Robert Taft Acceptance Speech: Berakah Award

Archimandrite Robert Taft, SJ passed away peacefully this morning. In 1985 he received the highest honor of the North American Academy of Liturgy, the Berakah award. In honor of this eminent liturgical scholar, Pray Tell is honored to post the reception speech he gave. 

Thank you, my sisters and brothers, for this award. To be honored by one’s peers is surely the greatest possible prize. It crowns the reward that is mine every day of my life, for I cannot imagine anything more satisfying than studying how men and women have worshiped God down through the ages.

I must confess that I waffled a bit about which of the traditional poses to assume in replying to this honor you do me. Among the various moods I discerned in my illustrious predecessors, the Überlieferung and Aufgabe or anamnetic and parenetic seem to have prevailed, and I see no reason to abandon tradition.

The anamnesis posed a problem, however. Rummaging about in the attic of my past, I found little reason for confusing my biography with salvation history, or even liturgical history. I had never heard the word liturgy until I entered the Jesuits in August 1949. Of course, I went to Church, but like Molière Monsieur Jourdain, who did not know he was speaking prose, I did not know what we did in church was liturgy.

So it was in the Jesuit novitiate that I first learned of two things that were to mark the future course of my life: the liturgical movement were to mark the future course of my life: the liturgical movement, and the Missio Orientalis, of the Society of Jesus. The liturgical movement I heard about from a fellow novice who had come under the influence of William Leonard at Boston College, and the word “liturgy” entered my vocabulary for the first time. I acquired a daily missal, and later a Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, in Latin of course, which was to be my daily prayer for years.

But I was still far from any professional interest in liturgy. It wasn’t even a hobby. I was just trying to worship God the way better informed people seemed to think was right. My burning interest lay elsewhere. MY mind had always been a tourist. As a child my favorite book was Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels, which recounted the wonders of the world from the Pyramids to the Kremlin, and from the Hagia Sophia to the cliff-hanging Monastery of Simonopetras on Mt Athos. Other peoples, other ways have always beckoned me. IN the novitiate with me was a novice from fabled Mesopotamia, our first vocation from the New England Province’s Baghdad Mission on the banks of the Tigris. He was a Catholic of the Syro-Antiochene rite. I did not know there was any such thing. How could I be a minister of my church if I know so little about it? (Only later was I to learn that such ignorance is no hindrance.)

I read a book of essays entitled The Eastern Branches of the Catholic Church, then Donald Attwater’s The Eastern Catholic Church, and the Christian Easy became, in 1949, my first love and the door that opened onto the world of Christian liturgy which would later occupy my life. My interest, begun as intellectual curiosity, soon became fueled by anger and embarrassment. I was embarrassed by the myopic vision of Christendom I had, and even more by my naive and secretarian view of the history and virtues of my own church. I was indignant at how Eastern Christians in communion with the Catholic Church had been treated. I was enthralled with their long struggle for emancipation culminating in the 1893 International Eucharistic Congress In Jerusalem, of which the first important concrete result was Leo XIII’s constitution Orientalium dignitas the following year, rightly considered the Magna Carta of the Eastern Catholic Churches. Another result of this movement, the founding in 1917 of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, was to have an importance for my life that of course I did not then realize.

In the meantime I had discovered Russia, a discovery that was to focus my nascent intellectual and ecumenical interests on a particular culture of the Christian East. In 1924, following the Treaty of Riga that determined the eastern border of the newly reestablished Poland after World War I, thousands of Byzantine Catholics found themselves within the borders of Poland and in need of priests. Pope Pius XI requested help from the Jesuits, and thus was born into the Missio Orientalis of the Society of Jesus, which I was later to join. Exiled by the Second World War and its aftermath, some Jesuits of this group came to Fordham University in 1949 to found there the Russian Center at a time when Russian studies were becoming popular in American universities. That is how I first heard of this apostolate tailor-made for my interests.

A breathtaking ideal was conjured up by my adolescent romanticism: to open one’s mind and heart to this great and long-suffering people with its rich Christian culture, to work for the reconciliation of East and West. I immediately contacted the Russian rite Jesuits at Fordham and began badgering my skeptical superiors to assign me to this mission.

For the next decade, more or less, as I plodded through the long years of Jesuit formation, I devoured Russian literature, philosophy, and history. Dostoevsky and Solovyov were a long way from my initial encounter with a novice from Baghdad, but in 1956 my interests came full circle when I was assigned to the Iraqi Mission. The world of the Christian East, hitherto known only though books, occasional visits to Orthodox churches, and poking through art shops in Boston’s Back Bay in search of icons, was to be my everyday life for three years.

After a nineteen-day voyage from Hoboken to Beirut, we bussed over the mountains over the mountains and across the now famous Bekaa Valley to Damascus, where the caravans of the Nairn Desert Transport Company left in the cool of the afternoon for the trip across the Great Syrian Desert to Mesopotamia. This trans-desert passenger service established by two Australian brothers after World War I had considerably reduced the risks of the long desert crossing to Baghdad. The huge, custom-built desert trailers pulled by diesel tractors were no Boeing, but they were a long step up from camels. Jets have long since replaced Nairn, I suppose, but the desert crossing will not be the same without it. About thirty miles east of Damascus the road to came to an end, and from then on it was navigation by the stars as the caravan snaked 250 miles across the open desert to meet the road again at Rutba, the first desert outpost in Iraq, halfway to Baghdad.

