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Book Review: Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century: Contemporary Issues and Perspectives

Monday, November 21, 2016 6:45
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Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century: Contemporary Issues and Perspectives. Ed. Alcuin Reid. London/New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016. xxvi + 367 pp. Paperback, $24.95. [Publisher's site] [Amazon].

This review will be shorter than the richness of this collection deserves, but I hope it will encourage NLM readers to add this compendious, challenging, and eminently readable volume to their personal libraries — a step greatly facilitated by the book’s affordable price in paperback. (A hardcover is available for those who prefer the Rolls Royce.)

Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century brings together all the papers delivered at the second of the Sacra Liturgia conferences, namely the one held in New York City in June 2015. Those who remember that event will recall the excitement generated by the message sent to the conference by Cardinal Sarah, who strongly endorsed the program of Pope Benedict XVI and stated that this was still the mind of the Church. If more recent events have cast a cloud over that happy prognosis, the content of this book nevertheless helps us to see why Cardinal Sarah was (and is) essentially correct and why the promotion of sacred liturgy in its traditional fullness is the permanent, ineradicable, and immutable task of the Church on earth, regardless of contrary voices.

Along these lines, a number of well-known contributors offer penetrating analyses of the current situation. Fr. Thomas Kocik’s “The Reform of the Reform” (pp. 19-50) furnishes not only a theoretical map of the ROTR but also a thorough account of the ways in which one could reform the reform. Dr. Lauren Pristas’s “The Post-Vatican II Revision of Collects: Solemnities and Feasts” (pp. 51-90) continues her long line of studies on the massive rewriting of the prayers of the Pauline missal, emanating from dubious theological commitments. Fr. Christopher Smith’s “Liturgical Formation and Catholic Identity” (pp. 260-86) presents what may be the best short account of what went wrong with liturgy in the sixties and seventies, the various psychological and sociology factors at play, different ways of responding to the crisis and their relative merits and demerits, and the need for a gradual restoration of liturgical tradition, including the old rites, if we are ever to overcome the incoherence of our contemporary situation. My favorite lecture is Michael Foley’s “The Reform of the Calendar and the Reduction of Liturgical Recapitulation” (pp. 321-41), which I would consider the single best critique of the severe, not to say brutal, redesign of the liturgical calendar by the Consilium.

A particular strength of this volume that I have not seen plentifully in other recent literature is its sensitivity to and seriousness about the aesthetic dimension of liturgy and the necessary artistic “clothing” of worship. Several of the papers delve into this area with great subtlety and vigor. In “The Ease of Beauty: Liturgy, Evangelization, and Catechesis” (pp. 91-104), Margaret Hughes pleads that we must let beauty be so that it may woo and win over our minds and hearts to the Lord, with a certain “ease” that is not the passivity of relaxation but the intensification of rational activity in confrontation with the manifestation of the divine. (I am making it sound academic, but the paper is easy to read and persuasive!) In “Addressing the Triumph of Bad Taste: Church Patronage of Art, Architecture, and Music” (pp. 105-24), Jennifer Donelson argues that good intentions without theological grounding and some training in the arts is destined to produce results nearly as disastrous as bad intentions and theological heresies, and that the wave of iconoclasm seen in the Church since the Council can be blamed not only on false ideas and dubious motives, but also on a grave lack of sound judgment as to what is artistically tasteful, appropriate, and in conformity with the spirit of the liturgy. Gregory Glenn makes the bold claim that “Liturgical Music is Non-Negotiable” (pp. 125-39), and explains the benefits of investing in it, using his long experience at the Choir School of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. The most magisterial paper in this category is Raymond Cardinal Burke’s “Beauty in the Sacred Liturgy and the Beauty of a Holy Life” (pp. 1-18), where he demonstrates that concern with liturgical beauty is not only not antithetical to the pursuit of holiness, as a misguided spiritualism or utilitarianism might maintain, but is in fact an indispensable support to it, and a sign of the interior health of a Christian community with well-ordered priorities and the ability to make sacrifices for the honor of God.

Other papers in the book are valuable for their insights into particular “spheres” of liturgical life and their peculiar challenges, needs, and successes — whether it be the seminary (Fr. Kurt Belsole, pp. 189-217), youth ministry (Matthew Menendez, pp. 156-173), the monastery (Abbot Philip Anderson, pp. 342-359), the spiritual life of the priest (Fr. Richard Cipolla, pp. 218-233), or the leadership of the bishop (Archbishop Cordileone, pp. 140-155). Finally, Dom Alcuin Reid looks into interesting historical details about the waves of revision to the Holy Week rites in order to raise questions for further research (pp. 234-259), and Fr. Allan White delves into theories about preaching and proclamation (pp. 174-188).

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I was one of the presenters at the conference; my lecture is included herein as “The Reform of the Lectionary” (pp. 287-320). In this work I offer a multifaceted critique of the revised lectionary and the entire set of presuppositions behind its compilation and execution, as well as a defense of the traditional lectionary. In general, it is a healthy sign that this and so many other topics taken up in the book can be openly discussed and debated, at least among people of younger generations who do not feel personally invested in the liturgical reform and offended by the suggestion that it may have serious, indeed malefic, flaws.

The book is rounded out by messages of Cardinal Dolan, Cardinal Sarah, and Bishop Rey, and the homily preached by Fr. Jordan Kelly, OP, at the Solemn Votive Mass of the Holy Angels that took place during the conference.

For those who are keen on the practice and study of the sacred liturgy, recognizing in it the font and apex of the Church’s life and mission, Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century offers a feast of discourse not to be passed over. Its pages scrutinize the meandering paths of pseudo-reform while scattering abroad hopeful seeds of genuine renewal. I am triply grateful — first, to have played a small part in the event myself; second, to have heard so many fine papers presented in New York in 2015; and third, to be holding this book in my hands, a permanent record that will enable the authors’ work to benefit many more people over the years.

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