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MEDIATOR DEI – Exclusive Interview With David W Fagerberg

Aurelio Porfiri

Professor David W Fagerberg is a world renowned theology scholar from Notre Dame University in Indiana (USA). Professor Fagerberg’s interests are many, from Russian Orthodoxy to Chesterton, from CS Lewis to liturgical theology.

In this interview I asked him some questions about Mediator Dei, but then moved on to talk about Alexander Schmemann and Divo Barsotti.

In 2017 we celebrate the 70th anniversary of Mediator Dei by Pius XII. What is the importance of this document for today’s liturgy?

This was the first encyclical devoted entirely to liturgy, and there is benefit in looking at the first magisterial word on the liturgical movement of that century. A deepened appreciation of liturgy was already underway, and the Holy Father is commenting on it here. Reading this encyclical is like listening in on only one end of a telephone conversation: we hear his comments on issues and practices and questions of the day, and thereby get insight into what was going on.

What are the elements in Mediator Dei that appeal specifically to liturgical theology?

Paragraph 20 contains one of the best definitions of liturgy I’ve ever read. “The sacred liturgy is, consequently, the public worship which our Redeemer as Head of the Church renders to the Father, as well as the worship which the community of the faithful renders to its Founder, and through Him to the heavenly Father. It is, in short, the worship rendered by the Mystical Body of Christ in the entirety of its Head and members.” I consider the central question of liturgical theology to ask how that it is possible for us to participate in the activity of the Trinity, which turns out to be liturgical.

To that extent, Pius XII has influenced my own definition of liturgy: “the perichoresis of the Trinity kenotically extended to invite our synergistic ascent into deification.”

It was an important document during Vatican II? Has it influenced Sacrosanctum Concilium?

We sometimes have a bias toward thinking that the nearer you are to an event, the more accurately you can understand that event. One day it dawned on me that Mediator Dei was twice as near to Vatican II (20 years) than we are (50 years)! There are certainly echoes of MD in SC. In many ways the former is more theoretical and the latter more practical; but there is still plenty of theology in the latter and plenty of practical topics in the former, such as priesthood, participation, adoration, divine office, liturgical year, feasts of the saints, music, fine arts, the adornment of the Church. It sounds like a good syllabus for any theological course in liturgy.

Why should students today be concerned about Mediator Dei?

Pius XII observed the developing liturgical reform, and asked: Was it going too far? Was it going too fast? Was it going too slow? Was it congruent with tradition? Where should it go next? Such thoughtful questions must be asked by every generation, and every person who studies the liturgy. I would further hope that students today would adopt Pius XII’s irenic and critical tone when he wrote in paragraph 10, “Let not the apathetic or half-hearted imagine, however, that We agree with them when We reprove the erring and restrain the overbold. No more must the imprudent think that we are commending them when We correct the faults of those who are negligent and sluggish.”

You have devoted considerable attention to Alexander Schmemann. Can you tell us something about him?

Fr Alexander died in 1983, but his works continue to exert great influence not only within his own Orthodox Church, but upon Protestants and Catholics. He was born in Estonia, but his family moved to France when he was a child. He did his theological studies at the St Sergius Institute in Paris, where he taught for 5 years after his ordination in 1946. He came to St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in the US in 1951, and was dean of the seminary from 1962 until his death. He was survived by his wife Juliana (who lived until January of this year, and wrote a lovely account of their life together) and a son, Serge, who is a reporter for the New York Times.

In the ecclesiastical world we should note that he influenced generations of Orthodox priests; was an Orthodox observer at the Second Vatican Council; and was active in establishing the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America.

A new book about him has come out from you in Swedish and in English. The English edition has the title Liturgy Outside Liturgy. The Liturgical Theology of Fr. Alexander Schmemann (Chorabooks 2018). Tell us something about this book…

The origin of the book is five lectures given in Sweden in January 2017. I received an invitation from Peter Halldorf of The Ecumenical Community of Bjärka-Säby and Samuel Rubenson of the Academy of St John to give three lectures at a seminar on Schmemann. Two additional lectures on liturgical theology were invited for doctoral students and interested laypeople at the University of Lund.

Schmemann famously said that the task of liturgical theology is to reconnect liturgy, theology, and piety. I used his three topics for the three lectures. First, what is liturgy, and why should it matter outside the Church? Second, what is theology, and can it be done outside the academy? Third, do we need liturgy in our life: what is the connection between liturgy and spirituality?

How much he has influenced your understanding of liturgical theology?

I regret that I never met him in person, having begun my studies the year before he died, and before I knew how tremendous influence he would have on me. I had gone to Yale as a systematic theologian planning to dissect liturgy. Schmemann in print, and my advisor Aidan Kavanagh in person, persuaded me that the proper way to understand liturgy is to see it in motion, and theology is the sparks it throws off. This was confusing at first. I thought that “a liturgical theologian” was a theologian who inspected the liturgical ritual. But Schmemann wrote, “in the approach which I advocate by every line I ever wrote, the question addressed by liturgical theology to liturgy and to the entire liturgical tradition is not about liturgy but about ‘theology,’ i.e. about the faith of the Church as expressed, communicated and preserved by the liturgy.” Schmemann, famed as a liturgical theologian, says that he did not write about liturgy!

Are there some other memorable quotes from him you would like to share?

That was one of them. And I alluded to another when I described my three talks. Here is the quote: “the goal of liturgical theology, as its very name indicates, is to overcome the fateful divorce between theology, liturgy and piety – a divorce which, as we have already tried to show elsewhere, has had disastrous consequences for theology as well as for liturgy and piety.”

The point at which Schmemann and Kavanagh met, and which I strive to further advance, is that liturgy is theologia prima – liturgy is theology, but in a primary and not secondary “academic” form. Schmemann’s famous way of putting it was “Liturgical tradition is not an ‘authority’ or a locus theologicus; it is the ontological condition of theology, of the proper understanding of kerygma, of the Word of God.”

He was an Orthodox priest. How much can the Orthodox teach us about liturgy?

Eastern Christianity has created for me particularly valuable way of thinking. Except for the introductory chapter, my book On Liturgical Asceticism uses exclusively Eastern authors, ancient and modern. There are some thoughts that are found in both East and West, but it is necessary for me to first catch a scent of them in the East before I can notice them at home. But there are other thoughts that really are distinctive to the Orthodox, and one of them is the way they grasp the unity of liturgy and theology. It just feels different. I owe my understanding of liturgical theology to the Orthodox.

When Schmemann rhetorically asks himself what is absolute in Orthodoxy, he answers himself “I always come to the same conclusion: it is first of all a certain vision, an experience of God, the world, the man. The best in Orthodox theology is about that vision …”

Last, but not least: we are collaborating on bringing the works of Divo Barsotti at the attention of English speaking audiences, editing together one of masterworks and translating it in English. Why do you feel that this was an important thing to achieve?

As you know (but your readers do not) Barsotti was unknown to me before you called him to my attention, as regrettably he still is to most of the English-speaking world. It is a fitting final question because Barsotti’s charism also involves integrating theology, liturgy, and spirituality. But furthermore, his spirituality has a clear ascetical dimension to it. And furthermore again, this ascetical dimension is a result of an influence of Russian Orthodox thinkers on him. His 1948 book on Russian Christianity introduced this orthodoxy to Italy, helped him rediscover his own Catholicism, and led him to name the mother house of his community Casa San Sergio in honor of the Russian monk, St Sergius. As his works appear, people will discover his deep faith and theological genius, I am sure.


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