Baghdad itself, fabled capital of Harun al-Rashid, city of the thousand-and-one nights, was a sure cure for romanticism. School began at Baghdad College in September, only to come to a sudden halt when riots over the Baghdad Pact following the Suez Crisis led to the closing of all schools. I used the enforced idleness to begin my initiation into the exotic liturgies of what Fortescue has dubbed “the lesser Eastern Churches.” Feast or funeral, wedding or baptism summoned me. Notebook in hand, I would set out through the narrow, fetid alleys of the Christian Quarter in the old city to one of the several cathedrals piled helter-skelter in that small rabbit-warren of a ghetto. There I would observe, try to locate in my translation just what the troop of deacons on the bema was wailing about, and carefully note down whatever bizarre curiosities caught my interest, whatever appeared to deviate from what was supposed to be going on according to my more-or-less reliable English version. I felt much like Evelyn Waugh’s professor at the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie at Addis Ababa in 1930, as described in his highly entertaining book Remote People.

“The ceremony was immensely long, even according to the original schedule, and the clergy succeeded in prolonging it by at least an hour and a half beyond the allotted time. The six succeeding days of celebration were to be predominately military, but the coronation celebration were to be predominantly military, but the coronation day itself was in the hands of the Church, and they were going to make the most of it. Psalms, canticles, and prayers succeeded each other, long passages of Scripture were read, all in the extinct ecclesiastical tongue, Ghiz. Candles were lit one by one; the coronation oaths were proposed and sworn; the diplomats shifted uncomfortably in their gilt chairs, noisy squabbles broke out round the entrance between the imperial guard and the retainers of the local chiefs. Professor W., who was an expert of high transatlantic reputation on Coptic ritual, occasionally remarked: ‘They are beginning the Mass now,’ ‘That was the offertory’, ‘No, I was wrong; it was the consecration,’ ‘No, I was wrong; I think it is the secret Gospel.’ ‘No, I think it must be the Epistle,’ ‘How very curious; I don’t believe it was a Mass at all,’ ‘Now they are beginning the Mass…’ and so on. Presently the bishops began to fumble among the bandboxes, and investiture began. At long intervals the emperor was presented with a robe, orb, spurs, spear, and finally the crown. The salute of guns was fired, and the crowd outside, scattered all over the surrounding waste spaces, began to cheer; the imperial horses reared up, plunged on top of each other, kicked the gilding off their front of the coach, and broke their traces. The coachman sprang from the box and whipped them from a safe distance. Inside the pavilion there was a general sense of relief; it had all been very fine and impressive, not for a cigarette, a drink, and a change into less formal costume. Not a bit of it. The next thing was to crown the empress and the heir apparent; another salvo of guns followed, during which an Abyssinian groom had two ribs broken in an attempt to unharness a pair of the imperial horses. Again we felt our hats and gloves. But the Coptic choir still sang; the bishops then proceeded to take back the regalia with proper prayers, lections and canticles.

“I have noticed some very curious variations in the Canon of the Mass,’ remarked the professor, ‘particularly with regard to the kiss of peace.’

“Then the Mass began.”

I spent three years like that befuddled professor, and managed to get out of it my first, laboriously produced publication, a very short article in Jesuit Missions magazine entitled “From Detroit to Zakho,” describing the episcopal ordination of Qas Tuma Rais, former pastor in Detroit, as Chaldean Catholic Bishop of Zakho,” in the Kurdish uplands north of Mosul, on the Khabur River that divides Iraq from Turkey.

Initially these forays were more the results of my curiosity about the ways of the East than of any interest in the science of liturgy. What finally propelled me toward liturgical studies was a chance but fateful encounter in the summer of 1957. The heat had come, school had ended, and once again the Nairn brothers jounced us across the desert to summer at the Maronite Seminary in Ghazir, a mountain village overlooking beautiful, then unspoiled Jouneih Bay, north of Beirut. It was there I first met Juan Mateos. It is an awesome privilege to have had great teaches. Juan Mateos is one of the great teaches of liturgy in our times. I those days he was still a doctoral student doing research for his pioneering dissertation on nocturns and matins in the Chaldean tradition. It was he who formulated what I had already begun to perceive from my own experience: that liturgy is the soul of the Christian East. For one as passionately interested in the Christian East as I was, Mateos argued, what better door opened onto this world?

During that long lazy summer in Ghazir I spent the cooler morning devouring French books, including my first book by Jungmann. In those days Jesuit houses of French tradition were not noted for their plumbing, but hey had remarkably rich libraries, a tribute to the incomparable intellectual tradition that is France. On Sundays I went to the Maronite liturgy in the village church, tapped my foot to the beat of symbol and the rhythmic Arabic chant, and watched.

