Wednesday, 10 December 2014

What is a good liturgy?

Among my friends, it is customary to talk at great length about liturgy, good and bad. The Second Vatican Council did, after all refer to the Divine Liturgy of the Mass as the "source and summit" of the Christian life, that is, the beginning from which the Christian life flows, and that to which it is aimed and finds its true end. Consequently, we are highly concerned that the liturgy is done correctly. Our conversations often begin with some story of a terrible abuse of the liturgy, and progress from there to a thorough discussion of all things liturgical.

There are certain clear points on what constitutes an abuse. First of all, an abuse occurs when there is a breakdown of obedience to the due authority, which in the case of the Mass, is the rubrics that govern its proper use. Therefore, if one is unsure whether something is an abuse (I will restrict myself for the moment to the Ordinary form of the Roman rite, also known as Novus Ordo) then one can check the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), or the Roman Missal itself.

This on its own would uncover, at least where I live, such a large amount of liturgical abuse that it would fuel our conversations for months. For instance, the GIRM requires that the main place be given to Gregorian chant in the Mass, although this does not exclude other forms of sacred music, of which it names polyphony. I can count on one hand the number of parishes I have heard Gregorian chant or polyphony in the Mass. The same paragraph (41) says that the faithful precisely because they come from diverse cultures should be able to sing at least some of the Ordinary of the Mass, especially the Profession of Faith (the Creed) and the Lord's prayer (Our Father). The noise levels in most parishes go against the rules for sacred silence given in paragraph 45, which extend to before the celebration of Mass begins. Moving away from the sounds side, the GIRM also specifies that the sign of peace, whatever the Conference of Bishops actually decides it should be - the ACBC has it that the most common form is a handshake, although for those belonging to different cultures are not barred from expressing it in their way - needs to be in a sober manner, and only to those who are nearest. Or take an instance of an abuse from a priest: the priest is to wear an alb, stole and chasuble (119) and the chasuble covers the stole (337). There is also an alarming tendency to miss certain prayers, such as the Munda cor meum, which most would not notice since it is a prayer said quietly. Most parishes also have an excessive abundance of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, which are not required and are meant to be used only when the parish is enormous. Plus, EMHC are only meant to be included after those with Holy Orders have become too occupied and the ministers of the altar (in particular, instituted acolytes, or failing that, altar servers) have become over-burdened. Usually what happens in my experience is that someone else is brought up when the altar server is left not doing much. Or consider the building itself: the GIRM mandates that church buildings express the hierarchical structure of the People of God, which means that the ordained have a place distinct from the laity (294). Altars should be fixed and immovable, indeed, made of stone (298, 301). Tabernacles should be in a truly noble, prominent, conspicuous place (314). Sacred vessels (like the chalice and paten) should be made of precious metal (328).

I hope this brief sampling of abuses is a sufficient to get my point across that liturgical abuses happen and are common. Still, another question arises if one pushes deeper: certainly it is the case that obedience to the due authority is proper, but one may still ask why these norms are the way they are. What principles underlie them?

The first principles of liturgy are obvious enough: the liturgy needs to incorporate certain elements that it has had from apostolic times, including reading from the Scriptures (indeed, one way of looking at the canon of Scripture is as the texts which are appropriate for use in the liturgy) and the Sacrifice of the Mass. This latter part will mean that there is a a consecration of the Eucharistic species, and consequently, an institution narrative. The way in which these are done is consequently to be done appropriately. This means that one of the operative words underlying our response and conduct to the Mass is reverence, as the Scriptures themselves frequently demand reverence in the face of an encounter with God.

Reverence is sorely missing in most parishes these days. Reverence, just to be clear, is a combination of respect, awe, and fear. As common instances of lack of reverence the Holy Scriptures are often mostly ignored by the congregation and the Real Presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is mostly disregarded, indeed, the manner in which even the priest celebrates the Mass is conducive to this lack of reverence.

Other words which ought to appear in discussions of proper liturgy include mystery, sacred otherness, awe, beauty and penitence. The otherness, the holiness of God leads to mystery, awe, beauty, whilst our iniquity makes us penitent, particularly in light of the reality of the Cross and sacrifice of Calvary made present in the Mass, a reality which has only ever occurred on account of our sins.

There is, however, a quite distinct angle in addition to these which many of my friends take: they assume that the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (the so-called Latin Mass, although strictly speaking both forms are the Latin Mass) is in principle normative (or close to), and that the Ordinary Form of the Mass should hence be as close to it as possible. Heck, an unusually large number of my liturgically minded friends (compared a random sample) would prefer abrogating the OF Mass and the sole use of the EF. Their basic argument is that the OF is so different that it constitutes a break from tradition and is so significantly inferior to the EF. Some use arguments such as "the Traditional Latin Mass/Tridentine Mass/EF/Vetus Ordo is the Mass of the saints/martyrs/majority of the Church." This is different to saying that it is more reverent or mysterious or so forth, although they also make arguments along those lines. In short, for some, the EF is better because it is more traditional, sine plus.

This year, one of my main interests is to learn about and evaluate the principles that regard the liturgy, particularly the Mass. I intend to do this in three phases: learn how the liturgy developed, learn what the Magisterium considers to be the most important principles in guiding the celebration of the liturgy, and then making comparative study between the OF and EF. By the end of it, I should have a well-informed grasp of the liturgy, and be able to make similarly informed judgements of what directions the reform of the liturgy should take today, particularly by being able to evaluate arguments offered on all sides of the debate.


  1. A collection of disjointed thoughts in response to your post:

    At mass this morning, Fr Chandler gave an interesting homily on Pope St Damascus I, it being his feast today. Something that really struck me was St Damascus was responsible for introducing Latin as the main language of the liturgy since it was the common language of the people. Elements of Greek were still preserved, even to this day. Listening to the homily made me think about the parallels of how mass in the vernacular was (re?) introduced post Vatican II.

    I'm definitely not in the EF only side of the argument. I've said before that my preferred Sunday mass is a missa cantata but I prefer OF over a low EF mass. I like being able to attend different types though because if said reverently, they all bring glory to God and because they all work in different ways to help smooth some very rough edges in my interior life.

    After attending the EF for awhile and I was comfortable with understanding what was happening, I realised that despite the outer layer of strangeness, the EF was actually extremely familiar because of knowing the OF so well. This is even more pronounced of course when attending OF with ad orientem, the use of chanted Latin propers, etc. Even now, I'll sometimes still use the red "Latin mass" missal when at an OF mass if Eucharist Prayer I is used.

    I've also used the line about EF being the mass that so many saints attended etc etc but it also ties into the reasoning that by their fruits you will know them.

    Will you be just looking at the development of the liturgy in the Latin Rite or will you also include Eastern Rites in your studies?

    1. I'm going to include at least one book on the Eastern rites, but there's enough to work through on the Roman rite to take up a whole year, particularly when it constitutes only a tenth of my reading list. I wish I could include them, though, I've sometimes said I prefer them to the Western ones!

  2. Pope Benedict XVI wrote a book or two about the liturgy - perhaps they are on your list?

    There's also a book written by a charismatic evangelical who rediscovered liturgy and explained it really well. His main point of reference is 1970's Anglicanism, but the similarities to the Roman Rite are high, and the section on the Catechumenate is good reading too. It's called "Liturgical Theology" by Simon Chan.