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The Quest For Liturgy
Both Catholic and Contemporary

by Bishop Donald Trautman

The quest for a liturgy both Catholic and contemporary is not easy to satisfy. Witness the tension surrounding the revision of the Sacramentary and Lectionary. We must struggle to avoid one-sided simplistic approaches such as traditionalism with its emphasis on the Latin Mass, clericalism with its non-collaborative ministry, congregationalism with its forced isolation from the broader Church, radical feminism with its blurring of distinctions for sacramental ministry, biblicism and the like. Future direction for the liturgy must be loyal to the faith, which it seeks to express. At the same time, future direction must be relevant to the cultural environment, which it seeks to transform.

I mention experience first, not because it dominates the other factors but because liturgy implies participation in a faith life, so that some experience of the life of faith precedes liturgy and may, indeed, be said to motivate it. Our experience of the life of faith is born of and nourished by our participation in a community of faith. The form of this faith experience varies widely from individual to individual, and even from one particular parish to another. The personal quality of such a faith experience ranges from that of the deeply involved and committed to that of the Christmas and Easter Catholic. The experiences themselves vary widely: some dramatic and emotional, others quiet and contemplative. We must be sensitive to the fact that people bring this varied experience of faith to the table of the Lord when they come to celebrate Eucharist. The challenge for the liturgy is to transform subjective, introspective and individualistic experiences of faith into those which are expressive of the whole community of faith.

Good liturgy flows from life and leads us back to life. To the Lord’s table we bring our faith life, our family life, our personal life, our everyday life with all of its experiences. We do this a that might be transformed and return home strengthened, renewed, more rooted in the Lord.

There is a gap, a chasm of Grand Canyon proportions, between our experience and the language with which we express it, between the reality and our descriptive word. There are parish communities which are communities in name only. There are songs which are recited, acclamations which are muttered, meals at which no one drinks, gifts of the people which they do not give, celebrations which are simply a perfunctory fulfillment of an obligation. Christopher J. Walsh .has put it so well: “Reforms and revisions we have had in plenty, but liturgical renewal will never be achieved until our texts, rites, and affirmations are translated, not into this or that sort of English, but into reality in the lived experience of the people; and they will rarely be experienced as real until the congregations celebrating them are genuine communities of faith, witness, and action.”

No one can escape being conditioned by the culture in which we live. No one can remain untouched by the mentality, the intellectual climate of our contemporary culture. If our liturgy is to be intelligible, if it is to speak effectively to our age, it must speak in the language of our culture. To recognize this cultural factor is to acknowledge that there can be no final liturgical revision. Liturgical development and renewal are an unending task, for liturgical formulations themselves are culturally conditioned.

As our cultural forms change, our liturgical formulations need continuing review and, at times, reformulation. This is a truth that Catholics in the United States need to hear over and over again. In my opinion and the opinion of many others, the Church in the United States today is experiencing a retreat, a falling back to an era that has passed, tb era that preceded the Second Vatican Council. Are we still committed to a future built upon the vision of Vatican II?

We all experience the complexity of modern life and the dominance of its secular values; some recent approaches to renewal appear to be bankrupt. Perhaps these are the reasons that prompt people to seek simpler times, simpler solutions. There are those who seek a return to liturgical life as it was prior to Vatican II. These people offend the teaching of that very Council, which calls us to a “full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations.” (Constitution on the Liturgy, 14.)

Let us have the courage to tell it the way it is: A pre-Vatican II liturgical theology has no chance of speaking to a post-Vatican II world. The full, conscious and active participation of all the people has been the singular goal and concern in the reform and promotion of the liturgy. Do we accept this teaching of the Council Fathers of Vatican II? If we do, we should not be calling for a return to a liturgy where celebrant alone confected the eucharist, with his back to the people, in a language no one else understood, with mute spectators in pews.

Tradition and Scripture
Our Catholic faith has always had a special appreciation for the wisdom of the ages, the mystery of Christ as it has been experienced, interpreted, and transmitted throughout 2,000 years. We call this tradition. The Council Fathers of Vatican II give us this definition of tradition: “The Church, in its doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and
transmits to every generation all that it itself is, all that it believes.” Some Council Fathers wanted to add the expression “all that the Church has,” which would mean all the customs and practices of the past. But the Council Fathers rejected that addition. As Roman Catholics we are faithful to tradition, but that does not mean slavishly copying and imposing past forms and expressions. In fact, that idea was rejected at Vatican II. The Church in every age is called to interpret and apply the essence of its faith, the deposit of faith, in a creative way to ever-changing needs and circumstances. Those who oppose ongoing liturgical reform and adaptation are not true traditionalists. The true traditionalist is one who applies the lived tradition of the Church in every age. Let us always remember the distinction between tradition and traditional. Tradition means all that the Church is, all that the Church believes. Traditional implies past customs and practices. Tradition comes from God. Traditional comes from men and women. That which is tradition does not change. That which is traditional must be open to change so that the Church can transmit to every generation all that it is, all that it believes.


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