Article in American on post-Conciliar liturgical reform by Card. Danneels.

The new number of the lefty magazine of the Jesuits, America, has an article on post-Conciliar liturgical reform by His Eminence Godfried Card. Danneels.

My emphases and comments.

Liturgy 40 Years After the Council
High point or regression?

For those who have not experienced it for themselves, it must be difficult to imagine just how much liturgical praxis has changed in less than half a century. [Does this not instantly suggest a hermeneutic of discontinuity was at work?  Should there have been that much change, that quickly?] The evolution that has taken place in the last 30 years is barely perceptible nowadays, since the new liturgical model is considered evident practically everywhere. Such a situation is certainly gratifying, [!] but does it mean that the profound intentions of the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” have thereby been realized? Perhaps now is the appropriate moment for an evaluation.

Active Participation  [Here we go!]

From its very beginnings, the aim of the liturgical movement, which originated in Belgium in 1909, was to close the gap between the official liturgy of the priest and that of the people. “Active participation” was first promoted through the circulation of what were called people’s missals, which contained the Sunday liturgy.  Before long, however, a desire emerged for more than just following along in the book. The Second Vatican Council satisfied this desire by introducing the use of the vernacular, [Ehem… permission to use the vernacular sometimes, though Latin was to be retained] by simplifying liturgical symbolism to make it more transparent, [But this forces us to ask… did it really make the symbols they left in "more transparent"?  Or are they less noticable because they are so few?] by returning to the praxis of the early church and dropping elements that had later come to overshadow the essentials and by a correct distribution of roles in the service of the liturgy. The result was a far greater involvement of the people, even to the very heart of the liturgy.  [I think these are all claims that His Eminence would simply like the reader to accept because he says them.  I wonder, however, if his comments take into consideration that what was done in the early Church really had to develop and move beyond its primitive forms because our circumstances and understanding of who we are as Christians deepened.  Also, what people knew about the early Church’s liturgy, at the time of the reforms, was in many instances inadequate guess work, sometimes based on wishes, rather than facts.  Also, I cannot at simply accept that people are more involved in the newer Mass in a "far greater" way.  They might sing more and carrying more things around, but is that really "far greater involvement"?]

The active involvement [His Eminence seems to be focused here only on outward, physical activity.] of the people in the liturgy is, of course, an unparalleled gift from the council to the people of God. As with every worthy reform, however, there is a shadow side. Active participation in the liturgy can lead imperceptibly to a sort of taking possession of the liturgy. The liturgy is not only set free of its untouchable quality—in itself not a bad thing; it also becomes in a sense the property of those who celebrate, a terrain given over to their “creativity.” [Is it my imagination or has His Eminence been reading Joseph Ratzinger?] Those who serve the liturgy—both priests and laity—become its “owners.” In some cases this can even lead to a sort of liturgical “coup,” by which the sacred is eliminated, the language trivialized and the cult turned into a social event. [Well put!] The real subject of the liturgy is no longer the Christ, who through the Spirit worships the Father and sanctifies the people in a symbolic act, but the human person or the celebrating community.  [Nicely put!]

The liturgy is God’s work on us before it is our work on God. [Exactly!] The celebrating community enters into it as into a pre-established, divine and spiritual architecture. [Nice image!] To a certain degree this is determined by the historical location of Christ and his sacred mysteries: the Eucharist involves the making present of a particular meal, [Not just meal: it is simultaneously the Sacrifice of Calvary.] that of Christ with his disciples on the night before he suffered. This does not mean that we must exclude any kind of flexibility in our liturgical style; far from being ruled out, creativity is actually called for. But one cannot simply transform and re-arrange the whole thing. We are not creators of the liturgy; we are servants and guardians of its mysteries. We do not own them, nor did we author them. Both individually and collectively our fundamental orientation should be toward God, [ad orientem?] an attitude of grateful reception, [Yes!  Active receptivity!] wonder, adoration and praise—in short, an attitude of prayer, of handing ourselves over to God and letting his will be done in us.

‘Understanding’ the Liturgy

One of the primary concerns of Vatican II and of the church has been and remains that the liturgy be understood by the celebrating community. “Understand what you do” is a basic demand of everything that we do.  [Keeping in mind that we are approaching what is fundamentally not to be understood at all.  These are sacred mysteries.]

