As Roman Catholics, a large part of our mission to “spread the Good News” takes the form of liturgical celebration. It could be said that the liturgy of the Church is the vessel of Her teachings; it carries and communicates them with the dual function of forming the intellect and nourishing the soul. And this is not accidental. Indeed, this is why liturgy exists. We don’t devote time and effort in discussing, living, and defending it for our own gratification. Rather, we do so devote ourselves to it because to forsake it is to abandon part of the Christian ethos. Christian worship serves to elevate us (at least, it ought to). It lifts up our voices, our hearts, our souls, and brings them all to a higher plane, to a place where, for an hour on Sunday, Heaven and Earth seem to meet upon our altars.
In discussing liturgy, there is always the risk (or perhaps “certainty”?) of having an errant commenter spreading the Gospel of Misinformation, crying aloud “You worship the rubrics, not God!” Well, naturally, we could say this person is worshipping weak arguments, deifying his lack of critical thought, but that’s beside the point. What is important, though, is that we demonstrate that care for the liturgy is, in fact, care for God. We adorn our altars with fine linens just as we would dress our Lord in choicest fabrics. We sweep our aisles and vestibules just as Mary and Martha doubtless scoured their house before Our Lord visited them. Since we have Christ among us sacramentally, we must take the same care that those who had Him in the flesh took. It is the very least that we can do.
But, building upon this “very least we can do,” we must realize, each of us, that we can do so much more. Put your sentiments into action: join the choir, volunteer to wash altar linens, sign up for the night-watch at perpetual adoration! All of these things, in their own ways, build up the Church. And notice, they each have a liturgical dimension to them. When you join the choir, you actively beautify the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. When you wash altar linens, you facilitate the proper treatment of Christ’s Body and Blood. When you kneel in silent prayer at St. John’s or St. Thomas the Apostle into the late hours of the night, you are guarding Our Lord like an ever-vigilant angel.
We must take care to engage in these ministries well and often. For just think what a disservice it would be to encounter lackluster devotion in any of these areas. A first-time adorer comes into the Adoration Chapel and sees you sleeping, just as Our Lord saw His dearest Apostles sleeping in Gethsemane. The altar linens are wrinkled, sullied, and yet still must be used to purify the sacred vessels. You join the choir, and prefer to sing music to your liking, not the repertoire given us by the Church. Just because we say we are offering our time and talent as a sacrifice, it does not mean that it necessarily is a sacrifice. Would one really feel like his soul is being linked to the Holy Mass when singing in the choir is more like a social-hour or Bible Camp sing-along? No, there is no sense of sacrifice there, and sacrifice is what makes our liturgies holy. The Mass is called the “Holy Sacrifice” because Christ poured out His Blood for us; He did not take the easy way out, so to speak. He gave wholly of himself, in absolute humility.
And it is this humility that must be reflected in our interaction with the sacred, especially through the Church’s liturgies. Recently, I encountered a gentleman who was comparing two Christmastime liturgical functions. They were both “Lessons and Carols,” one offered at Sacred Heart Cathedral, and the other at St. Thomas the Apostle. Naturally, these are not on the same level of solemnity as a Mass, as reciting the Divine Office, etc. However, they both should serve, as we first said, as vessels which convey the Truth of our Faith. The man said to me:
“The one at Sacred Heart was not…holy. It was fun, yeah…but it wasn’t in keeping with the setting. You’re in the cathedral, but you don’t act like it. That’s a shame. The music seemed to reflect the tastes of the people in charge, and didn’t really make me feel ‘Christmasy.’ Okay, we’re talking about Creation and Baby Jesus, and Mary. Great. But then what? I’m sorry, but there was no sense of dignity at all. But the St. Thomas one…it was subdued, but so much more joyful! It conveyed a sense of the mystery of Christmas. ‘Why did He choose this?’ I may not have known what the Latin chant meant, but I didn’t need to know the exact words. It spoke to my soul…I don’t know how. But it did.”
This man is about as “non-partisan” as one can be. He is unbiased in every sense, and is a good Catholic. Not knowing anything about the “Liturgy Wars” that rage about us, in our sanctuaries and in our comment boxes, he summarized the difference between Progressive and Traditional liturgy. The former talks down to you, presuming you can’t understanding the deep Truths of our Faith. It spoon-feeds you mashed-up doctrine, making airplane noises so as to get you to open your mouth, er, “hanger.” Traditional liturgy treats you as an adult, as someone capable of thought. It brings you to a place that stands outside of time. Try snapping your fingers to a piece of chant – it won’t work. That’s because it’s not supposed to. Songs like “Gather Us In” are fun, sure, and appeal to people of all ages. That’s because they’re fun…not because they’re sacred. They blur the lines between what is sacred and profane, and lead people to think that because something is fun, because something feels good, makes us happy, it must, then, be okay for church use.
Traditional liturgy hinged on humility, on realizing the sacred. There is nothing humble about what we see at most Masses. Through the demeanor of those in the sanctuary, the tone of the music, the sentiments of the congregation, it’s as if the Mass becomes solely about us. It is not. It is about Him, and His sacrifice for us. But this isn’t the fault of any of those people. Liturgy has been watered-down for two or three generations, and these are the fruits. We are brought to church, to Calvary, by the joy and liberation of the empty tomb. But this does not mitigate the solemnity which must be observed when we remember Christ’s unbloody immolation. If we simply do what the Church asks of us, and leave our personal tastes out of it, a pure offering will be made, one not stained by partisan bickering, by personality, by ability or lack thereof. The rubrics are there, not to be worshipped, but to be followed for the edification of the faithful. If you are a priest, the words given to you by the Church in the Roman Missal are not there because it made someone happy to translate “pro multis” as “for many.” Happiness has nothing to do with what is right. (St. Thomas More can doubtless explain that better than I.) Things come to us, not as the work of self-motivated individuals, but rather, as the cultural and religious condensation of centuries of prayer, of refinement, of a striving towards perfection.
Personal opinions undoubtedly exist. We all have doubts, problems, pet-peeves. But the Mass, the liturgical life of the Church, is not the venue to share them with others, to inflict and enforce them on the body of Christ’s believers. I personally enjoy many things that have no place at Mass. They are not sacred, and doing, hearing them at Mass does not make them so. Rather, that would diminish the sacredness of the celebration for those who do not share my individual tastes. The fact that I do enjoy traditional worship is just as irrelevant and ancillary to the nature of sacrifice as is one’s enjoyment of bongo drums and electric guitars. One’s tastes are for oneself. The Mass is for all. Therefore, to let it be tainted by this cult of individuality is to reduce by a great degree the sacred nature of the universal Sacrifice. Let the authentic nature of Roman liturgy speak to your soul. Listen. Breathe it in. Let it wash over you, and transport you from this transient world into an eternal one.