Authentic Catholic Liturgy: It’s Not About Us, It’s About God

By Dan Flaherty

One of the most pre-eminent liturgists of our time, Dom Alcuin Reid is a monk of the Monastère Saint-Benoît in the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, France. His PhD thesis on twentieth century liturgical reform was published as ‘The Organic Development of the Liturgy,’ with a preface by Cardinal Ratzinger (Ignatius, 2005). He has lectured internationally and published extensively on the Catholic liturgy and was the principal organiser of Sacra Liturgia 2013, the international conference on the role liturgical formation and celebration in the life and mission of the Church in Rome in June 2013, the proceedings of which are published as Sacred Liturgy: The Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church (Ignatius, 2014).

Dom Alcuin, what specifically does your work involving the liturgy entail?

The first thing it entails is to live the liturgy as fully as possible each day – to become thoroughly liturgical, as it were – by immersing oneself in the many rites and prayers of the sacred liturgy. Circumstances may limit what is possible at times, but this principle is fundamental.

From that basis my particular work has academic, practical and organisational aspects. Academically, there is no shortage of conference presentations to prepare or books to work on. I’m currently completing the T&T Clark Companion to Liturgy and hope to be able to work further on the sequel to Organic Development in the coming year. On the practical level I am often involved in preparing liturgical celebrations, particularly pontifical ceremonies, here and elsewhere.

At an organisational level, on behalf of my bishop I coordinate the various initiatives following on from Sacra Liturgia 2013. This past summer we held a very successful summer school here and will hold another next July. Also in 2015 major Sacra Liturgia conferences are planned for the USA and the UK.

What prompted you to begin this work?

My academic interest was piqued by reading Archbishop Bugnini’s book The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975 (Liturgical Press, 1990). This, together with the writings of Cardinal Ratzinger, clearly demonstrated that there are “issues” in respect of liturgical reform that need to be addressed if we are to be faithful to the Church’s liturgical tradition and indeed to the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

Dom Alcuin Reid

Practical involvement in liturgical celebrations has been a part of my life since my youth – it was a privilege to have Father (now Bishop) Peter Elliott as a mentor and friend. And for the past five years it has been a singular grace to respond to the invitation of Bishop Dominique Rey and to live and work here in Fréjus-Toulon, France, and dedicate myself to different aspects the liturgical apostolate.

Regarding the “reform of the reform” – wanting to align the Novus Ordo Mass more with the actual intention of Vatican II—where would you describe this process as being at?  

Officially it would seem that consideration of this is stalled. But then, only a few years before Summorum pontificum in 2007 no-one could have foreseen its appearance, so who knows what could come from the Holy See in the future? At the grass roots level, however, many clergy are now putting into practice a manner of celebrating the reformed rites that is in more tangible continuity with liturgical tradition and with the intentions of the Council, which intended a moderate liturgical reform, not a ritual revolution!

What are the most positive things you see regarding the state of liturgical reform in the Church today?

The widespread realisation by practically all now that the liturgical life of the Western Church following the Council was not without serious defects is a very positive development. There are sharply differing responses to this “question of the liturgy” of course, but the fact that people are prepared to discuss and consider it is an important step forward.

So too is the growing appreciation of the essential role of beauty in the liturgy. We owe much of this to the example and teaching of Benedict XVI, certainly, pre-eminently in his 2007 Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum caritatis, where he writes so beautifully of the ars celebrandi, “the fruit of faithful adherence to the liturgical norms in all their richness.” More and more clergy and others responsible for preparing liturgical celebrations are taking his teaching to heart and implementing it, which can do nothing but good.

And indeed Pope Benedict’s authoritative establishment that the usus antiquior – the older form of the Roman rite – may freely be celebrated by those who wish it enables its treasures to live and breathe in the Church of the 21st century. The number of young people who are attracted to this, and the vocations the usus antiquior inspires, are truly signs of the times.

What are the most concerning things you see?

It is of great concern to see that bad liturgical practices, or even abuses, have taken root in far too many parishes and communities. For example, how many places sing at the liturgy rather than sing the liturgy itself? Many do not even understand the difference! If I am choosing songs to sing at different times in the liturgy rather than working faithfully to sing the given liturgical texts I have missed the point entirely. The liturgy – old or new – is something we receive from the Church and which we strive to celebrate as fully and as beautifully as we can with profound respect for its own rules and integrity. It is not like a cake which we make and to which we add icing according to our own tastes.

The underlying problem is a widespread lack of liturgical formation. Vatican II said that “it would be futile to entertain any hopes of realizing” the liturgical participation it desired unless pastors became “thoroughly imbued with the spirit and power of the liturgy” and in turn formed others in the same spirit. Has that in fact happened in the 50 years since? It seems to me we have much, much more work to do on this today. 

What reading would you recommend to lay Catholics who want to understand the liturgy?

There are two little books which I cannot recommend highly enough: Liturgy’s Inner Beauty by Abbot Idelfons Herwegen (published in 1955 and previously in 1931 as The Art-Principle of the Liturgy); and Sacred Signs by Romano Guardini (first published in 1930).

These are not textbooks, but meditations. They will do much to introduce people to “the spirit and power of the liturgy”.

Some may also like to look at the essays in Sacred Liturgy: The Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church (Ignatius, 2014). These cover a variety of topics and, whilst more demanding, they will certainly foster a sound and faithful understanding of the Church’s liturgy.

If there is one thing should we keep in mind when considering the liturgy, what is it?

Cardinal Ratzinger put this beautifully in his preface to The Organic Development of the Liturgy: “If the liturgy appears first of all as the workshop for our activity, then what is essential is being forgotten: God. For the liturgy is not about us, but about God. Forgetting about God is the most imminent danger of our age. As against this, the liturgy should be setting up a sign of God’s presence. Yet what happens if the habit of forgetting about God makes itself at home in the liturgy itself and if in the liturgy we are thinking only of ourselves? In any and every liturgical reform, and every liturgical celebration, the primacy of God should be kept in view first and foremost.”


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