Certain realities pose obstacles to understanding. The liturgy is almost entirely structured on the Bible, and the Bible uses language and images from a bygone era. The nonbiblical texts in the liturgy are also strange: the Latin collects with their succinct and metrical structure are untranslatable, not so much because the words cannot be transposed into a modern language but because the mentality and culture from which they stem have disappeared. [Hmmm… an interesting comment to make, in the face of the necessity for all the vernacular translations of the liturgy to undergo review and revision in the light of Liturgiam authenticam.] A great many other texts, when detached from their musical setting, end up seeming extremely archaic; imagine, for example, the Salve Regina, the Dies Irae or even the ordinary sung Gregorian introits and Communion antiphons, leaving aside the images of God that such texts maintain (e.g., the God who sleeps, the God of wrath). Certain secondary symbols also no longer seem to function: the drop of water in the chalice, the lavabo, mixing a particle of the host with the wine, the washing of the feet. One frequently hears reproaches such as “old-fashioned,” “passé,” “medieval” and “monastic.”  [Okay… hang on.  First, I think his comments above are predicated on a) people might not be very smart or b) people won’t come to understand thenm through repeated exposure to them over a lifetime and explanations by priests and others who understand symbols and languages and those archaic things.  Just because something seems archaic, that doesn’t make it an obstacle.  The "different" quality of something archain might be useful!]

The remedy employed in most cases is limited to: What can we drop? How can we abbreviate? What would function better to express what is going on in our lives as individuals and as a community? Certain terms are replaced with other, more understandable terms. What do we do, however, with words like “resurrection,” “Easter,” “Eucharist,” “metanoia” and “sin”? They are part of a biblical and liturgical mother tongue that simply cannot be replaced. It has to be learned.  [This is fair.]

Likewise, does the fact that we no longer see shepherds and flocks every day mean that such images are no longer comprehensible? Is it because no one has ever met a seraph that the metaphorical power of this angelic messenger no longer speaks to us? Half of the poetry ever written makes use of images and terms that are not part of the daily life and environment of the reader.

If the liturgy is not simply a structuring of common human religiosity, but rather the epiphany of God in human history (from Abraham to Christ), then we cannot avoid the need for catechesis and initiation. Because it is both proclamation and the celebration of mysteries that have occurred in the history of Judaism and Christianity, liturgy demands schooling.  [Okay… he goes back over some of the points I raised.]

Understanding ‘Understanding’  [What is our hermeneutic?  Our "lens"?]

Modern definitions also challenge us. Our contemporaries often conceive of “understanding” as the ability to grasp at first hearing. Something is understandable if we can grasp it immediately. [This is Bishop Trautman’s (incorrect) approach to liturgical translation.] Such an approach is valid for the ordinary objects of our knowledge, which can only be grasped at a purely cognitive level. But where the depths of human and divine reality are concerned, this approach does not work. Love, death, joy, solidarity, knowledge of God can never be grasped at once or on first inspection. Profound realities only gradually yield their full significance. In these cases, understanding is a lengthy and progressive process of becoming familiar with a particular reality.  [This is the point I raised above.  Excellent.]

Analysis, then, is out of place in liturgy; only a prolonged listening and familiarization is appropriate. Our approach must be dialogical: allowing the liturgy time to say what it has to say; listening attentively [active receptivity] to its overtones and allowing its deeper meaning to unfold; not looking for an alternative but letting the liturgy speak for itself and expose its own virtualities.  [This is splendid.]

Though this might sound strange to many, our liturgical celebrations are for the most part too short.  [Well… maybe Sunday Masses are.] They do not provide enough time or space to enter into the event. It is not enough that people have heard the liturgy or that it has been spoken. Has it been proclaimed to them? Have they been given the opportunity to integrate it? [Silence?] The liturgy needs time to deliver its riches.

A Tyranny of Words

A major factor in all of this is silence. [Lupus in fabula!]The liturgy of Vatican II provides for periods of silence, but in practice silence is not given much of a chance. The liturgy is turned into an unstoppable succession of words that leave no time for interiorization.  [How often we experience a constant "chatter".  I think this is one of the things people long for in the older Mass: silence.]

Without introducing rhetorical gesticulations and building in theatricality, [O Lord, how one tires of someone up front flapping their arms around.] one can still argue that the tongue and the ear are frequently the only human organs [and not overly amped microphones] in use during the liturgy. How many celebrants consider the homily to be the climax of the liturgy and the barometer of the celebration? How many have the feeling that the celebration is more or less over after the Liturgy of the Word?

Too much attention is also given to the intellectual approach to the liturgy. Imagination, affect, emotion and, properly understood, aesthetics are not given enough room, and the liturgy thereby fails to reach many of those who participate in it because they are either non-intellectual types or because they do not consider such things to be nourishing for their lives.  [Hmmm… this is a little vague.]

