Wise words on the liturgy from the Römische Korrespondenz in Germany today. Benjamin Leven is introducing the most recent issue of Liturgie und Glaube (“Liturgy and Faith”), an issue focused on liturgy and personal faith convictions. Leven quotes author Christian Rentsch:
The liturgy itself has a persuasive strategy which is by nature complete different from making something plausible. The liturgy sets out to strengthen the faith of believers in that it lets them practice their faith. Here, the primary means of integration of the community into the liturgy and its structure is not argumentative speech to the community, but rather the execution of the liturgy by the community itself.”
Leven also quotes Johann Evangelist Hafner of the University of Potsdam, who has said:
Rituals are emphatically not meant to be explained. Seen from the standpoint of religious studies, rituals are subject to a ‘latency protection.’ This means: something holds true precisely because it is not explained. This is the case with the most important gestures that we employ in entirely fundamental contexts, for example with love. When we desire someone it is totally counter-intentional to say, “Do you also love me?” Whoever does that too often achieves the opposite, namely, that the partner is irritated. Love happens much more by living out intimacy and familiarity, not by constantly talking about it.
These writings, which I heartily affirm, remind us what a challenge it has been to understand and implement Sacrosanctum Concilium no. 34:
The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation.
These are dangerous words, “within the people’s powers of comprehension.” They are easily misunderstood as if everyone should understand everything, as if understanding the liturgy is more rational than it is corporeal or emotional. Perhaps the Council fathers naively thought that the faithful would effortlessly relate to the liturgical rites if the rites were but simplified and made comprehensible.
But this is not the case. Rites “should not require much explanation” because they “make sense” within a larger ecology of personal faith, communal faith, and lifelong familiarity with them. This ecology is all about communal identity. Apart from this larger ecology, our rites are strange, or dull, or meaningless. Within this larger ecology, our rites are free to “be themselves” in all their beauty and seductive allure. When it works, there’s really not that much to talk about.
For rites to be “within the people’s power of comprehension,” we have to think less about how well the rites are seemingly “working” during the celebration, and more about who the people are who come to the rites, and what they bring with them to the rites. Explaining ritual is a warning sign that somebody badly misunderstands the nature of ritual. More importantly, it’s a sign that the real problem is outside and prior to the liturgy, and someone is misusing the liturgy to address that problem.
Sacrosanctum Concilium says this at no. 59:
It is therefore of the highest importance that the faithful should easily understand the sacramental signs.
Fifty-plus years after Vatican II, we’re growing in our sense of what the “easy” part about all this is, and what it isn’t. The easy part is not just simplifying the rites and then – poof! – it all works. Simplified rites will not magically sustain (or reconstitute) the requisite ecology of communal faith.
The hard work of liturgical reform is the hard work of preaching the Gospel, renewing the Church, calling ourselves to repentance, building up the sense among the baptized faithful that they are corporately the Body of Christ, and ever more becoming a missionary people renewing the world along the lines of the Reign of God.
Then, and only then, will the rites be easy to understand. Then, and only then, will the rites be surrounded by the larger ecology which makes unnecessary all the chatter and explanation.
It’s all quite simple. And very hard.