Liturgical Reflections

This long, self indulgent post is inspired by a conversation I had a number of weeks ago on Twitter with a self-confessed atheist. 

I started writing this at Easter: I thought, at this time, just after the annual celebration of the most sacred Triduum of the crucified, buried and risen Lord; the liturgical, theological and spiritual centre of the Church's life and the culmination of the entire liturgical year, it would be worth reflecting a little on liturgy.

What is Liturgy? 

Within the Roman Catholic Tradition, liturgy designates the public worship (that is, prayer) of the Church which takes place in communion with the local bishop according to the norms approved by the Roman See. To call it public designates it an activity of an assembly of believers visibly gathered.

The word 'liturgy' derives from the Greek leitourgia, a word compounded from laos (people) and ergon (work).

When studying my B.A. Divinity at Maryvale, I found it strange that Liturgy was not covered in more depth. As a child of Vatican II, tambourines and liturgical dance notwithstanding, who has studied his faith in quite some detail and is thus interested in Summorum Pontificum and the general attention to liturgy given by His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, I have found myself very ignorant of liturgy. I have been at somewhat of a loss at this time of year when we wash feet, venerate crosses and light bonfires. In recent years, I have found myself more drawn in to the Triduum, although a penchant for holidays often finds me abroad at this time of year, or worse, in Ireland (gasp!) where liturgy 'lite' is the order of the day, dumbing down the Mass is the prevalent direction & a decent liturgical celebration has thus far eluded me, although you have to turn up to Mass an hour early in order to get a seat in even the most remote parish churches (oh Eire, how you need good shepherds!).

It seemed that I was not the only one who felt this was an omission in the Maryvale curriculum, as when we were joined by the Rev. Dr. Michael Cullinan M.A., Ph.D., S.T.D., as Course Director, he rapidly instituted a series of lectures on the liturgy. These fostered further interest in me; what Mass means, how it has developed, how much can we recognise from the earliest records of liturgical celebrations, why certain changes have been implemented, which elements are open to development and which are not, etc. Obviously some depth was given to this in modules such as Christology, Ecclesiology, & Eucharist, but nothing so much as the first time I attended the Extraordinary Form of the Mass at my parish church in Leigh-on-Sea. I was inspired by passionate discussions in the Maryvale bar where students young & old would discuss the pros & cons of the Usus Antiquior with quite some vigour! Criticism of 'bad' liturgy facilitated my own, admittedly developing, discernment; liturgy is important. It does matter. Indeed, not an insignificant number of people believe that if we can save the liturgy, we can save the world.

I recognised that, born in 1971, I was ignorant of the liturgy which had been Mass for so many years before the introduction of the Novus Ordo. I wanted to see the Mass my fore-bearers had known. To be honest, my first reaction was 'Ah, so that's why they changed it.' I was confused by much of what I experienced. It was unfamiliar and, clearly, in a foreign language. Yet I was intrigued and began to attempt to find out more. It really didn't take much digging to find out a positive wealth of information, some of which I had (perhaps) forgotten, much of which, however, I had never been taught.

The point is not that these insights are not available to purveyors of the Novus Ordo, but rather that it was the effort of the E.F. that led me to finding out just what Mass should be about. Attending the E.F. has taught me so much about the Novus Ordo and has helped me to pray the Mass more deeply and to involve myself more spiritually. E.F. has lots of little actions that were unfamiliar, but interesting to me. Yes, finding out what it all means has taken effort, but is that necessarily a bad thing? Should everything be necessarily accessible to everyone in the simplest form possible? Indeed, can we even simplify the Mass? Has the simplification process achieved anything other than a creeping relativism that begins by asserting that the effort isn't really necessary, and progresses to the natural conclusion that none of it really matters.

My discovery is that, on the contrary, it does really matter, and that the extra graces we win through extra effort does us immeasurable good to the glory of God!

My two eldest sons express a preference for the E.F. both in terms of attending as parishioners and in their capacity as Altar Servers. At the end of 2009, they approached me and asked if they could be confirmed in the Extraordinary Form at Spanish Place. They both have been clearly influenced by their introduction to the Usus Antiquior. It seems to help provide some clear identity that they really like, it affirms what they are taught at home about the tangible reality and practical nature of the Catholic faith handed down to us through time from the Apostles. It allows them to be Catholic and not feel they need to make excuses for expressing the love they have of God & of their faith.

