Gamber the Centrist

Author: Fr. Robert A. Skeris

Reverend Robert A. Skeris reviews:

The Reform of the Roman Liturgy, Its Problems and Background by Klaus Gamber (tr. K. D. Grimm). Una Voce Press, San Juan Capistrano, CA. 198 pages, $19.95.

Pro captu lectoris, habent sua fata libelli. Ever since Terentianus Maurus recorded this sententia in late antiquity, it has applied as well to authors, whose fate, like that of their writings, depends upon the capacity of their readers. Klaus Gamber's book bears this out, for it has been received in widely differing ways. Some found the work not only stimulating and worthy of reflection, but moving and prayerful, indeed an "amazing book" of "enormous significance," perhaps "the most important book written in the last 15 years regarding the call for the reform of the Novus Ordo liturgy and the reinstatement of the Tridentine Mass."

Others, though, are less enthusiastic, and in fact have serious reservations, judging that the inconsistencies and criticisms contained in "what comes off like an incessant barrage of rantings, often confused and confusing" are, at least in the long run, neither healthy nor helpful, since Part I of the book (at least) is "an unrelenting attack on the liturgical reforms not only following Vatican II but also leading up to it, starting with those of Pope St. Pius X."

Klaus Gamber (from 1962) was head of the liturgical institute, originally founded at Regensburg under Archbishop-Bishop Michael Buchberger in 1957 to conduct and promote research in the areas of liturgical studies and the history of Benedictine monasticism in the diocese of Regensburg, in order to make the results of this scientific work fruitful for practical pastoral work.

Gamber edited (often in collaboration with other scholars) the series of monographs entitled Studia Patristica et Liturgica (18 volumes), fifteen volumes of Textus Patristici et Liturgici, and 26 other volumes supplementary to both series. His specialty was palaeography, the study of ancient manuscripts, which he learned under the guidance of Benedictine Father Alban Dold, the pioneer of fluorescent palimpsest photography. (A palimpsest is a leather or parchment manuscript which has been re-used after the original writing has been scraped away or erased. Since the original writing was seldom completely eradicated, it can often be read, at least in part. Some palimpsests can therefore have great value for the specialist palaeographer.) Gamber did his first scientific work in "collecting fragments" at the palimpsest institute which Dold had headed since 1917 at the Archabbey of Beuron/Hohenzollern. Like his master, Gamber was a self-taught man. (After eighteen years of private work on a thesis about the authorship of the ancient treatise De Sacramentis commonly attributed to Saint Ambrose, Gamber received his S.T.D., not from a West German university, but from a communist-bloc country, the theological faculty of the University of Budapest [Fr. Polykarp Rado, O.S.B.], which caused a minor sensation in 1967.)

Specialists in manuscript studies must often deal with fragments, and the title of the Festschrift presented to Alban Dold on his seventieth birthday in 1952 was in fact Colligere Fragmenta. It is not surprising that Gamber's work was often criticized for drawing broad hypothetical conclusions from very scanty (often literally "fragmentary") evidence. All of these factors should be borne in mind when approaching this author and his work, which represents a notable achievement by any standards.

The English volume contains a preliminary section with a preface by Father Gerard Calvet, O.S.B., of Le Barroux, and two other brief pieces. To mark Gamber's seventieth birthday in 1989, a group of friends and colleagues had prepared a Festschrift containing, in addition to fourteen scholarly articles, brief congratulatory messages from several cardinals and bishops. Since the honoree had gone to his reward before the Festschrift was published, it became, perforce, a memorial volume: W. Nyssen, ed., Simandron-Schriftenreihe Koinonia-Oriens 30 (Koln 1989). The memorial tribute of Bishop Braun of Eichstatt (pp. 20-21 in Simandron) becomes in English, a "preface" at pp. xv-xvi, but omits the second sentence of the German original, without indicating that this has been done, thus creating the impression that the episcopal "preface" (untitled in the original) was written specifically for this English volume or its (Italian ?) source. The sentence omitted reads: "The memorial volume for him offers me a welcome opportunity for a word of greeting and of thanks." Editor W. Nyssen's memorial article at pp. 23-27 of Simandron is headed "testimonial" in English (pp. xi-xiii); in it (p. xiii) the citation of Cardinal Ratzinger is imprecise and hence misleading... wirklich aus der gottesdienstlichen Mitte der Kirche denkt means "truly thinks out of the worshipping heart or center of the Church," which is something other than "truly represents the liturgical thinking of the center of the Church." Gamber, and not the "liturgical thinking of the center," is the subject of the sentence... And one wonders why the last sentence of Nyssen's memorial appreciation is reproduced only partially? Did an anonymous editor do the trimming? The complete sentence reads: "In the midst of the diligent search for sensations in the Church of our days, his lonely path of sacrifice has now come to a sudden end."

A propos translation: while the thoughtful theologian noted only three typos, he encountered more than a dozen "opaque" passages and inaccuracies, some of them perhaps caused by unfamiliarity with the technical terminology occasionally used by the author.

