The mention of Yves Congar’s name does not immediately bring to mind liturgy. Yet, these essays translated from French originals is another reminder of the breadth of this theologian’s research that has had far-reaching significance for ecclesiology, pneumatology, patristics, sacramental theology, the role of the laity, the nature of reform, ecumenism and much else besides. These essays remind one to include liturgy or at least liturgical theology.
There are five of Congar’s essays in this collection. I will include the date of their original publication after the title of each chapter. 1: “ ‘Real’ Liturgy, ‘Real’ Preaching” (1948); 2: “The Ecclesia or Christian Community as a Whole” (1967); 3: “The Structure of Christian Priesthood” (1951); 4: “Where Dos the ‘Sacred’ Fit into a Christian Worldview” (1967); 5: “What is the Meaning of Sunday? (1945). The Liturgical Press rightly concluded that these essays, one of which was first published sixty-five years ago, are still pertinent and relevant many decades after they were written. Indeed, these essays have a freshness that give them an enduring quality. The graceful scholarship that they contain has much to say to present-day pastors, professors and students. That is a remarkable achievement for scholarship composed so many decades ago.
Yves Marie-Joseph Congar, O.P., (1904-1995), one of the key theologians in the ressourcement movement known as the nouvelle théologie, was silenced for all practical purposes during the era prior to Vatican II but he was later appointed to the preparatory theological commission for the council and then became a peritus at the council. In 1994 Congar was honored by John Paul II when he was named a cardinal a year before he died. As is well known, Congar was a principal architect of the Second Vatican Council. The essays under review clearly confirm that Père Congar’s theological DNA is imprinted across the documents of Vatican II, e.g., on Verbum Dei, Lumen gentium, Gaudium et spes, Ad gentes divinitus, Unitatis redintegratio, Presbyterorum ordinis and Dignitatis humanae. Few other theologians had such a wide ranging impact on so many of the council’s documents Moreover, the essays under review are a good preparation for a deeper understanding of the spirit, the new spirit that the ressourcement theologians brought to this council from their persistent and exhaustive research into the riches of the Christian tradition especially the riches of the patristic era and of medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas.
Preachers and liturgists alike have much to learn from Congar’s essay on real liturgy and real preaching. Everyone can gain from why it is said that the ecclesia as a whole celebrates the Eucharist. I have been especially grateful for the careful delineation with which Congar has expressed the meaning of baptismal priesthood and what he calls ministerial priesthood without his ever diminishing the sacred character of the latter. Of the former, Congar concludes his essay on the priesthood with the affirmation that “[b]y their baptismal consecration, the faithful are constituted as legitimate co-celebrants in this sacrifice.” (p. 105) As with his other writings, these essays show Father Congar as always the ecclesiologist who connects the sacraments to the Body of Christ which he often designates as the Mystical Body of Christ.
In his essay on the “Sacred,” Congar argues for abandoning the stinction from world religions between the sacred and the profane while at the same time he indicates where one discovers the truly sacred. He writes: “Let me clearly say this again: there is only one sacred reality, the body of Christ. It exists here below both in a sacramental form and in an ecclesial form, and in both cases it brings along with it a whole cluster of realities related to it which…are also to some degree signs of our communion with God in Christ and these become analogously sacred things.” ( p. 126) There is much to ponder in this essay.
I would suggest for anyone, who comes to these essays without previous consultation of Congar’s meticulous consultation of sources, that one may profitably read first the excellent introduction and concluding essay to this collection of essays by the translator Father Paul Philibert, O. P. In addition, the American Dominican translator has composed helpful and incisive background introductions to each essay, and he has added perceptive discussion questions at the completion of each essay. Paul Philibert knew Yves Congar personally, and his translation and auxiliary aids show him to have a solid and firm grasp of Congar’s theological legacy. Reading these essays reaffirms one’s conviction that Cardinal Yves Congar was undoubtedly one of the great minds of twentieth century Catholicism. His commitment to research in original documents is an example to all who teach and preach in the Catholic tradition. Father Jean Leclercq, OSB, were he still alive, would surely see in Yves Congar an extraordinary theologian who had a great love of learning and a discernible deep desire for God. And like his mentor, Thomas Aquinas, Father Congar’s rigorous theological research is always, as are these essays, profoundly pastoral.