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Fr. Anscar Chupungco: Filipino Benedictine who tangled with Pope Benedict

By: - Arts and Books Editor
/ 02:37 AM February 18, 2013

POPE Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.AFP

Pope Benedict XVI’s shocking announcement that he would renounce the Petrine office on Feb. 28, the first pope to do so in more than 500 years, has served as a fitting fillip to a man whose ecclesiastical career has been characterized by a dramatic struggle to come to terms with the tumultuous history of the Catholic Church and its grappling with change and modernity.

Propitiously enough, his decision to renounce the papacy followed the death of another theologian who, like him, had had to contend with issues revolving around the Church’s relevance: Fr. Anscar Chupungco, OSB, who died from a heart attack in the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Bukidnon last Jan. 9. He was 73.


Father Chupungco was a Benedictine liturgist who was a longtime president of the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome during the time when the Pope was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

As is well-known, it had been Ratzinger’s single-minded resolve to check the excesses of the Second Vatican Council, especially the liturgical reforms that came with its constitution on liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), the first document to be issued by the council and, as borne by events later on, perhaps the most contentious and far-reaching. The document called for “active participation” of the people in the liturgy and the translation of the Latin Mass in the vernacular.


In 2007, as Pope Benedict, Ratzinger issued the motu propio or decree, Summa Pontificum, which basically restored the Latin Mass.

In 2010, in a forum organized by the University of Santo Tomas Ecclesiastical Faculties, his alma mater, Father  Chupungco took a subtle jab at the Pope for what he called as “reform of the reform” and for turning back the reforms of Vatican II. He explained there was a need to distinguish between papal decrees and the “theological musing” of Ratzinger, who wrote the celebrated book, “Spirit of the Liturgy,” which decried abuses in the aftermath of Vatican II.

In the book, Ratzinger said changes in the liturgy undermine the sacrificial nature of the Mass as worship, placing the focus on the priest and tending to celebrate the community, not the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice.

But Chupungco, who had also served as  consultor to the Congregation for Divine Worship and Congregation for Catholic Education, said Ratzinger’s “reform of the reform” came at the expense of “active participation” of the community not familiar with the old prayers and language that had long been discarded.

“The agenda is an attempt to retrieve the discarded liturgical practices and paraphernalia, sometimes at the expense of active participation,” Chupungco said.

In highly poetic—and liturgical—language, Chupungco warned about the campaign to derail Vatican II:

“Dark clouds are forming ominously on the Western horizon. They move hurriedly and decisively toward the direction of the sun that burns radiantly in the sky. They cast upon it stronger shadows to hide it from view. Suddenly it is dusk, before the appointed time.”


But the darkness is provisional, caused by passing clouds:

“In the reality of our day, the realness is called by the passing clouds. This cannot put the clock back to yesterday’s evening hours.”

The soliloquy might as well have conjured for the audience the antipodal images of a Benedictine monk and the Pope pitted against each other in a theological joust.

The Varsitarian, the official student organ of UST, couldn’t resist the irony of the situation and headlined its front-page report of the lecture, “Benedictine hits Benedict for ‘reform of the reform.’”

From Cainta to Rome

Who was Fr. Anscar Chupungco? He was born José Herminio Chupungco on Nov. 10, 1939, to Estanislao Chupungco and Dominga Javier of Cainta, Rizal.

When he joined the Benedictines after high school, he was given the name “Anscario,” after a good friend of the abbot who was killed during the religious persecutions that preceded the Spanish civil war.

Chupungco’s educational and religious formation straddled the period around the Second Vatican Council. He obtained his licentiate in Philosophy, magna cum laude, from the University of Santo Tomas in 1961, amid preparations for the convocation of the council the following year; and his licentiate in Theology, magna cum laude, also from UST, in 1965, the year the council closed. “He studied philosophy in the years before Vatican II, but his theological formation was influenced by the spirit of the council,” said fellow Benedictine Fr. Bernardo Ma. Perez.

Although he had wanted to take up systematic theology, Anscar was ordered by his superior to take up liturgical studies at San’t Anselmo, the great Benedictine pontifical school in the Aventine hill in Rome. His mentors were spearheading liturgical reform in the aftermath of Sacramentum Concilium. One of them was the famous liturgist Fr. Salvatore Marsili, who entered the lecture hall on the first day of class and after a prolonged awkward silence, asked, “And so, what is liturgy?”

