Saturday, 15 October 2011


Abbot Cuthbert Johnson OSB, during an exclusive interview with journalist Peter Jennings for CTS, explains how priests and the lay faithful should work closely together to achieve a standard of liturgical celebration which is both dignified and beautiful.

Peter Jennings: Your first CTS booklet, “Understanding the Roman Missal” has been well received. How does your new publication “Participating in the Mass – Celebrating the Liturgy with dignity & beauty” (available now) relate to it?

Abbot Cuthbert Johnson OSB: There is a widespread desire not only in the Catholic Church in Great Britain but elsewhere to celebrate the Liturgy with dignity and beauty.

This booklet carefully explains that mere external and aesthetic issues, important though these may be, are not of themselves enough. There is a need for all of us, priests and lay-faithful people, to learn the art of celebration. This is a skill which enables us to exercise correctly that full, conscious, and active participation in the Liturgy first called for by the Church more one hundred years ago and yet still not fully understood today.

Peter Jennings: In what particular way is the full, conscious, and active participation in the Liturgy not fully understood?

Abbot Cuthbert Johnson:The expression full, conscious, and active participation should be understood within the context of the Church’s teaching on the Liturgy. Participation is first and foremost sharing in the Divine Life through the saving work of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the words of Saint Peter we are partakers of the Divine nature.

Participation is a disposition of mind and heart, body and soul. In general terms we understand participation as simply taking part in an event. Whereas in the liturgy our participation is not conditioned by what we do but by what we are: co-heirs with Christ and sharers in the Divine nature. Because of this everyone, irrespective of personal disability or restricted ability is able to participate fully and meaningfully in the Liturgy.

Peter Jennings: From what you have said so far, I understand that it is not by doing things in the Liturgy that one participates but by the fact of being baptised. Is this correct?

Abbot Cuthbert Johnson: Yes, you are right and put in another way, participation as understood in this way is the exercise of the priesthood of all the faithful, We are a Royal Priesthood, a Holy Nation, a People Set Apart. There is indeed a diversity of roles to be fulfilled in the celebration of the liturgy. Those who exercise them in a way which edifies everyone is one manifestation of the actualising of our baptismal responsibilities as members of the Body of Christ.

Peter Jennings: The Church has given many directives about the Liturgy so what more needs to be done?

Abbot Cuthbert Johnson: Directives and instructions are necessary and we have had an abundance of them, some may say we have had far too many. Indeed all that needs to be said has been said. For this reason the booklet “Participating in the Mass” is not a series of do’s and don’ts. It is an attempt to help us understand the liturgical, theological and spiritual dimension of the directives which ensure good order and dignity when we celebrate the sacred Liturgy.

No matter how faithful the observance of ceremonial and rubrics might be, no matter how elegant the vestments and ornamentations of the church might be, this will not of itself ensure that conscious and active participation which leads us to share and live the mystery of Christ in the Liturgy.

Peter Jennings: I know that you have always had a keen interest in the liturgy form the time that we first knew each other at school in Scotland over fifty years ago. Tell me something of your experiences over the years.

Abbot Cuthbert Johnson: My interest in the Liturgy stems from my parish church on Tyneside where my uncle was the organist and choirmaster.

I always preferred to serve the sung Mass on a Sunday. The choir sang simple Gregorian chant antiphons and the Masses of Sir Richard Terry the first Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral. When I joined the monastery in 1964, I received encouragement from Dom Henry Ashworth to pursue the study of the Liturgy. I was able to pursue the technical side of both the Liturgy and the Chant at the Abbey of Solesmes in France and in Rome.

After obtaining a doctorate in Liturgical Theology, I was called to the Vatican to work in the Congregation for Divine Worship from 1983 to 1996.

Peter Jennings: I know you have co-authored about 16 volumes on the sources of the Latin liturgy and written numerous articles in International Reviews and the richness of your experience come through in your writing. With such experience, how do you see the development of the liturgy?

Abbot Cuthbert Johnson: While we must always trust in the Lord, we must take care not to presume upon His goodness and kindness. To expect great improvements without making an effort to bring them about, is like asking the Lord to change stones into bread. Musicians, artists and all who work in the sphere of the Liturgy need to be encouraged and not just by words. Music and works of art need to be commissioned. And Bursaries could be set up to help young Catholic musicians and artists.

Those who can contribute to the development of the aesthetic dimension of worship need to be helped to what is meant by sacred art and learn from the Church’s rich musical patrimony.

Peter Jennings: Please give me a specific example?

Abbot Johnson: On Easter morning, the Introit as given in the Gregorian Chant version, is in the contemplative and meditative fourth mode. The words and melody suggests the image of one who has awoken from sleep, who lays aside the shroud and wraps up the cloth which was about his head.
Gregorian chant has its joyful and vigorous modes, but the Church chooses to open the Easter Mass in the awesome contemplation of the mystery of the Resurrection.

It is to the silent yet eloquent testimony of the tomb that the Church guides our attention, for only the tomb witnessed that saving event. Many composers might be tempted to open the Easter Day celebration with a fanfare of trumpets and multiple “alleluias”. This is another and equally valid approach but would we not be losing a precious insight if we overlooked this other dimension?

By studying such ancient examples in both music and art we can learn so much and enrich our faith.

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