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On Promoting Liturgy in Africa

Interview With Archbishop Patabendige, of Congregation for Divine Worship

VATICAN CITY, JULY 25, 2006 (Zenit) - A recent congress for the promotion of the liturgy in Africa and Madagascar marked a milestone: For the first time the event was held in the African continent.

The July 5-9 event was held in Ghana. To underline the importance of the event, there was a special message sent by Benedict XVI, who sees signs of hope in the liturgical awakening of the continent and the profound spirituality of the African peoples.

The Holy See agency Fides interviewed Archbishop Albert Malcolm Ranjith Patabendige Don, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, about the congress and its significance.

The 58-year-old Sri Lankan prelate explained that one of principal goals of the congress was to identify together with the African bishops ever more effective ways to help the faithful live liturgical celebrations as a source of faith and courage to witness.

The congress brought together 100 members of bishops' commissions for liturgy, from all over the sub-Saharan area and Madagascar.

Q: Was the decision to make [the congress] regional, rather than to convoke it here [in Rome], a clear sign of ever greater attention for the Church's liturgy?

Archbishop Patabendige: Yes, this was the first regional meeting. In the past these meetings were held in Rome and the representatives of local Churches came here to take part. This time we decided to make it a local congress, to set it in the continent chosen as subject, like the meeting in Kumasi which has just ended.

It was an opportunity to hear the voice of Africa there on the spot, to dialogue with them and take part in their local liturgies. The latter would have been impractical for a meeting here in Rome.

Those liturgical celebrations were an opportunity for us to realize the variety of practices introduced through processes of inculturation.

In this way we were able very gently to tell the bishops what we found to be well done and what was not so well done. We did this very simply and respectfully and found great willingness on the part of the bishops to tackle the questions and deepen certain aspects of the liturgy.

Rather than create difficulties, it was an opportunity for the participants to enter into dialogue with the different people responsible. Some of the bishops were amazed when we explained certain aspects of the liturgy which they had hitherto not considered.

Q: So from your encounter, meeting locally to discuss sensitive issues, there emerged the questions of formation ...

Archbishop Patabendige: Before coming to the question of formation, and therefore moving toward a fuller understanding of the liturgy not only as a collection of rubrics but as the bearer of rich pastoral fruits for the Church, I would underline how important the congress proved for stimulating a desire for more complete knowledge of all the profoundly spiritual aspects of the liturgy: transcendence, sense of the sacred and of mystery, profound interior participation, etc.

We listened as bishops and representatives of bishops' commissions in this field spoke on a theme so central for the Church as the liturgy. We heard about the joys and successes but also concerns and difficulties. It was truly a time of fruitful dialogue between the universal Church and the continental Church, an exchange of ideas, dialogue inspired by the themes presented, proposed by experts in Rome and in Africa.

This opened a general debate also with the input from the work of study groups -- an authentic fraternal exchange of knowledge.

We exposed the theological significance of the Mass and they shared with us their concerns and expectations. They are convinced that authentic inculturation cannot fail to enrich their people in spiritual and moral values. It was an opportunity to understand their thoughts and needs. A central theme was naturally inculturation and possible deriving difficulties. And the African bishops stressed the importance for inculturation to be correctly oriented.

Q: Are you referring to the congress's final report?

Archbishop Patabendige: Yes! Yes, this is all contained in the report we are about to issue in English and other widely spoken languages. A report which, besides containing various suggestions made at the congress with regard to the liturgical life, is of special value because it is the fruit of an encounter, of reciprocal exchange between the bishops and our Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

Q: Can we return to the subject of inculturation and therefore also the translation of liturgical texts?

Archbishop Patabendige: The question of the translation of liturgical books into the local languages certainly requires much attention. It suffices to recall that these translations are then sent to the Holy See for "recognitio" [approval].

There are difficulties, not only at the level of hermeneutics and philology, but also at the technical level. The matter calls for capable and well-prepared people.

