The Liturgical Cliff

Advocates for a more dignified and reverent celebration of the Mass – this author among them –continue to pine for this or that reform that will refocus the liturgy, in the words of Father Richard John Neuhaus, back to the Real Presence of God and away from God’s Really Awesome People.

As helpful as individual or wholesale reforms may be, they will be of little avail unless the overall ethos of the Mass first shifts in the manner wryly described by Father Neuhaus. But re-centering this ethos on the solemn worship of God prompts fears of a “liturgical cliff” beyond which precious few pastors are willing to push.

For over forty years, the vast majority of Catholic parishes have tilted the celebration of the Mass in a manner that was thought to stimulate God’s Really Awesome People. The Church, according to cultural trends, needed to be a more welcoming and friendly place. So we placed greeters at the doors, and, just in case we were not welcomed enough the first time, we are then invited by the lector to greet our fellow pew-mates before Mass begins. The music melody and attendant instruments are also intended to appeal to us, not God, so that the celebration may feel meaningful for us, the worshippers. Whether God, the object of worship, will be satisfied by our selections is not even given a thought.

But a far deeper – and more dangerous – ingredient to this people-centered approach is the relationship that has developed within the Mass between the priest and the people. Catholics in the pews expect the priest to engage them both by his manner of celebrating the Mass and by his homily. And it is on these two criteria, rightly or wrongly, that every priest is judged. A priest, by definition, is a mediator whose role is to bring people to God. Now in the contemporary view, the priest has been reduced to the “presider” or “facilitator” of religious entertainment for the people, forming what Pope Benedict has called a “self-enclosed circle.”

Priests, conscious of this precarious dynamic, feel as though they have no choice but to give people what they have come to expect – a Mass catered to their needs, or at least their needs as prescribed by liturgists over the last forty years. Change risks alienation, and alienation risks empty pews. And even if a priest is willing to take the risk, other factors – the choir, his fellow priests in the parish, expectations for extraordinary ministers and altar girls – are often even more difficult to combat.

      Benedict XVI celebrates a Mass ad orientem

In this situation, reorienting the Mass back towards God presents a liturgical cliff – a negative backlash from a large portion of the faithful who feel disengaged by a liturgy not wholly focused on them. And the liturgical cliff is made steeper and more sobering because these Catholics bear no blame for their people-centered Mass preference. They were thrust into this manner of worship by a precious few who held the reins with full force, and this is all they know – and, therefore, all they want.

Two actions in particular, the use of Latin and the priest facing east toward God rather than the people, bring instant threats of the liturgical cliff from the typical Sunday church-goer. The sad irony here – and the sign of just how people-centered the liturgy has become – is that Vatican II calls for the faithful to know and sing the ordinary parts of the Mass in Latin. It says nothing about turning the altar so the priest may face the people. In fact, it assumes that the priest and people are facing the same direction as they had for nearly two millennia.

How can the Mass be returned to its proper God-centered orientation without pushing the faithful over the liturgical cliff? There is no easy answer. Pope Benedict has recognized the dangers inherent in making such a transition: “Nothing is more harmful to the liturgy than a constant activism, even if it seems to be for the sake of genuine renewal.”

The Liturgical Movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century sought to awaken the faithful to the sublime splendor of the Mass, and Vatican II was supposed to be its pinnacle. But with the Novus Ordo Missae that followed the Council, the Liturgical Movement collapsed, its goal never realized. If before the Council the essence of the Mass was obscured from the faithful by overladen rules and external devotions, as Benedict has stated, now this same essence has been obscured by a cult of the self.

A new liturgical movement, as called for by Benedict in his magisterial The Spirit of the Liturgy, is necessary to restore the sacred element of the Mass. The new English translation of the Mass was a first stroke, and a masterful one, in this direction. It restored sacred language without altering the people-centered ethos to which we have grown accustomed – avoiding the liturgical cliff.

The next step is to return this people-centered ethos to a God-centered one. It begins with a whole series of homilies and lessons with a simple theme: Mass is not about us, it is about God.

Only if we grasp this simple theme can we avoid the complexities and unpleasantness of the liturgical cliff. Only then can meaningful reforms of rubrics take place. And only then will God’s people see that their awesomeness depends entirely on the Real Presence of God.

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David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.