The question had so preoccupied Anscar since then that in 2010, he titled his book, “What, then, is Liturgy?” (Claretian Publications; available in St. Pauls bookstores nationwide; Subtitled “Musings and Memoir,” the book combines a critique of Pope Benedict’s liturgical changes and Fr. Anscar’s reminiscences of a life well-lived. (Most of his quotations and views in this article are from the book.)

After receiving his doctorate in 1969, Chupungco returned to the Philippines to teach at San Beda College. In 1973, he received a letter from Rome inviting him to teach at San’t Anselmo: “(The dean and faculty) recognize your competence in the field and realize the importance of having a truly universal faculty which would reflect the universality of the Church herself. As the first Filipino on our faculty, your experience in that country and part of the world should bring a new dimension to studies here where so many students are coming from the Third World.”

A highly prolific author like Ratzinger, Chupungco contributed to Concilium, the famous journal of theologians supporting Vatican II reforms; authored the famous books, “Cultural Adaptation of the Liturgy” and “Liturgical Inculturation”; and edited the five-volume “Handbook for Liturgical Studies,” the best authority on the subject.

Most important Filipino theologian

In 1990, after 24 years of teaching in Rome, Chupungco was asked by Philippine bishops to establish a liturgical school in the country. He obliged and set it up in Bukidnon and named it after Paul VI.

In 1997, Father Chupungco received an honorary doctorate of theology from the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago, United States. In 2000, on the occasion of his 60th birthday, the Liturgical Press published “Liturgy for the New Millennium,” a festschrift in his honor.

Writing the foreword was Bishop William D. Gregory of Belleville, Illinois. “I am privileged to claim the honor of being Anscar’s first doctoral candidate—a title that is entirely the dignity of chronological coincidence,” the prelate said.

“Anscar’s scholarship and his professional expertise in ways far more profound than my initial experience of his tutelage no doubt have influenced and continue to influence dozens of other students of liturgy.”

In their introduction, the editors, Fathers Mark R. Francis, CSV, and Keith F. Pecklers, SJ, who were likewise former students of the Filipino Benedictine, wrote: He “has been one of the most important figures in the international postconciliar reform of the liturgy because of the special vision he brings to liturgical renewal.”

When he died last Jan. 9, Chupungco was executive secretary of the Asian Liturgy Forum, which has members from Southeast and North Asia, and teacher and thesis adviser to several scholars, many of them foreigners. His scholarly output, his pedagogical achievements, and his international reputation should point to Fr. Anscar Chupungco, OSB, as indubitably the most important Filipino theologian and arguably the most influential Asian theologian today.

Prayer as law

That Ratzinger and Chupungco should clash on the liturgy may confound many. From the Greek word denoting public duty, “liturgy” simply means the public worship of the Church. But considering prayer and worship draw freely from the sentiment and are more spontaneous, they are said to reveal the inner recesses of the being. So much so that in the liturgy may be felt the workings of God.

SPECIAL memorial issue of the official bulletin of the Graduate School of Liturgy of San Beda College in honor of Fr. Anscar Chupungco

The Church has a Latin phrase for the importance of the liturgy, lex orandi lex credendi, “the law of prayer is the law of faith.”

Philosopher Roger Scrutton might have referred to the meaning of the Latin phrase when he warned against tinkering too much with the liturgy:

“Changes in the liturgy take on a momentous significance for the believer, for they are changes in his experience of God—changes… in God himself. The question whether to make the sign of the cross with two fingers or with three split a Church. So can the question whether or not to use the Book of Common Prayer or the Tridentine Mass.”

In fact, it was the Pope’s restoration of the Tridentine Mass that has divided theologians and Catholics.

In 1969, in a general audience address, Paul VI delivered the eulogy for the Latin Mass and said the new rite of the Mass with its preference for the vernacular was needed since participation was worth more than preserving the language of the previous Christian centuries, and valued “particularly by modern people, so fond of plain language which is understood and converted into everyday speech.”

Perhaps in reference to the ceremonious robes which attended the old rite, Paul VI said that the “understanding of prayer is worth more than the silken garments in which it is royally dressed.”


But Ratzinger, in his 2000 book, “Spirit of the Liturgy,” used fashion language as well to say that the Church should not be subjected to passing fads. He likened the Church with its efforts at updating to a “poorly managed haberdashery trying to lure more customers.”

He added that “active participation” should not mean crude inculturation.

