March 13, 2023 Marco Island, Florida
The Roman Rite Mass and Language of Ritual Part One
I don’t know what drove us to this point, but I know we’ve been here before. The Liturgy, the Worship of the Church, has over time in history been a like a lightning rod, an explosive source of controversy, tension, that is always a threat to the very unity of the Church which it should be strengthening. In July 2022, our Holy Father, exposed the reality of this fact by a firm and decisive document concerning the primacy of place given to the reforms of the Roman Rite decreed by the Ecumenical Council. His predecessors, fearful of breaking up the church over the refusal of some to accept the Decree of the Council allowed for some use of the Pre-Council Liturgy with the hope that gradually, the church would come together and older people who found the change impossible to accept would eventually pass away. It did not work, and the furor that erupted in reaction to the decision of Pope Francis should be all we need as evidence that as a church we are already broken. The Liturgy itself may not actually have been the only issue, since we are living again through days and years both politically, socially, religiously, and personally that could not be expressed any more clearly than Frank Sinatra did with his a wildly popular song: “I did it my way.” When I asked a priest a year or so ago why he wanted to celebrate Mass in Latin using the old form, his response was: “Because I can.” It was the end of our conversation. I should have come back with a response that I thought of later, but you know how it is: you think of things after it’s too late. I should have said, “Excuse me, I don’t like the possessive pronoun It’s not your liturgy, nor is that parish your church. It’s God’s and you can’t do what you want with it, even if you can. You can’t kill someone even if you can. You can’t stand on one leg to give out Holy Communion even if you can.” (Story about Mom at her parish.)
What I hope you will take from the time we spend together these next two nights is a greater and deeper respect and reverence for what we do knowing why we do it. It is my opinion that those who long for the old Mass often are heard to say that it has more mystery and more reverence. That comment always gets this old red-head a bit fired up. I resent the suggestion that what I do at the altar is in any way lacking in reverence. I feel the same way defensive of the people who gather with me. Quite honestly, the reformed Liturgy as we now have it could very well stand some serious attention when it comes to respect and a spiritual sense of what we we’re doing. I hope that’s why you’ve come here tonight. Many of us can easily remember the 12-minute Latin Mass of our childhood. That was hardly spiritual, reverent, or mysterious. It was fast and efficient. I firmly believe that when we begin to take the sacred Liturgy seriously, pay attention to what we are doing, and become more attentive to what God is doing, the real tradition will be recognized and embraced because what has been restored and emphasized by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council is more traditional than what we did before 1968.
I have no illusions that our time together will change anything that is noticeable or maybe that even matters. Yet, I have thought my way into these talks because the Sacred Liturgy of the Church, and that means all of the sacraments must be for us the ultimate school of prayer. The Liturgy of the Church is our source of life. My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that after the reforms of the Council in the 1960s all we did was change the language, move the furniture around, and learn a few new songs of dubious quality. In other words, we have spent a long time tinkering with the superficial things. Some insist that the Council broke the traditions of the Church. That is a superficial and silly idea of “tradition” which betrays a confusion of tradition and custom. It takes some thought to determine what is a “tradition” and what is a custom. They are not the same. Bread and Wine is the tradition. Gold, wooden, or clay cups is a custom. In war, there is never a winner, and any illusion that we have to “win” is a perfect sign that a disaster is coming. If we are going to survive the cultural wars that have found a place within the Body of Christ, we are must finally dig into the Spiritual meaning, and pay attention to the gestures, and words we use to respond to the Covenant God has offered us. It might be about time to stop being so preoccupied by what we do and open ourselves to what God is doing in the Liturgy. To people in RCIA who are approaching their first celebration of Reconciliation I have often said: “Stop being anxious about what you are going to say and do, and spend at least as much time on what you hope God will say and do for you.” And so, I ask you the question, “When is the last time you approached your parish Sunday assembly wondering and thinking about what God may be planning to do and say?”
Every now and then I hear someone complaining that it’s too noisy in church before Mass. They can’t pray. When I hear that, I know that someone is quite confused and does not seem to know what they are doing or why they have come to church. On Ash Wednesday, we heard a very clear instruction about prayer that should not be confined to Lent. “Go to your room and shut the door” is what we heard. Prayer is an experience of intimacy with God. It is unique to each of us. It is private, it is can be intense or casual. We all need to get something clear in our minds. We come to church to worship – that is not the same experience as prayer. By its very nature, worship is noisy. It is a gathering of God’s people at God’s command, and that gathering is noisy from words of greetings, to crying babies, to the banging of kneelers to the shuffling of feet or the scraping of walkers moving in a steady procession down the aisle toward the source of life.
