26 February 2023

Liturgical Expert Warns on Papal Inconsistency and Politicising the Liturgy

'If I see correctly, calm had now returned to a certain extent (after SP-JW), so that Pope Francis' decision on the restrictions of the Old Rite came as a surprise.'

From Catholic Conclave

here can only be one?

Pope Francis often emphasises the synodality of the Church - this is countered by the latest papal restriction of the Old Mass, according to liturgical scholar Odenthal. He warns against an ecclesiastical-political appropriation of the liturgy.

DOMRADIO.DE: What does this renewed restriction of the Old Mass by Francis mean in concrete terms? Who is still allowed to celebrate Mass according to the pre-1969 missal?

Prof. Dr. Andreas Odenthal (Seminar for Liturgical Studies at the University of Bonn): May I be honest? For me, the situation has become confusing, so it is better to ask an expert in canon law. As a liturgical scholar, I am interested in other things: What is the context of such decisions? What is the image of the church's worship behind them? But above all: what is this really about?

Prof. Dr. Andreas Odenthal

"What is 'the' tradition of the Catholic in relation to liturgy?"

These questions have already been discussed when in 2007 the "Old Mass" was again permitted under certain conditions, but according to the 1962 missal. Central questions arise about the understanding of tradition:

Does the 1962 Missal actually contain an "Old Mass"? For basically what we have here is a modern revision of the results of manifold medieval overformations laid down after Trent. So: what is "the" tradition of Catholicism in relation to the liturgy? A question, if I see it rightly, that has so far remained unresolved.

At the time, Benedict XVI wanted to pacify inner-church conflicts: The adherents of the "Old Mass" are - at least in Europe - a relatively small group, which is nevertheless strongly present in the media.

It has often been pointed out that this is not primarily about liturgy, but about Vatican Council II with its positions on the image of the church, the relationship to non-Christian religions, secular society and more. The liturgy is "only" a symptom here - as is so often the case. If I see correctly, calm had now returned to a certain extent, so that Pope Francis' decision on the restrictions of the Old Rite came as a surprise. One trigger may have been the occasionally raised claim to sole representation of the true Catholic, which, however, other groups also claim for themselves in other contexts. Whether the Pope's decisions are useful, however, remains to be seen.

DOMRADIO.DE: Why can't these two liturgies ("Old" and "New" Mass) simply exist side by side?

Odenthal: In the rich tradition of our Church there is not only "Old" and "New" Mass: The new missal contains wonderful texts of late antique or early medieval liturgical traditions that Trent unfortunately no longer knew. But the missal of 1570, published after Trent, had the wisdom to admit that all the rites of the diocesan liturgies, which were more than 200 years old, could be retained. A reasonably consistent uniformity has only existed - who would be surprised - since the middle of the 19th century.

Prof. Dr. Andreas Odenthal

"It is not clear to me how the Pope's decisions, with their encroachment on the powers of the bishops, fit in with his efforts to create a Synodal Church."

The liturgical landscape before was plural - a real wealth of texts and forms! Against this background, Francis' decisions are to be judged - harshly spoken - as hostile to plurality. Behind this is obviously the fiction of unity, now in questions of liturgy.

And there is, of course, another issue at stake, namely that of power. It is not clear to me how the Pope's decisions, with their encroachment on the powers of the bishops, go together with his efforts to create a synodal Church.

DOMRADIO.DE: According to the former private secretary of the late Pope Benedict, Georg Gänswein, he was saddened by the first limitation of the Old Mass by "Traditionis custodes" in 2021. Why is Pope Francis now imposing this further restriction?

Odenthal: Nothing worse can happen to the Church's divine service than that it is instrumentalised for ecclesiastical politics. Then the free space of the ritual is destroyed for the sake of an ecclesiastical political emphasis.

Prof. Dr. Andreas Odenthal

"This is the dilemma of the Old Mass: Those who celebrate it position themselves in a special way."

That is the dilemma of the Old Mass: Those who celebrate it position themselves in a special way. It should be a concern for all of us to protect the service as a free space for the sacramental activity of the Church - and not to instrumentalise it, not even with regard to this or that pontificate.

DOMRADIO.DE: Behind the celebration of the "Old Mass" is a different understanding of the Church, which is backward-looking and anti-modern, is often an accusation. Are there indications in the liturgy itself that the celebration of the "Old Mass" is not compatible with modern society?

Odenthal: You ask an extremely difficult question: What does it mean for the service to be "compatible with modern society"? And, I say this now a little double-tongued, is that desirable at all?

Worship opens up a counter-world: that of God's transcendence. And yet it must remain related to everyday life without repeating it in an embarrassing way. Putting this into practice is a high art that we all have to work on, beyond the "old" or the "new" Mass.

Let me give you a concrete example from other contexts: some German cathedral churches think they are at the forefront of the media when they equip their church with as many screens as possible so that as many participants as possible can follow the central actions. But this can easily destroy the mystique of the service, which also thrives on not being in the front row according to television habits.

Prof. Dr. Andreas Odenthal

"The worship service must at the same time 'fall out of time' in the best sense, lead us into another reality".

So: can the habits of a "modern" world determine our liturgy? And if so, to what extent and how? Worship must bear the heavy burden of being, on the one hand, an expression of the times with their concerns and preoccupations, and, on the other hand, at the same time it must "fall out of time" in the best sense, lead us into another reality, namely that of God's salvation history with humanity. Thus it is also in the tension of being an expression of a hierarchically-organised church, but a sensitivity to suffering with regard to wounded people must not be forgotten. Whether this is done with "old" or "new" Mass or forms yet to be created: Why does this have to be decided in an either - or universal ecclesial way, quite contrary to Francis' original intention to strengthen the local Churches in their decision-making power and their way of life?

DOMRADIO.DE: Wouldn't a more diverse liturgical "landscape" be desirable in view of increasingly differentiated Catholic milieus?

Odenthal: I think this question is the crucial one. First of all, there is still the problem of focusing on the celebration of the Eucharist. The change in pastoral areas in the German Dioceses leads, as I perceive it, here and there to a tendency to restrict plural forms of worship again. But it would be a different matter, namely to further expand the plurality of worship formats. However, this cannot be done centrally, but only locally.

But if we look again at the celebration of the Eucharist, other questions arise: What about the many people who turn away from the service because the lack of priests makes it too routine, far removed from life, without theological and spiritual depth?

Prof. Dr. Andreas Odenthal

"What about the many people who turn away from worship because it is too routine, distant from life, without theological and spiritual depth due to the lack of priests?"

Here would be a more important building site in my opinion. And I plead for a courageous step, namely to implement a plurality also "forward": To supplement the rich traditional treasure of the liturgy, its symbols, rites and language with new forms, languages and texts. This would be an immensely challenging and exciting undertaking, for which we would need the help of the Spirit of God.

But the living Spirit of God is ultimately promised to our church and strongly supports it on the path of being and becoming church.


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