The Reform of the Liturgy

“The liturgy is the work of the whole Christ, head and body.” (CCC 1187)

(photo: Josefka/Pixabay/CC0)

How often have you heard Catholics grumbling about church? Father preaches too long or not long enough. The music is too modern or too ancient. The altar servers are undisciplined or they are too rigid and mechanical.

I thought it might be worth putting some ideas on the liturgy together based on my experience first, as an Anglican minister, then as a Catholic priest.

However, I must confess that I am not a liturgical expert. I am more of a ‘big picture’ person. I’m more interested in reasons than rubrics. In other words, I’m interested in why we do something more than in what we do because I think that if we know why we’re doing it, the ‘what’ will follow.

In modern liturgical practices there are two different centers of focus: God and neighbor. These two centers of gravity for the liturgy determine the sides one takes on all the liturgy wars. Generally speaking you have the folks who believe the liturgy is all about the worship of God. They emphasize the vertical aspect of worship. For them the Mass is always the ‘holy  sacrifice of the Mass’ which the priest offers up on behalf of the people. This awesome mystery is to be kept at a proper, reverent distance from the people. It is being done for them, not by them. The emphasis, therefore, is not what is done at the altar by the priest. The sacrifice is objective. Whether the people ‘get anything out of it’ or not is secondary. Once this is understood then everything else — music, architecture, altar servers, art and preaching — falls into a logical place.

The second center of focus for the liturgy is not God, but the people. With this view the horizontal is emphasized. The Mass becomes not so much the divine sacrifice, but the fellowship meal of the people of God. The priest is the ‘presider’ and may even be seen as the ‘first among equals,’ for the action of the Mass has become the action of the whole people of God who are, themselves, a ‘priestly nation.’ The music, actions, art and architecture all, then, serve this function — to draw the people closer together as they worship God. The extreme view of this is that in worshiping together and facing one another they actually are worshiping God, for we are taught to see the face of God in other people.

I don’t know what people expect of me, but I suppose they think I am all for the first type of worship and down on the second. I’m not. In fact, I think both aspects need to be remembered and emphasized. However, within the whole life of the Church the proper emphasis on God and neighbor occur in different areas. In the liturgy the worship must be first and foremost centered on God. That’s simply what worship is: our adoration of God. It is proper to focus on the people of God, but not in the liturgy. We focus on people in the rest of our life together — through education, evangelization, fellowship, social concern, care for the sick and dying, and so on.

This is not to say, however, that the liturgy must ignore the needs of the people. One of my criticisms of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, as it is often celebrated, is that there is no concern at all for the needs of ‘ordinary’ Catholics. It’s almost as if you have to be an ‘extraordinary Catholic’ to appreciate the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. It is simply not good enough to impose on ordinary Catholics a form of Mass in which the music is so high falutin’ as to call attention to itself and put people off. Neither is it right to impose Latin on people who are not properly prepared and catechized and open to suddenly hearing Mass in a language they cannot understand after years of hearing Mass in the vernacular.

I am not opposed to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, and I am glad it is being more widely celebrated, but I don’t imagine for a minute that it is going to be the cure-all for the ills of the Catholic Church. Anyone who thinks, “The Latin Mass is so beautiful and reverent, and once ordinary Catholics get a glimpse of it they will all flock to it” is living in la-la land.

In fact, the experience of an awful lot of ordinary Catholics after experiencing the Latin Mass is that they don’t like it all and couldn’t think of anything worse for their parish. Proper pastoral concern for such people takes time to listen to them, meet them where they are and realize that their concerns and questions are valid. Just dismissing them as ‘Novus Ordo Clown Mass’ Catholics is arrogant and counterproductive.

The celebration of the Latin Mass is a good thing, but a better thing will be for priests and people to begin celebrating Mass in a more reverent, God-centered and worshipful way — balancing the need for more reverence and God-centered liturgy with the practical and pastoral needs of the people as they adjust.

Therefore in my book Letters on Liturgy I set down what practical thoughts I have on the matter while also discussing music, art, architecture and the theory and purpose of the liturgy. Again, I do not for a moment pretend to be a liturgical expert. I would never presume to tell my fellow priests (who are usually far more experienced than I am) how to celebrate Mass. My own experience comes from 10 years as an Anglican priest and 14 years as a Catholic priest.

However, while I do not claim to be an expert, what I have written is be based on sound principles as set forth in Church documents, The Spirit of the Liturgy, further research and most of all from the experience I have had at the altar and with the people of God.