Brief Book Review: Verbum ac Spiritus

Verbum ac Spiritus: Word and Spirit
On the Double Role of Presiding in the Assembly and
Directing the Prayer
By Daniel P. McCarthy, O.S.B.

Who should read this? This book will be most applicable for professional liturgists, liturgical presiders, and those involved in the building and renovating of churches. It will also be useful to those who are interested in the reform processes which took place before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council.

What’s the main point? The presider’s chair has two essential functions in the renewed and reformed Roman liturgy. In the Liturgy of the Word, it is the place where the presider listens to the Scriptures and offers the homily; in the liturgical assembly, it is the place where he receives and directs the community’s prayer to God.

Why is this book useful? The author presents a historically and phenomenologically grounded theology of liturgical presiding, as well as principles for planning and/or re-organizing liturgical space in contemporary churches.

Kudos. Verbum ac Spiritus is a revised version of the author’s doctoral dissertation at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome, written under the direction of the noted Sicilian liturgist Crispino Valenziano. Consequently, Verbum ac Spiritus allows English-language readers to access Valenziano’s groundbreaking theology of liturgical architecture. McCarthy forms his conclusions partly on the basis of his doktorvater’s theology (presented here in detail) and partly on the basis of his own painstaking historical research. By providing primary sources and translations for all references to the chair from the ancient Roman liturgy until the post-Vatican II reforms, he comprehensively documents the development, disappearance, and restoration of the presider’s chair to its proper place in the liturgy. In a renewed and reformed Roman liturgy, the altar remains the appropriate place for the Liturgy of the Eucharist to unfold, while the Liturgy of the Word now depends upon the liturgical ministers who serve at the ambo and the presider’s chair. McCarthy concludes by offering a photographic presentation of a number of ancient and contemporary churches, providing an analysis of how each church can unveil the principles he establishes by his research.

Quibbles. The vast majority of Verbum ac Spiritus is taken up by the historical study of the presider’s chair. Originally Fr. McCarthy’s doctoral dissertation, this study was only lightly revised for this publication. McCarthy examines – one by one and in detail – the ancient Roman documents such as the Verona, Old Gelasian, and Gregorian sacramentaries; the various Ordines Romani, medieval, and Tridentine documents; and an exceptional number of documents (including the “minutes” of conciliar meetings) from all stages of the Vatican II reforms. While valuable for its comprehensive character, this section could be taxing for readers from a non-specialist audience. Additionally, the introductory “theological” section of the book – nearly ninety pages in length – is presented without much reference to the historical analysis which follows. The reader is sometimes left attempting to differentiate seemingly a priori theological principles for liturgical architecture from those more firmly rooted in historical research.

Suggestions. Verbum ac Spiritus is a valuable contribution to liturgical studies for its meticulous examination of a unique aspect of the recent Roman Catholic liturgical reforms. Because of its length and comprehensive character, the book will most likely serve as a reference work on the various principles – theological, historical, and otherwise – of Roman Catholic liturgical architecture. Generally, the student of comparative liturgy will be left searching for an analysis of similar trends in the Eastern and non-Roman liturgical traditions. Hopefully Fr. McCarthy’s book can spur further research into the liturgical theology and history of the “presider” in other traditions and ritual families. Finally, for less specialist readers with an interest in liturgical architecture, I would recommend McCarthy’s collaboration with Dom James G. Leachman, OSB: Come into the Light: Church Interiors for the Celebration of Liturgy (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2016). This book presents, in a very readable form, an admirable synthesis and application of Crispino Valenziano’s liturgical theology to the construction and renovation of contemporary churches.

McCarthy, O.S.B., Daniel P. Verbum ac Spiritus: Word and SpiritWashington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 2022. $75.00. ISBN: 9780907077732.

REVIEWER: Alexander Turpin
Alexander Turpin is a Roman Catholic priest of the
Diocese of Rockville Centre, Long Island, New York.
He is a doctoral candidate (S.T.D.) in Liturgical Studies
at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.,
where his dissertation focuses on the liturgical reception
of Christian converts in the Byzantine Orthodox Churches.
He is also an alumnus of the master’s program at the
Pontifical Liturgical Institute entitled “Architettura e arti per la liturgia,”
a course of study based in large part upon the theological and historical scholarship of Crispino Valenziano.

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