Cardinal Ottaviani said of
the bishops, “They are afraid of looking old.”
But we have never refused certain
changes, adaptations that bear witness to the vitality of
the Church. In the liturgy, people my age have seen some
of these. Shortly after I was born, St. Pius X made some
improvements, especially in giving more importance to the
temporal cycle in the missal, in lowering the age for First
Communion for children and in restoring liturgical chant,
which had fallen into disuse. Pius XII came along and reduced
the length of the eucharistic fast because of difficulties
inherent in modem life. For the same reason he authorized
afternoon and evening Masses, put the Office of the Paschal
Vigil on the evening of Holy Saturday and rearranged the
services of Holy Week in general. John XXIII, before the
Council, added his own touches to the so-called rite of
St. Pius V.
But none of this came anywhere
near to what happened in 1969, when a new concept of the
Mass was introduced.
We are also criticized for
being attached to external forms of secondary importance,
like Latin. This is a dead language, they tell us, which
no one understands--as if Christians understood it in the
sixteenth or nineteenth centuries. Such negligence on the
part of the Church (in this view) in waiting so long to
get rid of Latin! I think the Church had her reasons. Yet
we should not be surprised that Catholics feel the need
of a greater understanding of the sacred texts, from which
they draw spiritual nourishment, and that they want to be
more intimately involved in the action taking place in front
It was not to satisfy these
desires, however, that the vernacular was introduced from
one end of the Holy Sacrifice to the other. Reading the
Epistle and Gospel in the vernacular is an improvement and
is practised at St. Nicholas du Chardonnet in Paris and
in the priories of the Society which I founded. To go any
further would mean losing far more than would be gained,
because understanding the texts is not the ultimate purpose
of prayer, nor even the only means of putting the soul in
a state of prayer, i.e., in union with God. If too much
attention is given to the meaning of the words, they can
even be an obstacle.
I am surprised that this is
not understood, especially when we hear so much talk these
days about a religion of the heart, less intellectual and
more spontaneous. Union with God can be achieved as much
by beautiful, heavenly music as by the general ambiance
of liturgical action: the sanctity and religious feel of
the place, or its architectural beauty, or the fervor of
the Christian community, or the dignity and devotion of
the celebrant, or symbolic decorations, or the fragrance
of the incense. Moving about is unimportant, as long as
the soul is uplifted. All you need to prove this is to
go into a Benedictine monastery which has kept the divine
worship in all its splendor.
But this does not lessen in
the least the need to seek a better understanding of the
prayers and hymns as well as a more perfect participation.
But it is a mistake to try to reach the goal purely and
simply by bringing in the vernacular and totally suppressing
the universal language of the Church, as has unfortunately
happened almost everywhere in the world. We need only look
at the success of Masses, even in the Novus Ordo
rite, which have kept the chant for the Credo, the
Sanctus, or the Agnus Dei.
Latin is a universal language.
In using it, the liturgy forms us into a universal, i.e.,
Catholic, communion. By contrast, localizing and individualizing
the liturgy robs it of this dimension which can make such
a deep impression on souls. To avoid making such a mistake,
it should be enough to observe the Eastern rites, in which
the liturgical action has long been couched in the vernacular.
And there, an isolation can be seen--from which members
of these communities suffer. When they scatter far and wide
from their homelands, they need their own priests for the
Mass, the sacraments and ceremonies of all kinds. They build
special churches, which, in the nature of things, separate
them from the rest of the Catholic population.
What do they gain from this?
It is not entirely clear that having their own liturgical
language has made them more fervent in practising their
faith than people benefitting from a universal language,
not understood by man, perhaps, but easy enough to translate.
If we look outside the Church,
we may ask how Islam has succeeded in keeping its cohesiveness
while spreading over regions as different and among peoples
of such diverse races as in Turkey, North Africa, Indonesia
and black Africa. It has succeeded in imposing Arabic everywhere
as the single language of the Koran. In Africa, I saw marabouts
teachings children to recite the sacred texts by heart when
they could not understand a single word of them. Islam goes
so far as to forbid the translation of this holy book. It
is fashionable these days to admire the religion of Mohammed:
thousands of French people, it is said, are converting to
it and taking up collections in the churches to build mosques
in France. We would do well, however, simply to take note
of one example which we should remember: the sustaining
power of a single language for prayer and worship.
The fact that Latin is a dead
language is in its favor: it is the best means of protecting
the expression of faith against linguistic changes which
take place naturally in the course of time. The study of
semantics has developed rapidly in the last ten years or
so: it has even been introduced into French language courses
in the schools. Semantics investigates changes in the meaning
of words, the gradual shift of signification in the passage
of time and often over very short periods. Let us make use
of this branch of knowledge, therefore, to understand the
danger of handing over the deposit of faith to changing
ways of speaking. Do you believe that we could have kept
intangible, eternal truths free of corruption for two thousand
years if they were expressed in languages that are constantly
evolving and which differ from one country and even from
one region to another? Living languages change and fluctuate.
