‘Liturgy is not ours. It is not a form of self-expression…’

Archbishop Celli assists Benedict XVI with an iPad for the launch of the Vatican's new website (CNS photo)

I have just watched with some amusement a clip of the Holy Father receiving an iPad as a gift on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of his ordination. A couple of elderly cardinals, aided by some respectful men in smart suits, were on hand to instruct the Pope in the intricacies of how to use it. He tentatively pressed a few buttons and looked at the photos onscreen of his youthful self; and all the time I had the distinct impression that he was secretly bemused by the whole operation and trying to mask this with his usual courtesy.

L’Osservatore Romano also records this anniversary with a quote from the Pope’s book, Milestones, in which he recalled his ordination at the hands of Cardinal von Faulhaber in June 1951:

“On the day of our first Holy Mass, our parish church of St Oswald gleamed in all its splendour… We were invited to bring the first blessing into people’s homes, and everywhere we were received even by total strangers with a warmth and affection I had not thought possible until that day.

“In this way I learned first hand how earnestly people wait for a priest, how much they long for the blessing that flows from the power of the sacrament. The point was not my own or my brother’s person. What could we two young men represent all by ourselves to the many people we were now meeting? In us they saw persons who had been touched by Christ’s mission and had been empowered to bring his nearness to men…”

Alongside reading these moving words, a friend sent me a recent homily by Archbishop Vincent Nichols from the Zenit news agency. I quote extracts from it to indicate that in his own way the archbishop echoes what the Holy Father had written:

“The Liturgy is never my own possession, or my creation. It is something we are given, from the Father. Therefore my own tastes, my own preferences, my own personality, my own view of ecclesiology, are marginal, of little importance. When it comes to the celebration of the Mass we don vestments to minimise our personal preferences, not to express or emphasise them. Liturgy is not ours. It is never to be used as a form of self-expression. Indeed, the opposite is the truth… The Mass is the action of the Church. That’s what matters, not my opinion. I once heard that Blessed Pope John Paul never commented on a Mass he had celebrated. It’s the Mass. My task is to be faithful… Ordained into the person of Christ the Head, I am just an instrumental cause of this great mystery… We are servants of the Liturgy through which God opens to us His saving life.”

The archbishop concludes, “Let us accept with joy the search for a renewal in our celebration of the Mass, guided solely by the Church…”

Given the criticism that Archbishop Nichols often comes in for, it was good to read these words. Both his and the Pope’s reflections were borne out last Sunday, in the Mass celebrated for Corpus Christi, where a very elderly retired monsignor replaced our parish priest for the occasion. I would guess he was the same age as the Holy Father, so had been ordained to celebrate in the Extraordinary Form. He brought to the celebration of the Ordinary Form the same self-effacement, humility and reverence he would have been taught in his youth. His homily was brief, clear and instructive, touching on the liturgy and the revision that will be implemented this autumn. Summarising the history of the liturgy in the last 40 years, I was struck by one sentence of his homily: “In time we learned to love the New Rite of the Mass.” He introduced no politics, no controversy, no private preferences – just a humble priest, quietly and obediently carrying out what he was ordained to do all those years before, as were the Holy Father and Archbishop Nichols.

Sometimes it is good to eschew all the arguments and debates – and simply pray for our priests.