Monday, July 5, 2010

Liturgy, Relevance and Paschal Mystery - No Gimmicks Need be Applied

In his recent address to the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein, Archbishop Chaput decried attempts to make the liturgy conform to the culture: "Trying to engineer the liturgy to be more 'relevant' and 'intelligible' through a kind of relentless cult of novelty [italics mine], has only resulted in confusion and a deepening of the divide between believers and the true spirit of the liturgy."  While I am no fan of liturgy that is so distant from the reality of worshipers as to be without connection to familiar elements of their culture, I have to agree that in my experience, the predisposition of some communities and presiders toward liturgical "gimmicks" HAS inhibited the ability of the people to develop a liturgical spirituality that focuses on Christ and the Paschal Mystery and not on their own self-sufficiency.

What the Archbishop is saying is that in our post-modern culture, the proper dispositions needed for a true liturgical spirituality are in fact extremely counter-cultural. They run against the grain of a world-view focused on the individual, empowered by science, knowledge and technology to such a degree that we feel we no longer depend on the help of God.  We no longer identify ourselves and all we are as belonging first to God, but as belonging to our nation, our family, identified by our personal relatioships, talents, possessions and jobs.

Chaput continues: "We need to discover new ways to enter into the liturgical mystery; to realize the central place of the liturgy in God’s plan of salvation; to truly live our lives as a spiritual offering to God; and to embrace our responsibilities for the Church’s mission with a renewed Eucharistic spirituality."

In my experience, only about twice have I heard a homilist even mention "Paschal Mystery" - yet it is this mystery - of Christ's suffering, death and resurrection - that is central to every celebration of the Eucharist. If the average Catholic understood that the primary reason we celebrate the liturgy is NOT to satisfy our selves with the opportunity:
  • to gather with friends they only see every week in church (getting the satisfaction of socialization)
  • to keep from going to Hell (fulfilling obligation)
  • to feel good (being "uplifted")
  • to be impressed or astounded by the musicians, the decor, or the preaching (being entertained)
  • to "get something out of it" (gaining something of value)
Archbishop Chaput's fourth and final point speaks to one of the most important attitudes that for many people is missing: "The liturgy is a school of sacrificial love. The law of our prayer should be the law of our life. Lex orandi, lex vivendi. We are to become the sacrifice we celebrate." 

He connects the spiritual sacrifice that we should each make to our baptismal call to "the priesthood of all believers." He suggests that people need to understand their role in the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving that is the Mass -and indeed the essence of Christian life. The sacrifice should not merely be that of the bread and wine, (or indeed of the monetary gifts we give) but of the very lives of those offering worship. (See also the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 901)  Essentially, we need to offer and alllow to be consecrated our very selves for the life of the world and the work of God in it - sucesses, failures, gifts, burdens- all that we are - along with the bread and wine. And this not just during the liturgy but in every area of daily living as we are sent forth "to love and serve the Lord."

"All that we do -- in the liturgy and in our life in the world -- is meant to be in the service of consecrating this world to God," says Chaput. "...The liturgical act becomes possible for modern man when you make your lives a liturgy, when you live your lives liturgically -- as an offering to God in thanksgiving and praise for his gifts and salvation."

So, what happens when presiders, liturgy committees, musicians, art and environment committees try harder and harder to be "unique" or "relevant" or "less boring?"  When they turn the focus on trying to amaze, entertain, or distract by continual novelty of seasonal "theme," music or "gimmicks", they are actually committing abuse.

I have heard of priests dressing in costumes representing "Bert and Ernie" (both at the same time!), Santa or Barney (the purple dinosaur), of one who preached a Fathers' Day homily reclining on a lawn chair, of one who demanded that seasonal music for Christmas, Lent and Easter be "new" every year in place of the familiar "boring" stuff. I have seen a church build a huge "wall" in the sanctuary out of cardboard boxes, labeled with sins for Lent.  In many parishes, it is common for the choir to sing a well-rehearsed "showpiece" every week to show off their talent, without being burdened by the need for the people to sing along - a "stop and listen to us" moment.  No doubt most readers can think of at least one time when some new height of entertaining novelty was offered at Mass.  Our refrain as an American church has often been "Let me take you higher - and higher!" or "Let me Entertain You" - instead of  "Take, O Take Me as I Am."

The worshiping assembly has a right to understand what is truly important.  The focus and core of the liturgy is one thing, and one thing only: the Paschal Mystery- the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus Christ - which is the model for our own sacrifice. This is true both at Mass and as we are sent out into the world. This is NOT boring. It IS, however, counter-cultural in a world that values individual rights and power and measures the value of persons in dollars, possessions and position. Instead of gaining something, the liturgy actually asks that we lose something - our very selves -  becoming no longer an individual man, woman or child, but a member of the Body of Christ.

In our worship and in the world we should never lose the courage to be different - to walk in the humble, dusty, blood-stained footsteps of Christ and not those of the financial wizards past and present, the popular entertainers of music and film - the rich and famous "somebodies" who have become the idols of our culture.  To live a liturgical spirituality, we need to become "nobodies" in the eyes of the world - which translates to being beloved children of God, living in awe, worship, relationship and obedience - emptying ourselves like Christ (kenosis) - even to the point of death - on the crosses of our own sacrifice. When we are able to do that, we, like Christ, will be raised on high and have the glorious name of "Christian".

