Worship for God…or for Us?

The primary focus of Catholic worship, unlike Protestant worship, is to be directed toward God, not the people.

In 1866, the English novelist Anthony Trollope wrote a book entitled Clergymen of the Church of England. It was serialized in the Pall Mall Gazette, an important magazine of opinion, and reflected both Trollope’s religious background as a confirmed Anglican and the grandson of a clergyman and his analysis of the need for reform of the Church of England. 

Trollope had already written brilliant fiction about ecclesiastical affairs in his Barchester Towers series of novels, but his nonfiction essay has many interesting insights. His comment about the discernment of bishops in the Anglican communion is particularly arresting because he said that a man needed personal dignity as much as piety and more than mental ability to be selected as a candidate. I won’t comment on any application to the discernment of bishops in our own Church and country.

The novelist had an understanding of humanity and practical affairs that surpassed his theological articulation, but some of his insights are useful in the liturgical crises of our present situation. These crises include the Vatican’s apparent war on the traditional Latin Rite Mass but also some of the confusion we are seeing with regard to funerals and weddings. 

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In the middle of his short book, Trollope attempts a comparison of Catholic and Protestant understanding of the liturgy. It comes as a comment on the Anglican clergy, like the fellows of Cambridge and Oxford, whose liturgical ministry often only began after their retirement from teaching. Nevertheless, the broad strokes with which Trollope depicted the difference are worth attention:

In the Roman Catholic Church worship seems to have been ordained for the gratification of God. The people were, and indeed are still, taught that God and his saints like prayers and incense and church services, and will reward those who are liberal in bestowing them. It is, therefore, natural that in the Church of Rome there should be—or, more natural still, that there should have been when this idea was more prevalent in Roman Catholic countries than it is now,—legions of priests whose church administrations were performed with a view to their effect on the Creator, and with no view to any effect on man. But in Protestant countries worship is used, as we suppose, simply for the use of man. It is the duty of the clergyman, as clergyman, to assist other men in worshipping rather than to achieve anything by worship on his own part. 

Mr. Trollope never studied theology formally. His angle on this can be called a caricature, but even caricatures are based on the real. He says our Catholic worship is “ordained for the gratification of God.” That is certainly not the most felicitous wording, but it contains a truth: Catholic and Orthodox liturgy is focused on God in such a way that it expresses faith in a way Protestant worship does not. The Protestant worship is focused on the instruction of the participants, so that preaching is more important than the sacrifice. In Protestant worship, the psychology of the believer is attended more directly also, thus the hymn singing and the emotional engagement of the congregation are also key.

Trollope says that the Catholic worship gratifies God and promises rewards for that effort. Protestant worship, he implies, is a kind of therapy for the congregation, educational and inspiring. Both kinds of prayer praise God and express thanksgiving. However, the author says the “effect” is on the Creator in Catholic liturgy. I think he means the direction of the worship. We use different language but could say our worship is a dialogue with God the Father, offering the sacrifice of His Son in the Holy Spirit. The Eastern tradition uses the name “Divine Liturgy” because it is about the Divinity. 

Speaking generally, the Protestant worship praises and thanks God, begs pardon of sins, and adores Him; but the emphasis is, as Trollope says, on the human response not on God’s. He expresses very poorly the graces God gives in the Sacrament of Communion when he merely states the Catholic can expect “liberal” (as in generous) rewards. I think we can substitute “sanctification” for the word reward. 

In the Catholic Mass, the priest talks to God for and with the people, not to the people for God. The latter would be an appropriate phrase to summarize a typical Protestant approach as seen with the megachurch services. There is a reason that in many Protestant bodies the altar is much less important than the pulpit. It is also significant that the robes the minister wears (if he is not in street wear) are more like academic gowns, thus recalling the professors who first started the Reformation. The Old Testament nuances of the Mass, with references recalling Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine to the Seder, the architectural hints in the church structure referring to the Temple of Jerusalem—with a solid altar, a marked sanctuary space, and the tabernacle echoing the Holy of Holies—are not found in most Protestant worship, even when “communion” is celebrated.  In the Catholic Mass, the priest talks to God for and with the people, not to the people for God. Tweet This

The underlying salvation history implied in the Mass is especially marked in the traditional Latin Rite and when the Novus Ordo is celebrated ad orientem. The priest and people are supposed to be looking to God, sursum corda, lifting up their hearts to Him in a memorial that makes present the saving grace of Christ’s redemption, but not only that. The Redeemer Himself becomes present. The Protestant worship, I speak in the most general way, calls on the Holy Spirit to perfect the congregation’s praise and obviously does not deny “where two or three are gathered in my name” (Matthew 18:20), but it does not insist that Christ Himself becomes really present on the altar, if there is an altar in the sanctuary. 

Trollope, whose writing reveals a great power of observation, discovered a deep theological difference in orientation about the way some Christians worship. It makes me think that we need transcendence. This can explain why even young people are attracted to the old rites. They seem to them as more clearly an immersion in the divine, communicating the idea of the holy, of otherness. The casualness of some parochial liturgy and the homey bonhomie of some celebrants can be distracting. 

An urban pastor and neighbor, set in his liberal ways and usually complaining about young priests and traditional liturgy, went to a suburban funeral recently. To his own surprise, he admitted, “Masses like that make me see why some people want to go back to the old ways.” At the Old Mass, you know you are in the presence of something directed to transcendence. The Novus Ordo also does that, but it might require a little more work by both the celebrant and the congregants.

But there is another application of Trollope’s insights to a contemporary issue in worship. That is in the rites we use to pray for the dead. I emphasize intercession for the dead as the purpose of the liturgies we celebrate at funerals and memorial Masses because it contradicts some assumptions of contemporary Catholics. One of the problems we have is that many ignore the importance of praying for the dead. 

Perhaps the Catholics do not expressly deny the need or the value of prayers for the dead, but it is common to hear two phrases of an ambiguity that makes me uncomfortable. One is “funerals are for the living,” meaning the survivors of the deceased. They are, but they are not so principally. The prayers are expressly for the mercy of God on the person who has passed to the other life. 

The other phrase is that a funeral should be “a celebration of life.” It is so, if we mean that the liturgy is especially an expression of our belief in eternal life, the life of God. But what is usually meant is a nostalgic recollection of the persons and places of an individual life. God is the focus of the funeral liturgy. The eulogies often seem to neglect to mention that we are gathered in prayer as an expression of our solidarity with a fellow sinner, trusting in God’s mercy but also aware that death is a great mystery; and affirming our grieved affection for the departed, we recall that love covers a multitude of sins. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once said he hoped that people would pray for him at his funeral and not attempt to canonize him. 

With the loss of emphasis on the “suffrage” of the funeral Mass for the soul of the departed there has been a decline in offering Mass intentions as a gesture of sympathy, at least in my neck of the woods. Offering Masses for the deceased is not as customary as it once was. We celebrated his life, why would you need to recall him and commend him to God’s mercy in another act of worship? 

Trollope’s advertence to distinct directions of Catholic and Protestant worship is a key to examining our lived experience. I think that we could put some of his thought into contemporary parlance by saying the Catholic Church speaks of our duty to God to come to worship which the megachurches might think of in terms of a duty to yourself. Both would be true, but the difference could mean much in practice. We need to sharpen our awareness that our presence at the liturgy is an expression of recognition of God’s sovereignty in our lives. We owe the Lord worship; it is all about Him.

Author

  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

tagged as: Catholic Living Mass

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