Ratzinger even said that some contemporary liturgies may be forms of apostasy. He likened the changes in the liturgy so as to be comprehensible to the modern age to the Israelites worshipping the golden calf in the Old Testament.

He said the point of the Bible story is not that the Israelites were doing idol-worship; they knew that the statue was not God, but what they wanted was something brought down to their level so they could relate to it.

He also warned against “overnight” inculturation. “Not until a strong Christian identity has grown up in the mission countries can one begin to move, with great caution and on the basis of that identity into the liturgy and allowing Christian realities to merge with the forms of everyday life.”


But Chupungco argued that the Latin rite itself was a product of inculturation. He said the young churches of Northern Europe in the 10th century had been tampering with the Roman liturgy and that many popes then, German like Ratzinger, had allowed useless repetitions, allegorical interpretation of rites, and the mysteries-laden symbols that were typical of northern peoples at that time. “The Tridentine Mass was a byproduct of this hybrid liturgy.

In fact, the Vatican II agenda was the restoration of the original seventh-century Roman rite, the Benedictine argued, “because the simpler the rites and symbols are, the easier they will be understood; and the more people understand, the more fully they can participate.” He explained the adoption of the vernacular follows this spirit, arguing that the Church officially allowed in the fourth century the use of the vernacular Latin “to replace the elitist and foreign Greek koine.”

Contemplation vs action

“Active participation is Vatican II’s prized gift to the Church,” Chupungco declared.

Ratzinger said the Mass should foster contemplation.

Chupungco argued that contemplation and action are not mutually exclusive words; they complement one another.

“While active participation should not distract from contemplation, contemplation should not disengage itself from active participation,” the Benedictine said. “The liturgy is the action of Christ and the Church; it should not be merely regarded as a background for personal contemplation.”

Tridentine Mass

Father Chupungco’s followers and those who champion Paul VI’s abolition of the Latin Mass feel that the restoration of the Tridentine rite is Pope Benedict’s attempt to rehabilitate the schismatic Society of St. Pius X, whose founder, Archbishop Marcel Levebre of Switzerland, had taken part in the Second Vatican Council, but never recognized and, in fact, opposed its reforms.

Fr. Roberto Loanzon, a Dominican student of Father Chupungco at San’t Anselmo who was set to have a dissertation consultation with him on the day he died in Bukidnon, said it was doubtful if the Levebrites would rejoin the Church after the restoration of the Tridentine Mass, since the differences “are fundamentally theological, not just liturgical.”

Dynamic equivalence

On translation, Fr. Chupungco upheld “dynamic equivalence” while Ratzinger demanded that the translation should hew as closely as possible to the Latin text.

Chupungco said there are words such as mysterium and sacramentum that defy translation and should therefore be transliterated. “But I would encourage translators to give dynamic equivalence a chance to prove its worth as a method of translation,” he said. “While formal correspondence can give the impression of propinquity to the source language, in reality it can obscure the message and raise more questions than it can answer. Servility is not the same as fidelity.”

Perhaps respecting his predecessors while sticking to his guns regarding the “organic development” of the liturgy, Pope Benedict issued Summorun Pontificum (SP), upholding the Roman Missal promulgated by Paul VI as the “ordinary expression” of the law of prayer of the Church, but also ruling that the Roman Missal promulgated by Saint Pius V in the 16th century and reissued by Blessed John XXII in the 1960s is the “extraordinary expression” of the same law of prayer and should be given the proper honor.

While SP “has cast a menacing shadow on the future of inculturation,” Chupungco said it also opened a door when it classified rites into “ordinary” and “extraordinary.”

“I would like to consider this a basis for the Holy See to declare inculturated forms of liturgy as ‘other extraordinary’ forms of the Roman Mass along with the Tridentine rite.”

To his credit, Father Chupungco remained loyal to the Church. “With gratitude I recall my Dominican mentors (at UST) who sowed in my soul the difficult virtue of loyalty,” he wrote.

Even his teachers’ faith was rocked when Vatican II seemed to have introduced a Church that was “youngish and fashionable and behaved like a liberated person.” “To this new type of Church,” Father Anscar said, “my Dominican mentors struggled to be loyal.”

“Just stay inside the boat, they advised, and hold on to dear life, especially when the boat rocks mightily.”

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TAGS: Catholic Church, Fr. Anscar Chupungco, Lifestyle, Pope Bendict XVI, Religion
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