The Liturgy is More than a Text: A meditation on rediscovering a wider understanding of Sacred Liturgy

071714One of the greatest liturgical shifts in the last 60 years has been in the area of language and the spoken word. The almost complete disappearance of Latin is to be lamented, but the use of the vernacular has arguably produced many positive effects. The augmentation of the Scriptures used has also been notable and helpful. In addition, greater emphasis has been placed on preaching and preparing the clergy to preach well.

Great controversy and debate have accompanied these changes. The earliest debates concentrated on the use of Latin vs. the vernacular. Other debates centered on the nature of the Homily (or was it to be called a sermon?): its length, its content, and whether it should be rooted in the Scripture readings or catechetical themes. Almost everyone agreed that Catholic preaching was rather poor. The most recent debates surrounded a twenty-year struggle in English-speaking lands to get authentic translations of the Latin texts promulgated. All of this emphasis and debate on the texts of the Liturgy may well have been necessary and had good effects.

However, this focus on the texts has tended to reduce the Liturgy to its texts alone. Other areas such as architectural and aesthetic beauty, music, the ars celebrandi (the manner in which the clergy and ministers conduct themselves in the liturgy), and deeper theological understanding and appreciation of the Liturgy have all suffered. To some extent, we have reduced the Mass to the proclamation of a text. To many, it seems to matter little if the building is awful, the music is poor, or the meaning of the Liturgy arcane. Just make sure that the priests and others pronounce the text well, that it is intelligible, that the acoustics are good, and that the Homily is “meaningful.”

Perhaps a quote from Uwe Michael Lang would be helpful here:

The sacred liturgy speaks through a variety of “languages” other than language in the strict sense. [These are] non-verbal symbols which are capable of creating a structure of meanings in which individuals can relate one to another… It is my conviction that these non-linguistic or symbolic expressions of the liturgy are, in fact, more important than language itself.

 This would seem especially pertinent in today’s world where images are omnipresent: on TV, video and computer screens … We live in a culture of images … Today the image tends to make a more lasting impression on people’s minds than the spoken word.

The power of image has long been known in the Church’s liturgical tradition, which has used sacred art and architecture as a medium of expression and communication.

 But, in more recent times [there is] observed a tendency to see liturgy only as text. And to limit participation to speaking roles … It certainly applies to a broad stream of liturgical scholarship that has largely focused on liturgical texts that are contained in written sources from late antiquity and the early Middle Ages … This approach is legitimate, at least to a large extent, because the Church’s public worship is ordered to the official texts she uses for it.

However … it is sometimes forgotten that the liturgy is not simply a series of texts to be read, but rather a series of sacred actions to be done … words, music, and movement, together with other visual, even olfactory elements. (Quoted in Sacred Liturgy: The Proceedings of the International Conference on the Sacred Liturgy 2013, Ignatius Press, pp. 187-189.)

Lang goes on to affirm the preoccupation with texts (developing them, translating them, and giving recognition to them) I note above.

Necessary? Sure. But things have gotten a bit out of balance and it is time to focus more on other aspects of the Liturgy for a while. Even a text translated authentically and well delivered can fall flat in an atmosphere of sloppy liturgy, ugly and uninspiring buildings, and poor music. And thus we do well to spend some time now on visual and other non-verbal aspects.

But here, too, a key error is to be averted. For even if the text and all the non-verbals are in relatively good form, without proper liturgical catechesis for both clergy and the laity, the true meaning of the Sacred Liturgy can still be missed altogether and be reduced simply to an aesthetically pleasing action rather than an act of worship.

For example, almost no one asks at the end of a Mass, “Was God worshiped?” Many other questions and concerns will occur to clergy such as, “Were the lectors good and well trained?”, “Did the Homily go well?”, “Were the servers well trained?”, etc. The laity will often rate the Liturgy on the quality of the Homily, the prevalence of favorite songs, the style of worship, hospitality levels, etc. But almost no one asks the key question, “Was God worshiped?”, or more personally, “Did I worship God.”

