Three Liturgical Changes We Need Now

The very goal of the Christian’s life—true worship of God—is a subject too often brushed aside as irrelevant to the question of transmitting the Faith, despite the growing urgency among the faithful to find new ways to catechize. What’s rightly perceived as a catechetical crisis ought to show us the relationship of worship to truth. Romano Guardini articulated it a century ago: The liturgy “condenses into prayer the entire body of religious truth.”

In practice, we’ve accepted the status quo of liturgical celebration handed on to us from the post-Vatican II upheavals. Essentially, some of the faithful, on behalf of the unsuspecting others, have accepted, moved on, and even lost institutional memory about destructive changes to how we worship.

The current liturgical “tradition” of anti-tradition dooms its practitioners and their victims to a never-ending parade of disastrous “new ideas” that are not new. In parishes where these ideas haven’t been implemented, or were successfully blocked in the past, they are proposed as if they’d never been discredited. In parishes where they have been inflicted, they are defended as if they are the most venerable customs, and sometimes, with an extra flourish of irony, as if stability is preferable to change.

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Somehow, precisely the same “innovations”—which are hardly that, but only recycled, tired proposals, seized upon by a new generation of meddlers—have to be fought down yet again. But we who have survived this long march from Vatican II and its aftermath, the long liturgical slog through the last century to the present time, find ourselves desolate when we see that our children’s children are inheriting a whirlwind of banality and ugliness—and ignorance.

Demonstrating the only sort of patience they have, progressives in the Church (as elsewhere) simply wait for the furor to pass; then they push their agenda along regardless, relying on a sort of “climate of settled opinion” to discourage any repetition of the original interference. Without the good grace to admit failure (easily documented in losses of bodies in churches—and perhaps, God help us, souls) and recede, they cheerfully recommit to their grip on control of the liturgy. With not much else to occupy themselves, they are ever at the ready to volunteer to continue driving people out of the Church with their disastrous programs.

Cheerful as they are, progressives do not resist imposing a heavy cost on anyone who seeks to protect the Mass from their busy interference; not many who long for true worship are willing to bear the charge of anger, divisiveness, or judgmentalism.

If we do dare, those of us who, while conceding that the past is not without its problems, try to restore what was good, often find ourselves somewhat unclear on what to do first. If the music was particularly bad or irrelevant at Mass, our thoughts naturally turn to liturgical music and restoration of the Propers. If the sermon teetered on the brink of error, if not outright heresy, good preaching rises to the top of the list. If we suffered through bad manners before our Eucharistic Lord, our hearts pound for reverence. Often, if we gain in one area, we lose in another.

But let’s try a thought experiment: “Name the top three changes to the celebration of the Mass that you would implement if you had the chance. Be systematic. What three reforms would bring about the others?”

Here I propose the top three restorations for maximum effect, in order of implementation; but frankly, any order will do.

1) Move the Tabernacle to the Center of the Church
It happens that occasionally a person who is not Catholic enters. Let the church building itself present Jesus Christ to anyone, no matter how ignorant, young, or unaware, who enters.

When the tabernacle is placed in the center of the sanctuary, the eye goes to that golden box. The lamp is lit. Mysteriously, the Presence is offered to the glance; the person, whether stranger, or child, or wanderer, apprehends holiness. Many have been converted by this Presence alone. Seeking shelter in a place he vaguely perceives as other, as set apart, the pilgrim finds what he didn’t know he was looking for.

Jesus Christ is present, body, blood, soul, and divinity, in the Blessed Sacrament. The gold of the box and the light of the beautiful lamp are valuable signs of the hidden Presence that makes the tabernacle holy. The future Pope Benedict XVI, writing as Joseph Ratzinger in The Spirit of the Liturgy, stated flatly, “A church without the Eucharistic Presence is somehow dead.”

When in the early Church the Sacrament was reserved for the sick, Ratzinger points out, it became clear: “We must make a proper place for this presence.” In our time, where Jesus’ Presence has been shunted off to the side, we have experienced a loss of memory. We have lost, in Bishop Daniel Jenky’s words, “Eucharistic catechesis.”

Some might ask whether it isn’t enough to have the “proper place” be a Eucharistic chapel. While having an adoration chapel is a fine idea, it must not come at the expense of rendering the building where the people gather for worship a dead meeting hall, rather than a consecrated space.

And what we’ve learned in these years in the tabernacle-free wasteland (even where it’s on the side, not completely banished from the building itself) is that the eye, needing a focal point, rests on … the priest.

Putting the priest front and center in the sanctuary creates a serious theological and practical difficulty. Rather than the servant of the people and their spiritual father, consecrated to offer worship, he becomes the Master of Ceremonies, the entertainer.

Teaching someone why we go to church becomes very difficult when what we experience there is the closed circle, with the priest as the point of reference for the liturgy. We today are in the midst of what Ratzinger called “an unprecedented clericalization.” The emphasis on the “creativity” of this “presider” gives rise to balancing “creativities” on the part of the people, transforming what ought to be universal worship into a never-ending train of “bright ideas” and actions—and their tedious implementation.