Liturgy is neither the time nor the place for catechesis. [RIGHT!   Mass is not primarily a didactic moment, a point I make constantly in this blog and in the newspaper.  That doesn’t mean there cannot be some explanation and catechesis, but Mass is not primarily a "teachable moment".]  Of course, it has excellent catechetical value, but it is not there to replace the various catechetical moments in the life of the Christian. Such moments require their own time. Liturgy belongs to the order of the “playful.” The uniqueness of “play” is that one plays for the sake of playing. Liturgy’s end is in itself.  [This is a point made by St. Thomas Aquinas: play is one of the only human activities which is engaged in for its own sake.  Thus, it is helpful for us in understanding holiness and virtue and worship, anything having God as its object.]

Nor should liturgy be used as a means for disseminating information, [didactic moment, again] no matter how essential that information might be. It should not be forced to serve as an easy way to notify the participants about this, that and the other thing. One does not attend the liturgy on Mission Sunday in order to learn something about this or that mission territory. One comes to the liturgy to reflect on and integrate one’s mission from Christ to “go out to all nations.” Liturgy ought not to serve as a warm-up for another activity, even a church activity. While it can indeed happen that one departs from the liturgy with a greater sense of engagement, with faith and love that inform and inspire one’s actions, liturgy is not a meeting but a celebration.  [I think we need caution about the word celebration, which could also cause us to gloss over other attitudes.]

The [some] church fathers, too, adhered to the principle that mystagogical catechesis (in which the deepest core of the sacred mysteries was laid bare) should come only after the sacraments of initiation. Their pedagogical approach was “sensorial”: participate first and experience things at an existential level in the heart of the community, and only then explain. [Right, in due order.]  Prior to baptism they limited themselves to moral instruction and teaching on the Christian “way of life.” Immediately after baptism—during Easter week—they spoke about the deep meaning of baptism, chrism and Eucharist. Their entire method of instruction was structured around a framework of questions and answers such as: “Did you notice that…?” “Well, what this means is.…” Celebrate first, then understand.  [This might address what he says above about the need for the affective.  I had this same experience during the process of my conversion.]

Perhaps we do not have to adhere to the letter of such a pedagogical approach, but it certainly provides a hint in the right direction. No catechetical method will succeed if it is unable to depend on good, community celebrations of the liturgy. And those who desire to work with the liturgy and vary its themes will first have to listen attentively to those themes and participate in the celebration of the liturgy as it is. If they do not, then their entire liturgical endeavor will turn out to be nothing more than self-expression. What would we think of a composer who refused to listen to his predecessors or a painter who refused to visit a museum? The worthy liturgist listens first, meditates, prays and interiorizes. Only then can he or she “modulate.”  [I don’t know if you listened to my sermon from 2006 on the feast of the Assumption, but this is exactly the point I made.]

Engaging the Other Senses

The eye is the most active of the senses. In the liturgy nowadays, however, it tends to be somewhat undervalued. There is a lot to hear but little to see. At one time the situation was reversed; the verbal dimension was not understood, the visual dimension was pushed to the fore. Certain secondary liturgical gestures, such as the elevation of the bread and wine at the consecration, are a consequence of this fact. Even eucharistic worship outside of Mass has its roots here.  [There must be a balance: sed auditu solo?  On the other hand, all Rites remove something from our senses to increase the sense of mystery.  This is a good and reasonable psychological thing.]

It is always best to let the great symbols function. How can baptism be understood as a water bath, if it turns out to be little more than a sprinkling with water? [I might be missing something, but I have never seen baptism through "sprinkling".  Catholics pour water so that it flows on the skin.]  How can we speak of “hearing the message,” if everyone is sitting with their heads bent reading the texts in their missalettes at the moment when they should be listening? [Good!] Even the place from which the Scriptures are read has some significance. It is better not to read from the middle of the community [Exactly!] because the word comes to us from elsewhere. It is proclaimed; it does not simply arise out of the community. It is also best to read from a Book of the Gospels and from an ambo surrounded by symbols suggestive of respect (light, incense, altar servers).

It is of great importance that different text genres should be respected: a reading is not a prayer, a hymn is not a psalm, a song is not an admonition, nor is a homily a set of announcements. [Very good.] Each of these genres requires its own oral treatment. Furthermore, it is clear that neither rhetoric nor theatricality nor pathos has a part in the liturgy. Reading is not acting; it is allowing oneself to be the humble instrument of a word that comes from beyond. The exaggerated impact of the personal individuality of the man or woman who reads can kill the liturgy and eliminate its harmonics.

