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Of Matters Liturgical Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 03 October 2011

A few weeks ago I had a liturgical experience that was memorably good. I’ve been hesitant to write about it – rare though such experiences are for Catholics  – because it’s an unfair comparison, in a way, with my home parish. My diocese (Arlington) is solid. (“You don’t know how lucky you are to live somewhere still in communion with Rome,” a friend once admonished me when we were discussing his own diocese, which shall here remain nameless.) My parish (St. Ambrose) has three quite different but very good priests, all intelligent and dedicated men who can, week after week, deliver stimulating and insightful homilies.

So the problem, such as it is, is not them, or the bishop, but – I continue to believe – the English-language liturgy itself. And that problem will only be partly remedied by the new missals we begin using in Advent this year. The new texts are better, though a mouthful in places.

They will better reflect what we believe, how we should worship, and a greater confidence that people can be taught the basic terms of their own faith, instead of needing it presented in simplified language, as though they were spiritually challenged.

At the Consecration, for instance, the priest will be saying:

Take this all of you, and drink from it,
For this is the chalice of my Blood,
The Blood of the new and eternal covenant
Which will be poured out for you and for many
For the forgiveness of sins.
Do this in memory of me.

It may seem a small thing to say “chalice” instead of “cup,” or “eternal” instead of “everlasting.” But the cumulative effect of these details is a subtly more elevated dignity and a proper distance from the everyday. At the same time, it avoids a jarring and radical shift such as occurred after Vatican II, which Pope Benedict wisely wished to avoid.

My good liturgical experience, however, was of another order. Words are important, but so are liturgical acts. I am a very Roman Catholic, but I was struck by the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in a local Melkite church. That liturgy is far from unfamiliar in our family: my wife has a complicated background, but is basically a Ukrainian Catholic. We’ve always liked the Greek Rite, but the Melkites deliver it with an unusual twist.


      A Melkite liturgy in progress

They go back to ancient Syria, i.e., to the earliest history of the Church when it existed in an international Greco-Roman culture. Over the years they also picked up Arabic elements (to be clear, Arab does not mean Muslim: Arab is more an ethnicity in the Middle East, and Arabs may be Christian or Muslim, or neither). Greek, Arabic, and (mostly) English are used in the liturgy in this country.

Unlike our vernacular Mass, which was reconceived after the Council along rather rationalistic lines to encourage lay “participation,” the Byzantine liturgy engages in a lot of chant (with exotic Arab scales) and repetition in an effort to go beyond the immediate, conscious level and to engage deeper parts of the heart and mind. As someone who grew up attending a Latin liturgy almost daily, I find that it very much creates the kind of deeper “participation” I experienced back then. Both kinds of participation are important, of course, but we in the West swung very much to a literalist side in our otherwise proper wish to bring people closer to the liturgy.

The people in the Eastern rite are also very close to the liturgy indeed. And there are some physical touches beyond the processions within the church, the vestments, and the incense that we in the Latin Rite should ponder. I was amazed, for example, at the reading of the Gospel. The pastor stepped to the front of the slightly raised platform on which the icon screen and altar sit. As he came forward, so did the people. They literally leave their seats and swarm around him, standing and paying careful attention to the words of the reading.

I don’t know enough about the Eastern churches to say whether this is a common practice (Ukrainians certainly don’t do it). But when you see that coming together of priest and people, it’s hard not to think of Christ and His flock. The people must have done something quite similar when he would go up on a hillside and they would gather around, fascinated by his words.

To my outsider’s eyes and ears, nothing in the liturgy distracted from this sort of central focus. My pet peeves in our own Masses are only two – but I think they’re both important.

Right after the readings, the priest in our churches will step into the pulpit and begin, often enough, with a joke, as if he were an after-dinner speaker talking to a crowd that needs to be entertained. The people have just heard from the Old Testament, the Psalms, St. Paul, and one of the Gospels – and we move from that encounter with the Word of God directly to a rhetoric better suited to informal secular events? Perhaps it’s just me, but I feel at these moments that there’s almost a nervousness about letting those texts continue a bit longer to exert their full power.

