too, liturgical ministers must approach the liturgical rites they celebrate with the dispositions of awe, of reverence and of silence. We must be humble and show profound respect for the Sacred Liturgy as the Church has given it to us. The Second Vatican Council insists that, apart from duly constituted authority, “no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 22 §3). It is not for us to rewrite the liturgical books out of our own pride or that of others who think they can do better than the Church. It is unfortunate that this temptation can be found amongst those who use the older liturgical books as well as the new. Unauthorised liturgical practices strike discordant notes in the symphony of the Church’s rites and produce a noise which disturbs souls. This is not creativity, nor is it truly pastoral. No: a fidelity grounded in humility, awe and silence of heart, mind and soul are what is required from each of us in respect of the Church’s rites. Let not the sin of liturgical pride take root in our souls!

When the prophet Elijah was called to meet the Lord at Horeb, “a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice” (1 Kg 19:11-12). And it was in this still, small voice that Elijah encountered the Lord. My brothers and sisters, it is imperative that we attend to this small voice as it speaks quietly, calmly and lovingly to us the Sacred Liturgy of the Church with that humility, silence and awe of God which will enable us to hear it and to live more fruitfully from His Word.


Silence of heart, mind and soul: are these not they key to achieving the great desire of the twentieth century liturgical movement and the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council: the full, conscious and actual participation in the Sacred Liturgy? (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14) For how can I truly participate fruitfully in the Sacred Mysteries if my heart, my mind and my soul are blocked by the obstruction of sin, clouded by the commotion of this world, and burdened with things that are not of God?

Each of us needs the interior space into which to welcome the Lord who is at work in the rites of His holy Church. In the modern world this requires effort on our part. In the first place I must cleanse my soul, or rather to allow Almighty God to cleanse it, through the Sacrament of Penance celebrated frequently, integrally and in all humility. I cannot hope to draw deeply from “the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14) when sin reigns in my heart.

Secondly, I must—somehow—manage to put aside, even if this must be temporary, the world and its constant demands. I cannot participate fully and fruitfully in the Sacred Liturgy if my focus is elsewhere. We all benefit from the advances of modern technology, but the many (maybe too many?) technological devices upon which we rely can enslave us in a constant stream of communication and demands for instant responses. We must leave this behind if we are to celebrate the liturgy properly. Perhaps it is very practical and convenient to pray the breviary with my own mobile phone or tablet or another electronic device, but it is not worthy: it desacralizes prayer. These apparatuses are not instruments consecrated and reserved to God, but we use them for God and also for profane things! Electronic devices must be turned off, or better still they can be left behind at home when we come to worship God. I have spoken previously of the unacceptability of taking photographs at the Sacred Liturgy, and of the particular scandal that this gives when it is done by clergy vested for liturgical service. We cannot focus on God if we are busy with something else. We cannot hear God speaking to us if we are already occupied communicating with someone else, or behaving as a photographer.

Nor can we attend to the voice of God, or properly prepare to do so, if our brothers and sisters in the church are themselves distracted, busy and noisy. This is why silence and calm is so important in our churches before, during and after liturgical celebrations. What hope have we of an interior focus on God if what we experience in our churches is yet more distraction and noise? I do not mean to exclude appropriate organ or other music, which can be an aid to silent prayer and contemplation and which can serve to ‘cover-up’ the incidental noise of people arriving, etc. But I do think that we need to make an effort so that our churches, and indeed the sacristy and the sanctuary of the church, are not places of chatter, rushing about in last minute preparation, or simply a social area. These are privileged loci where all our focus should be on what we are about to celebrate. We can (and rightly do) socialise afterwards, elsewhere. The prayerful silence of a church or sacristy should itself be a school of participatio actuosa, drawing all who enter it into that silence of heart, mind and soul which is so necessary if we are to receive all that Almighty God wishes to give us through the Sacred Liturgy. If some communication is truly necessary it should be done with awe and respect for where we are and for what we are about to do.

When I prepare to approach the altar of God, before I get there, I have to leave aside my preoccupations, howsoever heavy and worldly they may be. This is primarily an act of faith in God’s power and grace. It may be that I am utterly exhausted and distracted by the worldly duties I must perform. It may be that I am profoundly troubled for myself or for someone else. Perhaps I am suffering deeply from temptation or doubt, or are wounded by evil or injustice perpetrated against me or against our brothers and sisters in the faith. It is right that I persevere in bearing these burdens, certainly—that is an important part of my Christian vocation. But when I come to the Sacred Liturgy I must place them at the foot of the cross in faith, and leave them there. God knows the burdens I bear. He appreciates more than I do myself what it costs to shoulder them. And, in the silence of soul that placing my burdens at His feet creates, He wishes to communicate His love to me through the rites in which I am about to participate. He wishes to renew, even re-create, me so that I can fulfil the demands of my vocation with new strength and evangelical vigour.

