Tuesday, 22 September 2009

An Orthodox approach to Liturgy

It’s been said many a time: the Orthodox were less than impressed with the Catholic Church’s liturgical reform as it was implemented after Vatican II. Today’s reflection from Robert Moynihan on ZENIT highlights this yet again.

Commenting on the Holy Father’s meeting with Russian Orthodox Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev (in anticipation of significant developments in Catholic-Russian Orthodox relations) Moynihan notes:

...On Sept. 18, inside Castel Gandolfo, the Pope's summer palace about 30 miles outside Rome, a Russian Orthodox Archbishop named Hilarion Alfeyev, 43 (a scholar, theologian, expert on the liturgy, composer and lover of music), met with Benedict XVI, 82 (also a scholar, theologian, expert on the liturgy and lover of music), for almost two hours, according to informed sources. (There are as yet no "official" sources about this meeting -- the Holy See has still not released an official communiqué about the meeting.)

...What is occurring in Hilarion's visit to Rome, then, may have ramifications not only for the overcoming of the "Great Schism," but also for the cultural, religious and political future of Russia, and of Europe as a whole.

It is especially significant, in this context, that Hilarion, Kirill's "Foreign Minister," has some of the same deep interests as Benedict XVI: the liturgy, and music.

"As a 15-year-old boy I first entered the sanctuary of the Lord, the Holy of Holies of the Orthodox Church," Hilarion once wrote about the Orthodox liturgy. "But it was only after my entrance into the altar that the 'theourgia,' the mystery, and 'feast of faith' began, which continues to this very day.

"After my ordination, I saw my destiny and main calling in serving the Divine Liturgy. Indeed, everything else, such as sermons, pastoral care and theological scholarship were centered around the main focal point of my life -- the liturgy."


These words seem to echo the feelings and experiences of Benedict XVI, who has written that the liturgies of Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday in Bavaria when he was a child were formative for his entire being, and that his writing on the liturgy (one of his books is entitled "Feast of Faith") is the most important to him of all his scholarly endeavors.

"Orthodox divine services are a priceless treasure that we must carefully guard," Hilarion has written. "I have had the opportunity to be present at both Protestant and Catholic services, which were, with rare exceptions, quite disappointing Since the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, services in some Catholic churches have become little different from Protestant ones."

Again, these words of Hilarion seem to echo Benedict XVI's own concerns. The Pope has made it clear that he wishes to reform the Catholic Church's liturgy, and preserve what was contained in the old liturgy and now risks being lost.

Hilarion has cited the Orthodox St. John of Kronstadt approvingly. St. John of Kronstadt wrote: "The Church and its divine services are an embodiment and realization of everything in Christianity... It is the divine wisdom, accessible to simple, loving hearts."

These words echo words written by Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, who often said that the liturgy is a "school" for the simple Christian, imparting the deep truths of the faith even to the unlearned through its prayers, gestures and hymns.

Hilarion in recent years has become known for his musical compositions, especially for Christmas and for Good Friday, celebrating the birth and the Passion of Jesus Christ. These works have been performed in Moscow and in the West, in Rome in March 2007 and in Washington DC in December 2007.

Closer relations between Rome and Moscow, then, could have profound implications also for the cultural and liturgical life of the Church in the West. There could be a renewal of Christian art and culture, as well as of faith.

Note Archbishop Hilarion's age: 43.

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