Finding Beauty in the Liturgy, or Not
We Need to Rethink How and What We're Doing at Mass
We all know that the center of our faith is belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. And that the best way to approach the Eucharist is through the sacrifice of the Mass.
My belief in the Real Presence is unshakeable. Jesus Christ told us his flesh was real food and his blood was real drink and that those who drink his blood and eat his flesh will have eternal life. I don't understand it, but I believe it. That’s all that matters. Where faith is concerned mere human knowledge and understanding are irrelevant. Jesus said it and that's good enough for me.
Yet we know from recent reports that only about 30-percent of Catholics actually believe in the Real Presence. Percentages are higher among those who attend weekly or daily Mass, but obviously lower for those who skip their Sunday obligation.
It does not help that our good practicing Catholic president champions the abomination called abortion and is nevertheless welcomed to the Blessed Sacrament by none other than his Washington neighbor, Cardinal Wilton Gregory. This sort of confusion weakens the very words of Jesus.
Because I know I need the saving power of the Eucharist in my life, I try to attend Mass at least once or twice during the week in addition to my usual Sunday liturgy. But all too often I find that I leave the chapel disappointed, confused, cheated and even angry.
If the Mass is the perfect expression of the mystery of the Body of Christ why don't we exert every effort to make it as beautiful and reverent as possible?
As a seminarian in the 1950s and early 60s I attended daily Mass, and two on Sundays. They were in Latin of course. The entire community practiced the Gregorian Chants for Sunday Mass and Vespers. Compline was sung Saturday night. The services were executed to absolute perfection.
We believed that in making our very best effort we were enhancing the beauty and effectiveness of the liturgy. We were taught that sacraments and sacramentals were meritorious in two ways: by the deed in itself, and also by the conduct of the doer. (Ex opere operato et ex opere operantis, in Latin.) In other words, the Mass, or a Rosary, has intrinsic value, but this value is augmented through the reverence and devotion with which it is performed.
Our prefects and teachers exemplified this drive for excellence by strictly following liturgical protocol and doing so with extreme reverence and awe at the reality of their actions. They attempted to instill this same passion in us, with a measure of success that still resonates after so many years.
I am troubled by the casual attitude toward the liturgy not only among some Catholic believers today but also in the attitudes and mannerisms of some of the celebrants of the Mass. I am not a fan of the vernacular liturgy, the Novus Ordo, but admit that it can be moving and highly devotional if executed with the same reverence and respect we seminarians practiced back in the old days.
At many Masses today, the very first words of the liturgy are often embellished by the celebrant with offhand comments about the weather, recent sporting events, and other nonsense. As soon as I hear something like that I want to shout, "Just stick to the script, Father!" I do not need to be "welcomed" to the Mass or "thanked" for coming or told his favorite team won last night.
After the initial prayer we listen to the readings, often from one of the Epistles or the Old Testament, but lately from the Apocalypse. The Lector, or reader, emerges from the congregation, bows, and approaches the microphone. It is often difficult to understand this person because it seems just about anyone can be a Lector with no special training or ability in diction or enunciation.
A friend moans, "I don't know why I even go, I don't understand a word they're saying." I could see his complaint if they were talking Latin, but they're not. After the Epistle the celebrant reads the Gospel. Usually he is understandable, being more accustomed to speaking in public.
When we get to the homily we discover if the celebrant has prepared something special for this Mass or is just throwing together some off the cuff comments. Ideally, he should be expanding on either the Epistle or the Gospel message. These days, with readings from the Apocalypse, it would be helpful to at least hear an opinion of what St. John is talking about. A well-crafted homily is terse, relevant, memorable and short.
Then the true sacrifice begins. The words of the consecration are beautiful and sacred, meaningful and moving. But sometimes I wonder if the celebrant truly understands the essence of what he is saying. If he did I think he would find it almost impossible to speak the words. Yet often they are recited in a casual and off-hand manner, contrary to the awesome reality they represent.
Before communion, the priest holds the Sacred Host aloft and proclaims, "Behold, The Lamb of God." These are the most powerful words in the English language, and must be proclaimed boldly and clearly. Often they are not. A very pious priest I once knew delivered this miraculous proclamation with something like "Be Whole the Lammaga." What's a "Lammaga"? I asked him one day.
And so it goes. If we really believe that Christ is present in the Eucharist and that the Mass is the best way to approach Him, why don't we make every effort humanly possible to assure that the liturgy is the highest expression of our love and devotion to our Lord and Savior? Instead we give Him sappy songs, wandering homilies, and a lot of extraneous commentary.
One can argue that, "well, real Catholics understand what's being said because they've heard the words so often." This is true, but what about the folks who don't hear them often, or are hearing them for the first time? What about visitors who are exploring the faith? Is this the type of evangelization that will bring them across the Tiber?
Recognizing its crisis situation, the Church is currently seeking enhanced lay participation in parish life. Many parishes have a liturgy committee; all have parish councils. When Father expresses concern over empty pews, it is time for lay leadership to step up and tell him that the parish liturgy is wanting in devotion and reverence, and even he may be part of the problem.
I am not impugning the devotion or sanctity of any of our clergy. To be a priest is to be a hero in my estimation. But often celebrants, being human, fail to realize that the impression of reverence they project is often the factor that determines whether a person comes back to Mass again or not.
If he "doesn't understand a word" or sees an overly casual attitude at the podium or altar he may ask himself "why do I even bother going?"