If we believe that God created the world and us in it, if we believe that He did so out of an overflowing of divine love, if we believe that we were created that we might return that love to God and to His creation, then these facts should inform everything we do.
Most especially, it should permeate how we converse with and adore our Creator in our private prayer and in our community prayer.
We are called to full and active participation in the liturgy by Popes and Councils, and as Pope Benedict XVI reminds us, “active” participation does not necessarily equal “external activity”.1
However, for those who prepare and celebrate and minister in the liturgy, it’s a slightly different story. Since they lead us in prayer, they must cultivate a certain ars celebrandi in the liturgy. They perhaps echo the words of Saint James when he says, “I by my works will show you my faith”.2
When I was in RCIA ten years ago and more, we were taught the minimum requirements. This seems to be a disease in the Church; there are an awful lot of people who are only interested in doing the minimum required.
But if we are truly in love with Christ and His Church, won’t we want to do more than the minimum? Won’t we want to do everything we can to draw closer to the beloved?
How would your spouse feel if you were doing the absolute minimum for him or her? And what would that say about your relationship?
Today, I’d like to explore that a bit more in the context preparing for and celebrating the liturgy.
Against Liturgical Shenanigans
Yes, the liturgy becomes personal, true, and new, not through tomfoolery and banal experiments with the words, but through a courageous entry into the great reality that through the rite is always ahead of us and can never quite be overtaken.
(Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy)
Although I’ve only been Catholic for a little over a decade, I’ve seen my fair share of liturgical shenanigans (or “tomfoolery” if you prefer).
I’ve even seen priests who have changed the order of the rites during the Mass. In some cases, they have left the congregation so confused, that they didn’t know what they should answer and when. So much for active participation!
I’ve seen Priests who vest for Mass in what appear to be bedsheets. Or who only vest in an alb and stole.
I once attended Mass where the Gospel wasn’t proclaimed so much as paraphrased.
Bluegrass Mass? Bob Dylan and Billy Joel sound-alike Masses? Been there. When we were out camping in south-central Washington one year, a low-church Protestant friend of mine went with me to the local Sunday Mass, and he described it as “the Country Bears’ Hootenanny Mass”.
Compare this to what the Church asks of us.
Only those Eucharistic Prayers are to be used which are found in the Roman Missal or are legitimately approved by the Apostolic See, and according to the manner and the terms set forth by it. It is not to be tolerated that some Priests take upon themselves the right to compose their own Eucharistic Prayers or to change the same texts approved by the Church, or to introduce others composed by private individuals.
It is the right of the community of Christ’s faithful that especially in the Sunday celebration there should customarily be true and suitable sacred music, and that there should always be an altar, vestments and sacred linens that are dignified, proper, and clean, in accordance with the norms.
Certainly as far as the liturgy is concerned, we cannot say that one song is as good as another. Generic improvisation or the introduction of musical genres which fail to respect the meaning of the liturgy should be avoided.
Or, to sum up:
The reprobated practice by which Priests, Deacons or the faithful here and there alter or vary at will the texts of the Sacred Liturgy that they are charged to pronounce, must cease.
(Redemptionis Sacramentum 59, emphasis mine)
These are not some ancient or obsolete documents. Redemptionis Sacramentum was issued in 2004 and Sacramentum Caritatis in 2007.
Over the course of this past year, what with its meetings, conferences, trips out of state, and weekend camping trips, Francine and I attended Mass at a number of different parishes in different states.
Interestingly, I’ve noticed a gradual move away from the worst of the once-endemic liturgical abuses and shenanigans of the past. I think much of this is due to the presence of young, orthodox priests who have clearly developed a strong, traditional ars celebrandi during their formation.
These priests follow the rubrics. They chant. They pray the Roman Canon with some frequency. And they’re not putting on a show; they’re praying as the Church asks them to pray.
Nevertheless, there were many times when the priest was an island of the sacred in an ocean of the banal.
In more than one place, I witnessed sacristans, servers, and various ministers wandering through the sanctuary, engaged in small tasks and seemingly oblivious to their own comportment or even the presence of God Himself in the tabernacle. They might as well have been working in a shop.
Now imagine a celebrant at the altar, reverently praying with the mind of the Church, surrounded by this same cloud of ministers who aimlessly shuffle around, to all appearances indifferent to the celebration around them or the presence of God Himself on the altar.
I wish I could say that this was an isolated incident.
Beauty, then, is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God Himself and His revelation. These considerations should make us realize the care which is needed, if the liturgical action is to reflect its innate splendour.
These Masses were not only not beautiful, but by their actions the ministers very clearly sent the message that there was nothing serious going on here. Nothing noble. Nothing sacred.
No, it was not beautiful. It was heartbreaking. Just people going through the motions.
We seem to have moved from deliberate shenanigans to indifference and liturgical minimalism.