The following fall Mateos was in Iraq doing research in the Syriac-speaking Christian villages and monasteries around Mosul, and I took the train up along the Tigris to meet him for Christmas. We went out to the villages and monasteries to see the manuscripts he was studying, some of them manuscripts of the Tikrit, a hitertho unknown Mesopotamian Jacobite tradition he had discovered through his research. Here was the work of the historian firsthand; it was like watching the potter at his wheel, and for the first time I saw the scholar’s craft as creative. The world of the historian is not just there for everyone to see. Someone must call it into being out of the amorphous mists of the past.

Mateos’ chilling advice when I asked what I should do to prepare for studies in liturgy was to learn languages, then more languages and finally more languages still. I never received better advice. To rely on translations is to condemn oneself to viewing reality secondhand, refracted through the prism of an alien mind.

The most important new language I learned in those years, however, was the language of ecumenism. Ecumenism is not just a movement. It is a way of being a Christian. It is also a new way of being a scholar. Ecumenical scholarship means much more than scholarly objectivity, goes much further than just being honest and fair. It attempts to work disinterestedly, serving no cause but the truth whatever it is to be found. It seeks to see things from the other’s point of view, to take seriously the other’s critique of one’s own communion and its historic errors and failings. Like the preamble to St Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises it seeks to put the best interpretation on what the other does and says, to shine the exposing light of the criticism evenly, on he failings of one’s own church as well as on those of others. In short, it seeks to move Christian love into the realm of scholarship, and it is the implacable enemy of all forms of bigotry, intolerance, unfairness, selective reporting, and oblique comparisons that contrast the unrealized ideal of one’s own church with the less-than-ideal reality of someone else’s.

I learned ecumenism from reading Eastern Churches Quarterly and Irenikon and Istina, volume by volume. These Catholic periodicals treated the Orthodox East with a fairness and love. I learned scholarly ecumenism from reading Francis Dvornik, a Catholic Priest whose impeccable scholarship and serene objectivity rehabilitated Patriarch Photios and candidly exposed Rome’s share in the estrangement between East and West that culminated in the events of 1054.

In May of 1959 I returned from the Middle East after a harrowing year of turmoil and vicil strife which followed the revolution of 14 July 1959, and the disparate pieces of my jigsaw puzzle began to fall into place. I got an M.A. in Russian at Fordham, then began my theological studies at Weston College in 1960. In 1962 I was transferred from the Iraqi Mission to the Russian Mission, received the necessary change-of-rite papers from Rome, and was ordained deacon according to the Slav-Byzantine rite the same year and presbyter in 1963. The die was cast, the road chosen, the attitudes in place. The rest was just a question of learning the ropes, which I did in Rome, living as an alumnus of the Russian College and studying under the direction of Juan Mateos at the Oriental Institute. After receiving my doctorate there at the end of 1970 I went to Belgium for postdoctoral studies in oriental languages at the University of Louvain. By then it was 1973, and I was over forty years old and feeling distinctly like a late vocation to this liturgy business.

In the decade since then I have spent most of my waking moments thinking, teaching, writing, or talking about liturgy. I have tried to do so as a servant of the church. Many great liturgical scholars – Edmund Bishop, Anton Baumstark, Anslem Strittermatter, Hieronymus Engberding – had little or no effect on the liturgical praxis of the church. But this was not the tradition of my Jesuit forebears like Jungmann or Hanssens, nor of my Jesuit teachers, Ligier, Raes, and Mateos, whose scholarship was no less scholarly for all the realization that it had a direct relation to the church’s understanding and practice of worship.

This does not mean that it is the task of the historical scholar to find pastoral solutions to the concrete problems of worshipping communities. In liturgical renewal the work of the historian is to remove obstacles to understanding produced by a misreading of the past. Historical scholarship cannot tell the church what it must do. It can only help the church to see what it could do if those in the pastoral ministry deemed it feasible.

But that is no modest claim, for it is the historical sciences more than any other human force that have made possible the liturgical renewal we enjoy today. Other disciplines such as sociology and cultural anthropology, pastoral theology and spirituality, have made their contributions, too. But their part is as nothing compared to that patient uncovering of all possible options in the tradition turned up by patiently digging through layers of our past. It is the work of New Testament studies, patristics, historical theology, and liturgiology that has fueled and continues to fuel all substantial progress we have made.

Have we recovered the meaning of Sundays as the day encompassing all days? We owe it to studies like that of Willy Rordorf. Does anyone not recognize the role of Jungmann’s Missarum sollenmia in the reform of the Roman Mass? Where do we think Pius XII got the idea to restore the Easter Vigil? Would anyone challenge the overwhelmingly importance for our liturgical understanding and renewal of the discovery and reconstitution of the sources of Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition? Would the universally acclaimed RCIA have been possible without what historical scholarship has taught us about catechesis and initiation in the Apostolic Tradition and similar early sources?  Did not history help us to restore the paschal celebration as the center of the entire year, its mystery as the root meaning of every Christian day and rite? What but historical scholarship has enabled us to overcome the pseudo-eschatology vs. sanctification of time dichotomy? What else has relegated to the realm of cliché the supposed kairos-chronos antinomy? The distinction between monastic and cathedral offices, so fruitful for understanding the liturgy of the hours as the prayer of all God’s people and not just something for the monks; the tenuous existence in the early layers of some traditions of what is sometimes called “the sacrament of confirmation”; the recomposition of Christian initiation into one process in our understanding if not yet in all our rituals; our growing ecumenical agreement as to the meaning of eucharist as sacrifice; recent moves toward ecumenical understanding and mutual recognition of Christian ministries; the restoration of the eucharist and its anaphora to the center of Sunday synaxis in some communions; the rediscovery of the role of women in life of the early church, and of the place of feminine metaphor in its thought – are all, every single one, beholden in some way to the work of historical investigation into the roots of our heritage. And the list is by no means exhaustive. The battle lines may be drawn by our present-day agenda, but it is usually historical research that comes up with the ammunition.

