Solemn Mass was celebrated at the Altar of the Chair of St Peter

The International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) celebrated its 50th anniversary with a Solemn Mass at the Altar of the Chair of St Peter in Rome yesterday.

The Mass was concelebrated by the Bishops of the Commission and Archbishop Arthur Roche, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

The Mass included English Gregorian Chant from the Roman Missal and the Graduale Parvum together with some hymns. The Master of Ceremonies of the Mass was Mgr Jean-Pierre Kwambamba Masi, one of the papal ceremonieri, and the deacons were from the Pontifical Scots College and the Pontifical Beda College, and Charles Cole, Assistant Director of Music of the London Oratory, was the organist.

The Mass was followed by a reception at the Venerable English College, venue of the first ever meeting of ICEL. Today, the Feast of St Luke, Pope Francis will receive the bishops of the Commission and the ICEL editorial committee and their principal collaborators in an audience in the Sala Clementina of the Apostolic Palace.

The full text of Archbishop Arthur Roche’s homily:

In this Basilica, fifty years ago today, while the final drafts of Sacrosanctum Concilium were being debated, near the Altar of Saint Josephat which was then serving as a coffee point for the Council Fathers (affectionately known by them as Bar Jona!), some bishops from the eleven countries that now form ICEL agreed to create an international commission to assist the English-speaking bishops of the world in their collegial responsibility of translating the Latin texts of the Roman Rite. They met the next day at the Venerabile to do just that. It was, in fact, then, and still remains in the Missal of Blessed Pope John XXIII, the feast of the translation of St Margaret Mary Alacoque, which today in the Missal of the Venerable Pope Paul VI, is the feast of Saint Ignatius – a Syrian by birth, consecrated bishop by the Apostles and appointed by Saint Peter himself to the Church of Antioch. His pedigree was considerable because together with Saint Polycarp he had been a student of the Great Divine, Saint John, the beloved disciple of the Lord.

The fact that at the end of his life he was, in witness to Christ, thrown to the lions has a certain poignancy for those who through the years have endeavoured to assist in the work of liturgical reform since the Second Vatican Council, in all its forms, not least the work of liturgical translation. His witness, however, is beyond compare. Like so many other martyrs he knew precisely what lay ahead of him and despite the sheer savagery of that, as well as already enduring the brutality of his gaolers, the ones he called my ten leopards, he was able to write in his letter to the Romans: “Now is the moment I am beginning to be a disciple. May nothing else beguile me till I happily make my way to Jesus Christ! Fire, cross, struggles with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, the crushing of my whole body – let them come to me, provided only I make my way to Jesus Christ.”

I am God’s wheat and shall be ground by the teeth of wild animals. I am writing to all the churches to let it be known that I will gladly die for God if only you do not stand in my way. I plead with you: show me no untimely kindness. Let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. I am God’s wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ’s pure bread. (Letter to the Romans §5,6,4)

The beauty of the Eucharistic symbolism in these words reflects the deep theology of a mystic. He was throughout his life dedicated to defending the teaching which had been handed down to him by the Apostles so that his brothers and sisters in the early Christian communities, and we who today stand on their shoulders, would never be led astray by false doctrine. He urged them to always follow their bishops, the Successors of the Apostles, and I quote, as Jesus follows the Father; to be united together in charity, and to be true to the gift of faith they had received. This, of course, has been a repeated theme, not least in the recent Pontificates of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. A divided, fractious and opinionated Church, lacking in humility, gives poor witness to the love of Christ – diminishing, as it does, through disedification the visibility of his presence in our world.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa whose tomb is close by, in commenting on the episode in the Book of Exodus when reverence for God’s presence among his people was replaced by the worship of an image fashioned by man, comments that such things originate with the inception of a personal idea – one that we nurture and polish and rationalise until it takes possession of our judgments and guides our very actions. But these things are not from God. God reveals himself. In human ways, it is true. But in Christ Jesus, we have the image of the unseen God. No one knows the Father except the Son, says Jesus, and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him (Matthew 11:27). God has revealed himself to his people and, in the words of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the people of God; and so the Church in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, and all that she believes. (Dei Verbum, §8)

The renewal of the liturgy since the Second Vatican Council wished, above all, to be a principal part of this transmission in providing a fresh understanding of this profound revelation – not least, the meaning of the Rites, a deeper theological grasp of what the words and the signs mean, which ultimately is about what God does, what God accomplishes when the sacred liturgy is celebrated.

