Friday, February 10, 2023

Yves Congar: Liturgical Prophet?

Though I have read many of his works, I do not lay claim to being an expert on the theology of Yves Congar, one of the most prominent figures in 20th century Catholic theology, and contributor to many of the documents of Vatican II. However, I think it would be fair to say that, for Congar, liturgy is ecclesiology in action — “liturgical realism”, as he called it. But how was the post-Vatican II liturgical reform to be carried out in a way faithful to tradition, while at the same time being open to the needs of “modern man” and able to be “authentic” in the modern world? (I leave aside the question of how desirable this reform is today!) In this interesting extract from an essay of his, published in La Maison-Dieu at the beginning of 1969, we can see this (post-)conciliar tension between ressourcement and aggiornamento, and some of the dangers Congar prophesied if the reform was to go awry:

The liturgy, which has long been and which seemed forever immutable, is today in full mutation: “They're changing our religion on us.” The changes come from a powerful appeal to a greater authenticity: either in reference to the original forms, by a recourse to a purer tradition beyond the over-encumbrances so mixed up with history, or in reference to the requests of evangelism so alive today in the midst of a world without faith, or finally by virtue of a need, characteristic of one-dimensional man, to express himself, personally or collectively, in the truth of his feelings — this, obviously, entails a certain danger of attributing decisive importance to psychological and sociological data, which are likely to soon give way to other data. With these changes, we have already lost incomparable wealth: probably not on the side of the faithful, for whom the change seems resolutely beneficial to us, but on the side of the clerics. Men who, like me, are aware of having benefitted immensely from the Latin liturgy, find it difficult to see whole sections of an age-old treasure fall into the abyss of oblivion, from which only a few specialists will drag them out from time to time. We entered into this heritage, not without requests, but peacefully. Petitions for authenticity are not, in fact, new, and more than one reform had been undertaken by Pius X or Pius XII. But we still lived in the ancient mass of the liturgical building. Today, we have left it, and we aspire to new creations. [...]
In the face of all this, the liturgy provides very fine resources, but it also poses demands relating to its very nature, and therefore to its truth. It is, by definition, everyone's thing. It cannot simply marry the psychological and sociological data of a group or moment. It includes an invitation to go beyond them in the name of the demands of a broader agape. It should be a place of peace. Entering, without dispute, into an objectively fixed order is certainly favourable to peace, but it also gives rise to dissatisfaction. Personally, we are deeply impressed by this specific character of the liturgy of assuming the living heritage of the centuries and of always being, as a jewellery box preserving the whole Tradition, “the great didascalia of the Church.” For, on the one hand, the symbolic expression contains the totality of a reality, well beyond what can be expressed or understood conceptually. On the other hand, the conservative character of the liturgy allows it to preserve and transmit intact those values whose importance one era may have forgotten, but which the following era is happy to find intact and preserved, so it can live from them again. Where would we be if liturgical conservatism had not resisted the taste of the late Middle Ages for sensitive devotions, or the individualistic, rationalist and moralising imperatives of the eighteenth century, or the criticism of the nineteenth century, or the subjective philosophies of the modernist era? Thanks to the liturgy, everything has been preserved and transmitted to us. Oh, let us not expose ourselves to incurring, in sixty years, the reproach of having squandered the sacred heritage of the Catholic communion as it unfolds in the gradual progress of time.
Yves Congar, “Autorité, initiative, coresponsabilité”,
La Maison-Dieu 97.1 (1969), pp. 34-57, at pp. 53-55
(English translation by Matthew P. Hazell)

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