Sometimes the honest answer is “No.” People largely went through motions and focused more on themselves and what they were doing, or on others and what they were doing, or on whether they “liked it” or not. God was barely considered at all. He may have been spoken to and referenced, but he was not really worshiped.

And this is why liturgical catechesis is so important today in addition to recovering the fuller range of issues beyond the texts themselves. So thanks be to God for our Sacred Texts. But now it seems time to, while still following them, fix our sights on wider issues such as the critical non-verbal, non-textual aspects of the Liturgy. Above all it is time to rediscover God at the heart of every Liturgy.

9 Replies to “The Liturgy is More than a Text: A meditation on rediscovering a wider understanding of Sacred Liturgy”

  1. Thank you, Monsignor, for this excellent post. As one who serves as sacristan and as a server, I appreciate the affirmation concerning the nonverbal dimension of the Liturgy. Ritual gestures are a particular interest of mine in how they communicate the truths of the Faith, the relationship between God and man, a sense of prayer and adoration, and so forth, especially to young children who lack a literary vocabulary and easily drift for lack of a Liturgy celebrated as it is meant to be, i.e., with “colour”, gestural depth,

    Among the college students I encounter at Mass, most express a sincere desire to know more about the meaning of why we do what we do. Once they discover the tip of the iceberg, so-to-speak, a fire catches on in their imaginations which fuels their curiosity and fuels their faith. I have yet to meet a person who, sensitized to the deep meaning of ritual gestures, does not develop a hunger for more, a hunger for a more intimate communion with Jesus and His Church. The proof is in the pudding—in the past year, two young men within in the daily Mass community have applied to seminary and several young women are exploring religious life. The question for the women is more one of ‘Which order do I choose or where do I go?’ than ‘Am I called?’ The individuals in question have all been “alerted” to the profound meaning behind the signs or gestures and have assumed responsibility for learning more. Let us never under estimate the influence of Mass celebrated with decorum, reverence and beauty.

  2. I was taught that the four principle aims of the Mass are: adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication. I would hope that we adore the Lord, in part, through the recitation of the Gloria and Sanctus; ask for forgiveness in the Kyrie, Confiteor and Agnus Dei; ask for what we need in the Canon of the Mass and in the Pater Noster and finally thank the Lord through Holy Communion and the prayers after Communion. Perhaps if these particular portions of the Mass were again recited in Latin, people would pay more attention to the sublimity of these prayers. The choir at the Mass I attend chants certain portions of the Mass and they truly uplift the soul in worship.

  3. Oh yes, “going through the motions…” I see many a family coming through the door at the “59th min & 29th second” before the start of Mass. Dragging their children behind them with their sippy cups, toys and/or electronic tablets. It’s across the board, many have loaded their lives down with so much activity that it’s become compartmentalized and prioritized. They’ve put God in a box, if you will, and He’s taken out of the box on Sunday. And while they’re there at Mass they stand with their hands in their pockets with blank stares not saying a word. It’s like they’re saying “OK, do it to me, I’m here now”. Active participation, what’s that?Then He’s put back in the box after Mass. If there’s some sports activity going on that day well it may trump God and Mass that day. Some complain “I’m not being fed”, well, I can’t buy into that either. What have they been bringing to the celebration? What, if any skin do they have in the game? Perhaps a good example would be the Maggi, they brought the best to the worship table. Shouldn’t we as well bring our very best? I don’t know, I’m just sayin it’s pretty frustrating. I just don’t know what to make of it. Maybe this is a good example of the “weeds among the wheat”? Patience & mercy given to all….