The sense of touch finds its most profound expression in the laying on of hands and in anointing. These are among the most physical gestures of the liturgy, and they can have an enormous impact on the human person. The significance of praying in the presence of a sick person takes on quite a different character if one places one’s hands on or anoints the person.

Last, the sense of smell is almost completely unused in the liturgy. It is not to our advantage that the use of incense has been pushed aside into the domain of superfluity and hindrance.

Liturgy and Life

If, as Pope St. Leo the Great said, the Christian mysteries have crossed over into the liturgy, then it is equally true that liturgy must cross over into the moral and spiritual life of Christians. [See my Rules of Engagement.] “Do in practice what you do in the liturgy” (“Imitamini quod tractatis…” ) admonishes the ancient text from the liturgy of ordination.

Some have endeavored to draw the conclusion from this axiom that the liturgy is not important when compared with our day-to-day lives or that it is a sort of preparation or warm-up for life itself, an option for those who need it but redundant for those who do not. Others have suggested that liturgy and life coincide and that true service to God takes place outside the church in one’s daily life.

The life of the Christian is built on cultus and caritas. Liturgy does not coincide with life; rather, it has a dialectical relationship with life.  Sunday is not Monday, nor vice versa. [VERY good!  Though there is some room to be left also for daily Mass.]  What we do throughout the week in a varied and diluted way we also do in the liturgy but in a more concentrated and purified fashion: we live for God and for others.

Liturgy, however, is not only a representation of human life. Liturgy symbolizes and makes present, first, the mysteries of salvation, the words and deeds of Christ, and also our deeds insofar as they are reflected, purified and redeemed in Christ. His mysteries—made present to us in the liturgy—are our archetypes. This Christological determination of our lives in the liturgy is of the essence.

The liturgy is not a feast we have laid out for ourselves, according to our own personal preferences. It is God’s feast. We attend at God’s invitation.

Godfried Danneels is archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, Belgium. This article is an edited excerpt from this year’s Canisius Lecture, delivered on April 17 at Boston College.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in SESSIUNCULA. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. danphunter1 says:

    Do you know if His Eminence offers the Classical Rite?

  2. mike says:

    Good article overall. A little surprised that its in America. The Cardinal makes good points that are worth hearing over and over again.


  3. Matthew Mattingly says:

    Coming from a man who has a terrible reputation as a radical progressivist, this is a fairly good article. However, I doubt if His Eminence would writing anything positive about the Tridentine Latin Mass.
    Still, in that considering His bad reputation (and past actions) this mostly solid article is a minor-miracle, it would be interesting if sometime in the near future we see a major miracle and read/see Cardinal Daneels actually celebrating the Tridentine Latin Mass.

    That would be great. : )

  4. Belloc says:

    Cardinal Danneels is well known to be, next to Cardinal Martini, the darling papabile of the left. Belgium, his native land, is one of the most de-Christianized nations in Europe. He’s ambiguous on the question of homosexuality and gay marriage. He’s pronounced in favor of papal term limits. He’s made a case for women as head of curial dicasteries, giving them a delegated authority proper to the ordained, and thus prying open the question of female ordination. He’s been president of the infamous Pax Christi International. He’s championed the use of condoms by HIV carriers. He’s suggested a Third Vatican Council to broaden and more clearly define the concept of “collegiality,” address the possibility of married clergy, and intensify “ecumenism.”

    Never before, to my knowledge, has he made a statement sympathetic to a traditional understanding of liturgy like the one above. My guess is he’s feeling the Benedictine wind biting at his nose.

    My other guess? It’s six years before he turns 80…

    …resist him, steadfast in the faith, and on us, O Lord, have mercy.

  5. John says:

    The motu proprio is a wonderful development. In this instance Cardinal D. was responding to it in the most positive manner possible. He must be positive or else he would marginalize himself. However, This is far from assuming a postive let alone a constructive stance toward the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. In the intitial euphoria of the Motu Proprio I keep in mind the changes that will take place in my own dioscese: no visible change is expected. My Bishop already stated the clergy is already overworked, knows no latin, is not interested in learning it and has no liking for the Old Form. Oh yeah, the people in the pews are not interested also. Talking to some of the parishioners who I know would be interested are afraid to ask the priest. He would be annoyed is what they fear. We need bishops celebrating the old Mass so that the people and the clergy will be encouraged. Outside the blogosphere it is still pretty chilly hard to be very optimistic at least in the short run.

  6. John says:

    The motu proprio is a wonderful development. In this instance, Cardinal D. was responding to it in the most positive manner possible, for him. He must be positive or else he would marginalize himself before the hierarchy. However, he is far from assuming a truley postive let alone a constructive stance toward the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.

