The importance of studying the liturgy – An interview with Abbot Cuthbert Johnson OSB, part 2

In the 2nd part of his exclusive interview with journalist Peter Jennings for CTS, Abbot Cuthbert Johnson OSB, tells us about his own background and the vital importance of music in the liturgy.

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.

More tomorrow.

Participating in the Mass is available from the CTS website priced £2.50


Of related interest:

D745 Simple Guide to the Mass – Abbot Cuthbert Johnson OSB, a Consultor to the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship, provides a simple and concise guide to the new translation of the Mass introduced by the Church on Sunday, 4 September 2011. Pope Benedict XVI has expressed the wish that the introduction of the new translation will mark the beginning of: “A renewal and a deepening of Eucharistic devotion all over the English-speaking world”.
Participating in the Mass –Abbot Cuthbert Johnson OSB, in this companion to his widely acclaimed CTS booklet Understanding the Roman Missal, provides an informative, step-by-step guide to the celebration of the Mass, to enable the Liturgy to be celebrated with reverence.
Understanding the Roman Missal – the New Translation –A presentation and explanation of the new translation, accompanied by liturgical and spiritual reflections. This presentation and explanation of the new translation is accompanied by a series of liturgical and spiritual reflections.

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