Full, conscious and actual participation in the Sacred Liturgy is predicated on our capacity to participate, on our receptivity and acceptance to what Almighty God wishes to give to us. Our receptivity depends upon our docility, on our silence of heart, mind and soul. Achieving this personally, and in the places where we celebrate the Church’s rites, requires effort and discipline on our own part individually and on the part of pastors and rectors of churches. If we do not make this effort the Council’s desire for fruitful participatio actuosa will be frustrated. But when we are silent, when our hearts, minds and souls are humbly attuned to the work of the Lord that is the Sacred Liturgy, our encounter with Him shall enjoy an intimacy which cannot but bear fruit in our Christian lives and mission to the world.


Before concluding I wish to offer some specific reflections on today’s 10th anniversary of the coming into force of the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum.

The legislation governing the use of the usus antiquior of the Roman rite laid down by Pope Benedict XVI, in the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, declares that the ancient form of the Mass was never "abrogated," and states in the Letter to the Bishops on the occasion of the publication of the same document:
In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture. What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.
This has as its principal motivation the “matter of coming to an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church.” (Benedict XVI, Letter to the Bishops on the Occasion of the Publication of Summorum Pontificum, 7 July 2007)

Certainly, Summorum Pontificum’s establishment that the older rites of the Mass and the sacraments are to be freely available to all of Christ’s faithful who request them—laity, clergy and religious—was intended to, and has done much to end the scandal of the divisions in the Body of Christ on earth which had arisen because of the liturgical reform following the Council. As we know, there is more to do to achieve the reconciliation Pope Benedict XVI so desired, and which work Pope Francis has continued, and we must pray and work so to achieve that reconciliation for the good of souls, for the good of the Church and so that our Christian witness and mission to the world may be ever stronger.

Pope Benedict XVI’s letter to the bishops accompanying Summorum Pontificum noted another phenomenon: “Young persons too have discovered this liturgical form,” he wrote. They have “felt its attraction and found in it a form of encounter with the Mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist, particularly suited to them.” This is increasingly true around the world. It is a phenomenon which some of my own generation find very hard to understand. Yet I know and can personally testify to the sincerity and devotion of these young men and women, priests and laity. I rejoice in the numerous and good vocations to the priesthood and the religious life that arise from communities who celebrate the usus antiquior.

To those who have doubts about this would say: visit these communities and come to know them, most especially their young people. Open your hearts and minds to the faith of these young brothers and sisters of ours, and to the good that they do. They are neither nostalgic nor embittered nor encumbered by the ecclesiastical battles of recent decades; they are full of the joy of living the life of Christ amidst the challenges of the modern world. For those who still find this reality difficult, I would like to recall the advice of Gamaliel, the “teacher of the law, held in honour by all the people,” given to the Council of the High Priest when the Apostles were being persecuted: “...let them alone; for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:38-39)

I would like to add an appeal to pastors of souls and in particular to my brother bishops: these people, these communities have great need of our paternal care. We must not allow our own personal preferences or past misunderstandings to keep people attached to the older liturgical rites at a distance. We priests and bishops are called to be ministers and instruments of reconciliation and communion in the Church for all of Christ’s faithful, including those who desire to celebrate according to the older form of the Roman rite. Dear brother priests, dear brothers in the episcopate, I ask you humbly and in our common faith, following the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “Let us generously open our hearts and make room for everything that the faith itself allows” (Letter to the Bishops on the Occasion of the Publication of Summorum Pontificum, 7 July 2007).

The usus antiquior should be seen as a normal part of the life of the Church of the twenty-first century. Statistically it may well remain a small part of the Church’s life, as foreseen by Pope Benedict XVI, but it is not in any way inferior or ‘second-class’ because of that. There should be no competition between the more recent rites and the older ones of the one Roman rite: both should be a natural element of the life of the Church in our times. Christ calls us to unity, not division! We are brothers and sisters in the same faith no matter which form of the Roman rite we celebrate!

But there can be a relationship of mutual enrichment between the two forms. The issue of a more faithful implementation of the liturgical reform desired by the Fathers of the Council, about which I spoke in London last year, remains. This is sometimes called the question of a ‘reform of the reform,’ although that term scares some people. Whilst recognising the need to study and address the underlying issues, I prefer to speak of “positive enrichment” whereby positive elements in the older rites could enrich the new, and vice-versa.