    In the intitial euphoria of the Motu Proprio, I keep in mind the changes that will take place in my own dioscese: no visible change is expected. My Bishop already stated the clergy is already overworked, knows no Latin, is not interested in learning it, and has no liking for the Old Form. Oh yeah, the people in the pews are not interested also. Talking to some fellow parishioners who would be interested I find they are not asking for fear of rejection by their priest. He would be annoyed is what they fear. We need more Bishops celebrating the old Mass so that the people and the clergy will be encouraged and remove their fear that if they show interest in the Older Form their Bishops will punish them for the interest.

    Outside the blogosphere it is still pretty chilly; hard to be very optimistic at least in the short run.

  7. Maureen says:

    A lot of this was very good. It seems that the motu is indeed making people think more about how to improve the ordinary form Mass.

    Re: daily Mass

    If you go to daily Mass, you get to have that sort of commenting/contrasting relationship within the day itself.

  8. JimmyLou says:

    I’m sorry to read the gloating comments here, especially as they pertain to the “left.” I don’t think it’s healthy when – as Catholics – we assume that people with whom we have strong doctrinal differences are people with whom we CAN’T have doctrinal agreement. The agreement part is what makes it a Universal Church. I don’t like a whole lot of Daneels has said and done over the years, but I found myself feeling quite emotional as I read this article, realizing that there are spiritual connections between us. Instead of imputing less than pure motivations to his article – like Belloc did, above – why not assume that it is a sincere expression of his faith? There’s so much division in the Church these days, why emphasize it? Daneels may be of the Left, but he’s also a Catholic, and as a Catholic I celebrate this statement.

  9. dcs says:

    While baptism is usually conferred through infusion or immersion, sprinkling (aspersion) remains a valid option.

  10. Simon says:

    Not only “sprinkling” causes me anxiety, but also “Bread” and “Wine”, in the Liturgy we refer to it as the Body and Blood of Christ. I can just about cope with the “Bread of Life”.
    But simply referring to the Most Holy as Bread and Wine is quite Catholic, even if this used in GIRM.

  11. W. says:

    Great commentary. I like the Aquinas mention with regards to play. I agree. As can be seen from my comments at ClosedCafeteria, but where did Aquinas discuss that? Thanks.

  12. Olivier says:

    Really astonishing paper from Mgr Danneels ! I’m really glad of it !

    But… but… alas, and my heart grieves, why, why, didn’t he act in that way for the good of the liturgy in his archdiocese and in Belgium where he’s primate since 27 years !!!
    I’m Belgian and I can say the creativity, self-worship of the community, profanity, are the most current there (even if norms are slowly coming back). The situation of the belgian church is, accordingly, nearly desperate. Sticking to liturgy, what I’ve seen and still see is really depressing. I’m not from the primate’s archdiocese, but friends of mine, looking for a correct liturgy in Brussels (they’re not traditionalists but just wanted real respect of the norms), didn’t find one – even at the cathedral – except community of Italian carmes…

    So we don’t have the capital city phenomenon we have in France, where in Paris hundreds and even few thousands youngs go to mass. Instead it’s nearly the desert. Situation in Belgium is by far worse than in France – where I live now.

    I must say Mgr Danneels, despite not having been, in the area of liturgy but also in these of catechesis, morals, vocations, a active bishop, is a real man of faith, has wrote many inspiring books (nearly doctrinally irreprochable – I just remember something limit about contraception) – of a certain style, of course, but inspiring to many; and has succeeded to avoid a progressive schism (there is one, a gay church in Flanders, but very limited), that was really possible here.
    Please pray for his soul, for the good he still can do until the end (a year or more – he’s notoriously not very ratzingerian, but the successor won’t be easy to find – or to make accept) of his office, and for the Church of Belgium.

  13. Curious says:

    I noticed that you mentioned that you converted to the Faith. Would you share your story about how this came about? Sorry, that this is off topic.

  14. T. Chan says:


    See Hugo Rahner’s book Man at Play on the virtue of Eutrapelia. For Aquinas, see Summa Theologiae, II II Q. 168.

  15. T. Chan says:


    See Hugo Rahner’s book Man at Play on the virtue of Eutrapelia. For Aquinas, see Summa Theologiae, II II Q. 168.

  16. T. Chan says:


    See Hugo Rahner’s book Man at Play on the virtue of Eutrapelia. For Aquinas, see Summa Theologiae, II II Q. 168.

Comments are closed.