Cardinal Newman, Pope Benedict and Liturgical Words

James Tolhurst FAITH Magazine November-December 2007

In the Authorised Version of the Bible, St Paul tells Timothy, ‘hold fast the form of sound words’ (2 Tim 1:13). It relates to matters of doctrine, but John Henry Newman applied it to the liturgy on many occasions.

On the one hand Newman was accused of ritualism. He had to deny that he had wax candles burning before the altar in Littlemore Chapel, (which Anthony Russell repeated in his Clerical Profession in 1980) and that “he bowed to the Holy Elements in the Service... before Consecration” (which Newman pointed out was an absurdity since then it was “mere bread and wine”). It was all part of the campaign which sought to label him a secret Romanist before he converted. On other hand he differed from Evangelicals in their attitude to the liturgy which sought to imbue it with warmth and feeling. This found expression in the character of the prayers used. The desire to extemporise is still with us and Newman pointed out in 1829 that “prayers framed at the moment are likely to become irreverent”. Hewas to add (in 1830) “irreverent in such ignorant, feeble, blind creatures as we are.” He chose the word because he asked people to consider “into whose presence we are entering... the presence of God.”

So Liturgy must have a fixed and reverent structure which argues against adding “frills” from the ritual angle, and verbiage from the linguistic side. This stems from a realisation that the ceremony and the words were like the veil which hung before the Holy of Holies, and partook of the sacredness within.

We must not seek to minimise the importance of the signs in the liturgy, nor over-dramatise them. Pope Benedict floats the idea that the sign of peace could anticipate the presentation of the gifts “as a significant reminder of the Lord’s insistence that we be reconciled with others before offering our gifts to God”; this has already been taken up at the international Mass at Lourdes. As regards the presentation of the gifts themselves, Pope Benedict points out that we should not see it “simply as a kind of ‘interval’ between the liturgy of the word and of the Eucharist... the authentic meaning of this gesture can be clearly expressed without the need for undue emphasis or complexity” (Sacramentum Caritatis nn. 48n.47).

On the other hand there is a terrible tendency to ‘personalise’ our liturgy - when it isn’t ours at all. We need to hold fast the form of sound words. It does help if the words are sound and actually say something profound. But even if they are trite, the temptation to add words should be resisted as these are not always ‘reverent” and often stroke our ego. Pope Benedict says “priests should be conscious of the fact that in their ministry they must never put themselves or their personal opinions in first place, but Jesus Christ. Any attempt to make themselves the centre of the liturgical action contradicts their very identity as priests. The priest is above all a servant of others, and he must continually work at being a sign pointing to Christ, a docile instrument in the Lord’shands. This is seen particularly in his humility in leading the liturgical assembly, in obedience to the rite, uniting himself to it in mind and heart, and avoiding anything that might give the impression of an inordinate emphasis on his own personality” (Sacramentum Caritatis n.23). There will always be times when we would prefer other modes of expression but we need to bear in mind that the liturgy is a duty laid on us by the Church, and not some individual devotion; we owe it to the Church to carry it out as obediently as we can, and put our own preferences to one side, as Newman did.

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