Sacramentum Caritatis and Liturgical Beauty

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Sacramentum Caritatis and Liturgical Beauty

Interview With Father Edward McNamara


The true beauty of the liturgy comes about when the priest and the congregation participate in it actively and piously, says Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara.

Father McNamara, a professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university in Rome, writes the weekly liturgy column for ZENIT.

ZENIT interviewed him about Benedict XVI's postsynodal apostolic exhortation, which gathers the conclusions of the October 2005 Synod of Bishops. Father McNamara served as a "peritus," or expert, in that synod.

Here, he expounds on some of the specific observations and invitations that the Pope made in "Sacramentum Caritatis."

Q: In No. 35 the Pope writes: "Like the rest of Christian Revelation, the liturgy is inherently linked to beauty: it is 'veritatis splendor.'" Is it too much to say that beautiful liturgy is a sine qua non of a vibrant Catholic community?

Father McNamara: As the Holy Father says, beauty is inherent to liturgy, it is intimately bound up with authentic liturgy.

Beauty however does not only mean splendid sacred buildings and sublime music. The primary beauty in liturgy is that of a community united heart and soul in prayerful celebration of Christ's sacrifice. It is the beauty of priest and people engaged in full, active and pious participation in the mystery.

This beauty is achieved, in spite of a possible lack of external splendor, whenever the sacred ministers and each member of the faithful strive to live the liturgy to the full.

Other forms of beauty: music, art, poetry, and a sober solemnity in the ritual derive naturally from this inner beauty because the deeper a community lives and comprehends the beauty of the liturgical mystery the more it strives to express it in wonderful outer forms. It is the natural understanding that only the very best we can offer is truly worthy of the Lord.

Thus there is strong historical evidence that even before the end of the era of persecutions; Christians sought to celebrate the Eucharist with the finest materials available. This explains why the construction boom in imposing basilicas, as soon as the persecutions were over, along with the more solemn ritual forms required by these new buildings, was perceived as a natural development and not a rupture with earlier practice.

It is this same understanding which led generations of poor immigrants to the United States to sacrifice so much in order to endow their parishes with majestic churches replete with fine arts and crafts.

Ugliness, blandness, banality and bad taste on the other hand diminish the liturgy and betray a lack of appreciation of the mystery and sometimes, alas, a certain lack of faith.

Q: In No. 37 the Holy Father writes: "Since the eucharistic liturgy is essentially an 'actio Dei' which draws us into Christ through the Holy Spirit, its basic structure is not something within our power to change, nor can it be held hostage by the latest trends." Is this statement aimed at the clergy?

Father McNamara: It is certainly aimed at the clergy but not only. First of all it addresses the fundamental structure of the liturgy, and not just the rubrics, saying that the liturgy is primarily God's action counters all those who attempt to reduce it to a mere sociological expression that can be freely adapted as societies change.

The danger of holding the liturgy hostage to the latest trends not only concerns the clergy but to all those engaged in liturgical preparation. There are certainly priests who arbitrarily change the liturgy at their own whim but there are also readers who spontaneously adjust readings for ideological purposes and music directors who subject the liturgy to the demands of music and not vice versa, or who introduce inappropriate musical forms in the name of relevance.

I think the point the Holy Father is trying to make is that we relearn to receive the liturgy as a precious heirloom to be treasured and less as a toy to play around with.

Q: Benedict XVI says bluntly in No. 47 that "Given the importance of the word of God, the quality of homilies needs to be improved." What is the best way priests can improve in this area?

Father McNamara: There are many excellent resources available in books and on the Internet but I think there is no substitution for the three P's in improving the qualities of homilies: prayer, preparation and practice. First and foremost the homily must be the fruit of prayer, of a genuine conversation with God regarding the text.

It may sound harsh but a priest or deacon whose homily is not the fruit of meditation really has nothing worth saying because he can only give himself. An 8- to 10-minute homily requires a lot of preparation in order to put what God wants said into the best human form possible.

Preparation also means that a priest or deacon continually nurtures his soul and mind with ongoing formation. A good preacher also tries to practices before delivering his homily, practicing his diction, inflections and also timing himself. This last recommendation is especially necessary for younger priests and deacons whose enthusiasm combined with lack of experience often leads them to try to say too much at once.

Q: In No. 6 of the exhortation the Pope writes: "Every great reform has in some way been linked to the rediscovery of belief in the Lord's eucharistic presence among his people." Would this emphasis on the Eucharist have to precede other priorities such as ecumenism, restoring family life, and reaching out to Islam?

Father McNamara: I believe that it is more a question of the quality of these endeavors than a chronological priority. Unless we Catholics are deeply rooted in the central tenets of our faith and practice then engaging in these other priorities such as ecumenism or reaching out to Islam will be shallow and hollow affairs based on false irenics and empty rhetoric.

For example, a fervent evangelical Christian steeped in biblical culture, would probably be more at home with a Catholic of deep Eucharistic piety than with a one lacking in devotion. Perhaps they would agree on little from a theological standpoint, but would have a much better grasp of each other as people for who the question of God's presence is a lived reality. Something similar could perhaps also be said for pious Muslims.

Q: The exhortation encourages a wider use of Latin when celebrating the Eucharist. What are some of the advantages of that could come from a more frequent use of Latin and how can this be done in a world that has largely lost familiarity with Latin?

Father McNamara: The advantages are manifold. Think what a difference it could make to next years World Youth Day in Sydney if 500,000 young voices were able to sing "Sanctus, Sanctus" or the Lord's Prayer in unison, and not just listen to the choir. The sense of belonging to one Church could be greatly enhanced.

From other perspectives the occasional or even frequent celebration of Mass in Latin as well as the use of Latin Gregorian chant in vernacular Masses would help recover the sense of the sacred in the liturgy as many of these chants do a far better job of transforming text into musical prayer than most vernacular adaptations.

It is true that there is far less familiarity with Latin than before, but counterintuitively, the fact that the vernacular translations are already impressed on the memory could actually facilitate the occasional use of Latin. Most people would know by heart the meaning of the text in their native language and are able to appreciate the beauty of the Latin texts, especially the chants.

Some say that it is a quixotic adventure to attempt such a restoration, and yet, there are many examples of parishes around the world which have achieved a balance of vernacular and Latin in both texts and music from which all have spiritually benefited.

Q: A section of the document deals with the social implications of the Eucharist. How is our Eucharistic life related to a greater concern for justice and charity?

Father McNamara: As No. 37 quoted above says, the Eucharistic liturgy draws us into Christ through the Holy Spirit. The more a soul is drawn into Christ the more it becomes identified with him and seeks to imitate him.

Being drawn into Christ leads us to recognize him in others, especially in the hungry, thirsty, naked, ignorant, sick and imprisoned. Being drawn into Christ, means being drawn into his supreme act of self-offering on Calvary, a self-offering that culminate his teaching of the beatitudes. In this way there can be no genuine Eucharistic piety that does not bear fruit in concern for justice and charity.

For some, this concern will mean engaging in specific activities promoting justice and charity as a fruit of Eucharistic participation, for others, their genuine concern will be expressed through prayer and sacrifice for those in need. For all, it means practicing justice and charity in their daily lives and dealings with others. ZE07031928

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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