One of the very foolish slogans so often used today in our modern western culture is: “Worship God in the Church of your choice”. The correct expression should be: “Worship God in the Church of His choice!” For Christians the only proper way to pray to our heavenly Father, according to the instructions given to us by our Savior, Jesus Himself, is by saying to God, “Thy will be done”, and never “my will be done.” Of course, it is right and desirable not to accept being coerced by any secular external, especially civil, forces in matters of religious worship. But, every responsible human nevertheless has a most serious moral obligation, fraught with the alternative consequences of either eternal happiness or everlasting misery, to learn what God has revealed about His will and to follow that will, especially as to how humanity is to approach Him, learn from Him, believe in Him, and adore and worship Him.
For us Catholics, when exercising our happy privilege and duty of daily private prayer (Matthew 6:5-13), it is perfectly legitimate to use either formal prayers or to engage, if we wish, in prayerful spontaneity, creativity, freedom, and Christian common sense when speaking to God, either mentally or vocally, even though our personal prayer ever should be seen as a spillover and prolongation of our participation in the liturgy, which is the public and official prayer of the Catholic Church and which the Second Vatican Council calls “the work of Christ, the Priest, and of His Body, the Church”.
However, that same liturgical prayer- worship, which the Second Vatican Council calls “a sacred action surpassing all others”, as distinct from private and individual prayer, always requires clear norms, regulations, and directives in order to adequately protect and properly express the Eucharistic mystery and the attendant and derivative mysteries, as well as to manifest the unity and orthodox doctrine of the Universal Church, founded by Christ (Matthew 16:18), which celebrates the august sacrifice, and sacraments, along with the devotional life of God’s Chosen People of the New Testament. Unlike private prayers and devotions, the official public prayer of the true Church always must be marked by objectivity, universality, and proper church-order.
Therefore, as Cardinal Francis Arinze has noted, “No one should be surprised if, with the passage of time, our Holy Mother Church has developed words and actions, and therefore directives, for her supreme act of worship.” As Pope John Paul II phrased it, “These (liturgical) norms are a concrete expression of the authentically ecclesial nature of the Eucharist. This is their deepest meaning. Liturgy is never anyone’s private property, be it of the celebrant or of the community in which the mysteries are celebrated. Communities which conform to these norms quietly but eloquently thus demonstrate their love for the Church.”
Our present Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, remarks, “Man himself cannot simply “make” worship. If God does not reveal Himself, man is clutching empty space. Moses says to Pharaoh: “We do not know with what we must serve the Lord” (Exodus 10:26). These words display a fundamental law of all liturgy. When God does not reveal Himself, man could, of course, from a sense of God within him, build altars to an unknown god (Acts of the Apostles 17:23). He can reach out toward God in his thinking and try to feel his way toward Him. But, real liturgy implies that God responds and reveals how we are to worship Him. In any form, liturgy always must include some kind of “institution”. It cannot spring from imagination, from our own creativity, for then it would remain just a cry in the dark or mere self-affirmation. Liturgy implies a real relationship with Another, Who reveals Himself to us and gives our existence a new direction.”
The Pope then goes on to write: “In the Old Testament there is a series of very impressive testimonies to the truth that the liturgy is not a matter of doing “what you please”. Nowhere is this more dramatically evident than in the narrative of the golden calf (strictly speaking, the “bull calf”).” The Holy Father notes that this ”falling away from the worship of God to idolatry” comes about because “the people cannot cope with the invisible, remote, and mysterious God. They want to bring Him down into their own world, into what they can see and understand. Worship is no longer going up to God, but drawing God down into one’s own world. He must be there when He is needed and He must be the kind of God that is needed. Man is using God, and in reality, even if it is not outwardly discernable, he is placing himself above God.”
The Supreme Pontiff then says, “The worship of the golden calf is a self-generated cult. Worship becomes a feast that the community gives itself, a festival of self-affirmation. Instead of being the worship of God, it becomes a circle closed in on itself, eating, drinking, and making merry. The golden calf is a symbol of this self-seeking worship. It is a kind of banal self-gratification. The narrative of the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-35) is a warning about any self-initiated and self-seeking worship. Ultimately it is no longer concerned with God, but with giving oneself a nice little alternative world, manufactured from one’s own resources. Then liturgy really does become pointless, just fooling around. Or worse, it becomes an apostasy from the living God, an apostasy in sacral disguise. All that is left in the end is frustration, a feeling of emptiness. There is no experience of that liberation which always takes place when man encounters the living God.”
An ancient axiom of Catholic theology is “lex orandi est lex credendi”. (“The way we pray proclaims what we believe.”) The reason, therefore, why the Second Vatican Council reaffirms our Catholic law, that the norms of the liturgy are not at the discretion of priests and lay people, but are the exclusive responsibility of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church (the Pope and the Bishops, who are the legitimate successors of Peter and the Apostles), is not only for the purposes of decorous ceremonies and decent world-wide church-order in worship, but also because the liturgy is involved profoundly with the very “deposit of faith”, that is, the fullness of God’s revelation contained in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. It is the duty of the Magisterium, with the help of God the Holy Spirit and through the abiding presence of Jesus (John 16:7-13; Matthew 28:19-20), to preserve, guard, and proclaim “the faith delivered once and for all to the saints” (Jude 1:3), and to keep that “deposit of faith” unmutilated, undistorted, and completely inviolate down the centuries until Christ returns to earth. Supervising and regulating the sacred liturgy is an important part of that solemn duty.
An Ordinary Viewpoint
Liturgical Cogitations - VI