  4. GOOD DAY Monsignor Pope,
    Last Sunday a family came in right before the homily, the toddlers were talking out loud, and both parents were constantly saying “shhh” but had no control. I didn’t want to do it, but no one else said anything. I turned around and whispered to the mother, “there is a room at the back, and you can hear the mass from there.” The lady seemed shocked and insulted. I felt guilty inside. But I was very glad to be able to listen to our new priest who is from Poland and gives wonderful sermons (somewhat like yours, Monsignor!)
    My point? I guess just sharing my experience of doing my best to worship and listen to God.

    I love attending Mass. And all week, I try to work out my salvation by doing God’s will and being kind to others. I get stuff wrong at times, but I keep trying. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass gives me strenghth and hope to carry on.

    Yours in Christ, anna

    Padre Pio, intercede for us and help us to make a good confession!

  5. Our hearts and minds need the influence of that which touches our senses: Beautiful vestments, beautiful reverence, beautiful statues, beautiful interior architecture, stain glass windows that are beautiful to look at and that teach aspects of our faith and/or our church history, hymns that are directed toward God and not the people and are played on the organ and beautiful sounding instruments, the use of incense (it’s beautiful during the elevation), the use of the bells, beautiful chalices and ciborium worthy of the King of Kings, devotions such as Corpus Christi with all it’s regalia, use of Latin (even if only in certain parts of the Mass), etc.. All these things help to bring the sacred into our midst, to our awareness aiding us in our worship, tantalizing the senses of children, of possible future vocations. One of the things that always makes me feel like I am fully participating in the worship of God is when I am in a congregation where everyone is responding in the Liturgy with all their heart and where the singing of the people fills the church to the rafters. Sadly, this happens infrequently, maybe a few times a year such as a Priestly Ordination, Christmas and maybe Easter. What a difference this active participation makes in the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy! Yes, the translation of the sacred text needs to be accurate, homilies help when they are well rounded including an explanation of the readings as well as catechesis for our times and adherence to the Mass as the Church calls for in any church one should enter is all necessary but it is the whole package together that lends support in the sacred worship that rises up to God.

    Look to St. Peter’s Church in Omaha, Nebraska and to St. John Cantius Church in Chicago for such changes. Here is a link to a video produced by Storytel Productions for St. John Cantius, Chicago on how looking at the whole package has made a huge difference in the worship, active participation and an increase in parishioners/weekly attendance in their church:

    Thank you, Msgr., for looking into this most important topic!


  6. Wonderfully said. We have much to lean from our Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic Brethren. They know how to worship the Holy Trinity. They worship God with all their senses at the Divine Liturgies. Their walls are filled with the Holy Icons and the Iconostasis. They have wonderful vestments. They have keep their sacred music and chants. They Chant the entire Mass/Divine Liturgy, which goes back to the apostles and the our Lords own roots in Temple Worship in the Old Covenant. Every piece of worship music, every action of the priest and deacon should bring us to wholesome worship of God. We are not on Stage performing to an audience. We are there to lead others, the faithful to the foot of Calvary to the Holy Sacrifice of Jesus upon the Cross, his death and resurrection from the dead. A good friend of my, a holy priest in our diocese of Buffalo was made pastor of 3 churches. One of the first things he did, is more our Lord to the Center of the Churches at the High Altar where he belongs. Some people complained. Eventually, people developed a true understanding of the true presence of Jesus in the reserved Eucharist at the Altar.Eucharist adoration soon followed. All things must be in balanced. I think if one logically reads the rubrics of the Missal they indicate that the priest is facing Liturgical East, so it would seem that the liturgical Ideal has remained the same, but hardly no one adheres to it. Pope Emeritus said in his book on the Spirit of the Liturgy that it was a mistake for the Church to have allowed the altar to be moved so the priest could face the people. I agree with this Holy Man of God. I pray one day the Church’s leaders will wake up and smell the incense.

  7. Yes, actuosa participatio is required from the heart of both the priest and the lay faithful in order that they may answer the question, “Did I worship God?” Everything done in the Mass should be naturally and supernaturally beautiful and peaceful to the senses so that one is not distracted from or preempted from worshipping God in the sanctuary and nave.

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