A new year of formation has begun at Overbrook. In keeping with tradition, the campus came back to life with a celebration of Vespers. The liturgical day celebrated the memorial of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but on this annual occasion, with its participants clad in cassocks and surplices and singing in Latin, full solemnity was on display.
This first instance of “smells and bells” emanating again from a crowded place of worship certainly contrasts with the three-priest concelebration without a congregation in a basement chapel that was our usual liturgical fare during the summer months! Thankfully the presence of the divine does not depend on the quality of the ritual performance. It’s not the celebration of the event that matters; it’s the event being celebrated.
Still, getting the liturgical action right remains important – not simply as adherence to proscribed rubrics, but with the aim of offering fitting praise to God. Our human efforts do not determine the bestowal of grace, which comes solely from the graciousness of our good God. But how we respond to such a gift should be appropriate in terms of the words and deeds with which we worship. And since this work of the Church is not just mine or ours to do on a local level, liturgical rectitude does matter.
This concern for suitable celebration should count beyond the seminary, too. Pope Francis recently affirmed this “with certain and magisterial authority” in reference to the irreversibility of the liturgical reforms that have instructed our worship since the Second Vatican Council.
With new men in new roles, getting the liturgy “right” is a work in progress! The gestures, movements, and other actions may not yet be familiar. Bumping into each other along the way (sometimes literally!) also characterizes a new year! But eventually they’ll learn, along with the rest of us.
Ideally, they’ll also learn to get beyond the mechanics. Reverence, attention, and love are facilitated by, and expressed in, propriety of action. But giving glory to God, and leading others to do so, is the real purpose of what we say and do during the liturgy.
As the pope puts it, getting our celebration right “is truly to enter into the mystery of God; to let oneself be led to the mystery and to be in the mystery.” This, ultimately, is what’s at stake for all of us.
That’s why the new year at the seminary begins with such solemnity. That’s why seminarians will spend so much time in the chapel, not just to learn what to do there, but to learn who to be there (and beyond there), in union with the God who has called them to this vocation.
Let’s hope (and pray) they do get it right.
For a closer look at the Church’s understanding of all the dimensions of priestly formation nowadays, join us here at the seminary on Monday night!