In some ways, worship as liturgy is a refined taste. That’s different from prayer, and by prayer, I’m not talking about reciting by rote formulas and litanies. I mean a real heart to heart talk with God, with the risen Lord, or why not with his mother? It can mean complaining, whining, or laughing in gratitude. It can also mean just being quiet. After all, if it’s a conversation, you better shut up and take a breath so the other can say something in response.
There is a very important moment in the Sacred Liturgy that expresses exactly who we get together in the church. I’ll be you have forgotten all about it, and I’m here to remind you of what you say. The priest says to you: Let’ us pray that my sacrifice and yours will be acceptable to God our almighty Father. And what do you say? May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, four our good and the good of all his holy Church”. Why are you there? For the praise and the glory of God’s name. We do not come into the Church to get something. Every weekend I see people who don’t get it. They come to get, not to give. They come to “get communion.” As soon as they do, they’re out the door. The purpose of worship the work of the liturgy is give glory to God, to praise God, to thank God. We don’t come to “get” communion. We are present in order to enter into communion, and we don’t do that by racing out the door. We are not there to get points, to avoid sin, or think for one minute that we can stand before God and claim a place in the Kingdom of Heaven by saying, “I never missed Mass.” To that God will say what the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel tell us: “When I was hungry did you give me anything to eat?” We are not going to bargain or bribe our way into the Reign of God.
Liturgy is a learned set of behaviors and actions, not all of which are immediately obvious and not all of which can ever be totally explained. That is because liturgy is ritual. The rituals of our Sacred Liturgy, all say something that we need to understand, and that also means that we must understand that language. There is a consistency about ritual that allows us to be free of worry about what to do next or if we’re going to do it right. It frees us to pay more attention to what God is doing. If something breaks that consistency, if something happens that is not part of the ritual, it’s over.
The order of the liturgy is set, the scripture readings change from day to day. Some argue today that there is too much flexibility and that we should return to “one Roman Rite.” The idea that there was and should be “one” way of doing the Roman Rite is contrary to our history. That’s not true. At the risk of overgeneralizing, this means that from as early as the fourth century the liturgy as celebrated at Rome had the same structure, but there were differences between the papal liturgy and the liturgy celebrated in parishes. When I was at the Cathedral back in Oklahoma City, I tried to cultivate a “Cathedral” liturgy never intending it to be copied in local parishes. Even after the Council of Trent, liturgical practices that were in existence for two hundred years were allowed to continue such as the Dominican liturgy or the Ambrosian liturgy celebrated in Milan. “One size fits all” has never been the case when it comes to the Roman or Western Latin Rite. For one thing, the rites have to fit the space. What works in a Gothic church of France would be silly on Marco Island. Rites have to be celebrated within a culture as well as a building, and that might mean different garments, different instruments, different movements.
At the same time, it can be said that “one structure fits all” in the sense that the eucharistic liturgy always has the same basic outline: Gathering, Introductory Rites, Liturgy of the Word, Presentation of Gifts, Eucharistic prayer, Communion, and Dismissal. For me, liturgy is never understandable or comprehensible. In fact, the liturgy always articulates and enacts what is incomprehensible, astounding, and even fascinating. Rituals are all over us. We use them all the time because rituals are our way of expressing something when words are inadequate. I see it all the time, I do it all the time. I just saw it yesterday at the airport. An older man got out of car, and boy who may have been about 6 or 7 got out with what I assumed were his parents. The little ran up to the old man and threw his arms around the old man with tears in his eyes, and the old man bent down, ruffled that child’s hair and kissed him on the top of his head. That was a ritual. It was an action that expressed something that words could not express. Contrary to what some young people might say, rituals are not boring. Boredom is a condition of the brain. It is the consequence of a failed imagination. I am never bored. I have suffered through the longest most ridiculous inconsequential meetings that you could ever imagine, and I’ve never been bored. I have rearranged the furniture in the room, changed the pictures on the wall and counted the ceiling tiles because I have imagination. It takes imagination to enter into Liturgy and Worship. It takes imagination to pray too. It’s not that God is a figment of one’s imagination meaning that we make it up. It’s that we have to imagine the God that Jesus has revealed to us, the God he called, Abba.