Fr. Tim Finigan, known widely as the author of The Hermeneutic of Continuity blog, explains the evident benefits of the introduction of the Usus Antiquior as follows:
The introduction of the Traditional Rite will be a proper exercise of the priest’s authority in the liturgy and will be a great benefit to his parish. It will also be an important demonstration of the unity of the parish with the Holy See.
The parish priest needs to be aware of the needs of his parishioners. He will be acutely aware of the failure of the Church in England and Wales effectively to teach the doctrine of the Catholic Faith to children and the consequent lack of basic knowledge of many of his adult parishioners. They also feel this lack. He will also be aware of the failure of the liturgy as it is often celebrated, to communicate a sense of the sacred. People hold conversations in Church, receive Holy Communion without preparation or thanksgiving, and often without actually living according to the law of the Church, as for example is the case with many cohabiting couples. 
Our people have need of a new experience of the sacred liturgy that speaks to them of the eternal and the transcendent. Despite well over thirty years of vernacular liturgy designed to be intelligible, people often do not understand that the Mass is a sacrifice or that Christ is substantially present in the Holy Eucharist. The very idea that the Liturgy is capable of immediate intelligibility is itself an indication that we have misunderstood the nature of that Liturgy.
The restoration of the Classical Roman Rite to our parishes cannot of itself solve all these problems immediately; but it cannot be denied that it is a help in arresting the decline. The very unfamiliarity of the rite and its striking difference from the manner in which Mass is ordinarily celebrated helps to raise those questions about the Liturgy that our people most need to be confronted with.
The above text is taken from a ‘nuts and bolts’ lecture given by Fr. Tim at the LMS Merton College training conference for priests. You can read the whole text here. I think it sums up some very valuable potential benefits, and identifies some problems which even those of us who are not priests, must be able to identify with from our own experiences.

Now, fortunately, Mass in Leigh-on-Sea tends to be a truly beautiful thing. Comparing my own experience there with what I have experienced elsewhere, I have to say that the old maxim, lex orandi, lex credendi, would appear to hold broadly true. What takes place on the altar, the reverence with which the Mass is said, filters down to the congregation, affecting their prayerfulness, the way they pray the Mass, and likely affecting the rest of their lives too, as they must leave Mass having entered a little deeper into the beauty, mystery & majesty of the Eucharist. I have also noticed this since the New Translation has been introduced. Chatting with priests tends to provide support for my belief that the New Translation has indeed (broadly) altered the way the people pray the Mass. Perhaps most noticeably, the way they approach the blessed sacrament; the number of people genuflecting before receiving, more often than not, on the tongue, which has been the norm of the Church through centuries, and as is clearly encouraged currently by the Holy Father.

I would stress that I also know wonderful priests who would disagree with that, consider the New Translation unnecessary and seem almost intimidated by the current resurgence of Latin. I find this somewhat difficult to understand to be honest, despite that one priest in particular, is a close friend of mine. Perhaps I am too docile in that in these matters, which I understand I lack depth of knowledge, I happy quite happy to be led by Rome. I recall many a wonderful youth Mass I experienced growing up, in the Dove Cote at the Across Trust in Lourdes, or at Hosanna House, with the HCPT. Also many wonderful Masses at Walsingham House in Chingford or at other retreat centres. I thought that was what it was all about, all hugging each other, and doing the liturgy our way; young people's way. When I'd get home I would find Mass pure drudgery and long to be back on pilgrimage or retreat where we could be involved and put real life into the liturgy. I recall some wise priest telling me once that actually, Mass is not about us feeling entertained. It is something we do for God. We can't do much for him, but we do it in the way a child picks wild flowers for a parent. Not because the parent needs the wild flowers, but because we do. This struck me as a massively profound statement. Mass is not for us in the sense that it's some sort of show to entertain us, but in the sense that we are made to worship God, and worshipping him is great!

This leads me then to conclude that it's not about E.F. or N.O. That it's not about Latin or English. Rather it is about how much we mean it. Latin and E.F. are useful tools in this regard and at this time, when perhaps we have lost some sense of the majesty of what is being re-presented for us at Mass. They may facilitate that for some, but they are not the be all and end all of liturgy; the love we put into it is. The effort we make and the reverence with which we concentrate, focus and conduct our every action for that short period of time.

I hope that outlines my own journey. I don't see myself as a 'traddie', (although my friends who don't like E.F. inevitably stereotype me as such). I'm not ultra-orthodox and definitely not an expert; I constantly learn new and exciting things from Catholic bloggers like Fr. Tim, Counter Cultural Father, Caroline Farrow, and Joseph Shaw. To these people, I am sure, I am still largely a heretic, in the sense that I still love a good youth Mass and rarely baulk at what appears to others, blatant liturgical abuse. To be honest, I probably wouldn't even notice most things (like this for example). I got a great deal from the Masses of my youth, here and on numerous visits to Lourdes, outside, or in huge Basilicas with thousands of young Evangelical Catholics singing out their love for God at the top of their voices.

