What it is Not
Years ago, when I was a parish priest, I was approached by a lady who complained that her children did "not seem to get anything out of the Mass". It turned out that she had two children who were aged four and five. I was somewhat taken aback by her lament, but then it occurred to me that her basic problem was that she really had no idea what the liturgy was about. She evidently considered it to be nothing more than some form of entertainment for her amusement and that of her children. Unfortunately, her mistaken attitude, especially in the past forty years in the Church’s history, seems to have crept into the minds, perhaps sometimes subconsciously, of too many Catholics.
Particularly in America and in the whole of our Western culture, abundant and mostly passive entertainment has overtaken an exceptionally large portion of our human activity and time. Television and movie films have probably made the biggest contribution in pushing people in that direction. It is no wonder then that for some such people going to Mass is simply like having to watch a non-exciting and highly uninteresting television presentation without the possibility of a "remote" to change channels. Since modern parents also often use television as an inexpensive diversion for children, even those who have not reached the use of reason, the attitude and complaint of that lady, upon reflection, were not all that surprising.
Another contributing factor toward this misapprehension about Catholic liturgical practice is the heavy influence of Protestantism. In many, perhaps most, of the Protestant denominations the worship service, sometimes shown on television, takes on the character of a type of performance. The sermon of the minister is the main feature and the musical performers and singers are located and considered by the "audience" as being "on stage". Even the architectural construction of the church buildings gives the impression of a sort of theater which is meant to draw attention to people and not really at all to God.
In his recent book-length interview with the German journalist, Peter Seewald, (in English, "Light of the World", published by Ignatius Press), our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI remarked, "The liturgy is something that is given in advance. It is not about our doing something, about our demonstrating our creativity, in other words, about displaying everything we can do. Liturgy is precisely not a show, a piece of theater, a spectacle. Rather it gets its life from the Other. This has to become evident too. That is why the fact that the ecclesial form has been given in advance is so important. It can be reformed in matters of detail, but it cannot be reinvented every time by the community. It is not a question of self-production. The point is to go out of and beyond ourselves, to give ourselves to Him and to let ourselves be touched by Him."
The Pope goes on to say, "In this sense it’s not just the expression of this form that is important, but also its communality. This form can exist in different rites, but it must always contain that element that precedes us, that comes from the whole Church’s faith, from the whole of her tradition, from the whole of her life, and does not just spring from the fashion of the moment." The Holy Father says this does not mean that we have to remain in a state of passivity. "Because it’s precisely this approach, you see, that really challenges us to let ourselves to be snatched out of the mere momentary situation, to enter into the totality of the faith, to understand it, to take part in it interiorly, and, on that basis, to give the liturgy the worthy form that makes it beautiful and a source of joy. ....Of course, it is important that we give the whole (liturgical celebration) a beautiful form (especially in music), but always in the service of what precedes us, and not as something we ourselves are first supposed to produce."
The sacred liturgy (the Mass, the sacraments, the sacramentals, the Divine Office, etc.) must always be seen as the supreme act of our Catholic Religion. Religion can be theologically categorized in various ways. One way for Saint Thomas Aquinas was to see religion as the highest form of the virtue of justice. The virtue of justice moves us to give to everyone what is due to him. Religion is giving to God what is His due, namely worship and adoration, thanksgiving and gratitude, contrition and sorrow for sin, along with appropriate petitions, humbly begging and beseeching Him for supernatural and spiritual needs and desires, as well as for those which are temporal, physical, and material.
This is why Pope Benedict says, "The Church becomes visible for people in many ways, in charitable activity or in missionary projects, but the place where the Church is actually experienced most of all as Church is the liturgy. And, that is also as it should be. At the end of the day, the point of the Church is to turn us toward God and to enable God to enter into the world. The liturgy is that act in which we believe that He enters our lives and that we touch Him. It is the act in which what is really essential takes place. We come into contact with God. He comes to us and we are illumined by Him."
The Bishop of Rome teaches, "The liturgy gives us strength and guidance in two forms. On the one hand, we hear His Word, which means we really hear Him speaking and receive His instructions about the path we should follow. On the other hand, He gives us Himself in the transformed Bread. Of course, the words can always differ, the bodily attitudes can differ. The Eastern Church, for instance, uses certain gestures that differ from the ones familiar to us.... The essential point is that the Word of God and the reality of the sacrament really occupy the center stage, that we don’t bury God underneath our words and our ideas, and that the liturgy does not turn into an occasion to display ourselves."
Recently, the Holy Father has emphasized the "hermeneutic of continuity" in all of Catholic life, including the liturgy. He states emphatically, "The (Second Vatican) Council has not created any new matter for belief, let alone replaced an old belief with a new one. Fundamentally, the Council sees itself as continuing and deepening the work of earlier Councils, in particular those of Trent and Vatican One. Its sole concern is to facilitate the same faith under changed circumstances, to revitalize it. That is why the reform of the liturgy aimed at making the faith’s expression more transparent. But, what we have is a renewed expression of the one same faith, not a change in faith." The Second Vatican Council stated, "The liturgy is the outstanding means by which the faithful can express in their lives and manifest to others the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church." We attend Mass to pray and worship God, not to be amused or entertained.
An Ordinary Viewpoint
Liturgical Cogitations - IX