The Liturgy as Source and Summit

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Historical Background

The conception of the liturgy as source and summit was first promoted by the liturgical movement at a time when popular devotions were the main sources of people’s piety. The reformer Benedictine Dom Guéranger (1805-1875) wanted the liturgy to be the “principal source” of spirituality. Pius X instituted Gregorian chant as “the supreme model for sacred music” (1903). In a historical speech of 1909 Dom Beauduin championed the liturgy as “true prayer of the church” (as opposed to popular devotions). In the U.S. Virgil Michel of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN, campaigned for the liturgy and the Eucharist to be the “very life of the church.” The reason Vatican II emphasized in three passages that the liturgy was source and summit was because at the time of the Mass in Latin it was not the case.

Vatican II set the agenda for the post-Vatican II church by stating that popular devotions must “harmonize with the liturgical seasons [and] accord with the sacred liturgy.” This was accomplished in the liturgical reform by eliminating many saints from the liturgical calendar, thus undermining the popular devotions to the saints. Vatican II made it clear that popular devotions are an inferior form of piety because the liturgy  “far surpasses any of them” (SC 13).

It is a common expression to say that the Liturgy of the Hours is the “Prayer of the church.” Vatican II similarly stated that the liturgy is the source and summit of the "church.” But who is the church? It is common in official documents to identity the "church” with the hierarchy (as in “the church teaches that...”).

For most centuries the piety of the faithful has been nourished mainly by popular forms of  devotion, and it is still so in Latin America and elsewhere. With the liturgical movement and increased Roman centralization the “church” became increasingly identified with its clerical actors. There were no lay participants at Vatican II with the right to vote.

How can the liturgy be source and summit?

1. In small Christian communities it is common to reflect collectively on the readings of the coming Sunday. Such communities often exist and survive only through strong collaboration between clergy and laity.

2.The texts of the Lectionary are easily available on the web. Various apps can download the daily readings to one’s computer or smart phone.

3. Good Sunday homiletic commentaries on the readings are valuable. From my observation they are rare.

4. Different people have different needs. Surveys and interviews reveal that many people still find more nourishment in the rosary and traditional piety than in the liturgical texts.

5. The liturgy belongs to the written culture which is the culture of clerics and educated laypersons. Most people today live in the oral culture of the mass media. In the written culture what was written centuries ago may still be worth reading, while in the mass media culture what was broadcast one week ago may already be obsolete. Popular devotions belong to the oral culture and require constant activation.

6. One hour in church on Sundays is a rather weak source and summit; it like having only one nourishing meal a week.

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