“The Pope to the Italian Bishops”
ROME, November 12, 2010 – The last two popes, on numerous occasions, have pointed to the Italian Church and its episcopate as a “model” for other nations.
There is one field, however, in which the Italian Church does not shine. It is that of the liturgy.
This was made clear by the severe lesson that Benedict XVI gave to the Italian bishops gathered in Assisi for their general assembly from November 8-11, an assembly centered on an examination of the new translation of the Roman
In the message that he addressed to the bishops on the eve of the assembly, pope Joseph Ratzinger did not limit himself to greetings and good wishes. He was the one to dictate the criteria of a “true” liturgical reform.
“Every true reformer,” he wrote, “is obedient to the faith: he does not act in an arbitrary manner, he does not appropriate any discretion over the rite; he is not the owner, but the custodian of the treasury instituted by the Lord
and entrusted to us. The whole Church is present in every liturgy: adhering to its form is a condition of authenticity for what is celebrated.”
The pope gave as an example of genuine liturgical reform the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, which put into the hands of the priests the “Breviary” with the liturgy of the hours, and reinforced the belief in the real presence of Christ
in the Eucharistic bread and wine.
Those were the times of Saint Francis of Assisi. And Benedict XVI dedicated a good part of his message to illustrating for the Italian bishops the spirit with which that great saint obeyed that liturgical reform, and made his friars obey it.
Saint Francis, as is known, is one of the most popular and universally admired saints. He is a model also for those Catholics who want a Church that is more spiritual and “prophetic,” instead of institutional and ritual. In the liturgical
field, they are pushing for more creativity and freedom.
But Benedict XVI showed, in the message, that the real Saint Francis was of a completely different bent. He was profoundly convinced that Christian worship should correspond to the “rule of faith” that has been received, and in this
way give form to the Church. The priests, first of all, must base their holiness of life on the “holy things” of the liturgy.
Curiously, the Italian bishops to whom the pope addressed this lesson had gathered this time in none other than Assisi, the city of St. Francis.
And the bishop of Assisi is Domenico Sorrentino, an expert on the liturgy, but not of an approach like that of Ratzinger.
In 2003, Archbishop Sorrentino was appointed secretary of the Vatican congregation for divine worship. But he lasted only two years. Shortly after he became pope, Ratzinger transferred him to Assisi, and replaced him with someone extremely faithful to him in liturgical matters, Malcolm Ranjith of Sri Lanka, today archbishop of Colombo and soon to be named a cardinal.
Before 2003, for five years, the secretary of the congregation for divine worship had been another Italian expert on the liturgy, Francesco Pio Tamburrino, a Benedictine monk. But his stance was also contrary to that of the cardinal prefect of the congregation at the time, the “Ratzingerian” Jorge Arturo Medina Estévez. And in fact, he was also removed and transferred to a diocese, that of Foggia.
Sorrentino and Tamburrino are two prominent figures of the commission for the liturgy of the Italian episcopal conference. But also on this commission, until a short time ago, was Luca Brandolini, bishop of Sora, who distinguished himself by proclaiming a sort of protest “bereavement” when in 2007 Benedict XVI issued the motu proprio “Summorum Pontificum,” which liberalized the use of the ancient rite of the Mass.
In electing the members of the commission for the liturgy, the Italian bishops have always given preference to their colleagues of this tendency, whose inspiration comes from the architects of the liturgical reform following Vatican
Council II, in particular Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro and the main conceptualizer and executor of that reform, Archbishop Annibale Bugnini.
The negative results of that reform are what Benedict XVI is working against. But Paul VI had already seen its abuses, and was so pained by them that in 1975 he removed Bugnini and sent him into exile in Iran as the apostolic nuncio
But the sentiment of the majority of the Italian bishops and clergy continues to be influenced by the “Bugnini line.” The excesses seen in other European Churches are rare in Italy, but the predominant style of celebration is
more “assembly-focused” than “turned toward the Lord,” as pope Ratzinger wants it to be.
The Italian episcopal conference is a special case, compared with all the others. It has a direct connection to the bishop of Rome. And in fact, its president is not elected, but appointed by the pope.
Introducing the work of the episcopal conference in Assisi on November 8, the current president, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, cited a comment by Ratzinger on the fact that Vatican Council II dedicated its first session precisely to the
“By starting with the subject of the liturgy, it unequivocally put in the spotlight the primacy of God, the absolute priority of the topic ‘God’. Before everything, God: this is what starting with the liturgy says. Wherever attention to God is not the deciding factor, everything else loses its orientation.”
