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'Sacramentum Caritatis' and Liturgical Beauty

3/20/2007 - 6:15 AM PST

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Interview With Father Edward McNamara

ROME, MARCH 20, 2007 (Zenit) - 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 is a professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university in Rome.

We 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 ...

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