Recovering the Notion of a Received Liturgy

Excerpts from the Matriculation Address of His Excellency Edward J. Slattery to the Thomas Aquinas College Class of 2014 (August 24, 2010)


I am honored to have been invited to share with you the excitement and the enthusiasm that come from beginning well the work of the Kingdom.

In saying that, I trust that no one will dispute with me that the real work of this college, that same work which should engage every Catholic institution of higher education, is not to produce technocrats, nor critics, nor informed consumers. The purpose of Thomas Aquinas College is to explore as fully as possible the effect of Christ’s Incarnation upon our humanity, and to do so with a living faith, so that that glory of God which St. Irenæus of Lyons calls “man fully alive” might be made manifest here in every lecture, in every class, in every friendship, and in every Holy Mass. To make manifest the glory of God in Christ is surely to build the Kingdom. That is what we begin with today’s matriculation ceremony, so let us begin well.

In considering the kind invitation extended to me by Dr. McLean, what caught and held my attention was the beautiful title which graces the chapel on campus here: Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity. It is a noble title, and surely befits a building as splendid as your chapel. But even apart from its happy connection to the Chapel, such a wondrous title evokes in my heart a response of deep gratitude as I contemplate the Mystery of the Holy Trinity and Mary’s relationship to the Divine Majesty….

God became man in order that the whole created world, every physical thing and every physical creature, should be reoriented in Christ to the Father and the kingship of Adam restored to his descendants so that man — in Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit — might return to the Father a thanksgiving sacrifice acceptable in His sight.

That sacrifice which we offer in Christ is, as you know, His perfect obedience, “for Son though He was, Christ learned perfect obedience through what He suffered.”


What Peter Must Learn
We must be certain that we worship God by accepting His gift, and not by anything that we do on our own. And though this certainty is the faith of the Church, attested to in every age, it is also a truth which must be defended in every age, defended against that corruption of the human spirit which resists God in his goodness toward us and sees every divine initiative as an attempt to limit our human independence.

The best New Testament example of this is Peter at the Last Supper. There in the upper room, Jesus takes off his outer cloak. Stripped like a servant, He puts on an apron and proceeds to wash the feet of the Twelve. Peter resists this humble initiative and asserts his independence. “Lord, you’re not going to wash my feet!” Such unwillingness to receive the divine gesture masquerades as humility; but it is really a reassertion of the sin of Adam and Eve. They wanted to have the final say in where and how they would eat. Here, Peter demands the final say in where and how Christ could relate to him: “Lord, you will never wash my feet!” He says it with an emphasis which must have come out sounding like the growl of a bear.

But insistent that Peter must learn to receive, Jesus, the Creator of the universe, stoops and kneels; then pouring the water, says simply, “Unless I wash you, you will have no share in my inheritance.” Peter would have been more comfortable in working out the terms of his own foot washing. I am sure that he would have preferred some compromise where he would have less to receive because the work would be his. But the work of salvation is never our work. It is always — and only — ours to receive.

This is why Mary is the great exemplar of the Christian liturgy. She received from God what He intended to give. She opened herself up to be loved by God and set no limits to that love. Neither did she demand that the loving be equally her work, her consideration. “Behold,” she says acquiescing in her humility, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me, even as you say.” And with that she became the first tabernacle of the Word-made-Flesh.

The Notion of a Received Liturgy All of this leads me to an important consideration regarding the necessity of our receiving the liturgy from the Church rather than inventing it afresh Sunday after Sunday or having our liturgy committees cobble it together like industrious shoemakers. I would like to propose that the most important thing we can do to foster an authentic liturgy, the most important thing we can do to implement the vision of the Second Vatican Council, is to return to the notion of a received liturgy, a liturgy which comes to us in place and properly arranged, without the need of our creativity or ingenuity to be successfully celebrated.

I know that in proposing the recovery of a received liturgy, I am calling for a fundamental shift in liturgical paradigms. And this is rather like offering myself as a foot soldier in the liturgical wars — not an enviable position to be in since foot soldiers make fine targets! But from the time I was ordained in 1966, I have felt in my heart that the liturgy, as we know it today, does not reflect adequately the teachings of Vatican Council II. The effects of that inadequate reflection can be seen now, 40 years later, in the challenges we face in every field from catechesis to ecclesiology.