Restoring the tabernacle to the center of the Church physically and materially restores the spiritual goal of the Mass: To worship God. All the “doings” will be calmed. The “confusion of signs” will be stilled. The priest will have spiritual, mental, and emotional room to discover his true calling and relationship to God and to the people.

2) Celebrate the Mass Ad Orientem—“Towards the East”
The faithful are now used to the Protestant model of priest as “worship leader” and “presider.” The Mass resembles nothing so much as, disastrously, a meeting of club members. This idea for the priest to “have his back to the people” isn’t even on our radar.

But: What is the goal of Mass?

Romano Guardini, in his short book (also called The Spirit of the Liturgy), says that the Liturgy, rather than being “predominatingly individualistic … is the Church’s public and lawful act of worship.” Ratzinger adds, when the priest leads “the pilgrim People of God [as] they set off for the Oriens [the East], for the Christ who comes to meet us,” they go “in a procession toward the Lord… They [do] not gaze at one another.”

Whatever the reasons were for turning the priest to the people (versus populi), they have long since been proven utterly and nearly fatally not conducive to the primary goal of the Sacred Liturgy: objective worship that excludes no one.

To free ourselves from the cycle of endless innovation, to relieve the priest of the burden of being the focus of attention and endlessly bright greeter/host/emcee, and to give our children and strangers among us the knowledge of what is happening, without using words and without the need for a program, let’s quickly restore the Lord as, in the words of Cardinal Ratzinger, “the point of reference … the rising sun of history.”

Celebrating Mass ad orientem raises the people’s view above the here and now. They instinctively, wordlessly know they are worshiping the God of history, the God of the cosmos, represented by “the East,” the place of the rising Sun, lifting the worshiper’s eye above the horizon—and the God whose Life in the Trinity is beyond time. That is a good thing and a relief for all.

3) Restore Reception of Communion on the Tongue
Reception in the hand was never mandated—it was an unnecessary and, for an overwhelming majority of bishops in the United States, an unwanted change.

Now, today, reverence often occasions reprimand. Yet reverence brings faith with it in a way that a catechetical program to restore reverence would not. Without the custom of reverential gestures, faith has no room in which to grow. Just as a grape vine needs a stake to be fruitful, the person, so inclined to unmindfulness, needs a form to follow.

If we want to evangelize and catechize, we must remove the near occasions of disrespect and impiety. Taking “the cracker,” as many children sadly now call the Sacred Host, back to the pew; handing the Host to a demanding toddler; dropping the Host somewhere along the way, perhaps unnoticed—these are the inevitable, ubiquitous consequences of communion in the hand—and there are worse, more sacrilegious ones as well.

Once communion on the tongue is restored, we’ll find that it’s more practical to distribute it if the people kneel. Soon, we’ll rediscover the efficiency of the communion rail. We will better understand the priest’s irreplaceability. We’ll find that we are fostering the priest’s fatherly, pastoral intimacy with his flock as he feeds them.

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Thus, the authentic renewal of the Liturgy could begin. These changes require no special approvals and no new church offices, although they will require gentle explanation to the people.

The renewal would not be the same vitiating return to endless “process” that we currently experience, which causes “groans,” as Ratzinger says. Renewal would rise organically from the movement of the Spirit acting in and through those who are united in the Mass. Without this restoration, all our desires will be always disappearing in the distance, something to be talked about, something theoretical. And meanwhile, our “reverence capital” is spent.

By implementing these three reforms we will finally experience the long-rumored “New Evangelization,” with the faithful themselves taking forth the life of Christ to the world outside the church building. One of the key misunderstandings of Vatican II can be located in the phrase “active participation.” The concept should be understood not as some sort of patronizing inclusion in the fussy activity of “doing Mass” but in the authentic “bringing out” of what we receive when we partake in the Divine Mysteries to the world, which so desperately needs Christ.

These restorations will inspire artists to bring them to their fruition. Sacred music, painting, and sculpture will find their context. The treasury of the Church’s artistic tradition will be accessible once again, inspiring new works.

Recovering true worship, restoring visible signs of our faith—these are the steps towards making real our conviction that the Mass, in the words of the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, is the source and summit of Christian life. We can’t teach the faith without a liturgical wellspring—“source.” The Mass, rightly celebrated, makes possible all the efforts of clergy and lay people alike that are expended on catechesis and apologetics. Thus we reach the “summit”—life in Christ.

Just as the opposite changes brought, inexorably, a decline in music, art, and piety—all of which are catechetical, beyond the hopes of any program—so will restoring these three key practices revive those areas. They are chosen strategically, with the knowledge that they are necessary but insufficient—that others will follow in an organic way. They free us to worship—and to learn, create, and teach.

(Photo credit: AFP photo / Andreas Solaro)


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