I do not say this simplay as an apologia pro disciplina mea, but as a plea that the work be carried on. For history is the greatest relativizer, and the history of liturgy has been one of the intellectual forces freeing us from the shackles of a hidebound past. That is why the history of Christian written by Christian scholars for the benefit of fellow Christians is, for me at least, a Christian ministry. As such it is different form the way the historian of religions studies Christianity, or from the way a Christian studies Buddhism, or a Buddhist Christianity. It is a special kind of history with a special aim, for it takes its origin from the question of change and development, and its purpose is a quest for essential continuity, that reside that can legitimately be labeled tradition, riding above the ebb and flow of shifting tides.

Of course all true history is not just chronicle but an interpretation of the past resulting from patterns perceived or imposed by the mind of the historian. For the historian of Christian tradition, however, that pattern is not so much a quest for tradition as its test. Tradition is not history, not is it the past. Tradition is the church’s self-consciousness now of that which has been handed on to it not as an inert treasure, but as a dynamic principle of life. It is the church’s contemporary reality understood genetically, in continuity with that which produced it. The very basis of the church’s ideal is to represent faithfully and reinterpret for each new circumstance and age, the will and message of its founder not only at its point of origin, but at every moment of the continuum at which that will and message have been manifested. We study the history of tradition not because we are interested in reviving a dead past, but in order to promote a contemporary understanding of Christian life in terms of its origins and evolution. TO think that one can construct a theology of some aspect of that tradition without a profound knowledge of its history is an illusion. If theology is a reflection on tradition in its intersection with contemporary experience – Karl Barth once said a theologian had to view the world with the Bible in one hand and the daily paper in the other – if theology focuses on this crossroad, we have to know both poles of the interaction, and tradition is not something we reinvent every day, but a given reality to be known through the study of its extant monuments. One understands Christian liturgy only by knowing what it is and has been, just as one learns what English literature is only by reading it.

This does not mean that history provides us models for imitation. The church and its reformers can never be guided by a retrospective ideology. Reform by minesis is to chase a myth, for the past of Ranke’s wie es eigentlich gewesen ist is radically irrecoverable, and retrospective reformers always fill in the cracks with their own inferences. No, true reform cannot be based on the ”pick-a-century” game. The past is always instructive but never normative. What its study, like all study, should provide is understanding, an understanding that challenges myths and frees us from the tyranny not just of any one frozen slice of the past, but also from the tyranny of the latest cliché, so that we can move ahead to solutions suitable for today in faithful freedom, faithful to living tradition that is always indebted to but free of the past.

Do not think, however, that history is some sort of litmus test of contemporary validity. Historians and reformers have been dead wrong often enough not to pretend that they are the Last Judgment. The history of tradition, like any other known craft, is constantly in need of redoing as our perspective changes and we slough off one prejudice to don another. What is important, therefore, is that the work go on. I once heard someone say that the work of liturgical history is done, and we can now get on to other, more relevant pastoral matters. This is profoundly wrong. For even if the work had been done (and it has not) it would have to be done again, and again, and again. Why is Pelikan writing a new history of dogma after Harnack? Not, surely, because the past has changed, but because we have changed, because our present is not Harnack’s.

What, then, from one historian’s perspective, are some of the things that need doing or redoing now? I suggest two that have, I think, relevance for the history of liturgy beyond the almost endless list of particular points that still need research.

First, we need to reintegrate into our work the methods of the relativity recent pieta popolare or annals schools of Christian history in Europe. Apart form the posturings in which the Marxist historians engage when attempting to set up their inevitable class antinomies, one need not to be a communist to see that one can no longer reconstruct the past only form the top down. What we find in liturgical manuscripts was embedded in a sociocultural ambiance outside of which it cannot be understood as liturgy, something that real people did. Furthermore, such literary monuments are a product of high culture, and hence only half of the story. Historians of mentalites like Delaruelle speak of deux christianismes, the official one of the clergy, refined, esoteric, expressed in a language inaccessible to the masses, and that of the people, naïve, doctrinally ignorant, marginal in its emphases, and rooted in practices and piety not always under official control.

In order to get a grasp on this, one must study much more than liturgy. The historian of liturgical tradition must be immersed in the total life of the period under study. So we need histories of liturgy written from a new perspective, with time and place rather than ritual as their controlling frame. We need to study not just the Roman Mass throughout the ages, as Jungmann did, but liturgical life in Southern Gaul or Northern Italy at some chosen period, and we must do it within the total sociocultural context of that time. We must plunge into what Jacques Le Goff has called “the archeology of the everyday,” putting aside the nineteenth century view of the Middle Ages as urban and bourgeois. Almost all official church history has been urban history, for it is in the centers of power that history – one view of history, at least – is made. Evelyne Patlagean has shown us, however, that the Christian countryside comes to life in the lives of the saints, and so hagiography must also be our potter’s clay.

