The faithful must be taught the true meaning of the sacred liturgy: that it is “an instrument of communion with the Lord, allowing the Lord to take hold of you, and the Lord absorbing you into his divine mission, and making you experience what a great and privileged moment of communion this is.”
These are the words of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, archbishop of Colombo, in an exclusive interview with ZENIT on the sidelines of Sacra Liturgia 2013, a major international conference in Rome this week. The cardinal, who was previously Secretary at the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, also discussed the importance of formation, Pope Francis’ approach to the sacred liturgy, and the crucial role it plays in the New Evangelisation.
The June 25-28th conference, convened by Bishop Dominique Rey of the diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, France, has been oversubscribed, drawing more than 300 participants from 35 countries to study, promote, and renew the appreciation of liturgical formation and celebration.
ZENIT: Your Eminence, what are your hopes for this conference?
Cardinal Ranjith: These conferences have been going on for the last several years organised by Bishop [Dominique] Rey. To get a proper idea of the liturgy, we need such conferences and a diffusion of these ideas of the true nature of liturgy, which becomes important for the Church for its life in the future. Because a lot of misunderstandings have come from experimentations that have been going on and they have damaged the liturgical life of the Church. The effort of this conference is also part of this process of formation which is very important and it is why it [the conference] is important.
ZENIT: How important is a sound understanding of the liturgy for today’s Church and how can it help the New Evangelization?
Cardinal Ranjith: People have misconceptions about evangelization as if it is something we ourselves, with human effort, can achieve. This is a basic misunderstanding. What the Lord wanted us to do was to join him and his mission. The mission is His mission. If we think we are the ones to be finding grandiose plans to achieve that, we are on the wrong track. The missionary life of the Church is the realization of our union with Him, and this union is achieved in the most tangible way through the liturgy. Therefore, the more the Church is united with the Lord in the celebration of the liturgy, the more fruitful the mission of the Church will become. That is why this is very important.
ZENIT: Are you saying that without a sound liturgy, it becomes merely a human enterprise?
Yes, a human enterprise, and it ends up being a boring exercise. It doesn’t change, it doesn’t transform. Transformation is very necessary for the faithful.
ZENIT: Some argue that the liturgy is mostly about aesthetics and not as important as, say, good works carried out with faith? What would you say to that argument?
Aesthetics are also important because human life is also conditioned by aesthetics – settings and symbols in aesthetics which help man lift his heart to God. Therefore, aesthetics have a relative role; they’re important but not the most important; that is the inner communion achieved in the liturgy, inner communion of the faithful with the Lord, and the community with the Lord. That is what is most important.
ZENIT: Pope Benedict XVI put a lot of emphasis on the liturgy in his Pontificate, and called you collaborate with him in this work. Can you offer us some insights into the liturgical initiatives of Benedict XVI?
I think even before he became Pope, he had been writing on this subject and was much more theologian than a liturgist. But eventually, any theologian becomes a liturgist because, you know, lex orandi is lex credendi. The foundational experience of the Church in its faith is the liturgy, because it’s prayer that leads us to God, prayer that opens up our horizons in understanding God in His actions. So the importance of the liturgy must have been understood by Pope Benedict so much that while he was prefect of the Congregation [for the Doctrine of the Faith], he started writing articles and books on the liturgy. And he has made a great contribution to the liturgy in the sense that the revival of liturgical thought in the Church is thanks to him.
ZENIT: But his rehabilitation of the pre-conciliar liturgy was controversial in some quarters. Why did he think this was important? Does the older liturgy have a role to play in the New Evangelisation?
Yes, because the older liturgy has some elements in it that can enrich the new liturgy, which can sort of act like a mirror into which you look. You look at yourself, and you understand what you are. The old liturgy helps us to understand what is good in the new liturgy and what is not perfect in the new liturgy. So by creating that kind of confrontation in the Church, he has helped us to make a proper evaluation, purify the new liturgy and make it stronger. He sort of guides us into a process of thinking and working towards a reform of the reform, because the reform of the liturgy had some flaws in the way it started off, in the way it worked. There had been a lot of arbitrary actions, misunderstandings, misconceptions, which need to be purified and which can happen in the light of the old liturgy. By understanding the beauty of the old liturgy, one can gain from the new liturgy also some elements of that beauty. The new liturgy has some of its own positive points, such as better use of the scriptures, more participation by the people, room for greater singing and other things, which can also be integrated into the old liturgy. Old elements like genuflection and some of the beautiful prayers, some of the repetitions, can enrich the new liturgy also. So it’s a two way process. That’s why the Holy Father, Pope Benedict, thought of allowing the old liturgy more freely, in order to affect this third way, the way of the reform.
ZENIT: There are a number of former Anglicans who have joined the Ordinariates established by Benedict XVI, present here at Sacra Liturgia 2013. What role does the liturgy play in furthering Christian Unity?