I wanted to be St. Francis when I was a kid and thought my faith was all about rolling up my sleeves and getting stuck in; feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison, etc. etc, rather than about rules and long boring homilies. Much of that has not really changed in me. I do try to be orthodox in following the faith of the Catholic Church, not my own interpretation of that faith, believing in the Holy Spirit's influence, the Hermeneutic of Continuity & Reform which has led us to this point in the history of the Church, and the wonderful Tradition and history of Catholicism. This means humility. I want to enter the kingdom as a little child (c.f. Matthew 18:3), approaching the Almighty God cum timore et amore, acknowledging my existence rests on Him, trying to discern His plan for my life with humility. 

Now, I want to change tack and come at the subject this way:

It is well documented that Twitter, being the medium it is, provides huge scope for all kinds of internet monsters to pester, prod and pick. If you put yourself out there, especially in terms of faith, you can be sure to attract the worst of these parasites, who seem to exist solely in order to spend hours and hours spewing invective at total strangers in order to convince them that they are hopelessly lost in their relationship with God, and their concept of life, the universe and everything. They should recant their faith and embrace the reasonable cult of nothingness, as promulgated by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Christopher Hitchens (R.I.P.), Sam Harris et al.

Firstly I would like to point out that, echoing Fr. Sean Finnegan, a few nuts in a box, will, when shaken, produce a great deal of noise. But that doesn't mean counter points are not worth making. In this instance it struck me that some, more reasonable individuals, might honestly echo some of the more pertinent questions raised. Thus I have selected three comments which really got me thinking over the intervening days:

"All the time which has been wasted taking part in religious services, rituals & praying for help, instead of TAKING positive action"

"All the money that has been wasted on churches, temples, mosques, robes & rituals, even by the most poverty stricken people on Earth"

"Just stop and think how much good could be achieved if all the time and money spent on cult worship was put to more" [SIC]

There seem to be three clear assertions that I can discern here:

1. Ritual (by which I think our friend would mean liturgical worship) and prayer are a waste of time.
2. Time wasted in prayer & ritual should be used taking positive action.
3. Money spent on places of worship, or religious items, is wasted and should be used to feed the poor.

Perhaps it is Interesting that these comments did not cause me to question the validity of liturgical worship or prayer, or the money we invest in these endeavours, but rather, caused me to consider how much this individual was lacking, and how much he has misunderstood. This feeling was compounded by my wife yesterday. We have the fortune to belong to a Parish where the Pastor knows about liturgy and is passionate. We have, of course, experienced many varying degrees of liturgical awareness; as children of the Seventies, we grew up with the happy-clappy youth culture of tambourines and liturgical dance which grew out of the imposition of the Novus Ordo. We knew nothing else and it was good in lots of ways. The freedom of expression well known to our Evangelical brothers and sisters is an honest form of worship, it comes straight from the heart. However, experiencing a priest who takes liturgy seriously was, frankly, a revelation. Like a starving man finding someone who is giving away roast dinners.

My own desire for better liturgy grew from a developing understanding of my faith. I began to consider what it was I was doing at Mass, and whether I believed that, or not. I am the sort of person who can not act out something I do not believe. So what am I partaking in at Mass? It struck me that by assenting to the Real Presence at Holy Communion (i.e. saying "Amen"- so be it), I am acknowledging that at Mass, the living God is really and truly present, body, blood, soul & divinity. This awesome fact struck me hard and I felt confronted with some stark choices about what the liturgy of the Mass actually meant to me. I could continue to be present, but without much engagement, or I could enter into the mystery and power of the ritual, which has taken place every single day throughout history, since the final meal shared by Jesus with his disciples in the upper room in Jerusalem. This constitutes an unbroken chain of memory, not faith found in a book, but a collective recalling of actual events, which has been passed down to me through generations.

Ritual is an act of meaning-making. Societies suffer from entropy; a breakdown of order over time. Religion is the great counter-entropic force that prevents the decay or disintegration of order by performative acts that renew the collective order of the group. Meanings are socially constructed and exist in the form of words, stories, traditions. They belong to the shared life of communities and involve a living connection to the past; that's what tradition means, from the Latin tradere: handing on.

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