Of Matters Liturgical

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 books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.