Something similar bothers me about the time after Communion. I love liturgical music and am much affected by it. And that’s precisely why, if the choir goes into an elaborate and interesting musical piece after I return from receiving the host, it interferes with the kind of recollectedness I’d like to maintain at that moment – and I suspect others do as well.

I’m looking forward to the new missal and don’t at all want to detract from the good work of the many people involved in what seems to me a solid step towards long overdue liturgical recalibration. But there’s much more in the tradition – and us – that could contribute to a more fully Catholic liturgy.


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, October 03, 2011
On your last point, it is worth recalling that the short Communion Verse of the Roman rite was once merely the antiphon of the psalm that was sung throughout the distribution.

The older practice survived in many of the Gallican uses, which, unfortunately, disappeared with the reorganization of the French dioceses, following the Concordat of 1801.
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written by Howard Kainz, October 03, 2011
Yesterday a woman who assists with adult education gave the homily in our parish; and occasionally the Choir Director delivers the homily. I'm glad you realize that your situation differs quite a bit from what happens in other dioceses.
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written by Chris in Maryland, October 03, 2011
An extremely important article, and a major problem / opportunity for true reform going forward.

Mr. Kainz's experience rings painfully true.

And what explains the suppression of the Roman Canon by The Church liturgists in the U.S.? I wish my children could have their memories formed by the incantaion of those heroic Popes and Martyrs, "Linus, Cletis, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius, John and Paul, Cosmos and Damian," who gave their lives for Christ in the early Church, when to be a Catholic was a matter of life and death. How unjust to our children, that the memory of our beloved ancestors in the faith, who loved Christ to the end, should be erased from the memory of The Church? The implementation of the NO Mass in the vernacular was taken, not as a chance to open the faithful's ears to the echo of the ancient liturgy, but to silence and suffocate the tradition.

And there was, in the Middle Ages, more richness and beauty in our Roman Rite, more akin to what Robert Royal experienced in the Melkite Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Mass. In extension of Michael's point, a reading of Lazslo Dobszay's book, "The Bugnini Liturgy and The Reform of the Reform" is instructive about "the whole story" of the history of "reform" in the Roman Rite, and the existence of a variety of venerable forms of the Roman Rite, many of them Cathedral-based, up through the middle ages, which were available for the "resourcement," but which Cardinal B and his comittee cohorts chose to ignore, in the spirit of the 1960's iconoclasm. Hence...the impoverishment of the liturgy gives way to the banality of what Mr. Kainz, and so many, suffer through.
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written by Chris in Maryland, October 03, 2011
And see! How I have forgotten The Canon! I left out "Cyprian, Lawrence, Chrysogonus."

These are they, the heroic martyrs and martyred Popes of the ancient liturgical prayer: "we honor Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius, Cyprian, Lawrence, Chrysogonus, John and Paul, Cosmas and Damian and all your Saints: grant through their merits and prayers that in all things we may be defended by the help of your protection.”