But to do all this we must first, perhaps, face another, more fundamental lacuna in our craftsmanship. Liturgiology is a young and amorphous science, and we have not yet reflected enough on what we are doing. I think that is true pastorally as well as scientifically. If biblical studies are in disarray from a surfeit of competing methodologies, we have not yet even begun to know what the word means.

Of course I do not mean to imply that liturgiologists work without method. Anyone who does anything does it with means and a purpose. Methodology, however, is reflection on method, and this is where we need some catching up. This is especially important because of the subjectivity of knowledge. Knowledge is not a collection of facts but the perception of their interrelation, and knowledge advances not so much from the discovery of hitherto unknown data as from the perception of new relationships that permit the elaboration of new patterns or systems. Einstein did not discover a world different from the universe of Newton; he just came up with a new way of seeing the same thing. So a method is just a way of approaching and organizing the raw information we possess. Like language or history or theology, methods are a product of the human mind, tools for the conscious organization of data into intelligible and hence communicable units and frames. Without this organization there is neither intelligibility nor communicability.  The mass of data at our disposal is amorphous and of itself yields no understanding. We must render it intelligible by explaining it, and to do that we must have the courage to be subjective. Things haven’t been the same since Hans-Georg Gadamer’s claim that mythological objectivity is an illusion. We all have ideological patterns that condition our work. But the scholar is supposed to be aware of them, and subject them to critical challenge – in short a scholar needs not just a method, but a methodology. Methodological reflection examines our presuppositions and uncovers the patterns of our patterns.

I think this is essential if our field is to advance, for it presents it is ridden with too many unexamined assumptions. For example, for a generation we have talked about, written about, planned, fostered, or in some ways or other been involved in liturgical reform. Yet I know of not one single piece of reflection on the very nature of that reality. We have studies on the principles of doctrinal development, but few on the principles of liturgical development. We have studies on the concept and nature of church reform, but none on the very idea and nature and even possibility of liturgical reform. Problems of reform go back to the very origins of the church as a reform movement within Judaism, a movement against which the ancient world threw up the constant and terrible accusation that Christianity was something new. History shows us a church constantly dancing a minuet between ongoing change and explicitly proclaimed adherence to Pope Stephen I’s famous dictum, Nihil innovetur nisi quod traditum est. Gerhard Ladner, in his seminal study The Idea of Reform, maintains that the very notion of reform is Christian. How odd that we who are so caught up with reform seem unaware of the problems involved in its very idea.

We need a phenomenology and a philosophy of liturgical reform, and we need it badly. Rene Bornert’s excellent new study on the sixteenth century reform of the liturgy in Strasbourg is a step in the right direction, but it is only one step, one brick in a needed edifice.

Now that I have set an agenda that can keep the historians and liturgiologists busy for more year until the next Berakah recipient sets us chasing down another alley, I shall offer some reflections on worship not only as an historian of the liturgical tradition, but also from personal experience of liturgical prayer.

My childhood experience of a few simple but invariable family liturgical customs imbued me with a deep respect for tradition. During Lent we were roused at 6:00 A.M. and dragged off willy-nilly to Mass every day. On Holy Thursday evening the family went out together to visit the lavishly decorated, lovingly prepared repositories of seven churches. During the Holy Week Triduum, going to church was not something you did – apart from the necessities of life it was all you did. On Good Friday, from noon until three o’clock when the Savior hung on the cross, you were in your room alone with your mouth shut: no noise, no radio, no games. Then came the afternoon service of the passion, the unveiling of the cross as the priest sang Ecce lignum crucis out of tune, the stripping of the altars, the empty tabernacle… Holy Saturday morning saw the kindling of the new fire, the blessing of the waters, the prophecies; and Easter morning dawned with new clothes at Mass, with the Gloria and bells and alleluias, and vestments of white and gold.

That was bad liturgy, people would say later. I’m not so sure. It had defects. It needed change and we changed it. It wouldn’t do now, especially after our experience with the vernacular. But the awesome power of its ritual mightily impressed one young boy. I do not recall being subjected to any lengthy mystagogy into the meaning of it all. I do know there were things that marked the rhythm of the year with reminders of a Savior born, dead, risen, and to come again. More importantly, these reminders of had implications for what I, a little boy, was supposed to do. That sort of thing stays with you. I still can’t – just physically cannot – do anything from noon to three o’clock on Good Friday except go off by myself and think about the enormity of it all. Liturgical tradition is formed by the repetition of custom, by taking children when they are very young and doing the same things with them Advent and Christmas, and Lent and Holy Week, and Sundays, and feasts and fasts, week after week, year after year.

