The Holy See Search



Memories of an Experience


On the eve of the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, the patron saints of the City of Rome, the Vatican Press published a simple yet elegant book, entitled The Fortieth Anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium and subtitled Memories of an Experience. Written by Archbishop Piero Marini, it is one of the many works published by various institutions, journals and individual scholars to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the first Constitution issued by the Second Vatican Council, one which was destined to have a major impact on the work of the Council itself and on the life of the whole Church.

Pope John Paul II himself wrote an Apostolic Letter - Spiritus et Sponsa (4 December 2003) - for the occasion. It continues the reflections found in his earlier Letter Vicesimus quintus annus (4 December 1988), issued to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium.


A threefold experience

Archbishop Marini's book is subtitled Memories of an Experience. The experience he shares with us is threefold: his personal experience, the experience of his colleagues in the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, and the experience of the Holy Father himself, Pope John Paul II.

Concerning his own relationship with the Constitution on the Liturgy, Mgr Marini opens his book with an expression of gratitude: "Sacrosanctum Concilium has always been a point of reference for my service to the See of Peter: first, during the more than two decades when I worked on the implementation of the Council's directives as part of the Consilium ad exsequendam Constitutionem de Sacra Liturgia and in the Congregation for Divine Worship, and then, for the past eighteen years, in my work in the Office for Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff" (No. 1).

In recounting his own experiences, the Archbishop in some sense continues the tradition of the "Diaries" kept by the Papal Masters of Ceremonies of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries - Pedro of Burgos, Agostino Patrizi Piccolomini, John Burkard, Paris de Grassis - which colourfully described papal celebrations in their historical context. Mgr Marini himself recalls this tradition in a paragraph of particular interest.

The second experience is that of his colleagues in the Office. He gratefully recalls the broad international experience which experts in many different areas (liturgists, jurists, pastoral theologians, musicians) brought to their work, an experience which was shared in specialized seminars and accompanied by constant generosity and enthusiasm.

The third experience is that of the Holy Father, certainly a rich and unique experience. Needless to say, one can appreciate the difficulties involved in recounting the experience of another person, particularly when that person happens to be the Pope, when the experience to be described is the liturgy, and when the narrator is bound, because of his position in the Roman Curia, to maintain an appropriate reserve.

At the end of Chapter Two, Mgr Marini succinctly indicates the significance of the Pope's own liturgical experiences vis-ŕ-vis the conciliar Constitution: "Pope John Paul II was not only a witness to and a protagonist of Sacrosanctum Concilium, he has also became its most authoritative interpreter and convinced promoter." (No. 5)


The post-conciliar liturgical experience of Pope John Paul II

Naturally, Mgr Marini does not list the Pope's liturgical experiences in detail. Nonetheless, their main lines can be said to emerge clearly throughout the book.

1. Complete fidelity to the directives of the Council

Mgr Marini notes that, as far as John Paul II is concerned, the Roman liturgy, of which he, as Pope, is the supreme guarantor and legislator, is none other than that set forth in the liturgical books promulgated in due course by Paul VI ( 1978) and by himself: books revised in keeping with principles laid down by Vatican II by experts who devoted great care and much study to the reform and managed to carry it out in a relatively short period of about ten years. John Paul II has always celebrated the Eucharist, the other sacraments and the Liturgy of the Hours in accordance with the form and spirit of the books lawfully promulgated by the Congregation for Divine Worship. In doing so, he has followed the example of those other Popes who over the centuries periodically renewed the Roman liturgy: Saint Gregory I ( 604), Saint Gregory VII ( 1085), Saint Pius V ( 1572), Saint Pius X (1914), and the Servant of God Pius XII ( 1958).

The constant care shown by the Successors of Peter, and by Pope John Paul II in particular, in their leadership of the Church, carried out primarily through the proclamation of the word and the celebration of the sacraments, is seen in the illustrations which accompany each chapter of the book. These portray the lowly figure of the Fisher of Galilee hauling his nets into the boat, as reproduced on the Rings of the Fisherman of six different Popes from the mid-16th century to the mid-17th century.

2. A varied and universal experience

In early times, given the particular nature of the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, the papal liturgy differed somewhat from the liturgy as celebrated by the presbyters in the tituli. Two of the liturgical books most frequently used by the Roman Pontiffs were entitled Missale Romanć Curić and Pontificale Romanae Curić (No. 5). A similar situation has emerged again in recent Pontificates, especially that of Pope John Paul II. In the twenty five years of his Pontificate the Holy Father has had an enormous number of quite different liturgical experiences: these vary in the saving events commemorated and the sacraments celebrated; in their locations and the composition of the assemblies; in the range of traditions, cultural backgrounds, languages, anthropological conceptions and symbolic expressions (cf. No. 5). Quite rightly, Mgr. Marini concludes that, when we consider this wide variety of situations and adaptations, no other liturgical experiences of our day are comparable to those of the Holy Father and the Office for Papal Liturgical Celebrations in its twenty five years of service to the Chair of Peter (No. 5).