Here we come to the question of liturgical formation and commitment above all in seminaries. Seminaries must help future priests acquire a liturgical formation which renders them capable and enthusiastic consisting not only of technical work on texts, etc., but above all that which helps them live in their ministry a deep sense of faith and liturgical spirituality.

Besides practical and technical knowledge, it is necessary to underline the connection between what is believed and lived and what is celebrated. One very interesting fact was that the congress participants stressed the necessity to introduce courses in Latin and Greek in seminaries in Africa.

Q: It is a question of formation. We have returned to this theme and so also to the role of our pontifical universities here in Rome ...

Archbishop Patabendige: Specialization courses in liturgical formation are offered at universities in Rome and in other places and today ever more frequently locally. The courses are quite analytic. They are university courses, not parish sessions, and study must be technically perfect.

Those who come to Rome to specialize in liturgy study the sources and history of liturgy; they receive a formation which renders them experts on the subject.

The degree or doctorate they obtain here means they can be professors and experts of liturgy in their own country.

At the same time, however, in African seminaries and institutes a professor cannot present liturgy as he studied it here in Rome. He will have to transform it with pastoral wisdom in a way to enable his students to grow in their Christian and priestly life. He must have a pastoral approach when he tackles the liturgical formation of seminarians.

I am not saying that knowledge of the history of liturgy and the origin of the different aspects of holy Mass, and so on, are no longer necessary. All this historical information is important and must be known. But the professor of liturgy must present it to his students in such a way that they acquire an authentic "sensus liturgicus," in a way which is, so to say, infectious so they become enthusiastic.

In Africa, as everywhere in the world, the liturgy must deepen and nourish people's faith. Unless there is a passing from the above mentioned historical-technical aspect of the liturgy to the experience of an encounter with the Lord, there is a danger of formalism.

Q: Therefore there is a need to rethink formation regarding liturgy, above all in the dimension of proclamation. In the pastoral dimension ...

Archbishop Patabendige: A liturgy which fails to take the pastoral aspect into consideration can harm our people's faith!

The difficulty lies in achieving formation which instills a sense of the liturgy technically complete but at the same time incisive from the pastoral point of view, and nourishes the faith of the people taking part, leading them to encounter the Lord.

The faithful note immediately when a priest celebrates in a deeply personal manner putting all his heart into what he is doing or whether he does it in a detached way, only as a formal act.

They are happy to see their priest totally absorbed in the act of celebration. In liturgical celebrations they want to experience its profound spiritual aspects and to be enriched and strengthened in the faith and encouraged to live the Christian life in a truly heroic manner.

This is why adequate formation which instills in the priest an attitude of profound faith and spiritual intensity is so important, because this alone will inspire the people.

Q: Can you give a concrete example because at times with regard to formation what is said is one thing, what is taught is another ...

Archbishop Patabendige: For example, during holy Mass we have the words for the consecration of the bread and the wine, words which come from tradition. They are the very words used by Jesus.

The history of these words down through the centuries, the use of these words in the Church, must be studied with great care.

However, when a priest, parish priest or a seminary professor celebrates Mass he must turn all his attention and that of the faithful taking part toward that act of consecration pronounced by Jesus himself and then repeated by the Church down through the centuries, transubstantiating again and again the substance of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, making present each time on the altar that one redemptive act on Calvary.

Only the priest is called and empowered to perform this sublime act. And with how much faith, humility and ardor we priests must celebrate this unique act "in persona Christi capitis"! And with how much joy!

This is why all priests must regard all this not simply through the eyes of mere formalism or routine but with a vision which is profoundly transcendental and spiritual. Because at the moment of the consecration when Jesus gives himself to us, without this approach the faith of the people will be harmed and we may fall into superficiality and formalism.

This is why we must insist on the supernatural aspects of our liturgical celebrations and, where possible, use local cultural elements to nourish the transcendent sense of the celebration. Precisely this aspect was highlighted at the congress in Kumasi.


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Africa, Liturgy, Worship, Patabendige, Madagascar

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