But in order to understand more deeply the meaning of the “reform of the reform” desired by pope Ratzinger, the following is what he wrote to the Italian bishops about the liturgy.
“EVERY TRUE REFORMER IS OBEDIENT TO THE FAITH”
From Benedict XVI’s message to the Italian bishops gathered for their general assembly
[…] 1. In these days you have gathered in Assisi, the city in which “a sun was born to the world” (Dante, Paradiso, Canto XI), proclaimed patron of Italy by venerable Pius XII: Saint Francis, who preserves intact his freshness and his
relevance – the saints never fade away! – due to his being conformed totally to Christ, of whom he was a living icon.
Like our own, the time in which Saint Francis lived was also marked by profound cultural transformations, fostered by the birth of the universities, by the rise of the townships and by the spread of new religious experiences.
Precisely in that season, thanks to the work of Pope Innocence III – the same from whom the Poverello of Assisi obtained his first canonical recognition – the Church undertook a profound liturgical reform.
Its highest expression is the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), which numbers among its fruits the “Breviary.” This book of prayer incorporated the richness of the theological reflection and prayer experience of the previous millennium. By
adopting it, Saint Francis and his friars made their own the liturgical prayer of the supreme pontiff: in this way, the saint assiduously listened to and meditated on the Word of God, to the point of making it his own and then transposing it into the prayers he authored, and into all of his writings in general.
The Fourth Lateran Council itself, devoting particular attention to the sacrament of the altar, inserted into the profession of faith the term “transubstantiation,” to affirm the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic sacrifice: “His body and his blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar, under the species of the bread and wine,
because the bread is transubstantiated into the body and the wine into the blood by divine power” (DS, 802).
From attending holy Mass and receiving holy communion with devotion arose the evangelical life of Saint Francis and his vocation to retrace the steps of Christ Crucified: “The Lord,” we read in the Testament of 1226, “gave me such
faith in churches that I would simply pray and say: We adore you, Lord Jesus, in all of your churches in the whole world, and we bless you, because with your holy cross you have redeemed the world” (Fonti Francescane, no. 111).
This experience also gave rise to the great deference that he showed for priests, and his orders to the friars to respect them always and no matter what, “because I see nothing bodily of the Most High Son of God in this world, if not his
Most Holy Body and Blood that they alone consecrate, and they alone administer at the altars” (Fonti Francescane, no. 113).
Before such a gift, dear brothers, what responsibility of life follows for each one of us! “Be mindful of your dignity, brother priests,” Francis moreover urged, “and be holy, because he is holy!” (Letter to the General Chapter and to all
of the friars, in Fonti Francescane, no. 220). Yes, the holiness of the Eucharist demands that one celebrate and adore this mystery mindful of its greatness, importance, and efficacy for Christian life, but it also demands purity,
consistency, and holiness of life from each one of us, in order to be living witnesses of Christ’s one sacrifice of love.
The saint of Assisi never stopped contemplating how “the Lord of the universe, God and Son of God, is so humble as to conceal himself, for our salvation, in the paltry appearance of bread” (ibid, no 221), and vehemently asked his
friars: “I beg you, more than if I were doing it for myself, that you humbly beseech the priests that they venerate above all things the Most Holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the holy names and the words written of him
that consecrate the body” (Letter to all the Custodians, in Fonti Francescane, no. 241).
The authentic believer, in every time, experiences in the liturgy the presence, the primacy, and the work of God. It is “veritatis splendor” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 35), nuptial event, foretaste of the new and definitive city and
participation in it; it is the bond between creation and redemption, heaven open to the earth of men, passage from the world to God; it is Pascha, in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ; it is the soul of the Christian life, call to follow, reconciliation that moves to fraternal charity.
Dear brothers in the episcopate, your coming together places at the center of the work of the assembly an examination of the Italian translation of the third standard edition of the Roman Missal. The correspondence of the prayer of the Church (lex orandi) and the rule of faith (lex credendi) shapes the thought and sentiment of the Christian community, giving form to the Church, the body of Christ and temple of the Spirit. Human expression can never stand completely outside of its time, even when, as in the case of the liturgy, it constitutes a window that opens to what is beyond time. Giving expression to a perennially valid reality therefore demands a wise balancing of continuity and newness, of tradition and revitalization.
The Missal itself takes its place within this process. Every true reformer, in fact, is obedient to the faith: he does not act in an arbitrary manner, he does not appropriate any discretion over the rite; he is not the owner, but the custodian
of the treasury instituted by the Lord and entrusted to us. The whole Church is present in every liturgy: adhering to its form is a condition of authenticity for what is celebrated. […]
From the Vatican, November 4, 2010