In trying to articulate the sense of loss and dislocation that accompanied the abrupt liturgical break that took place in our liturgical celebrations in the ’60s, I am drawn to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s analysis of the situation. Cardinal Ratzinger, now His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, described the principle which legitimized this break in our liturgical tradition as a hermeneutic of discontinuity. Those who accept this hermeneutic of discontinuity — and their number is still legion — show an overriding dislike of anything which may have come down to us from past generations.


Its Accompanying Theological Error
The theological error which accompanies this hermeneutic of discontinuity is the permission it gives to man to create his own way to salvation, to contribute freely of his own creativity and ingenuity to the work of redemption. This is how the Mass … the unexpected convergence of the three greatest mysteries of our Faith, became — in parishes everywhere — little more than the background action which occasioned bursts of creative sentiment and piety on the part of pastors, catechists, and liturgy committees.

Overnight, or so it seemed, the paradigm shifted. The Mass was no longer important because it offers man the fullness of redemption, but because it offered people a chance to be creative and assertive. Our participation no longer depended upon our worthy reception of the mysteries offered the communicant, but upon our ceaseless activity.…

Our actions reveal that like Peter in the Upper Room, we really want to have the final say in how that salvation comes to us. We offer our work as a way of asserting our independence, and the fact that we are pleased by this work, impressed by the numbers involved and afraid to question the theological implications of our weekly creative effort, is — to my mind — a frightening indictment of how much damage this hermeneutic of discontinuity has already wrought in the Church.


One First Step to Resolve the Problem
I would like to suggest one simple change by which we might begin to recover the sense that the liturgy is something we receive, rather than something we create. I do not propose this as the most important or essential change toward this end, but merely as one change, one step, one movement away from the chaos of created liturgies toward the proper vision of the Council.

What I would like to propose is that we recover the sung introit at Mass … that is a sung antiphon and psalm. In the Catholic liturgical tradition, these are unique compositions in which a scriptural cento is set to a singular piece of music. The melody explores and interprets the text of the cento, while the composition as a whole illuminates the meaning to be discovered later in the readings of the day.

These sung introits have been an integral part of the Latin Rite, and remain so in the extraordinary form, where the schola or choir chants the more difficult antiphon and the congregation sings the psalm. This gives the faithful both the chance to listen and respond, practicing, in effect, the basic elements of the Mass, listening and responding; listening, for example, to the Word of God as it comes to us in the readings, and then responding to the Father’s initiative by offering to Him the obedience of Jesus.

Unfortunately these antiphons have never been set to music in the Novus Ordo. For 40 years they have sat, lonely of notation, at the top of each page in the Sacramentary unable to be sung, until even the memory of the sung introit has passed away.

Yet there are changes afoot and reason to hope. The introduction of the new translation of the Roman Missal, now definitely set for the First Sunday of Advent of next year, gives me reason to anticipate a new beginning here. Faithful to the spirit of the Latin text and with an accurate translation into a consciously sacred style of English, the new Missal points to a rediscovered seriousness in the way America celebrates her liturgy and perhaps a greater appreciation as well of the elements of liturgy which have been discarded these past 40 years.

Perhaps with this new seriousness, and given the need to compose new chant melodies to accompany the new translations, this may well be the time when liturgists will begin discussing the meaning of a received liturgy; when composers might make their first attempts to set these antiphons to a simple English Plain Song; and when publishers might begin to produce worthy and dignified liturgical books.

This new beginning is certainly a way of building up the Kingdom of God. I hope that we shall begin it well.


The Most Rev. Edward J. Slattery, Bishop of Tulsa, was Thomas Aquinas College’s 2010 Convocation Speaker.

Slattery 2010 Address
Tim Cantu (’10)

“Thomas Aquinas College was outstanding preparation for my future career. The great books curriculum hones critical-thinking and problem-solving skills that are absolutely essential every day in law school and as an attorney. To receive this education while also attending a school with a deep and profound Catholic culture was the most valuable college experience I could have had.”

– Tim Cantu (’10)

Attorney, Pepple Cantu Schmidt