Such simple childhood experiences, ordinary and shared by millions, have made me skeptical of some of the principles of our modern approach to liturgy and its consequent reforms – especially of the demand for variety, spontaneity, creativity, simplicity, clarity. As Carl Dehne astutely observed in his excellent article on private devotions some years ago, variety is a principle of monastic liturgy. It is also principle of elite liturgy. As Dehne put it, “the monastic style tends to be generated not just by monks, but by any group with a special religious interest… The most ‘monastic’ liturgies I have ever experienced have been celebrated around coffee tables in the apartments of lay volunteers. Such an apostolische Sitzmesse is characterized by signs and conscious, deep interiorization: long silences, agonized efforts to be honest about just where one is at, no vesture, almost no gesture except to heave a sigh. Most liturgy planners and church musicians, when they cater simply to their own needs and possibilities, tend to produce monastic liturgies.”

Now we are an elite. But what the Vatican II reforms initiated was a return of the liturgy to the people. The vernacular was the first major step, but the new liturgical disposition of the church, the renewed ministries of deacon, cantor, lector, musician, the institution of communion ministers – all this has contributed enormously to taking what had become the arcane preserve of a professional coterie and making it popular once more. But the only way it can remain popular is if we leave it alone. The real problems of pastoral liturgy are out in the parishes where, in some instances, thousands of people worship every Sunday. These problems are quite different from those of monastery or convent, seminary or school, where a relatively uniform control group goes to church daily under almost lab conditions. Such worship has its own special problems in need of their own solutions. What ordinary people in ordinary parishes need is familiarity, sameness, the stability of a ritual tradition that can be achieved only be repetition, and that will not tolerate change every time the pastor reads a new article. The only way people are going to perceive liturgy as their own, and therefore participate in it, is when they know what is going to happen next.

What of spontaneity and creativity? Both history and contemporary experience show that structural stability and spontaneity are not antinomies. Our problem is not that a structured and fixed ritual cannot admit spontaneity, but that most of us are the product of a Nordic culture uptight in public situations unless the social rite in question includes a liberal “blessing of the throats.” Pentecostal and black worship are both structured and spontaneous, and the same thing was true of the highly ritualized liturgies of Late Antiquity. John Chrysostom’s fourth century congregation in Antioch interrupted his homilies with applause and shouts of approval, and Gregory Nazianzen’s preaching was greeted with acclaim like the roar of the sea. He even dreamed of the people shouting for him to preach in an ordinary everyday speech they could understand. Cyril of Alexandra had his cheering section, too. Other preachers, like Paul of Samosata in the third century, foreshadowed modern television shows by having their followers provide canned applause for them. If this sounds suspiciously like the entertainment industry, then the point is clear. The early Fathers strove to make cathedral liturgy attractive and entertaining, i.e. popular. Fourth century Christians were content at liturgy when they were given something to do – what we call “popular participation.” There is no question whatever that congregational singing was introduced not because of any highfalutin theories about the essential place of music in public worship, but to keep the people occupied, interested, and involved. And it worked. About the only thing liturgical the Fathers praised the people for is their singing.

So let me enunciate a liturgical principle: ritual – or call it order of worship, if you belong to a tradition that dislikes the word ritual – a certain stability in the déroulement of worship, far from precluding spontaneity and congregational participation, is its condition sine qua non, as is indeed true of any social event. Italian crowds spontaneously shout “brava” to divas at the opera – but not in the middle of an aria – because the conventions of civility dictate that there is a time and place for everything.

When liturgy professionals talk about spontaneity, they mean their spontaneity, not the community’s. The only way to secure the congregation’s appropriation of worship is to celebrate the order of worship that is theirs, and not lay on their already weary shoulders a spontaneity trip in which they have had no part. So variety must be limited, and the spontaneity of the congregation, not that of the celebrant, given pride of place.

Something similar can be said for simplicity and clarity. Excessive simplicity is just boring, and discomfort with ritual unless tamed by explanation is a white, upper-class problem. Liturgy needs plenty of gut-level symbols, lots of movement and noise, smells and bells, and no commentator in a three-piece suit to explain it all away. Let it hit people straight on, instead of programming their every reaction. We kill spontaneity at every turn by adamantly refusing to let any sigh speak for itself. This goes with what I said before about stability and variety. Repetition is of the essence of ritual behavior. We will always have to explain things only if we insist on reinventing the wheel at every liturgy.

Creativity, too, is needed in liturgy, but once again we must examine what creativity is. All liturgy is the result of human creativity. But like any common heritage – our English language, for instance – the creative process has been a long and involved one, compromising both the regulated creativity of individuals, and the receptivity of the social group. New creative activity is always limited and conditioned by the already existing heritage, and cannot proceed as if composing on a tabula rasa. So people composed anaphoras and designed churches in the past as they do today. However, they did not do so in whatever way responded to the demands of an uninhibited artistic creativity, but according to norms set not just by their genius and inspiration, but also by tradition, which is not the individual artist’s or composer’s or liturgist’s or poet’s possession, but that of the group. What they created, like the new liturgical books we issue today, became liturgy only when it was received by the group. Creativity within a tradition is a creativity guided and limited by something more important than the creator.

