Lex Orandi: Liturgical Arts As Visible Signs and Expressions of Continuity

A point that must always be borne in mind is that liturgical art, of whatever type, is not merely 'window dressing.' It is not an inconsequential 'frill.' It, as much as anything, forms a part of the content of divine worship, just as do the liturgical texts, just as do the ceremonies that accompany those texts.  Whether we are discussing sacred music, sacred vestments, sacred architecture or anything else that surrounds the sacred liturgy, these all contribute toward to the form and the content of divine worship taken as a whole. Liturgical arts are nothing less than symbols and. as is the nature of a symbol, they impart messages and carry meanings. It might be thought of as a circular or symbiotic relationship: the liturgical arts are formed and fed by the the doctrines of the Faith, but they in turn shape and form people's belief and understanding (even acceptance) of the same. Thus the circle continues -- but should that circle is broken, we have a potential for a not insignificant problem to come about. 

The liturgical arts not only have the capacity to impart messages and meaning however, they also have the capacity to move us and to inspire us, arguably more so than many other liturgical elements for the simple reason that they are not merely abstractions or intellectual; they are incarnate and experiential. Touching on just such a point, Pope Pius XI offered this insight in his encyclical, Quas Primas, of Dec. 11, 1925 when speaking about why it was important for the Church to not just intellectually proclaim Christ the King, but to institute a liturgical feast for the same:

...people are instructed in the truths of faith, and brought to appreciate the inner joys of religion far more effectually by the annual celebration of our sacred mysteries than by any official pronouncement of the teaching of the Church. Such pronouncements usually reach only a few and the more learned among the faithful; feasts reach them all; the former speak but once, the latter speak every year - in fact, forever. The church's teaching affects the mind primarily; her feasts affect both mind and heart, and have a salutary effect upon the whole of man's nature. Man is composed of body and soul, and he needs these external festivities so that the sacred rites, in all their beauty and variety, may stimulate him to drink more deeply of the fountain of God's teaching, that he may make it a part of himself, and use it with profit for his spiritual life.

Of course we have noted many times before a very similar sort of reflection made by Dom Gerard Calvet, OSB, who spoke of the "two entry doors" of beauty and the intellect where the Church is concerned and it is worth sharing here again:

..one enters the Church by two doors: the door of the intelligence and the door of beauty. The narrow door... is that of intelligence; it is open to intellectuals and scholars. The wider door is that of beauty... The Church in her impenetrable mystery as the bride of Christ, the Kyrios of Glory, has need of an earthly epiphany (ie. manifestation) accessible to all: this is the majesty of her temples, the splendour of her liturgy and the sweetness of her chants. Take a group of Japanese tourists visiting Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. They look at the height of the stained-glass windows, the harmony of the proportions. Suppose that at that moment, sacred ministers dressed in orphreyed velvet copes enter in process for solemn Vespers. The visitors watch in silence; they are entranced: beauty has opened its doors to them. Now the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas and Notre Dame in Paris are products of the same era. They say the same thing. But who among the visitors has read the Summa of St. Thomas? The same phenomenon is found at all levels. The tourists who visit the Acropolis in Athens are confronted with a civilisation of beauty. But who among them can understand Aristotle? And so it is with the beauty of the liturgy. More than anything else it deserves to be called the splendour of the truth. It opens to the small and the great alike the treasures of its magnificence: the beauty of psalmody, sacred chants and texts, candles, harmony of movement and dignity of bearing. With sovereign art the liturgy exercises a truly seductive influence on souls, who it touches directly, even before the spirit perceives its influence.

It is a point which really needs little defense for our shared human experience tells us the truth of these observations.

Understanding the importance and content of such forms,  Benedict XVI (and his then master of ceremonies, Msgr. Guido Marini) was very purposeful in the selection of the liturgical arts that adorned the sacred liturgy, In an interview given in 2008, Msgr. Marini commented accordingly on the various elements of the papal liturgy re-introduced under Benedict XVI:

The golden pastoral staff [ferula] in the shape of a Greek cross - which belonged to Blessed Pius IX and was used for the first time by Benedict XVI in the celebration of Palm Sunday this year [2008] - is now used constantly by the Pontiff, who has thus decided to replace the silver one surmounted by a Crucifix, introduced by Paul VI and also used by John Paul I, John Paul II and by himself. This choice does not mean simply a return to the old way, but attests to a development in continuity, a rootedness in tradition that allows you to proceed in an orderly manner on the way of history. This pastoral staff, called "ferula," corresponds in fact in a more faithful way to the form of papal pastoral staff typical of Roman tradition, which has always been in the shape of a Cross without Crucifix, at least since the pastoral staff began to be used by the Roman Pontiffs... 
Also in this case it must be said that the liturgical vestments chosen, as well as some details of the rite, intend to emphasize the continuity of the liturgical celebration of today with that which has characterized the life of the Church in the past. The hermeneutic of continuity is always the precise criterion by which to interpret the Church's journey in the time. This also applies to the liturgy. As a Pope cites in his documents Popes who preceded him in order to indicate continuity in the magisterium of the Church, so in the liturgical sphere a Pope also uses liturgical vestments and sacred objects of the Popes who preceded him to indicate the same continuity also in the Lex orandi. 
But I would like to point out that the Pope does not always use old liturgical vestments. He often wears modern ones. The important thing is not so much antiquity or modernity, as the beauty and dignity, important components of every liturgical celebration. [...] 
...As far, then, as terms like "preconciliar" and "postconciliar", used by some, are concerned, it seems to me that they belong to a language already overcome, and, when used with the intent to indicate a discontinuity in the path of the Church, I think they are wrong and typical of very reductive ideological visions.. The Church lives according to that law of continuity by virtue of which She knows a development rooted in tradition. 

Found within this meditation on the importance of the form of the liturgical arts is an equally important understanding which is that these matters should not be viewed through lenses such as "pre" and "post-conciliar" but rather in terms of nobility, beauty and dignity at the service of divine worship.  It should matter not whether some particular manifestation of liturgical art is founded in the "pre-conciliar" or "post-conciliar" periods, what matters is its harmony with our tradition and its suitability for divine worship.

The Church has always admitted various styles of liturgical art, never calling any one particular style or period the only appropriate one -- just as she adopts no official, singular philosophical or theological school. There is a legitimate variety that is permitted here, but what is key in making this variety legitimate or not is that it forms a part of a seamless garment that sees continuity and harmony of the various parts to the whole.

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