It is to the bishops, Successors of the Apostles, that the responsibility of handing on the faith has been given throughout successive generations. Saint Paul himself was acutely aware of this in his own ministry when in his first letter to the Church at Corinth, whose liturgical practices had become absurdly bizarre, he reminded them, with regard to the celebration of the Eucharist, that what he had passed on to them was in faithfulness to what he had, in fact, received himself directly from the Lord. (ref. 1 Cor 11: 23-25)

This treasure from Christ which the Church passes on in fidelity to what has been handed down to her by the Lord and which is not fanciful, or convenient, or of mere human invention is the tradition of the Church. We who participate in the liturgy stand in the presence of the Lord. We are the grains of wheat that fall before him to rise up in his praise and to manifest his glory – not simply or solely at the time of worship but through the transformation of our lives as a consequence, and the living out of that transformation in the world of our day. In this sacred event we turn to face the truth that God is at the centre of all reality: all things come from him and all things tend towards him. This realization, in the words of St Vincent of Lerins, is to reap the genuine wheat of truth rather than the intrusive growth of error. (Cap.23;PL 50, 668)

Many of our saints paid the ultimate price for this faithfulness. What a great example we have of this in the 44 martyrs of the Venerable English College, where the first meeting of ICEL was hosted, and whose martyrs died for the Sacrifice of the Mass and in loyalty to the Successor of St Peter. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also.(John 12:26). The example of the martyrs’ fidelity encourages us to handle with great care and, in faithfulness, to protect and hand on this precious treasure from the Lord. In the words of Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, §2)

The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” paints a wonderful picture of what happens when we celebrate the liturgy and strikingly begins with the mystery of Pentecost, the significance of which should not be overlooked. Pentecost is the culmination of Jesus’ Paschal mystery, where the crucified and now risen and ascended Lord lavishes on the world the Spirit with which he himself was anointed. What Jesus did in one time and place, therefore, is extended to every time and place through his Holy Spirit. Indeed, this extension is the Church, that is, the assembly of all whom Jesus draws to himself when he is lifted up.

Christ is active in a new way through his Spirit here and now. This is not something that comes about through an imaginative leap backwards in time. No, this ‘new era’, as the Catechism calls it, is a realm appropriate to a new condition; namely, Christ’s glorification at the right hand of his Father. This new era is “… the age of the Church, during which Christ manifests, makes present, and communicates his work of salvation through the liturgy of his Church, ‘until he comes.’” (CCC, §1076)

What was done in one time and place is accomplished in another time and place. Christ transcends all times while being made present in them all.

We see this, too, with such clarity in Saint Ignatius’ letters and, with that lightness of touch which we detect in his writings he was, because of this, able to face the cost of his witness to the Lord and the horror of how he was to be joined to Christ through his own self-offering. His insight into the Sacraments, whose life-giving grace embraces all times and conditions, bestowing the power which is able to transform them all anew, was because he saw how the Lord’s death bursts open the bonds of a particular time and place and thus allows the risen and glorified Christ to be present in them all.

This is an important clue to understanding why it is so vital to preserve that which has been handed down to us in the liturgy. For in the liturgy, it is nothing less than Christ himself at work. Through words, gestures, and signs, the mighty deed of Christ’s death and resurrection is displayed before us; the past becomes the present and the saving deed is delivered to us in such a way that we are saved by it. The fruit of Christ’s Paschal mystery is the Church herself, which comes into being as the fruits are communicated through these words and signs.

Let Saint Ignatius have the final words from his letter to the Christians of the Greek Anatolian city of Magnesia on the Meander:

Those who were brought up in the ancient order of things (ie. the Chosen People) have come to the possession of a new hope. They ceased to keep the Sabbath and lived by the Lord’s Day, on which our life as well as theirs shone forth, thanks to him and his death, though some deny this. Through this mystery we received our faith, and because of it we stand our ground so as to become disciples of Jesus Christ, our sole teacher. How, then, can we live without him when even the prophets, who were his disciples by the Spirit, awaited him as their teacher? He, then, whom they were rightly expecting, raised them from the dead, when he came.” (Letter to the Magnesians, §9)

Let us, then, with St Ignatius, the court of heaven and the entire Church which is in a mysterious way always united with us at this moment, give thanks for ICEL’s fifty years of service to the Church and with the utmost reverence and in faithfulness, proclaim Christ’s death, and profess his resurrection, until he comes again.