WHEN, A FEW weeks ago, we reported that the Pope had begun what had every appearance of being a war against sloppy liturgy and lack of reverence for the Eucharistic mystery, this newspaper was inundated with letters (of which we could publish only a few) from readers who agreed that, in the famous words of a former Prince of Wales, "something must be done", but were sceptical as to whether, here at least, anything would be.
Other readers insisted that in their experience there had been no loss of reverence and that the clergy they knew had always celebrated the Mass with great care and dignity; and it is certainly necessary to say that this is by no means a universal problem. But the Pope was speaking of something which he sees as being a widespread phenomenon; and it surely has to be said that his perception is demonstrably true, particularly among the supposedly sophisticated Catholics of Western Europe and North America: this is not something the Holy Father has simply imagined.
A few weeks ago, he was speaking of the aesthetics of the problem, of the need to recover a sense of the beauty of holiness: "Worship" he said, "must be purified of stylistic rough edges, of sloppy forms of expression, and of clumsy music and texts, which are hardly consonant with the greatness of the act being celebrated." It is, he continued, "necessary to pray to God not only with theologically exact formulas but also in a beautiful and dignified way".
One canard needs to be dealt with firmly at this point; that in some way the problem now being so powerfully addressed by the Pope is in some way a direct result of the Second Vatican Council. On the specific problem of inferior musical settings of the Mass, for instance, Martin Baker, Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral, welcomed the Pope's remarks, pointing out that "he's affirming what Vatican II has always said about music".
And the Pope himself makes it clear in his majestic new encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, that "the liturgical reform inaugurated by the Council has greatly contributed to a more conscious, active and fruitful participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the altar on the part of the faithful".
But as he also says, "... there are also shadows. In some places, the practice of Eucharistic adoration has been almost completely abandoned .... one encounters an extremely reductive understanding of the Eucharistic mystery. Stripped of its sacrificial meaning, it is celebrated as if it were simply a fraternal banquet".
Among the ways in which this reductionism has manifested itself, says the Pope, have been in "well-intentioned" "ecumenical initiatives". He appears to be thinking here of such events as unauthorised concelebration with non-Catholics; but there is also a way in which doctrinal reductionism has been deliberately and as a matter of policy encouraged as a way of forwarding ecumenical agreement.
The Pope's heartfelt plea for the Church to return to its core understanding of the Eucharist as being "the sacrifice of the Cross perpetuated down the ages" will surely, for instance, recall how a declared part of the methodology of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) in drawing up its "agreed" document on the Eucharist (agreed, that is, by the members of the Commission, but never by Rome) was deliberately to avoid sacrificial language as being unnecessarily divisive. The document which emerged was, in the best Anglican tradition, consciously ambiguous on such controversial questions. It has been harmlessly gathering dust since the Seventies; but the mind-set it represents is by no means a thing of the past, and that is an important part of our problem now.
As the Holy Father says about such reductionism in Ecclesia de Eucharistia, "how can we not express our profound grief at all this? The Eucharist is too great a gift to tolerate ambiguity and depreciation".
It is, the Pope says, his hope that "the present encyclical letter will effectively help to banish the dark clouds of unacceptable doctrine and practice, so that the Eucharist will continue to shine forth in all its radiant mystery".
Implementing all this will be, in the first place, a matter for our bishops. Some of our readers have expressed considerable scepticism as to whether anything can be expected from that quarter: but we entertain no such doubts.
This week, the English and Welsh bishops' conference has been meeting; we are confident that Ecclesia de Eucharistia will have been thoroughly discussed at this meeting, and that soon we shall be seeing the fruits of the bishops' deliberations; perhaps one sign will be in a revival in our cathedrals and churches of Eucharistic adoration, for, as the Pope says (ch 2), "It is the responsibility of pastors to encourage ... the practice of Eucharistic adoration, and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in particular, as well as prayer of adoration before Christ present under the Eucharistic species".
The English and Welsh bishops are presently preparing for their ad limina visit to Rome in the autumn; without doubt, the bishops will see this as an opportunity to thank the Holy Father for Ecclesia de Eucharistia, and to inform him how they are already making it a living reality throughout the length and breadth of their dioceses.