3. A liturgy adapted to real situations

Regardless of its celebrant, the liturgy must always be centred on the Paschal Mystery and look forward to the Parousia. Yet it must also be "a liturgy of compassion, partaking in the struggles of the men and women of our world, and concerned to offer an answer to their legitimate aspirations" (No. 5). On more than one occasion, those who took part in celebrations presided by the Holy Father during his Apostolic Visits, especially in Africa and Asia, were crowds of the poor, the starving and the homeless, the sick, the exiled and the disheartened. These men and women were a prolongation of the crowds which followed Jesus and for which, seeing them so helpless, he felt compassion (cf. Mk 8, 2-3).

4. A liturgy at the crossroads

The Holy Father's celebrations, especially during his Apostolic Journeys, have had to confront the main issues raised by the renewed Roman liturgy: inculturation; the relationship between the requirements of the liturgy and the tendencies of popular piety; the maintenance of a balance between art and beauty, noble simplicity, ritual norm and spontaneous expression; a concern for ecumenism; the need to maintain a healthy tension between elevated religious language and popular speech.


Values of the Liturgical Reform

Chapter Three considers what the liturgical renewal has contributed to the life of the Church. The author states quite simply, and without any hint of triumphalism or polemic: "Scholarly reflection and the liturgical practice of Pope John Paul II have called attention to three values which are fundamental in the Constitution on the Liturgy: the supremacy of the word of God, the active participation of the faithful in the celebration of the divine mysteries, and a deeper awareness of the unity and the universality of the Church within the diversity and plurality of her liturgical rites" (No. 7).

His reflection on these three values, albeit necessarily brief, contains a number of original points. With regard to the supremacy of the revealed word, the Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations is of the opinion that "the notable insertion [of biblical texts] in the liturgy... has enabled the celebrations of Roman Rite to draw greater inspiration from the word of God. It has also allowed for a more correct interpretation of many passages of Scripture which are now set in their original context, which is the liturgy itself. The community gathered in prayer is in fact the privileged hearer of the word which God addresses to his people, so that they can listen to it, meditate on it, put it into practice and proclaim it as "good news" for the whole of humanity" (No. 8).

Striking, to some extent, is the interpretation which Mgr Marini gives to the importance of the active and orderly participation of the faithful promoted by Sacrosanctum Concilium. His own interpretation is quite different from an understanding which would view active participation as a sort of purely exterior "activism". Rather, active participation is the sincere acceptance in faith of the person and message of the Lord Jesus. It is awakened and sustained by the Holy Spirit [...] who is given to the faithful in the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation to make them members of the 'royal priesthood' (1 Pt 2:9; cf. Ex 19:5-6). It broadens the sphere of worship to the whole of life, enabling every disciple to make his or her life an act of worship pleasing to God. It is a participation which is expressed in a variety of ways: through posture, word, gesture, song, silence, contemplation (No. 11).

During his Apostolic Journeys the Holy Father has celebrated the divine mysteries in other rites of the East and the West. This has had a number of beneficial effects. It has helped overcome the error of identifying the Catholic liturgy for all purposes with the Roman Rite. It has promoted an understanding of the fundamentally equal dignity of all rites. It has thus has restored an appreciation of the rites of certain Churches nowadays diminished in size and social importance, rites which have nurtured the faith and worship of those Churches for centuries. It has also brought about a more lively awareness of the catholicity of the Church (cf. No. 12).


Principles of perennial value

Chapter Four reflects on the perennial validity of the principles of the conciliar renewal. A liturgical reform of such vast proportions was not embarked upon lightly. The liturgical reform was undertaken because it was deemed necessary. This was the opinion of Saint Pius X at the beginning of the twentieth century and, in the middle of the same century, of the Servant of God Pope Pius XII, who initiated the work of renewal by revising the very heart of the liturgical year, the Easter Vigil (1955).

Mgr Marini considers it appropriate to mention the pivotal issues of the reform. He indicates three: the liturgy is to be seen as an exercise of the priesthood of Christ, as a making present of the Paschal Mystery through the action of the Church, and as a foundation of the spiritual life.

