Fr. Bill Burke

Fr. Bill Burke

December 24, 2012

Many people have said: "If I had been there when Jesus walked the earth, and if I had seen him raise Lazarus, and I had seen him cure the sick, I would have no trouble believing."

"Pope Leo the Great said something so simple, it is almost shocking. He said there were people who witnessed it, and they didn't believe. They were no luckier than us," said Father Bill Burke, director of the National Liturgy Office for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Everything Christ did when he walked among us, he still does today. It has passed over into the Church and its liturgy."

Burke said liturgical experiences such as music, gestures, objects, the voice of the priest, the procession, and even silence are expressions of the paschal mystery calling us to new life.

Since the Second Vatican Council, almost 50 years ago, the liturgy has provided parishioners with a more profound understanding of the paschal mystery. Rather than conceal the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, the aim of today's liturgy is to reveal the work of Christ, making it more accessible and attainable.

In Burke's opinion, we know what it's like to express love, joy, grief, and faith even when we lack the words to do so. This same concept applies to expressing Christ's presence.

To illustrate his point, Burke said that he met a woman in Cape Breton whose son had died in a motor vehicle accident. Played at the funeral was her favourite hymn, Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?

Afterwards, the woman said, "The song punched through the fog of my grief." Having a deep devotion to Mary, she said she was not there when they crucified Jesus but Mary was, and she could relate to Mary as a mother who lost a child. The woman's faith was strengthened, knowing that her son was with Mary's son.

"What a powerful experience for me, as a young priest, having just read Leo the Great that everything Jesus did had passed over into his Church and into the liturgy. Calvary came to Cape Breton that morning," said Burke.

Burke, from the Diocese of Antigonish, N.S., was the final speaker in the Edmonton Archdiocese's fall catechesis series on Vatican II. Held Dec. 10 at the Catholic Pastoral Centre, his talk was called The Liturgy is Our Life: The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium).

"The reformed liturgy does its work, and we must take it seriously. The constitution speaks of the paschal mystery coming to us in a real presence," said Burke.

Demonstrating another point, he spoke of a successful grief counselor. Through guiding others, she knew a lot about grief. But only when her husband died at the breakfast table did she know grief firsthand. Her new level of knowledge transformed her.


The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy calls people to do the same – to know God rather than to merely know about him.

"The constitution calls us to express more clearly the holy things they signify. It brings us into the whole realm of symbolic communication, communication that goes beyond words," said Burke.

Another major change resulting from Vatican II was the significance put on the Word of God. Pre-Vatican II, many Bible passages were never heard at all.

Moreover, the readings were in Latin, with the priest reading quietly with his back to the parishioners.

Pre-Vatican II, Catholic families kept Bibles in their homes. They were wonderful coffee-table books, and in them families recorded dutifully the dates of Baptisms, First Communions, Confirmations, marriages, ordinations and the deaths of family members.

"But we were told not to read it. We were told that the message of Scripture was too complex, even dangerous, if misinterpreted. Therefore, it was up to the priest to teach us what the Bible says," said Burke.

Since Vatican II, people are encouraged to read the Bible. Today he hears Catholics quoting Scripture in non-church settings that he did not hear as a boy in the 1950s. At Mass, there is also much more emphasis on the reverence for the Word of God.

"I firmly believe that one of the most significant results of the liturgical reform of this great (Vatican II) council was the recovery of the integrity and the importance of the Word of God," said Burke.

The Bible tells real stories of real people caught in real situations – stories of death, powerlessness, barrenness, rejection, crucifixion. Also in each of these stories, God gives life, power, acceptance, forgiveness and, ultimately, resurrection.

In small group sessions, participants at the session shared how the Scriptural proclamation in liturgy often connects with stories from their own lives.

Walking through the church doors everyday are people with contrasting circumstances and lives. The Bible stories speak to all of them. There's a man who just got engaged, and another who just filed for divorce.

There's a young woman starting a new job on Monday, and an older man who just got fired from his. Seated in the pews are luxury condo-dwellers and street people.

The Gospel reading, the priest's homily and the music cannot possibly target each individual in his or her specific circumstances.

"We let God exercise his power to decide who needs to see, hear, touch and experience what. Our task is to do the liturgy well, especially the Liturgy of the Word. As well as hearing the stories, we need to hear them in the context of the liturgy, with all of the business of symbolic communication involved there," said Burke.


Prior to Vatican II, the priest said Mass while the parishioners took a passive stance, perhaps praying in private. Today's Church is much different. Today, everyone is included in the Church, Burke said.

The priest, the married and the single, the children and the seniors, the sinners, all people comprise the Body of Christ. Instead of sitting in private prayer, full and active participation is required. Mass has taken on a public and social character.

The procession, harmony of voices singing, the communal silence after Communion further instill unity among the people of God.