Why the Liturgy Matters


I. The Liturgy and Arius

I was reading a few Lutheran blogs last night to wind down from some last-minute studying for the exam I took this morning, and came across a post called “Why non-Liturgical Worship Cannot be Lutheran” by one Dr. Jack Kilcrease. His arguments are from a Lutheran standpoint, so there were a number of issues on which Catholics wouldn’t agree, but for quite a few of his points, I found myself nodding in agreement. One particularly astute point:

The Formula of Concord states that we should not abandon any of the traditions of the Church unless they contradict the Scriptures. This is partially because they help maintain continuity with the Church-catholic (which is important if we don’t want to be a sect), but also because they teach the faith even when we have faithless teachers.
A good example of this is during the Arian controversy. In spite of the fact that Arius and some other Bishops were teaching the faith incorrectly, a great many of the laity were still saved by the fact that the liturgy contained true expositions of the faith. Liturgy saves us from unskilled or heretical pastors and teachers. It promotes and preserves the faith.
That’s a fantastic point. As a concrete example, a heretical priest might give a homily in which he denies the masculinity of God, but the Liturgy is so full of masculine references (from the Creed, to the Our Father, to virtually every other prayer at Mass) that even priests who go out of their way to emasculate God fail miserably. The priest might say “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier,” instead of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” but if he’s not really careful, he’ll start using the actual words of the Mass, like “On the night before He suffered, He took bread into His Sacred Hands, and looking up to You, His Almighty Father,” and before he knows it, the priest has let slip that (gosh!) Catholics believe that Jesus and His Father, along with the Holy Spirit, are properly referred to in masculine relational terms, like “Father” and “Son.”

This is more important than it might seem, since some unlucky souls may have Fr. Heretic (or should we say “Parent” Heretic?) as their soul priest during their formative years. Anyone “with ears to hear,” even an astute child, can pick up that the priest isn’t preaching the same faith as the folks who made the Liturgy he claims to be carrying forward into the future. It’s a dead giveaway that the priest is a rascal and a fraud. Without the Liturgy, it would be up to our emasculating priest to design the entire worship service. Needless to say, the end result wouldn’t be remotely Catholic. The Liturgy virtually forces Catholics to stop worshiping themselves and start worshiping the One who deserve praise.

II. The Ideal Liturgy

Given everything both I and Dr. Kilcrease say above, it’s clear that a good Liturgy has certain implicit qualities which make it capable of naturally fending off heresies. Here are the ones I’ve come up with:

  1. The Liturgy Can Be Understood – Either the Liturgy is in a language that the participants understand, or at least, that Missals are provided with translations. If people genuinely don’t know what they’re saying, they’re not really praying what they’re saying, defeating the point of a universal Liturgy. And if they don’t know what the Liturgy says, how can it stand as a corrective against heresy?

  2. The Liturgy Creates a Sense of the Sacred – the Liturgy, rightly done, draws the senses upwards, and makes our souls more receptive to God. But it also speaks with authority. One way that it does this is through formal, solemn, mature language. There’s a reason we say “Our Father” instead of “Yo, Pops,” in addressing God at Mass.
  3. The Liturgy Unites Us as Catholics – When a Catholic in Mumbai goes to Mass, he prays something nearly identical to his brother or sister at Mass in Stockholm, or Kyoto, or Kansas City. It’s remarkable, and it’s prophesied (Malachi 1:11; Daniel 2:35). Even where different Rites, or different forms of the Mass are used, the Liturgies are remarkably similar. This uniformity and unity is more than just heart-warming, it’s also edifying. If the Church teaches one thing in Kyoto, and another in Stockholm, one of those places is in the wrong. By praying the same prayers everywhere, the chances of one church veering too far afield are reduced. Parts of the Church may die off (as once-vibrant Catholic North Africa did), but the unverisal Catholic Church never has and never will (Matthew 16:19). So if we’re praying in harmony with the global Church, we’re on the right track.

  4. The Liturgy Exists Above and Beyond the Celebrant – This point is simple. While some flexibility is fine (and even beneficial), if the priest decides too much of what the Liturgy will or will not contain, it quickly devolves into Father So-and-so’s personal worship style (complete with Father So-and-so’s unique theological “quirks”), the very phenomenon the Liturgy intends to avoid.

An ideal Liturgy possesses much more than just these four traits, but these were ones I thought worth drawing out to consider within the confines of the Mass, as celebrated in the Latin Rite. The reason is that I think we’ve existed in a bit of a crisis for some time, a victim of our own success, and there are legitimate questions to explore in going forward.

III. The Ideal Liturgy and the Latin Rite

Each Rite of the Church is tied to a specific language – whether the Liturgy is to be prayed in Latin, Aramaic, Syriac, Greek, and so forth. The Roman Rite is intended to be celebrated in Latin. More specifically, the Mass is ideally meant to be celebrated in Latin, with a congregation which speaks (or at least fluently understands) Latin. The problem is obvious: those settings simply don’t exist anymore. Historically, this is an ironic result of the success of the Roman Rite and of the Latin language: Latin spread so far, under the Roman Empire and then under the Church, that dialects of Latin, cut off from other Latin speakers by thousands of miles, became the separate languages of Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Italian, while in other places, the Latin mixed uneasily with the native tongue (which is why traditional Catholics often refer to the German-derived term “Holy Ghost,” instead of the Latin-derived “Holy Spirit”).