Sacrosanctum Concilium has helped foster a deeper understanding of the priestly nature of Christ's presence in the liturgical action. The liturgy is the exercise of the priestly mission of Jesus Christ the Head, and of the members of his Mystical Body. Therefore, the author explains, it is an activity of both God and man, even though the two are profoundly different in nature: opus Dei and opus hominis. Opus Dei, in a descending sense: "the work of the Father through Christ in the Spirit". Opus hominis, in an ascending sense: "the work of human beings who, through ritual, in the Spirit of Christ the High Priest, give all honour and glory to the Father and strive to cooperate in his plan of redemption" (cf. 2 Cor 5: 20).

In his Motu Proprio Tra le sollecitudini (22 November 1903), Saint Pius X expressed it well: "the liturgy is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit". The Church's spirituality is thus the spirituality of the liturgy.

The principle stated by Saint Pius X maintained its importance and effectiveness throughout the twentieth century. Sacrosanctum Concilium quotes it almost to the letter (cf. No. 14). Drawing inspiration from this principle, Mgr Marini writes: "The liturgy is the summit of the Christian spiritual life, the first school for listening to the Word of God and the outstanding locus for invoking the Paraclete. In the liturgy the Spirit recalls and makes present the mystery of Christ, he opens the hearts of believers to the word of God, enables them to proclaim and bear witness to the faith, and transforms them into the image of the One who has called them to prolong his mission as the Servant of the Father (cf. Is 42:1-4; Mt 12:15-18) and of mankind (cf. Jn 13:12-14; Mk 10:45), by proclaiming the Gospel to each living person (No.17)".


Urgent Challenges

In Chapter Five, Mgr Marini takes up the teaching of the Apostolic Letters Vicesimus quintus annus (4 December 1988) and Spiritus et Sponsa (4 December 2003), and looks to certain challenges to be faced with hope. With hope, because "the progress made in the renewal of the liturgy in the light of Sacrosanctum Concilium is irreversible" (No. 18). All the same, it can be said that "of the many movements prompted by the Spirit of God in the twentieth century [...], the liturgical movement is perhaps experiencing a time of stasis or weariness" (No.19). There is a need for to restore enthusiasm and to renew, "among the Pastors of the Church and among all the members of the people of God entrusted to their care, an awareness of the primary importance of the liturgy" (No. 19). Consequently, the pastoral promotion of the liturgy must be given a high priority in planning programmes for Dioceses and parishes (ibid.).

Here, drawing upon his personal experience, Mgr Marini reminds us that Pope John Paul II, "because he is aware that the liturgy is God's priceless gift to the Church, has given a constant witness [...] throughout his pontificate of exemplary celebrations, faithful in spirit and letter to the directives issued by the Second Vatican Council" (ibid.).

He then makes two points. The first is an invitation and an appeal: an invitation "to look to the future with confidence and a sense of responsibility" (ibid.) and an appeal "not to lose heart at a certain weariness some forty years after the promulgation of the Magna Charta of the liturgical renewal" (ibid.). The second point, drawn from the sociology of religion, is that "a Council never ends with the promulgation of its decrees or the implementation of its first reforms. The complete pastoral success of an ecumenical council calls for a careful and intelligent process of reception, which may last for several generations before it becomes the solid and life-giving patrimony of the whole People of God" (ibid.).

Mgr Marini also mentions the concern of the Council Fathers for the liturgical formation of the clergy. "It is absolutely necessary" - they wrote - "that attention be directed, first of all, to the liturgical training of the clergy" (SC 14; cf. 17-18). It is futile to think that the noble goals of the liturgical reform can be achieved, "unless pastors themselves, in the first place, are thoroughly imbued with the spirit and power of the liturgy, and become teachers of it" (ibid.). With this premiss, the author reviews the following sectors which call for renewed efforts on the part of those responsible for the liturgy.

The Liturgical Year (No. 21), in which we consider the two thousand years of the Church's experience as the Bride who contemplates and celebrates with love and gratitude the redeeming act of Christ her Spouse.

The importance of Sunday (No. 22). In this regard "the Holy Father has spoken to his fellow Bishops of the need to help the faithful rediscover the significance of 'the Lord Day' and to recover its importance". Here Mgr Marini rightly recalls the Apostolic Letter Dies Domini (31 May 1998), a significant and compelling document in which John Paul II illustrates the value of the Sunday observance. From the Holy Father's reflections he draws two pastoral applications. The first seems to echo Romano Guardini regarding a principle of the utmost importance: "the revival of vigour in our ecclesial communities depends mainly on a revival of awareness of the primary importance of the 'Lord's Day'". The second calls upon the faithful to counter the widespread erroneous opinion that one day is as good as another for celebrating the "weekly Easter", an opinion which is opposed to the New Testament tradition (cf Jn 20:19; Rev 1:10) and destructive of the ecclesial value and unique symbolic importance of Sunday.

