Liturgy: between repetition and creativity

Aurelio Porfiri

In the performance of the liturgy, of liturgical ceremonies, in the past much importance was given to the role of ritual repetition, so that certain reiterated gestures or texts became familiar to the participants in the sacred rite. All this was fixed in the rubrics that constituted a guarantee for those who, in different capacities, participated in the sacred action.

Robert Lesage informs us (in the Dizionario Pratico di Liturgia Romana, 1956), that from the 16th century at least, a book was provided for the Papal Ceremonies to regulate the Pontifical Celebrations, which derived directly from the Ordines Romani that regulated the liturgy in the Middle Ages.

This right ordering of ceremonies also affected music, so much so that there were specific motets that were systematically repeated on certain holidays, as the pontifical cantor Andrea Adami da Bolsena (1663-1742) reminds us in his important work Osservazioni per ben regolare il Coro dei Cantori della Cappella Pontificia, tanto nelle Funzioni ordinarie, che straordinarie, published in Rome in 1711.

Cassian Folsom (in Scientia Liturgica I) warns us how the papal ceremonials take shape as early as the 12th century. In the last quarter of the 13th century, they went through various phases due to the Avignovnese captivity and the time of the great schism to then arrive at the Renaissance period in which two important books were published, the Caeremoniale romanum by Pietro di Burgos, master of ceremonies of Nicholas V and the De caerimoniis Curia Romanae libri tres by Agostino Patrizi Piccolomini and Giovanni Burchard, written at the request of Innocent VIII and published in 1516 under Leo X.

It is obvious that similar books and others of the same type serve to highlight the liturgical law, with the rubrics printed in red precisely to be highlighted and protect those who are in the presbytery from the urge of protagonism and those who are in the aisle from having to attend liturgical rites in which the focus is shifted from the objectivity of the liturgy to the subjectivity of the ministers.

The guarantee of the development of the liturgy and respect for the liturgical law was that of the master of ceremonies, who did not have to invent anything but only to enforce the orderly development of the celebration so that everyone carried out their task in the most appropriate way and to whom he owed obedience, in the scope of the ceremony itself, including a direct superior. Even the Pope, in the liturgy, must listen to his Master of Ceremonies.

All this, as mentioned, was a guarantee of protection for everyone, from the temptations that the concept of “creativity” submits to us. And to say this does not mean to disregard the importance of creativity as a human activity. I am a musician and I would be not sincere in not recognizing how creativity can affect our lives in a very positive way. But the liturgy is not the place of creativity, only art and music for the liturgy can give space to this dimension of our intellectual life and under certain specific conditions.

If it is true that in the first centuries there was a fluid phase of the liturgy, this should not be understood as a display of creativity, but as a necessary moment of transition due to the beginning phase of Christian worship, when texts and prayers were not fixed. Therefore, the emphasis was not on the so-called creativity but on the fact that the architecture of the Roman liturgical building was developing. In recent times, however, creativity has regained much vigor, so much so that the liturgy is often manipulated at the pleasure of unscrupulous liturgists. After all, A. Pistoia warns us of this, who in the Nuovo Dizionario di Liturgia dedicates a long article to the entry “creativity” in which he begins: “The use of the term ‘creativity’ in the Catholic liturgy is very recent, dating back to at the first impact of the post-conciliar liturgical reform with today’s world of culture. And it was borrowed from this culture.” Now, if we look at the use of the term “creativity” in modern culture, we see that very often it takes on a meaning that coincides with originality, that is, with doing what had not been done previously. That is, it is opposed to traditional wisdom, on which the liturgical rite is based, which prefers the wisdom of repetition, from which novelty can arise (but does not necessarily have to arise).

With this mentality, the liturgy is always a construction site in progress, we are always subjected to the whims of this or that celebrant. The wisdom of a healthy rubricism should be recovered, to protect the liturgy and those who, with different tasks, take part in it. We are not in the liturgy to witness the protagonism of the ministers, but we are there to rediscover the saving grace in the presence of the Lord.

(Photo: Master of Pontifical Liturgical Ceremonies, Italian priest Guido Marini helps Pope Francis step down after he delivered his Urbi et Orbi Blessing, after celebrating Easter Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica at The Vatican Sunday, April 4, 2021, during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. Filippo Monteforte/Pool photo via AP.)