Liturgy and Life

The word “liturgy” derives from the Greek word leitourgos, “a man who performs a public duty,” “a public servant,” or simply “work.” In Catholic usage, liturgy refers to an array of communal religious practices and rituals, above all the Mass. Perhaps “work of God” is an apt definition. But “liturgy,” in a broad sense, seems to be among the natural human inclinations. In practice, liturgical actions are often simply taken for granted and are even “invisible” because the focus is on the purpose of liturgy, not its details.

For example, August is the first month of the “sports year.” The pre-season games anticipate the celebration of the regular season, which begins in September. The rituals are familiar. People gather in stadiums, sing the National Anthem, and enter into the drama of the game. The high feast days are the playoffs, culminating in the Solemnity of the Super Bowl. But we don’t think of the NFL season and rituals (e.g., kissing the Lombardi trophy) as liturgy. We’re just looking to be entertained.

Or take the military’s liturgical practices: from marching bands to the changing of the guard, with uniforms and magnificent displays of hardware and firepower. Again, we don’t think these as “liturgy.” But we do experience feelings of patriotism or nationalism, admiring the discipline and courage of our soldiers, and the might of military hardware. “Thank you for your service” has become a common military liturgical greeting in our day.

Secular liturgies have much in common with religious liturgies. Even the “incense” of pyrotechnic effects at rock concerts are “liturgical.”  Like churches, stadiums and concert halls provide useful venues for crowd control, a context for the “rituals,” and their orderly performance.

Secular liturgy, like religious liturgy, is tempered by faithfulness to the given forms. But even these forms need benign direction. Without religious sensibilities, our innate liturgical inclinations quickly become self-serious, disproportionate, even destructive. The importance of an overarching cultural framework of faith and religious liturgical practices should not be underestimated.

Soccer riots in South America, drunken victory celebrations, and rock concert debauchery reveal the consequences of liturgy severed from religion. Even military rituals devoid of religion easily go bad (Sieg Heil!). When faith and religious liturgies are rejected, the liturgical void is filled with extreme and dangerous “liturgical” forms.

The purpose of most (otherwise benign) secular liturgies is to provide a common experience of entertainment or to exalt the power and the glory of a nation’s military might. Secular liturgies are not explicitly in the service of God; they are in the service of man.

The Miracle of the Mass by Simone Martini, c. 1315 [San Martino Chapel, Assisi]

By contrast, the purpose of the sacred liturgy is worship – and the means of entering into union with the living God. The ritual and symbolic appurtenances (like sacred music) are expected to be pleasing, but pleasing because God is glorified by beauty and our obedience to His will. As we are immersed into the liturgy, we become less aware of the liturgical practices per se.  Just as football fans are unaware of the secular liturgy, it is possible for a devout Catholics (e.g., saints like Padre Pio and Pope John Paul II) to “lose themselves” at Mass in true prayer and devotion in union with Christ and His Mystical Body.

There are dangers when liturgy becomes familiar. Familiarity rooted in sloth can bring boredom and with boredom a demand for “vibrant” liturgies – i.e., excitement and entertainment.  Such selfish expectations reveal a breakdown in understanding of the true purpose of Divine worship, a purpose that “renders unto God that which is God’s.” (Mk 12:17)

The sacred liturgy does not compete with the entertainment dimension of secular liturgies. It is practically impossible for the sacred liturgy to top the excitement of a professional football game, or a rock concert, or a military parade – or even the temple prostitution of ancient Greece.  (Nothing is really new under the sun.)

The ritual of the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is instructive because it honors soldiers who have sacrificed their lives in battle: “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn. 15:13)  As secular liturgies go, it comes closest to true Catholic liturgy. There are few demands for it to include more “vibrant” ritual practices such as inserting popular tunes into the solemn act.

It should be obvious, therefore, that we shouldn’t ask pastors (or that pastors shouldn’t ask their people) to “jazz up” the Mass – the re-presentation of the Cross and Resurrection – with all those ill-advised and tiresome post-Conciliar tunes, pseudo-religious and secular. Even “conservative” Catholics need to be on guard lest “fine music” of whatever style at Mass has the corrosive effect of becoming high-class entertainment rather than facilitating prayer.

A Mass should be “vibrant” only to the extent its reverence in celebration moves our souls to enter into an intimate union with Christ and His Mystical Body.

Sacred liturgy and ritual are both instructive and transformative. While it is profitable to consider the Mass from an academic stance, it is more profitable to enter into the Mass with a living faith, attentive to and engaged in the words and action. Our transformation in Christ through the liturgy is not magical; it is gradual and mystical, touching our minds, hearts, and emotions.

This is why the Third Commandment, Keep Holy the Sabbath, is so important. Our weekly Mass attendance is not only necessary under the pain of mortal sin (absent valid excusing circumstances), it is also necessary for us to continue our ever so gradual transformation in Christ.

The liturgy can have visible, sanctifying effects on the faithful. Ask any priest who has visited an apparently unconscious parishioner who attempts the Sign of the Cross during prayers, with parched lips that tremble with the recitation of the Our Father. Like the sacred liturgy properly celebrated, it is beautiful – and transforming – to behold.

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.