Already the liturgical life of the Orthodox communities, the Orthodox churches, is very much more indicative of the devotional and mystical dimensions of, for example, the Eucharist. When they celebrate the Eucharist, they see that happening – in a more mystical fashion it happens. Therefore union with the Orthodox Churches becomes easier for us when we become more authentic in our liturgy. It’s the same thing in churches like the Anglican Communion. It’s helpful for us to draw closer to them and them to us, and be enriched by this process. That’s why it’s important.
ZENIT: What role does the liturgy have now in the pontificate of Pope Francis? Some people talk as if everything has changed because there is a new Pope. Is this the case?
No I don’t think Pope Francis is like that – I don’t believe that. He is a serious person and he thinks seriously about the liturgy. He has told me a number of times liturgical rules and regulations have to be followed because he understands the seriousness of the liturgical life of the Church and the practice of the faith by the people. It influences us certainly. He is a very pastoral-minded person and he understands the people’s spiritual needs. I don’t think he will permit any sort of adventurism in liturgical practice. He will continue [with regards to the liturgy] and I think he’s serious about that too.
ZENIT: You have been the Archbishop of a large Archdiocese in Asia for the past four years. What liturgical initiatives have you introduced? Why were these priorities?
When I arrived I found much liturgical disorder so I started from the very beginning, insisting on certain things. We have declared a Year of the Eucharist in order to put everything in order. Now all the priests are using the vestments because, before, they were not using all of them when they celebrated Mass. Now everybody’s following that, showing that the celebration of the Eucharist is something special, not like any other activity. And there is greater devotion in the celebration of the Eucharist. Communion is given on the tongue and kneeling. This has become common practice everywhere and more and more people are returning to the Church. Those who have resorted to fundamentalism, for example, are returning to the Church because they find that the liturgy is something formative, enriching. It’s not this “show” that they had been used to. So we’ve changed the liturgical life of the diocese a lot.
ZENIT: Sacra Liturgia 2013 is meeting in the Year of Faith, 50 years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Its Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, was its first fruit. Would you care to comment on some of the successes and some of the problems of its implementation in the post-conciliar Church?
Sacrosanctum Concilium is a natural development, for example, of Mediator Dei [the encyclical on the Sacred Liturgy] of Pius XII, and the process of reform which had been going on from the time of [Dom] Prosper Guéranger [author of The Liturgical Year in the 19th century]. It’s a process that started in the late 1800s and it’s going on in the Church. Sacrosanctum Concilium is another step in that direction.
But in order to make true reform, to make the liturgy a touching experience that converts people and strengthens them in faith. It’s not just an exotic celebration, one that makes you hysterical and forget yourself and go into some kind of emotional hysteria. [The reform] is to turn the liturgy into that to which it has to become – to be an instrument of communion with the Lord, allowing the Lord to take hold of you, and the Lord absorbing you into his divine mission, and making you experience what a great and privileged moment of communion this is. And it enriches the Church and every single individual. The liturgy of the Catholic Church is unique and special. I go around the parishes in my diocese and explain to them what the beauty of the liturgy is and say: “What are you people trying to do? Why go to the sects to look for something? You have the treasure here. You have the Eucharist. The Lord is there, present for you. He’s inviting you into communion with him, divine communion, eternal communion. Why are you leaving this and going away?” That is what is important for us to show. And the reforms of the Second Vatican Council have, in some instances, got out of control. It has caused harm to the inner life of our people. But the Second Vatican Council itself didn’t say that and didn’t want that. It wanted a true renewal, but renewal means deepening. But it didn’t happen because unfortunately we made everything look like cosmetic changes here and there. Some people said the Council changes were to take the candle from the left side of the Mass and put it on the right side of the altar. That’s [taken to be] the reform, but that’s not the reform. The reform should be more profound, more spiritual. From the celebration of the Eucharist, for example, comes a transforming experience of union with the Lord. That is what the reform should achieve.
ZENIT: Fifty years later, what do we need to do in order to be faithful to the liturgical vision the Council set out in Sacrosanctum Concilium? Do we need a reform of the reform?
We need to be very much involved in the formation process of our people. Most people don’t understand what the liturgy is all about. We’ve got to tell what it is. We’ve got to educate them, to prepare the materials necessary to educate them in that. Then we have to reform the reforms, we have got to also tell our priests how serious they should become when they go to the altar. It’s not a day-to-day eating and drinking exercise. It’s something very special. If you are a priest, you’re placed in the noble company of Jesus. You become another Christ at the altar. Are you aware of this? So you’ve got to educate and form them, and tell the people what is happening at the altar, and make the full part of the sacrament take hold of these people. That is what is necessary.
ZENIT: People talk about a widespread loss of the sacred in society – would you say that is the main problem?
Yes, because we have kind of converted it [the sacred liturgy] into a social gathering, like the assemblies they had in Russia, for example, where they sang songs of heroism, of ideas, and had parades. It’s like a liturgy but it doesn’t bring any transformation in the inner life of our people.