For example, the silent praying of the offertory prayers and of the Roman canon might be practices that could enrich the modern rite today. In our world so full of words and more words more silence is what is necessary, even in the liturgy. The ritual silence at these parts of the Mass in the older rites is fecund: people’s spirits are able to soar heavenward because there is space which allows them so to do. The discipline of verbal and ritual ‘silence’ with which the usus antiquior rite is imbued and which enables the Lord to be heard more clearly is a treasure to be shared and valued in our manner of celebrating the usus recentior also. So too, the older missal may well profit from the addition of ferial Masses in Advent and the expansion of its lectionary on ferias, not by way of an imposition of the new upon the old so as somehow to ‘score points,’ but as a genuine enrichment and organic development of the rite for the glory of Almighty God and the good of souls.

I am aware that in this area there are many sensibilities and that we must not cause any further pastoral harm by making liturgical changes without careful study and due preparation and formation. I raise these simply as possibilities for consideration: there are many others that could be discussed.

In July I spoke of a possible future reconciliation between the two forms of the Roman rite. Some have interpreted this expression of personal opinion as the announcement of a programme that would end up in the future imposition of a hybrid rite which would bring about a compromise that would leave everybody unhappy and would abolish the usus antiquior by stealth, as it were. This interpretation is absolutely not what I intended. What I do wish to do is to encourage further thought and study on these questions in peace and tranquillity and in a spirit of prayerful discernment. There are improvements which can be made to both forms of the Roman rite in use today, and both forms can contribute to this in due course. Whether one prefers to speak of a reform of the reform, a positive enrichment or a liturgical reconciliation, the underlying realities remain and must be addressed calmly and in all due charity. No one, however, should fear that anything will be lost for, as Pope Benedict XVI insisted in his letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum, “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”

Let me also be very clear on another matter: in speaking of liturgical enrichment the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments is not advocating, let alone authorising, an à la carte approach to any liturgical books, old or new. Far from it! We must all have great patience whilst the Church considers what is best in these questions of future development and we must wait for authoritative rulings. As I noted above, we are not free to make decisions or to take action ourselves by changing what the liturgical books provide.

I would like to address a paternal word to all those attached to the older form of the Roman rite. It is this: some, if not many, people, call you “traditionalists.” Sometimes you even call yourselves “traditional Catholics” or hyphenate yourselves in a similar way. Please do this no longer. You do not belong in a box on the shelf or in a museum of curiosities. You are not traditionalists: you are Catholics of the Roman rite as am I and as is the Holy Father. You are not second-class or somehow peculiar members of the Catholic Church because of your life of worship and your spiritual practices, which were those of innumerable saints. You are called by God, as is every baptised person, to take your full place in the life and mission of the Church in the world of today, not to be shut up in—or worse, to retreat into—a ghetto in which defensiveness and introspection reign and stifle the Christian witness and mission to the world you too are called to give.

If ten years after coming into force Summorum Pontificum means anything, it means this. If you have not yet left behind the shackles of the ‘traditionalist ghetto,’ please do so today. Almighty God calls you to do this. No one will rob you of the usus antiquior of the Roman rite. But many will benefit, in this life and the next, from your faithful Christian witness which will have so much to offer given the profound formation in the faith that the ancient rites and the associated spiritual and doctrinal ambience has given you. As the Lord Himself teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount: “Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house” (Mt 5:15). This, my dear friends, is your true vocation. This is the mission to which, by bringing forth the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum in due time, Divine Providence calls you forth.


“Forgetting about God is the most imminent danger of our age” Cardinal Ratzinger wrote. My brothers and sisters, as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of Summorum Pontificum and give thanks for the freedom and new life that it has brought to the Church’s worship and mission in the past decade, let us be in no doubt that we do indeed live in a godless age.

“As against this, the liturgy should be setting up a sign of God’s presence,” the Cardinal continued. There can be no doubt that the tangible sacrality of the usus antiquior of the Roman rite serves do this very well today, most particularly in its sung and solemn celebration. Additionally, its disciplined silent sacrality also serves to remind us that in every liturgical celebration of whatever use “the primacy of God should be kept in view first and foremost.”

Today, as we celebrate the most beautiful feast of the exaltation of the Holy Cross, and tomorrow as we kneel silently at the foot of the Cross with Our Lady of Sorrows, let us implore the Lord who mounted the Cross in sacrificial love for us that His Church may enjoy a profound and authentic renewal in her life of worship so that she may go forth from that sacred encounter into the world with renewed vigour to announce the good news that sin and death have been conquered by our Lord Jesus Christ, whose sacrifice on the cross has obtained for us the forgiveness of our sins and the hope of eternal life.

I thank you for your kind attention. I bless each one of you and your different apostolates, and I humbly ask your prayers and those of your communities for myself and for my ministry.

© Robert Cardinal Sarah
Prefect, Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: