Just today I was reviewing a proofread version of my forthcoming book Mass Revision: Your Essential Guide to the Changes in the Liturgy, which is scheduled to come out in just a few months. It seemed like an opportune time to do a post about liturgy, so here goes . . .
There’s a passage in C. S. Lewis somewhere in which he talks about liturgy being like dancing. As a dancer, dance instructor, and dance caller (I call square dances, contra dances, etc.) I recognize just how apt the comparison he makes is. What he says is that learning the liturgy is like learning to dance. At first you are focused on the mechanics and trying to get them right. When you’re new to the liturgy it’s rather like dancing and having to think about what your feet are doing. The result is clumsy and not particularly pleasant. But there comes a point when the mechanics of the dance becomes second nature and you don’t have to think about it, you can just do it. This is the point at which the dance becomes smooth, flowing, and enjoyable. You have been freed from having to think about the mechanics of individual moves so that you can grasp the overall flow and pattern of the dance.
The same thing happens when learning liturgy. If you’re a convert, as I am, or if you’re old enough to have clear memories of the liturgical reform that followed Vatican II, then there’s a stage in your life where you had to make a conscious effort to learn the liturgy. You didn’t just grow up with it. At first it was a awkward, clumsy process (“Is this the part where we stand up?”, “What’s the next word in the Creed?”, “Am I supposed to say ‘Thanks be to God’ or ‘Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ’ now?”). But eventually it became second nature and, as in the dancing example, you were freed from the burden of having to think about the mechanics of individual actions and your mind could rise to contemplate the overall flow and pattern of the liturgy, the meaning of the symbols it contains, and the theological truths it expresses.
Even if you’re not a convert or someone who clearly remembers the liturgical reform, you’ll be getting something of that experience come this November, when the new translation of the Roman Missal goes into effect and—although the fundamental structure of the Mass will be the same—lots of individual prayers will be . . . different. And there’ll be a period of time where you have to think about the mechanics of the liturgy (“Am I supposed to say ‘And also with you’ or ‘And with your spirit’?”, “Oops! I almost said ‘Was born of the Virgin Mary’ instead of ‘Was incarnate of the Virgin Mary’!”, “Wow, you mean we’re supposed to stand after the priest finishes this invitation, not before it, like we’ve been doing the last ten years?”). But soon this phase will pass and you’ll be able to think about higher matters, like how the liturgy more profoundly expresses certain truths not that it’s not encumbered with a dumbed-down, 1970s translation.
Or whatever else you choose to think about at Mass.
The point I’m making is that changing the expressions people are used to will jerk them out of a contemplative mode and land them smack in the middle of a mechanical thought process—at least until the change becomes second nature. For this reason, you shouldn’t make changes lightly.
All the liturgical loosey-gooseyness of the last 40 years has had the effect of jerking the faithful out of a contemplative mode and putting them in other modes of thought (confusion, bewilderment, suspicion, rage).
I understand and appreciate the need for the new translation of the Mass, but it will be an adjustment. It will take some getting used to.
But one shouldn’t make arbitrary changes for no good reason, even when they are permitted by liturgical law.
A good example is the response used in the prayer of the faithful. In the United States the response is commonly “Lord, hear our prayer” (although some seem to mishear it as “Lord, hear our prayers”; a minor liturgical mondegreen).
This response is not mandated by liturgical law, and so it can be changed. That makes changing it not a liturgical abuse in the proper sense (a violation of liturgical law), but just because it can be changed doesn’t mean it should be changed. Changing it can result in the faithful being jerked out of their usual, prayerful mode of thought and into an awkward state where they have to think about the new response and even wondering whether it fits with the things being prayed for. This results in Bad Liturgy.
Take, for example, the practice of one of the local parishes near me. During certain liturgical seasons and on certain liturgical days they alter “Lord, hear our prayer” to something else.
For example, last Sunday (baptism of the Lord), they were using “Lord, send us your Spirit.” You might think that would be more appropriate for Pentecost, but because the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism, they were using it there.
And since the action of the Holy Spirit is involved in every answered prayer, asking God to send the Holy Spirit is something that can be an appropriate response to any legitimate prayer intention.
But “Lord, send us your Spirit” is not the familiar response and it snatches the contemplative, prayerful mindset away and forces the congregation to think about the mechanics of what they’ve just been told to say.
Worse is what they were using on Epiphany, when the response they said to use was “O come let us adore him.”
Not only is response unfamiliar, it’s also a line from a well-known song (meaning that people are going to be thinking about the song), and it’s just too cutsey by half.
Worst of all, it is not a suitable response to all possible petitions. For example:
Lector: That God may guide our president as he makes decisions affecting the welfare of our nation.
People: O come let us adore him.
Now, that specific petition wasn’t one the parish used, but I’ve heard similarly problematic petitions used with “O come let us adore him” in the past.
Like I said, I can’t say that it’s a liturgical abuse in the technical sense to do this, but I can say that it’s Bad Liturgy, and thus it’s one of my liturgical pet peeves.
What are some of yours?