Thanks, Archbishop, for the inspiration.


  1. Hi Joyce. I agree 100 percent that gimmicks have no place in the liturgy. However, I wouldn't agree with Archbishop Chaput that there is a widespread "cult of novelty" that is "deepening of the divide between believers and the true spirit of the liturgy." Most of the outrageous stuff, as in the examples you cited, winds up on YouTube or in the press because it is so weird. That is, it is not the common experience. And, we also have to be careful not to besmirch an entire diocese (and its bishop) because of one renegade priest or parish.

    The stuff that doesn't get onto YouTube is the overwhelming mediocrity of many liturgies. Lack of genuine hospitality, limpid singing, poor lectors, Communion from the tabernacle, and bypassing the cup at Communion do more, bit by bit every Sunday, to erode the true spirit of the liturgy than does a homily from a lawn chair.

    Chaput attributes to Robert Barron, who I have not read, the idea that "the professional Catholic liturgical establishment opted for the former path, trying to adapt the liturgy to the demands of modern culture."

    Being part of the professional Catholic liturgical establishment, I have to take some issue with that. It is certainly true that many parishes and dioceses have tried to adapt liturgy to modern culture. But that happens mostly in places where there is no well-trained liturgist (emphasis on "well-trained") on board. The professional liturgists I know see the liturgy as a place to hold up what is good in the culture and challenge that which is destructive.

    When we denigrate an entire profession whose goal it is to help communities pray more faithfully and fruitfully, we invite the very problem Archbishop Chaput is speaking against. Those who are not well trained in the liturgical arts have only their cultural touch-points to draw upon as they try to help shape the community's prayer. The extreme result of that process is ministers who dress as cultural icons such as "Bert and Ernie" or Santa. I'll lay you dollars to doughnuts there was no professional liturgist in the parishes where such things happened.

    What I do agree with Archbishop Chaput about is that the post-Vatican II liturgy "gives us the zeal for the evangelization and sanctification of our world." It breaks my heart when people abuse the great gift of the renewed liturgy through gimmickry or mediocrity. Perhaps the introduction of the new translation will give us the opportunity to help parishes step up to a fuller, more powerful way of celebrating liturgy in the coming age.

    Thanks for a stimulating topic, Joyce!

  2. Nick, sad to say, I actually don't get out much - all of these examples are from parishes in my own corner of the world in Northern Illinois... in two very different dioceses. I am not talking YouTube here. I actually knew all these priests.. and others who committed other attempts at uniqueness. I do wish they were in fact more rare.

    I have also been on several pretty high-end parish liturgy committees who were addicted to (or whose pastor demanded) "themes" for Advent and Lent. This only works well when the thing is a part of the actual lectionary readings. You cannot "paste something in."

    As a "semi-professionally trained liturgist" (Masters in Pastoral Studies, emphasis in liturgy), when I have walked into such a situation, where people mean well and had been doing a process of liturgy planning leading up to a specific "theme" for a while, I have found it takes time to gently dismantle the search for a "gimmick." what I normally have done is to encourage them to replace this tendency with something that authentically identifies the culture and values of the community while remaining true to the spirit of the season and the inherent movements of the lectionary.

    I agree with you that perhaps mediocrity is even more of an issue - it has been clear to me for a long time that the average Mass can be pretty limp and lifeless - from both sides of the altar. It's the occasional moments when it's not that I live for!

    As to what Fr. Barrons has said - I think he understated the issue. It is not merely that some have tried to adapt the liturgy to the culture (that in itself is not totally bad). It is rather that they have fallen prey to the quest for uniqueness and sensationalism that is so much a part of the culture. I once heard a priest call it "soap opera culture" - in our drive to be entertained we seek the dramatic, the unexpected, the different, because to be steady and consistent is considered too ordinary. We don't want to watch the steady old tortoise when we can be excited by the bursts of speed from the hare. It's also a like that old "Madison Avenue" advertising cliche: "You TOO, can own a NEW ____ (fill in the blank)"

    I, too, hope that the new Missal will be an opportunity to re-engage and renew the celebration of the core of the liturgy and the understanding of what the people are called to by it.

    Thanks for your comments.

  3. Hi Joyce. Maybe instead of "novelty," what we ought to be seeking is "fascination." Rudolf Otto wrote about the two aspects of the Holy: mysterium tremendum and mysterium fascinans. That is, God is both awe-filled mystery and fascinating, exhilarating mystery. I wrote a post about this idea earlier, if you're interested.

  4. Thanks, Nick. Great blog post. That about says it!

    I once heard a priest say that if people really understood what is going on during the Mass - that the living Christ is actually appearing among them right then and there - that they would be on fire with enthusaiam and joy. While that form of worship is reserved to the Charismatics and some more excitable Protestant demoninations, it is an apt description of the level on which we should engage!

    I am ruminating on the relationship between the quest for inappropriate liturgical entertainment/novelty and some trends in the culture (as you can probably see from my two most recent posts on the LeBron phenomenon) I may be blogging on this for a while longer.
    Thanks again.