The introductory pages vii-xvi are followed by the two main parts of the book, each of them representing a separate treatise by Monsignor Gamber. Part I, whose title was given to the English volume as a whole, was published as a pamphlet in 1979. Those of us who actively supported the German Una Voce from its early days in Berlin/Schoneberg, where the late Albert Tinz published its Rundbrief from the Kufsteiner Strasse as mimeographed circular letters, recognize the chapters of this section as a number of earlier articles originally published in other places, chiefly in the Una Voce Korrespondenz (UVK). Thus, for example, Chapter 2 - UVK 5 (1975) 142-51; Chapter 3 - UVK 6 (1976) 298-301; Chapter 4 WK 7 (1977) 88- 96; Chapter 7 - UVK 4 (1974) 283-7; Chapter 10 - UVK 2 (1972) 1-9 etc.

Part II was published in 1987 as a brochure Zum Hern hin! intended for the general reader as a kind of commentary on the problems presented by the modern altar and celebration facing the people. It was occasioned by an exchange of letters to the editor of a German Catholic weekly, Deutsche Tagespost, and once again combines earlier articles with new materials.

In short, the book we have before us is not a systematic treatment of its subject, but rather a compilation of occasional pieces, some of them twenty years old. Would it be wrong to see the principle of colligere fragmenta at work here?

In spite of the handicaps implied by these facts, several important themes recur throughout the book, and thus impart a certain unity. Among these themes--all worthy of serious reflection and earnest discussion--the legitimate liturgist notes:

* the development of symbol and ritual which has taken place in the Ecclesia orans during the course of a millenium and more;

* the character of the divine liturgy, in which with all the warriors of the heavenly army we sing a hymn of glory to the Kyrios (Sacrosanctum Concilium 8);

* the proper for liturgical prayer by priest and people who are together conversi ad Dominum (Saint Augustine).

There can be no doubt that this last aspect has attracted the lion's share of attention since the publication of Gamber's book. Building upon the work of predecessors and contemporaries like Joseph Jungmann, Cyrille Vogel, Louis Bouyer, Walter Drig and Joseph Ratzinger, Gamber (in spite of the view expressed in his Liturgie Ubermorgen p. 251 [Freiburg 1966]) has shown that the oft-repeated claim that the early Christian altar as a rule pre- supposed "orientation" toward the people, is a myth and nothing more (J. A. Jungmann). Gamber's insistence on this point has not been entirely ineffectual, as the editorial published a year ago in the official organ of the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments clearly indicates (Notitiae 29, May 1993, pp. 245-249). In what was surely intended as a response to this book, the sacred dicastery asserts that the eastward position of celebrant and faithful, while "a great tradition even if not an unanimous one," did not constitute an indispensable element of the liturgy and so "cannot be considered a tradition, fundamental principle in Christian liturgy." While striving to justify the westward position currently so widespread, the congregation also admits that it is "not an absolute value above and beyond all others... The principle of the unicity of the altar is theologically more important than the practice of celebrating versus populum." Non jam frustra doces, Klaus Gamber! (See Sacred Music, Vol. 121, No. 1 [Spring 1994], p. 19-26; Vol. 120, No. 4 [Winter 1993], p. 14-17.)

Those who knew Klaus Gamber personally, who benefited from his kind and courteous hospitality to other scholars and researchers, can testify to his fundamental attitude as a man of the Church. Quiet and reserved by nature, he possessed a great diligence and a strong sense of responsibility which prompted his efforts toward gaining a better insight into those "general laws governing the structure and meaning of the liturgy," which the last council calls for as a basic pre-supposition for any responsible discussion and practical activity in liturgical reform and renewal (Sacrosanctum Concilium 23).

Klaus Gamber was neither a traditionalist at any price, nor one who could come to terms with the perhaps too hastily introduced reforms of the liturgy after the last council. He was a "centrist" who by his researches in the history of liturgy could prove that the liturgy was constantly undergoing changes, that it did not congeal in cast-iron forms, but always took full account of the men who prayed it. After all, the fathers of Vatican II never dreamed that their reference to making the liturgical signs more transparent, would open the doors to a new wave of rationalism. And it was precisely such a rationalist attitude which Klaus Gamber opposed as vigorously as he could. For that, we are all in his debt. But for our part, we must exert ourselves to reach an appreciation of his motives and his points of view. The legitimate liturgist is vexed at the witless ease with which the ill-informed so readily over-simplify a complex situation, and he cannot help but recall the words which a genial jurist wrote more than half a century ago, for they apply as well to Klaus Gamber's book:

Have a care, my friend! This book is esoteric through and through, and its immanent esotericism increases to the precise degree to which you penetrate its pages. Therefore, better to leave hands off! Put it back again in its place on the shelf! Touch it no more with your fingers, be they washed and manicured, or stained with blood as is typical of the times. Wait and see whether you will meet this book again, and whether you are one of those to whom its secrets are revealed! The fata libellorum and the fata of their readers are somehow mysteriously intertwined. I tell you that in all friendship. Do not try to force your way into the arcarza, but wait until you have been properly introduced and admitted. Otherwise, you might suffer an attack of rage which would be harmful to your health, and you might attempt to destroy something which is beyond all destructibility. That would not be good for you. Therefore, hands off! and put the book back in its place! Sincerely, your good friend, Benito Cereno.