Eventually, Latin became a dead language, with no native speakers, and few fluent speakers of any sort; yet the Latin Rite lived on. This is extremely problematic, because it meant that in many places, the Liturgy could not be understood (see #1, above). All too frequently, lay Catholics would come and do private prayers or the rosary while the priest might be the only one praying the Mass. That’s a problem. The Mass should be the high-point of Catholic worship, and should draw us closer together. If instead, we’re each privately praying separate things, the Mass isn’t achieving its goals. There have been a few solutions:

  • The first was the creation of vernacular versions of the Roman Missal. The Mass was still prayed in Latin by the priest, but the literate laity could follow along in their native tongue.
  • Building off of this, St. Pope Pius X exhorted Catholics: “Do not pray at Mass; pray the Mass” (“Ihr sollt nicht in der Messe, ihr sollt die Messe beten“).

These solutions were very good, but imperfect. Put quite simply, following along in the Missal can be hard under the best of circumstances, and with the priest praying many of the prayers silently, it was a bit of a guessing game. (Having been to a number of Latin Masses, I can safely say I haven’t yet mastered the art of praying the Mass in English simultaneous to the priest’s praying it in Latin). And that’s under the best of circumstances. If you’re a mother of nine kids, a situation far from unheard of, trying to read, pray, and keep an eye on the kids can be Herculean.

After Vatican II, the Church under Pope Paul VI went in a different direction. The Mass was translated into the vernacular, the silent prayers were virtually eliminated, and major steps were taken to ensure the involvement of the laity. This term “involvement of the laity” has an ugly history. Originally, it just meant ensuring that the laity was actually praying the same thing the priest was praying. This is an obvious goal which all Catholics should embrace: regardless of one’s preferred liturgical language, if the laity isn’t praying in harmony with the celebrant, something’s radically amiss. All too frequently, though, “involvement of the laity” came to mean the laity assuming as many roles of the priest as possible (and some which weren’t possible). That’s not something the Church needs — the laity have a legitimate calling within the Mass, and to shirk that calling in order to trample on the priest’s vocation is doubly wrong. Other changes can also be safely called “over-corrections.” In an ill-advised attempt to increase lay participation in the Mass, many churches stripped the altars, turned everything around, and had the priest facing the people instead of facing God.

At its worst, the Ordinary Form of the Mass has been a disaster. It’s prayed irreverently, loses much of the sense of the sacred, uses embarrassingly dumbed-down English (in particular), and causes divisiveness within the congregation. Masses become increasingly segregated: a guitar Mass for the young people, a “contemporary worship” Mass for the Mass-goers who enjoy lighter rock, and if one’s lucky, a more classical Mass for those who don’t think the Mass is the place for “Top 4o” rejects. Like much of Western culture, it’s become excessive to the point of psychosis – constant, constant stimulation at the expense of tranquility or focus, at a time when reflection and devotion are most needed. But the Mass doesn’t have to be like that – in fact, if one reads the relevant liturgical texts, the Mass never should be like that.

At its finest, the Ordinary Form of the Mass does a wonderful job of meeting the four criteria of an ideal Liturgy. It’s in formalized English (particularly once the new ICEL translations take effect, in the near future), that’s still easy to understand. We know what we’re saying while we’re saying it, because it’s our mother tongue, so it’s a bit easier to focus, pray, and follow along. But it never becomes simply “talking,” in the way we talk to one another – we speak to God as if He’s God, not an idiot. And while the Ordinary Form has some options (like Eucharistic Prayers 1-4), the amount of lawful “tinkering” which is permitted is minimal. Because we can hear and understand the Mass, we can know if the priest is a tinkerer or a servant of the Church. Meanwhile, all of the vernacular translations of the Mass are translations of the Ordinary Form of the Mass in Latin. So every language within the Roman Rite is praying something virtually-identical with one another, simply in a different language.

We should have the humility to realize that we’re encountering the Roman Rite at a transition point in Her history. Latin has rapidly died, to the point that even speakers of the Romance Languages cannot understand it anymore, that even scholars have ceased needing to know the language, and that many Catholics grow up without even an opportunity to learn the tongue while their minds are still fresh. We need Latin as a lingua franca, but we also benefit from having the Mass in the vernacular. There have been excesses – perhaps the Mass should have more silent prayers on the priest’s behalf, to increase his own reverence, and there seems no good reason not to restore the ad orientum posture, etc. But to some extent, these are the growing pains of the radical corrective needed to put the beautiful Mass into the hands of non-Latin speakers. We should be diligent in trying to improve the Mass, because we love it, but we should be charitable and patient, and most of all, we should recognize that Mass is truly a treasure.

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