If we never are permitted to hear the roll call of "these honored dead" [to steal a phrase from our most liturgical President], do we not dishonor them, and impoverish our children's memory by making them, like us, drink from The River Lethe?
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written by Graham Combs, October 03, 2011
During my RCIA (2008/2009), the religious director at my parish sponsored several different rites for Wednesday evening mass during Lent. Chaldean (Iraq), Maronite (Lebanon), the Tridentine Latin Mass; Syro-Malabar (Indian); and Romanian. I have always felt that these liturgies (and I attended each one) were the heart of my catechetical instruction. The Chaldean mass was almost shaming in its solemnity. All were in their own ways both instructive and moving. (The Maronite rite, for example, emphasizes their history of persecution, of practicing the Faith in a hostile place.) I was told that Southeastern Michigan is home to all 22 Rites of the Church. The Church is a lot of things, but in its Sacraments it is not a "cultural ghetto." I am always reminded when the subject of the Liturgy arises of the passage in Joyce's ULYSSES in which a character comments "God is a shout in the street." That is exactly what He is not, not in Holy Communion. As Monsignor said one Wednesday evening before mass when parishoners asked if they could take Communion, "We're all Catholics here."
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written by Leo Ladenson, October 03, 2011
In addition to Dr. Royal's insightful comments, Fr. Robert F. Taft, S.J., the foremost historian of the Byzantine liturgy, who is a frequent visitor to the Melkite parish Dr. Royal describes, has commented on its liturgy. Fr. Taft has called that parish's liturgy the "model" parochial Byzantine liturgy in the world. It is indeed a wonderful treasure for the whole Church.
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written by Manfred, October 03, 2011
1969 Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani (GIRM) #7, QUOTE!
The Lord's supper, or Mass, is the sacred meeting or congregation of the people of God assembled, the priest presiding, to celebrate the memorial of the Lord. For this reason. Christ's promise applies eminently to such a local gathering of the Church. "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst." (Mt. 18:20) Thus was born the Novus Ordo Mass. Do you see the term sacrifice anywhere there? Neither did Cdl Ottaviani which led to the Ottaviani Intervention by him and others who saw this for the Protestant liturgy it is.
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written by Chris in Maryland, October 03, 2011
Manfred: no doubt, there was/is a swing away from Christ's holy sacrifice...and a construction to aid and abet that...one question...do you know what the corresponding rubrics/instructions for the 1962 Missal said?
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written by Jim, October 03, 2011
I've seen the Epistle chanted facing North and the Gospel chanted in the midst of the congregation.

I don't know what use of rite it was except that it was in the Western Church.
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written by Chris in Maryland, October 03, 2011
I do believe Pope Benedict and those one-at-heart with him are working steadily to restore the emphasis on beauty in the liturgy, and thus steering things back to "true north." While it is pathetic how bad the celebration of the Holy Mass has become [soccer-uniform-pop-Mass-of-convenience], there are many rays of light beginning to shine on the horizon. One of the most beautiful celebrations of The Holy Mass I have ever been priviledged to attend has been with the priests and religious sisters of The Family of The Incarnate Word, who run St. James Parish Church in the Mount Rainier section of Wash, DC. They receive communion in silence, and then, out of nowhere, you hear their small choir of religious brothers and sisters begin to sing Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus...at that moment...we all felt heaven come down to earth. Go to Mass there if you ever have the chance.
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written by dannyboy, October 05, 2011
Just up the road from St. James in the DC area is St. Jerome's in Hyattsville. The 10:30am Sunday Mass there is always beautiful and prayerful. Check it out if you are in the DC area.

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written by dannyboy, October 05, 2011
Just up the road from St. James in Mt. Ranier is St. Jerome's in Hyattsville. The 10:30am Mass there is always beautiful and prayerful. Check it out if you are in the DC area.
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written by Regina P, October 08, 2011
Re: Howard Kainz
Just so you know, in the new General Instructions to the Roman Missal (GIRM) a lay person giving a homily is absolutely prohibited (the person has to be an ordained male, that is a priest or deacon). Before, the instruction was just vague enough that one could wiggle in a layperson (or they argued it was allowed), but not after November 26th Saturday day Mass. A Mass where some Jo or Jane gives the Homily will still be valid, but it will also be illicit (actually, I contend it has been illicit all this time). If your parish persists in the practice you should report it to your bishop. We all need to nip rebellion to the reform in the bud.
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written by Deacon Jim Stagg, October 08, 2011
Dear Dr. Royal,

It is good to hear the more positive thoughts about the upcoming changes. Some of us who serve at the altar even hope this may be a wake-up call to the priests who (still) persist in illicit actions during the Mass.

I'm impressed with your experience at the Melkite Liturgy, with the celebration of the Gospel. How much more meaningful for the congregation to come forward. I am reminded of the effort of a Jesuit priest (not of our diocese) who encouraged the congregation to process forward at the Offertory ... to bring their gifts to the altar, directly, along with the wine and bread. I've never seen it done again. Perhaps in another land, another Rite, another time.

Thank you for such a positive article.

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