Sacra Liturgia 2013 and the Transformation of Traditionalism

A conference like Sacra Liturgia 2013, from which I have just returned, is the kind of thing that
arguably could never have taken place during the Jubilee year of 2000 when I
entered the seminary in Rome.  In
fact, it could not have been conceived of even in the wake of the election of
Joseph Ratzinger to the throne of St Peter in 2005, just before I was ordained
to the priesthood.  I was reminded
of just how much things have changed when I went this week early in the morning
to St Peter’s to offer Holy Mass.
During my Roman years, which
was really not all that long ago in a Church that thinks in centuries, I could
easily walk into St Peter’s, and a few side altars would be busy at 7am with
some few priests, mostly Vatican types or pilgrims, offering the Novus Ordo Mass in various
languages.  Every once in a while
you could spot the Latin edition of the Missale
2002, but not very often. 
To even speak of the Missale di San Pio Quinto was to invite a reaction
which could quite possibly result in expulsion from the Basilica of the Prince
of the Apostles.  Sure, there were
a few brave souls who had the indult who would produce a Missal from within
their cassock pocket, but always with the Missal on the left side, and without
altar cards, and fudging the rubrics just enough not to get caught.
You can imagine my surprise
when I went this time.  The
sacristy of St Peter’s, which used to be so delightfully quiet on an early
weekday morning, is now a hive of activity.  Priests and pilgrims from all over the world find themselves
at every single usable altar of the Basilica.  Altar cards adorn several altars in the North Transept, and
one can see several of the Pope’s ceremonieri
and other Vatican officials going back and forth from those altars
celebrating Holy Mass in the classical Roman rite.  More than once I had to wait for an altar, and some priests
eventually gave up after waiting in line for more than 2 hours to say Mass.  (Private Masses have a very small
window of time in the Basilica, and either you get it in between 7 and 9am or
you don’t!)
There were celebrations all
over the Basilica, in various languages and uses of the Roman Rite, and in
Latin in Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms.  Many of the kids from the Preseminario San Pio X have now
learned to serve the Extraordinary Form, which some of them call, irony of
ironies, la Messa nuova.  And the queue for the altars reserved
for the Extraordinary Form was so long one morning I just gave up and
celebrated Mass in Italian.
In the principal church of
Christendom, Pope Benedict’s vision of liturgical pluralism had taken
root.  There were no more
suspicious glances, clerical catfights or mutual recriminations.  In fact, the spirit of peace and energy
that now reigns over St Peter’s on weekday mornings was also very much evident
at the Pontifical University Santa Croce this week for Sacra Liturgia 2013.
I cannot for the life of me
imagine such a conference being held even a short time ago, at least outside of
a dingy ballroom in a minor city with little interest and with some unsavory
characters around.  But this event
attracted not only first-rate liturgists, hierarchs and theologians, but also
many laypeople, many of them very young, who were eager to learn and network
with other people all over the world who had caught on to Pope Benedict’s
vision.  And of course, there was
the presence of the gliteratti of
that new grand salon, the
Blogosphere, and the knowledge that every thought, word and deed of the
conference was going to reach an audience that it would never have reached
before, merely because of advances in technology in service of tradition.
But what was even more
amazing than the quality of the speakers at the conference, which I could go on
about at length, and the beauty of the liturgies, which were celebrated in both
forms, was the spirit which animated it all.  A conference which focused so much on the traditional
liturgy once upon a time not so long ago would have been the preserve of people
who have been caricurated, pilloried and described, sometimes not entirely
inaccurately, as rigid, reactionary and schismatic.  Now, there are some in the Church today who still have not
grown up quite past employing this paradigm for any and every who darken the door
of a Mass celebrated according to certain books.  But the atmosphere at Sacra Liturgia 2013 was not like that
at all.
While there was the
occasional barb at liturgical looniness, it was directed, not in the service of
a critique borne from a desire to paint the Liturgical Reform as a Masonic plot
to destroy the Church, but from a desire to highlight a proper ars celebrandi.  And those barbs, few in number, were
directed, not only against some of the most bizarre incarnations of the Novus
Ordo, but also the hurried, hapless celebrations of the 1962 Missal and the
psychopathologies of some who think that traditional Catholicism is a matter of
dressing like the Amish. 
Overwhelmingly, the tone was positive.  How can the entire Church develop a liturgical spirit via a
beautiful ars celebrandi for the
salvation of souls and the regeneration of society?  One of the most arresting things I took away from the
Conference was the idea that ars
is not just a matter of externals to which the priest must attend,
but a spiritual and theological orientation of the entire Christian
I must confess that, going
to the conference, I wondered whether some of the participants and speakers
might see it as a “last hurrah” for the Benedictine liturgical party within the
Church, and that it might be seen by its critics as the swan song for the
Benedictine reform.  I wondered
whether we might lose time and energy in harsh denunciations of the liturgical
practices of Pope Francis, and turn on each other in division and hatred.
Nothing could be further
from the truth.   This was a
group which truly “thought with the Church”, not in a slavish manner, but as
free men and women of God.  We were
able to raise serious questions about the liturgical reform without having them
turn into gripe sessions or anticlerical bashes.  There was a profound experience of communion, conviviality,
prayer and study. 
Why is this important?  Well, I think that it is representative
of what has happened in the Church because of the Pope in whose honor the
conference was called.  There are
many people who have discovered the beauty of the liturgy conceived, not in
restrictive terms as saying the black and doing the red of one particular Missal,
but in terms of an ars celebrandi which
respects legitimate diversity.  A
traditionalism which looks only backwards, and only with an eye to criticism, while
it may contain some elements of merit with which the Church must dialogue, will
eventually run out of steam.  But love for the liturgy, for God, for the Church and her shepherds, which is
the ultimate goal, not only of various traditionalisms, but of Tradition
itself, cannot stop at that.  The Conference
was proof that traditional liturgy has a powerful dynamism for reform and
renewal when it is unshackled from the tired labellings and trench warfare of
the past.  The sheer diversity of
the speakers and participants also point to the fact that the good insights of
the traditionalists can be brought in
medio Ecclesiae
and transform the dialogue over the nature of the Church
and her worship in a way which is not tied to the past, but can do good for the
future.  Far from being critical of
Pope Francis, a traditionalism freed from being tied into the critique of
Vatican II and crisis rhetoric, embued with a spirit of communion and the
spirit of the liturgy, shares in the desire of the Bishop of Rome for the
Church to reflect Christ ever more.
Those for whom liturgy is
not a battle to be fought over and won by texts and rubrics, but an enchanting
participation hic et nunc in the
divine life, will anxiously look forward to the publication to the Acts of
Sacra Liturgia 2013.  There they
will grasp a coherent vision of the Church’s life and worship which has, thanks
to Pope Benedict XVI, transcended this tumultous time and its wars and opened
up a way for the Church, not just towards the future, but towards the final
consummation of all things in Jesus Christ.    


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Revd Fr Christopher Smith (26 Posts)

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