The Easter Triduum (No. 23). In a paragraph on "The Easter Triduum - Christ sacrificed, Christ descended into hell, Christ risen - the summit and fulcrum of the liturgical year", the Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations argues forcefully for a restored awareness among the Christian people of the nature and significance of the Fifty Days of the Easter Season. In pastoral practice it happens, not infrequently, that greater importance is given to the season in preparation for the Easter Triduum - Lent - than to season of its accomplishment - the Fifty Days of Easter, which are themselves a preparation for the celebration and making-present of the event of Pentecost.

The eschatological character of Christian worship (No. 24). Beginning in the post-apostolic age, the Fathers of the Church showed a keen awareness of the eschatological dimension of Christian worship, clearly expressed in the liturgy and above all in the celebration of the Eucharist. But with the progressive lessening of the eschatological tension, this awareness tended to become simply a repetition of formulas with little real impact on the life of the faithful. Something had to be done. The Council Fathers wrote a splendid paragraph - No. 104 of Sacrosanctum Concilium - which admirably sets forth the eschatological character of the liturgy and the communion of earthly liturgy with the liturgy of heaven.

Archbishop Marini extols hope as "the characteristic virtue of eschatological expectation" (No. 24), while echoing the conviction of liturgists and pastoral theologians that "we cannot keep our hope alive or be witnesses of hope for the world, unless we understand and live the liturgy both as an authentic celebration of "our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, in whom lies our hope for eternal salvation" [Saint Augustine, Sermo 331E], and as a pledge of the future realities prepared for all who turn to Christ in faith" (No. 24).

The reader will find a number of original ideas and points for reflection in the paragraphs Liturgy and the path towards full unity (Nos. 25-26), Liturgy and art (No. 27), and Walking together in charity (Nos. 28-32). In the latter we have a mine of original insights into the Pope's thought on how the liturgy at every stage - its preparation, its celebration and its prolongation in daily life - ought to be suffused with charity. These are pages worthy of meditation.


Looking ahead with confidence

Chapter Six, the final chapter of Mgr Marini's book, is yet another summons "not to be afraid, but to look ahead with confidence" (No. 33) and to respond to "God's constant concern for mankind with trust and complete faith" (No. 34). The author, inspired by the witness offered by Pope John Paul II, notes that in the Church we have a model of how to respond: "the Blessed Virgin Mary, who, upon hearing that the Almighty was to work great wonders in her (cf Lk 1:31-33. 49), while conscious of her own lowliness (cf Lk 1:48), found reassurance in the words of the Angel (cf Lk 1:30) and accepted God offer to cooperate with the redemptive incarnation of the word" (No. 34). He observes that No. 103 of Sacrosanctum Concilium acted as a stimulus to greater Marian devotion (No. 35) and can be considered a prelude to the famous Chapter Eight of Lumen gentium (ibid.).

A fitting way to conclude this presentation of Archbishop Piero Marini's book is to quote entirely its penultimate paragraph (No. 36), where he summarizes with deep conviction the thinking of the Council Fathers and of Pope John Paul II on the sacred liturgy:

"The Council Fathers' conception of the liturgy was remarkably rich and beautiful.

For them the liturgy is the endless glorification of the thrice-holy God and the sanctification of human beings now restored to their original beauty in the image and likeness (cf. Gen. 1:26) of the Creator.

It is grateful remembrance of the mirabilia Dei, a sober rootedness in the present, a projection towards the future, and the expectation of the Lord's return (cf. Rev 22:20).

It is at once the exercise of the priestly office of Christ, of the ordained ministry of Bishops, priests and deacons, and of the universal priesthood of the People of God.

It is a joyful fellowship with the Church already bathed in the glory of heaven and a fraternal journey in union with the pilgrim Church on earth.

It is a ritual action, a word which accomplishes what it proclaims, a sign which reveals what is hidden in symbol.

It is the worship of God "in spirit and truth" (Jn 4:23), mystery and revelation, song, word, silence.

It is the prolongation of the fire of Pentecost, the stream of life-giving water flowing from the pierced side of the Saviour (cf. Jn 19:34), which even now flows from the throne of God and the Lamb (cf. Rev 22,1).

It is the radiant light of the Risen Christ which illuminates his Bride, the heavenly Jerusalem, resplendent with the glory of God, with the Lamb as its lamp (cf. Rev 21:23).

This is the liturgy willed by the Council Fathers, this is the liturgy of the Holy Father, and this is the liturgy which so many Bishops and priests continue to celebrate in fidelity to the Church, to Tradition and to the Council."