Liturgical rites are comprised of a number of things, and should engage all of our senses. They are not simply speaking of the right words over the right elements to produce predetermined results. Liturgy is always an astounding and complex collection of ideas, images, sights, sounds, silences, people, ministers, building, and much more all of which contribute to a multisensory and multidimensional experience. A good liturgy ought to wear you out. It ought to be an almost over-load of experience. Understanding what occurs is always secondary to experiencing in ever-new ways what occurs uniquely in and through the liturgy. Every liturgy is a unique and particular experience. When we gather every Sunday, it’s always different because things have happened to us during the week. We’re different than we were the week before unless you live in some kind of bubble frozen in time. While in every act of liturgy we use what we have used before: texts, rites, gestures, music, and so forth, no act of liturgy is ever repeated or the same if for no other reason that we are never the same.
The purpose of Liturgy is the sanctification of people and through the holiness of life one gives glory to God. It is odd to me that for nearly a generation, we have been ready to draw nourishment for our spiritual lives from the Sacred Scriptures. We have not been taught in a similar way to draw that nourishment from the Sacred Liturgy. I believe, and that’s why I’m here, that we must learn to experience the same nourishment from the Liturgy. This might mean, for example, approaching the mystery of the Eucharist by understanding the meaning of the Eucharistic Prayer. When the priest says: “The Mystery of Faith” in the middle of the Eucharistic prayer, something should be unfolding, opening up, become clear to us about who is in our midst and because of it and because of what we are doing there, our own identity should be crystal clear. Four words that ought to make us think: “HUH?” “What’s happening here?” “How am I a part of this?” “What do I have to say about it?” Like the Scriptures, the Liturgy must be understood, meditated upon, and interiorized until it becomes part of our personal prayer. What I mean by that is that the Liturgy should makes us want to run home and shut the door! God speaks and acts through the Liturgy just as much as God speaks and acts through the Scriptures.
Many people these days have discovered an ancient and very fruitful kind of personal prayer called: Lectio Divina. It is a method of prayer usually practiced alone, but sometimes in a group setting when a passage of Scripture is read then reflected upon by placing one’s self into the scene or the occasion, imagining (there’s that skill again) what it was like and what it is like right now. I wonder why that same exercise used with Sacred Scriptures, could not be used with the words of the Liturgy? It might be rather fruitful. In the Acts of the Apostles, chapter eight, Philip asks the Ethiopian official whom he finds reading the prophet Isaiah: “Do you understand what you are reading?” I think that same question should be asked of every one of us: “Do you understand what you are celebrating?” No more than we could get through the Prophet Isaiah in one day do I think we can get through the Sacred Liturgy in three talks, but we can at least open a crack and get a taste for what might lead you to a deeper understanding and fruitful prayer in the Liturgy.
Saint Benedict never uses the word Liturgy in his rule that has guided so many praying and worshiping communities for so long. The wisdom of his rule is not just for monks and nuns. The wisdom of his rule if learned, practiced and followed in families would transform life in this world. The very first word that begins the Holy Rule is, ‘Listen.” What do you think it would like in your home if everyone followed that rule? As I said, Benedict never uses the word “Liturgy” in his rule when encouraging and instructing on prayer. In its place, he refers to the “Opus Dei”, the “Work of God.” It is not by chance that the Eastern Churches refer to the Sacred Liturgy as, “The Divine Liturgy.” Isn’t that saying a lot more than calling our worship, “Mass?” If you go to “The Divine Liturgy”, you know immediately who’s in charge and who is doing something. Our Liturgy is not what we do. It is the work of God, that accomplishes what it signifies. Saint Paul writes in almost every Epistle about the “mystery” of God. For Paul the “mystery” is God’s plan to gather up all things in Christ. Start thinking about that, ponder it, pull it apart the next time you hear a priest rise from his knee and say: “The Mystery of Faith.” It does not mean it’s a secret, because the secret has been revealed, God’s plan. It is Jesus Christ who reveals the mystery of God. That’s the mystery of faith: Jesus Christ!
