Thursday, 23 June 2011

At the Heart of Christian Worship: Liturgical Essays of Yves Congar: Review

At The Heart of Christian Worship: Liturgical Essays of Yves Congar, Pueblo Books, Collegeville, 2010
Book Review by Fr Mark Woodruff

Cardinal Congar was one of the most significant priests of the twentieth century. In the period between the World Wars, the massive learning and insight of this Dominican contributed to the re-evaluation of the teaching of the ideas of St Thomas Aquinas, not as a system of theology in which everything was nailed down, but as an inspiring journey into faith in the Creator, salvation in Christ and the renewing work of the Holy Spirit in the world and the development of the Church. He was an ecumenical pioneer, assisting Fr Paul Couturier’s renovation of the Week of Universal Prayer for Christian Unity as it opened up the Catholic Church’s idea of Christian unity through spirituality, and pointing to the work and creativity of the Holy Spirit in the life and history of other parts of Christianity, despite separation. At the Second Vatican Council as a theological expert he was able to ensure that the Church’s rediscovery of its identity as the Body of Christ in which all its members, lay and clergy alike, are integral to its communion and unity - not a merely hierarchical or juridical institution – was constitutionally enshrined in Lumen Gentium after 150 years of renewed teaching (from Johann Adam Moehler, to Lambert Beauduin, Henri de Lubac and Pius XII), and not left to become unfinished business, as it had been at Vatican I. He also saw that Newman’s thinking on consulting the lay faithful concerning the Church’s doctrine and on the legitimate development of doctrine was decisively received and placed within the teaching of the Roman and conciliar magisterium. Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II were deeply influenced by him in their earlier days, but for a time under Pope Pius XII he was prevented from teaching and publishing and this weighed heavily upon him. But Pope John called him from exile to a pivotal role at the Council – he influenced the drafts or redrafts of nearly every major document - and Pope John Paul completed his vindication by appointing him a Cardinal in 1994.

The five short and very readable essays in At the Heart of Christian Worship, not available in English before, are a tour of Congar’s great themes and penetrating principles, as they are translated into practice in the experience of most people’s regular liturgical life. “Real” Liturgy, “Real” Preaching observes how preaching, like worship and especially the mass, is no mere clerical exercise, or an end in itself, because its purpose is to produce an effect in the people who are the Church to which the Gospel is announced and the Church within which and for which the sacrifice is offered.  The Ecclesia of Chrstian Community as a Whole and The Structure of Christian Priesthood explore how the Church is not a merely hierarchical institution where only the priests celebrate the sacrifice and the lay faithful have no active role. Instead it is the priestly Body of which Christ is the Head in which all his members participate; the whole Church offers the sacrifice at the hands of the members consecrated to celebrate it, the priests who are never apart from the faithful but one with them in their action and their common benefit. Where does the “Sacred” fit into a Christian Worldview? and What is the meaning of Sunday? take up Congar’s constant theme of the wholeness of sanctification that comes from God’s grace – not only a whole People, but a whole world and all time. So priests are never special Christians, any more than Christians are special humans, or the Church a more perfect form of human society, or Sunday a more eminent day than the others – all days are sacred time, all the world is the Lord’s, all humanity is drawn to the Christ who is lifted up in the sacrifice offered in and by his Body, the Church.

These essays are essential reading for those at the present time who are approaching the unity of Christendom by entering more deeply into the mystery of the Church within their own community, as Pope Benedict once put it, whether as orthodox Anglicans, or Catholics, or Anglicans becoming Catholics through their Personal Ordinariate. Not only do they give valuable insight of the mind of the man who, arguably more than any other individual, shaped the way the Church came to describe itself and what lay “at the heart of its worship” in the late twentieth century, they also allow the reader to “think with the Church”, embracing the vastness of its conception of Catholic communion and comprehending that the true ecumenical movement is not simply the rapprochement of separate human traditions but the incorporation of the whole of humanity in the sacrifice of Christ offered “through him, with him, in him”, by his Body the Church, as the sole course of its salvation.

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