If we put the liturgy into any one of them at any time,
we will have to be continually adapting according to semantic
requirements. So it is not surprising that there must be
endless committees set up for this, and that priests no
longer have time to say Mass.
When I went to see His Holiness
Pope Paul VI at Castelgandolfo in 1976, I said to him,
“I do not know if you are aware, Your Holiness, that there
are now officially thirteen Eucharistic prayers in France.”
The Pope raised his arms heavenward and exclaimed, “More
than that, Your Excellency, more than that!” This gives
me the basis for asking, would there be so many if the liturgists
were required to compose in Latin? Besides these formulas
put into circulation--after being printed here, there or
anywhere--we would have to mention also the canons improvised
by the priest during the celebration and everything he introduces
from the “penitential preparation” to the “dismissal of
the assembly.” Do you think he could do this if he had to
officiate in Latin?
Another external sign against
which opinion has solidified is the wearing of the cassock--not
so much in church or in visits to the Vatican as in everyday
life. The question is not of the most fundamental importance,
yet it has great symbolic value. Every time the Pope mentions
this--and Pope John Paul II has done so repeatedly--howls
of protest are heard from the ranks of the clergy. In this
connection I read in a Paris newspaper this statement from
an avant-garde priest: “This is childishness... in France,
wearing a recognizable uniform is meaningless, because there
is no need to recognize a priest on the street. Quite the
contrary: the cassock or Roman collar creates a barrier...
the priest is a man like anyone else. Of course he is president
of the Eucharistic Assembly!”
This “president of the Eucharistic
assembly” is here expressing ideas that are contrary to
the Gospel and to clearly recognized social realities. In
all religions, leaders wear distinctive signs. Anthropology,
which is now all the rage, is there to prove it. Among
Muslims you see differences in dress: collars and rings.
Buddhist monks wear saffron-colored robes and shave their
heads. Young people associated with this religion can be
seen on the streets of Paris and other large cities, and
their appearance evokes no criticism.
The habit identifies the cleric
or the religious, as a uniform identifies a soldier or a
policeman. But with a difference: these latter, in representing
the civil order, remain citizens like other people, whereas
the priest is supposed to keep his distinctive habit in
all phases of life. In fact, the sacred mark he received
at ordination means that he is in the world but not of the
world. We know this from St. John: “You are not of the
world; I chose you out of the world” (15:19). His habit
should be distinctive and at the same time reflect the spirit
of modesty, discretion and poverty.
Secondly, the priest has the
duty to bear witness to Our Lord. “You are My witness...
men do not put a lamp under a bushel.” Religion should not
be confined to the sacristy--as the powers in Eastern European
countries have long since declared it should be. Christ
commanded us to spread our faith, to make it visible by
a witness which should be seen and understood by all. The
witness of the word, which is certainly more essential to
the priest than the witness of the cassock, is nevertheless
greatly facilitated by the unmistakable sign of the priesthood
implicit in the wearing of the soutane.
Separation of Church and State,
which is accepted and sometimes considered preferable, has
helped the spirit of atheism to penetrate little by little
into all the realms of activity, and we must admit that
many Catholics and even priests no longer have a very clear
idea of the place of the Catholic religion in civil society.
Secularism is everywhere.
The priest who lives in a society
of this type gets the ever increasing impression of being
a stranger in this society, an embarrassment, and finally
a symbol of a past age, doomed to disappear. His presence
is barely tolerated. At least that is the way he sees it.
Hence his wish to identify with the secular world, to lose
himself in the crowd. What is lacking in priests of this
type is experience of less dechristianized countries than
theirs. What is especially lacking in them is a profound
sense of their priesthood.
It is therefore difficult to
make judgments on the religious spirit of the day. It is
unfair to assume that those whom we meet in business relations
or in informal relations are not religious. The young priests
who come out of Ecône and all who have not gone along with
the fad of anonymity verify this every day. Barrier? Quite
the contrary. People stop them on the street, in stations,
to talk to them, often quite simply to say what a joy it
is for them to see a priest. The great boast of the new
Church is dialogue. But how can this begin if we hide from
the eyes of our prospective dialogue partners? In Communist
countries the first act of the dictators is to forbid the
cassock; this is part of a program to stamp out religion.
And we must believe the reverse to be true too. The priest
who declares his identity by his exterior appearance is
a living sermon. The absence of recognizable priests in
a large city is a serious step backward in the preaching
of the Gospel. It is a continuation of the wicked work of
the Revolution and the Laws of Separation.
It should be added that the
soutane keeps the priest out of trouble for it imposes an
attitude on him, it reminds him at every minute of his mission
on earth. It protects him from temptations. A priest in
a cassock has no identity crisis. As for the faithful, they
know what they are dealing with; the cassock is a guarantee
of the authenticity of the priesthood. Catholics have told
me of the difficulty they feel in going to confession to
a priest in a business suit; it gives them the impression
they are confiding the secrets of their conscience to some
sort of nobody. Confession is a judicial act; hence the
civil law feels the need to put robes on its magistrates.