Fathers, Don’t Let Cardinal Sarah Down
You have probably heard about the row involving Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, and Cardinal Nichols of Westminster about the priest’s orientation during Mass. (Re-reading that sentence, as the word “orientation” has too often come to mean, in our smutty and prurient age, sexual preference, maybe I should explain that I’m referring to whether the celebrant faces versus populum—towards the people—or versus Orientem—towards the East. The latter is often described by those who should know better as “with his back to the people”.) I had always rather naively thought that Monsignor Klaus Gamber, the greatest liturgist of his age, had settled the matter beyond argument in his masterly work The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background: that, contrary to what the modernists argue, the primitive practice was to face East—towards the Lord.
Anyway, I think the best comment has come from Fr John Hunwicke:
Versus Orientem or Versus Populum? An important point which I don’t think anyone has emphasised, in all the wordage concerning the attack of Vincent Cardinal Nichols upon the Address of Cardinal Sarah, is this:
Both of these Eminent gentlemen are totally agreed that this is a subject that really matters.
Cardinal Sarah makes this abundantly clear in his text. And he must have thought carefully before speaking in a way which he must have known would create a violent reaction. His act was not legislative. But it was a considered action on the part of the official appointed by the Roman Pontiff himself to have charge of the Roman Rite. It was an act of some considerable personal bravery. (For that reason, it seems to me that clergy should themselves have the courage not to let Robert Sarah down.) And the fact that he mentioned the First Sunday in Advent means that this is not some flaccid and timorous vague aspiration to which we might one day get round in the decade after next. He has called on us to do something concrete on a specific day quite soon.
And Cardinal Nichols is equally convinced that this really matters. He instantly emailed all his clergy. Cardinals do not go on to the public record as rubbishing what a brother cardinal has just said, unless they are feeling quite … er … excited. And the facts in the public domain strongly suggest that Nichols instantly got in touch with Papa Bergoglio, who in turn summoned Cardinal Sarah. And the usual machinery started to work in the Vatican Press Office in order … as we say in Anglo-English … to hang Sarah out to dry. Fr Lombardi and … more especially … the sinister Fr Rosica manifestly warmed to their unwholesome task. Nichols would not have set all that in motion over some little detail which no sensible person could possibly consider to matter.
Sarah and Nichols are both 100% right: this does matter. It goes to the heart of the question of what the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass really is. It touches upon that whole raft of practical changes (“reordering”) which were not in any way whatsoever mandated by the Council but which were put into effect by those who subsequently got their hands on to the levers of power. It bears powerfully upon the crucial question of whether the mighty task of the redintegratio of Catholic worship, set in motion by Papa Ratzinger, will continue under Papa Bergoglio’s successor.
Even further than that, it encapsulates the fundamental question raised by Benedict XVI, of whether we should see Vatican II in terms of reform within a hermeneutic of continuity, or whether the structural ruptures inflicted on the Church in the 1970s, with such catastrophic effects within the Church over the following four decades, are now to be set in dry, cold, inflexible stone.
We have reached a turning point at which every priest knows that if he heeds Cardinal Sarah’s exhortation, he makes it easier for his brother priests also to do the same; and that that if he opts for a quiet life, it will be that bit easier for The Tablet and ACTA [A Call To Action] to pick off his bolder brother clergy by demanding their episcopal persecution. There is no reason why a start cannot be made, after catechesis, by introducing versus Orientem on alternate Sundays, or even just on the first Sunday of each month. Advent, when priest and people go forward together to meet the Lord who Comes to us, is indeed a highly suitable occasion.
In the Veni Sancte Spiritus we ask God the Holy Spirit to water what is parched, to heal what is wounded, to bend what is rigid, to warm what is cold, to govern that which strays from the way.
But to do these things, the Holy Spirit needs willing human cooperators. The Body of Christ operates on Grace, not on Magic.