The Greeks believed mystery was something that remained hidden, could not be spoken of, and was beyond comprehension. This is exactly the opposite of the Judeo-Christian understanding of mystery. How I wish Sister Mary Everlasting would have known and understood that. Instead, what many of us grew up with was that firm and authoritative announcement: “It’s a mystery” every time we asked a question about what something meant or why we did something in church. Because of Jesus Christ, the secret, the mystery has been revealed. We do know what God is doing. Nothing reveals the mystery of God more than the words and actions of Jesus. Think about that scene on Easter evening with those disappointed and discouraged disciples going to Emmaus. They were going the wrong way! Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures and revealed the mystery at table with bread and wine. With that, knowing the plan of God, they turned around and went the right way – back to the company of the other believers in Jerusalem.
The link between the Scriptures and the Liturgy is absolutely essential, and we do something that makes it obvious. At the beginning of the Liturgy, the Gospel is carried solemnly, in the grand gesture of being held high before the entire assembly until reaching the altar, the heart of the assembly. It is then enthroned on the altar becoming a kind of Epiphany. The very Word of God passes through the people of God. It is a kind of Incarnation. The Word is within us. The Word of God takes flesh and remains in the flesh of God’s people. We put that Word on the altar, the place of sacrifice. It is the place of offering, because Jesus Christ offers himself. In Christ, the word of God becomes not just a body but a body offered, a total gift of self. The epiphany, the revelation, is there in the gesture of putting the Gospel on the altar. The Word of God has found its fulfillment in the true worship offered by Christ on the cross. We cannot just walk up there and put the book down like a picture book on your coffee table. That act is the beginning of the celebration. It is like an icon that manifests the unity that exists between the Scripture and the mystery of the altar, the Eucharist. The Rite is for the Liturgy what the alphabet is for the Scriptures. In the Scriptures, the knowledge offered is intellectual and rational. In the Liturgy, in Ritual, one learns by listening, speaking, seeing, smelling, and touching. The senses are the pathway to meaning.
Those of you familiar with the Passover ritual might remember that a child asks a question at the beginning. “What does this mean?” With that, the Passover rite begins. I think we need to keep asking that question every time we assemble for the Liturgy. “What does this mean?” I always think that those who participate in the Liturgy without knowing the mystery are like a dancer who dances without knowing the music or rhythm. We must never quit pondering the mystery narrated by the Scriptures and celebrated in the Liturgy. The Liturgy is like a dance that moves, interprets and anticipates the story of our salvation as told in the Sacred Scriptures.
“Back in the day, I love to say that now that I’m retired, the seminary I attended required a half semester workshop with the drama teacher. At first some of us scoffed at the idea until the very first week, when Father Gavin spoke to us about Liturgy as Drama. In that class we learned about “blocking” which is what happens at an early stage of preparation for a play. Where people stand, how they move, what they do with their hands, where they look, and how they walk is all part of that. I remember the day in that class when he had us watch a video of a marching band out on a football field going through their drill for a half-time show. The precision of it to the day amazes. Every member of the band knows where they must stand and how to move from place to place without bumping into others. He spoke to us about space and how to move from one place to another. (Tell the story about Communion Ministers at Saint Peter and Saint William).
So, my friends, for the next two nights, I want to explore with you the mystery of faith. My hope is that in doing so, you may begin to gather for the liturgy with some excitement and some wonder about what God has in store, would like to say, and might do with you rather than coming because you have to, just because you always have, or because you’re afraid that as Sister Mary Everlasting told you that you would burn in hell if you didn’t go.
Just as I explained what we are doing with and why that great book is carried through the assembly and enthroned, not put, but enthroned on the altar, I will tease out the movements that make up the sign language we use in rituals. I need your imaginations to wake up. I need for you to wonder why and begin to connect your head and your heart. I hope that you will begin to find a new motive and a new experience in prayer as you explore the rite and rituals that speak about something too profound to real and to divine to speak of. If you want to do that, God willing, I’ll be right here tomorrow night. If you have time, you might take a few minutes to prepare and read very slowly and carefully thinking about each word in Eucharistic Prayer Two or Three. You can find them on line, in a Missal, or Hymnal. It is a very different experience to read or say those words yourself rather than just hear some priest proclaiming them.