The implementation of the New Translation of the Roman Missal from the first week of Advent last year seems to have sparked renewed concern over liturgical orthodoxy among the faithful in the Church.
These are exciting times considering many laypeople have begun to read for themselves the Church documents that pertain to liturgical renewal envisioned by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
Since Vatican II, many in the clergy and laity were left rather confused about the extent of liturgical renewal required by the Council Fathers.
It seemed to some that the floodgates of liturgical innovation had been opened and people were now free to explore just about anything they desired. The pendulum swung to a frightful extreme that would have shocked even the Council Fathers themselves. Of course, this is not to say that liturgical abuse was scarce prior to the days of the council.
Nevertheless, at the onset of the renewal mandated by the council, it was perceived by some that these innovations were now for the taking.
Today, 50 years after Vatican II began, the faithful have begun to perceive the instructions of the Council Fathers in a more balanced way. We have come to see how our interpretations of the documents have often led to self-serving innovations which were never intended by the council. But unfortunately, in some circles this realization has led to the pendulum swinging to the other extreme -- militant rigidity in the implementation of liturgical rubrics and laws.
Rubrics are gestures reflecting the soul of the liturgy. They accompany the spoken words of the liturgy to express a coherent sense of dignity and reverence for the divine in the liturgy of the Church. Therefore, a keen sense of rubrics is non-negotiable.
However, the implementation of liturgical renewal is a whole other area that is seldom explored. With much discussion about liturgical rubrics, the “pastoral science” (to use a term employed in the Ceremonial of Bishops) of implementation is often forgotten.
In our zealous implementation of liturgical renewal, we often forget that the Church is an organic entity, composed of beings who are together enjoined to Christ as the head, and who are learning, slowly but surely, what it means to participate in the eternal worship of heaven.
This reality simply means that, while the observation of liturgical orthodoxy is a compulsory discipline in the Church, the implementation of liturgical renewal needs to be done with significant pastoral sensitivity towards the life of the community.
Change is something gradual that requires time. Effective and real change entails more than a mere regimental imposition of liturgical disciplines. It needs a tedious and relentlessly patient application of the persuasive art of transforming minds and converting hearts.
Admittedly, this sounds difficult. It is certainly much easier to apply a Napoleonic method of militant enforcement. But just because such a method might derive compliance does not mean it would effectively bring authentic conversion.
The implementation of liturgical renewal is thus a delicate tightrope on which we all have to tread. If we are overly laissez faire in our liturgical practice, we end up being guilty of diluting God's transcendence into a fallacy of total immanence. But yet, if we are too hard on our liturgical practice, we end up forcing a form of rubrical behaviorism on people without effecting a real conversion of the heart.
What then is a good way to implement liturgical renewal? I would like to propose what I believe to be the model practiced by our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in his liturgical renewal project since the onset of his pontificate. It is a model of inspiration. He inspires people to catch the vision of liturgical renewal and to embrace the spirit of the liturgy for themselves and the Church.
When we manage to inspire people to capture the beauty of liturgical rubrics, they will start joining in and following suit. When they see the vision of heaven before them in the liturgy, they will want to enter into it. Conversely, if we started implementing this renewal in a high-handed and rigid way, it breaks people's spirits, which does not sit well with the intrinsic nature of the liturgy itself.
The nature of the liturgy is such that it inspires people, not breaks their spirits. This understanding is probably the secret of the pope's success in his liturgical reform. Surely, the fact that we are so immensely captivated by the splendor of liturgical orthodoxy is a fruit of his ongoing efforts to inspire.
Renew the liturgy we must. But the implementation of this renewal needs to be done with great pastoral care and sensitivity. It is about journeying with God’s people gradually towards the actualization of heaven on Earth, not about whipping them into unthinking submission just so that we get the job done. Liturgical renewal is not a mere task to be accomplished; it is a pastoral art of shaping the life of the People of God in accordance with divine will.
Sherman Kuek is a Malaysian theologian and permanent deacon. He currently serves as director of the Diocesan Pastoral Institute of Melaka-Johor diocese.