Does this mean that tradition stifles creativity? TO maintain that is to fly in the face of the entire history of music, drama, literature – and liturgy. Would anyone seriously wish to argue that musicians performing a Beethoven symphony are not being musically creative unless they rearrange the movements, interpolate a few melodies of their own, and throw out half of what Beethoven composed? Is an actor no artist unless he wrote the play, a soprano no diva unless she composed the aria? Are Shakespeare’s tragedies or sonnets less creative because he did not invent the genres? IS T.S. Eliot no poet because he wrote in English instead of in an Esperanto of his own making?

I think it is time that we liturgists came out strongly against this school-play approach to the awesome worship of God, and returned to the people the tradition that is theirs, not just ours. Let us preach what the church has always told us, that the first spontaneity and creativity of Christian worship is that of hearts and minds freely raised to God in love and song and prayer.

What I am trying to say is that I must let the liturgy speak for itself instead of trying to make it speak for me, instead of exploiting it as a medium of self-expression. Like medieval cathedrals, liturgies were created not as monuments to human creativity, but as acts of worship. The object of worship is not self-expression, not even self-fulfillment, but God. “he must increase, I must decrease,” John the Baptist said of Jesus (Jn 3:30) and that is an excellent principle for liturgical ministers. Anyway, experience shows that most spontaneity is spontaneous only the first time around. Thereafter it always sounds the same. Furthermore, most people are not especially creative in any other aspect of the existence, and there is no reason to think that they will be when it comes to liturgy. They can, however, be drawn to participate in a common heritage far nobler and richer than the creation of anyone of us individually. What we need is not further to reinvent the wheel, not to reshape our liturgy every time we read a new article, but just to take what we have and use it very well. Thomas J. Talley tells a story that illustrates what I am trying to say:

“Having worked one Sunday morning until it was too late to make it to a convenient nine o’clock mass, then ten o’clock at the nearby parish church, and finally the eleven o’clock at a parish a bit farther way, I realized that I was teetering on the brink of damnation, and tore myself away from whatever it was I was fiddling with and got dressed just in time to be only two minutes late for the last mass at noon at Holy Guardian Angels, the Roman Catholic parish across Tenth Avenue from the seminary. It is a pleasant building, perhaps a bit too self-consciously early Italian Renaissance to be considered an architectural monument, but a lovely church nonetheless. By that hour, of course, the pastor had completed his duties for the morning and was undoubtedly ministering to what Lee Mitchell’s father used to call the ‘thirst after righteousness.’ The priest at the mass was a youngster, only shortly out of seminary, I would assume. Nothing in his manner suggested that he was a liturgy buff, and the mysteries unfolded just like the missalette said they would. I watched with interest since I was utterly convinced, and still am, that I was seeing here not the work of some highly honed mystagogue, but simply the result of a standard theological education on a young man who had always wanted to be a priest and still did, one who knew no more about the liturgy than Dunwoodie required of him, and who had been carefully trained in accordance with the Missal of Paul VI. The total experience, I must say, was profoundly encouraging. Partly because that was one of the few churches in Manhattan that required no serious renovation after the Second Instruction, having a marble table altar standing free under a handsome baldachino, the young priest standing there seemed to have been standing there always (the altar is in the west end of this tiny basilica) and evoked memories of tenth century ivories of liturgical scenes. I noticed that having filled the chalice, he added some water to it. He may have believed that that was surely done at the Last Supper, or he may have known that it was so in the time of Justin Martyr, and he may even have been aware of the rather constant tradition of symbolic interpretation which that action has enjoyed since the time of Cyprian. He may, indeed, have found it meaningful. But I had the distinct impression that he did it because he was a priest performing a ritual, and that was what the ritual required him to do. Having shown the bread and the cup to the people during the canon, he actually genuflected on each occasion. And having broken the host at the fraction, he broke off another small fragment and placed it in the chalice. Was he thinking of the fementum of which Innocent wrote to Decentius, or the sancta ceremony in Ordo I? Had he read Andrieu’s Immixito et Consecratio? I somehow had the impression that the answer to all those question was no, and that it didn’t make any difference. And for that reason, I felt deeply the strength of the tradition in that assembly of people who were strangers to me. This liturgy was what the reform had produced, and it was clear, strong, direct and profoundly archaic. That is to say, as with all good ritual, it was powerfully authoritative. I could see no way in which the election or appointment of a new liturgy committee could alter that authority, for it was not made on the premises. While there may well have been older layfolk there for whom this liturgy was still new, for me it was old as the history of our people, and as fresh as it has ever been in those twenty centuries.

“Now I simply do not have the sensitivity or the ingenuity or the erudition to generate that sense of authority. And neither, I am sure, did that kid. That kind of authority resides in the ritual itself.”

In other words, liturgy is a common tradition, and ideal of prayer to which I must rise, and not some private game that I am free to reduce to the level of my own banality. And when the rite has something I do not understand, especially if it is something that Christians in almost every tradition, East and West, have been doing for about a millennium, then perhaps my initial instinct should be to suspect some deficiency in my own understanding, before immediately proceeding to excise whatever it is that has had the affrontery to escape the limits of my intelligence.

I do not say this because I am naïve enough o think our official texts could not be improved, nor because I am unaware that members of this Academy are indeed capable of improving them. I say it, rather, because concrete experience proves that the overwhelming majority of our celebrants are not only incapable of improving them as they are using them well. If you don’t believe that, you haven’t been to church lately.