Against Liturgical Minimalism
Both of my long-time readers know that liturgical minimalism is not a new subject for me. Some of the earliest posts on this blog are on the subject. Here, for example is a post from 2006:
I admit I’m a little peeved. It seems like every time there’s a corner can be cut, we cut it. Every time there’s a choice of doing or not doing, we choose to not do.
Why, oh why do we do this? The message seems to be that this is a heavy obligation and we’ve just got to get through it as quickly as possible.
I read a book by Scott Hahn about the mass called The Lamb’s Supper. The subtitle, and one of the major themes in the book, is “the Mass as Heaven on Earth”. It presents a picture of the liturgy as our most intimate time with God, a reflection of the eternity which we’ve been promised.
Who would want to rush through that?
The Evangelists and Apostles speak of the Church’s relationship with Christ in very intimate terms. Saint Paul compares the love and relationship between husband and wife to that of Christ and His Church. The Church is the bride of Christ.4
And we are the Church. We are the bride.
In the liturgy, we are the bride celebrating the bridegroom, who is Christ Himself. It is our most intimate encounter with the Divine, at least until the four last things.
How we celebrate the liturgy says a lot about our relationship with God.
Are we celebrating the Mass? Or are we just going to Mass?
Are we truly and actively and interiorly participating in the greatest of all possible prayers to God? Or are we just reciting and singing by rote and taking our Communion like it was some sort of participation trophy?
And if it’s the latter, shouldn’t we aspire to more? How can we possibly treat the Beloved like that? We who lavish love and the gifts of the world on our earthly beloveds – whether they be dates, spouses, families, or friends – how can we then deny the same and more to our eternal Beloved?
Relationships transform us. We become more and more like what our beloved sees in us. We try to live up to that impossible ideal we see reflected in their eyes across a candlelit dinner table or a colouring book.
When we are in that first flush of romance – or parenthood – we do everything we can to become worthy of their love. Now what would the liturgy look like if everybody who was participating, everyone who was present, was doing everything they could to become worthy of the love of God?
Wouldn’t we try to give God what He desires? What He deserves? That we will inevitably fall short of that is no possible excuse for not trying.
And in conforming ourselves to the love of God, won’t we then come out of that encounter ready to take on the world?
This is why the Church calls the Eucharist “the source and summit of the whole Christian life”.5
And not just the Mass. The Church encourages every parish to publicly and regularly celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours.6 How many parishes do this, or at least try to do this, and how many just don’t bother?
The liturgy – as the Church hands it down to us in Her splendid multitude of rites and forms – contains riches beyond compare. It is up to us to make use of this treasure and so present ourselves by means of it to God at the altar, at the altar where we join with the greatest offering of all, that of Christ Himself at Golgotha.
Our Liturgical Celebration should be for the Love of God
Francine and I are very fortunate indeed to have found a parish where priest and people eschew liturgical minimalism. In fact, our parish liturgical commission Google site has the following on its first page:
Orthodoxy – fidelity to Catholic teaching
Faithfulness – to Scripture, Tradition, Magisterium
Reverence – for God and the sacred
Obedience – to the rubrics and words of the Missal and the other ritual books
Beauty – that we may touch hearts
Transcendence – that we may lift those hearts to God
Those are our marching orders. Without them, or something very like them, we risk making the liturgy for ourselves rather than for God. Do we always achieve what we aim for? Of course not. Nothing is perfect this side of heaven.
But in love and in obedience, we do our level best.
Without the proper ars celebrandi and the proper interior disposition we risk dumbing down the liturgy for our own convenience, rather than celebrating the liturgy for the glory of God out of our grateful love for Him and His infinite goodness and mercy.
If we make the liturgy for ourselves, it moves away from the divine; it becomes a ridiculous, vulgar, boring theatrical game. We end up with liturgies that resemble variety shows, an amusing Sunday party at which to relax together after a week of work and cares of all sorts.
Once that happens, the faithful go back home, after the celebration of the Eucharist, without having encountered God personally or having heard Him in the inmost depths of their heart.
(Robert Cardinal Sarah, God or Nothing)
God created the world and us in it. He did so out of an overflowing of divine love. We were created that we might return that love to God and to His creation.
So let’s get out there and celebrate!
The Church becomes visible in many ways: in charitable action, in mission projects, in the personal apostolate that every Christian must carry out in his own walk of life. However the place in which she is fully experienced as Church is in the liturgy; it is the act in which we believe that God enters our reality and we can encounter Him, we can touch Him. It is the act in which we come into contact with God: He comes to us and we are illuminated by Him.
(Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience of October 3, 2012)
- cf. Message for the 50th International Eucharistic Congress,
The Spirit of the Liturgy ch. 2.
- Epistle of Saint James 2:18.
- The use of glass vessels was specifically reprobated in Redemptionis Sacramentum 117.
- cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 796.
- This phrase is also sometimes translated as “fount and apex”;
Lumen Gentium 11,
Sacramentum Caritatis subtitle.
- cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1175,
Verbum Domini 62,
Redemptionis Sacramentum 41.