If progress will demand ongoing change and reform, I am profoundly convinced that this work must be done in common, not privately, and that the proper battleground of future struggles is the classroom, the liturgical center, the liturgy commission, the pages of our scholarly journals, and not the sanctuaries of our parish churches. Hence, I am not advocating the abolition of creativity. However, I would like to see it restricted to the competent and truly creative, and to be redirected to its proper object, where the need is greatest. We could do without a new rash of second-rate anaphoras, but we badly need better music and decent churches in which to celebrate. The great irony of most of the present efforts in creativity is that it is precisely in the two areas officially left to our creativity – the homily and the intercessions following the Scripture lessons – that our worship is so unredeemably awful.

Historians are storytellers. Let me conclude with a final story from my own experience, one that testifies to why I bother with it all.

Not too many years ago I received a letter from one of my students, a Latin Rite missionary in the Middle East. As a westerner who had studied eastern liturgy, he had to celebrate a liturgy he did not study, and study one he did not celebrate not only because it was not his, but because he had no desire to make it his. He found it overburdened, deadeningly monotonous, stupefyingly long. Besides, the members of that church would never tolerate a foreigner meddling in something so close to their whole being and self-identity as their rite. Maybe he should have studied sacred Scripture instead, he mused? I answered with the following lines that sum up, as well as any artifice I could compose to close these reflections, what I hope my life’s work is all about.

“Carissimo amico…. Believe me when I say I have often read and reflected on your cri du Coeur concerning our future in liturgical studies…. First, you must remain with your Latin Rite, and that in itself is problematic in an Easter Rite land. There are many ways in which one can serve the church there without changing the rites, and indeed I believe there are some rites that a westerner simply cannot adapt to and should not try. Secondly,… [this] liturgy is so monasticized, so burdensome, that outside a monastery it would be difficult to live it fully. And the Office has a numbing sameness, as you said so well. All of these are signs of a certain stagnation in an ancient tradition that will some day have to take life and begin to develop once again. But It can be done only from within the tradition itself, and that in turn will require study of the tradition, study by one who loves it and its people and wishes to serve.

“I can only give personal testimony to the enormous amount of good one can do by the objective, honest, scientific study of liturgy. As a teacher one can change people’s lives forever by bringing them into living contact with the wellsprings of tradition after the layers of later, unhappy developments and misunderstandings have been stripped away. As a writer one can also have a profound effect even on those who… are jealous guardians of their heritage. Of course this can only be done with the utmost objectivity, and with no ulterior motive but the desire to serve God by serving his people. I know perfectly well what I would do to change, restore, reform certain liturgies I study, but I have never put myself forward as a reformer… What the scholar has to offer is knowledge, from which comes understanding. With a few exceptions, because of the present situation of most Eastern Churches, this is a service that we in the West can provide.

“I do not say this with arrogance, or any idea that we are ‘better’ or ‘more intelligent’ than the orientals. But we are not oppressed by communism or Islam, and we have the level of economic and educational development necessary to provide this service, which is a true ministry of God’s church. This is an ecumenical service that Catholics can offer the Eastern Churches with no self-interest or attempt at fishing in their waters… Every Christian ministry, like that of our Redeemer, is one of reconciliation and service. That includes the ministry of scholarship, which serves nothing but the truth, in the service of the Truth.

“So you are wrong in thinking that a stranger like yourself will never be able to involve himself in such matters. For there is no one else to do it… Of course there are those who from their throne on high will pronounce judgment… and say that of course since you are not Orthodox and do not really live the tradition, then you cannot really know what it is all about. But one cannot be bothered by that sort of Gnosticism. I think you are especially mistaken in thinking that, perhaps, you should have selected another area of concentration. Nothing could be further from the truth. The key to the heart of the Christian East is its liturgy. As you yourself say, it is only though the liturgy that Scripture, tradition, the Fathers, piety, spirituality – everything – is transmitted and lived. Sometimes, as you recognize, this expression of a living faith can become sclerotic, overgrown, too heavy. But underneath the overgrowth of centuries lie the jewels of a people’s incarnation of the gospel, waiting to be uncovered by someone wiling to cut back the brush.

”I cannot imagine a more fitting, immensely rewarding ministry than to study the heritage of a people – and in the East that heritage is conserved and transmitted through the liturgy – in order to uncover its riches for the good of that same people, and of all peoples, to the unending glory of God’s eternal name. Of course it is not an easy ministry, and the results do not appear immediately, but I really could not imagine doing anything else. Apart from the intellectual and spiritual satisfaction it can give, and the good it can do, it is also good clean fun.”







One response to “Robert Taft Acceptance Speech: Berakah Award”

  1. Paul Inwood Avatar
    Paul Inwood

    Some wonderful moments in this, especially Taft’s remarks about Tradition and areas for future work.

    I wonder if his many former Notre Dame students will now compile a small book of Taftisms, for there are many that it would be a shame to lose!

    I have already copied and pasted this masterly acceptance speech in order to create a document where I could remove the many transcription errors that have crept into it. Anyone requiring a corrected version will find it at

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