|ROME, 12 MAY 2009 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: Nowadays there seems to be a shift from the spirit of the liturgy
to mechanical and ritualistic performance. Since our liturgy is so very
dry, many Catholics in several parts of India are going to Protestant
churches where the worship is spontaneous, meaningful and gives them a
sense of involvement and satisfaction. Some of the questions put to you
and your answers seem to be not appealing to the soul. Should we not
think of promoting meaningful liturgy in the light of the local culture
and its needs?
P.J., Dindigul, India
A: We occasionally receive questions of this type which touch upon
fundamental issues regarding the purpose and nature of liturgy.
Over the years, this column has addressed many points of liturgy,
some of which are admittedly technical and maybe even rarefied. But I
always strive to give my readers the benefit of the doubt and presume
that their inquiries stem from a sincere desire to celebrate the liturgy
according to the Church's heart and mind.
I do not believe that it follows that an exact and precise liturgical
celebration is thereby a soulless and mechanical ritual. Nor is a
cavalier attitude toward rubrics an inevitable proof of authentic
Christianity. There can be both good faith and hypocrisy behind both
attitudes, but these are the failings of individual human beings that do
not touch the heart of the question.
I strongly defend fidelity to liturgical norms because I believe that
the faithful have a right to be able to participate in a recognizably
Catholic liturgy, a liturgy that flows from Christ himself and is part
of the great stream of the communion of saints.
While not doubting the sincerity of my correspondent, I must take
exception to his way of characterizing Protestant worship with respect
to Catholic liturgy. I believe that we are before a question that goes
much deeper than external forms. The crux of the problem is not that our
separated brethren have more exciting performances but that we have
failed to teach our faithful basic Catholics doctrine on the Mass and
Any Catholic who has the tiniest inkling of what it means to assist
at Mass; to be present at the Lord's Passion, death and resurrection; to
be able to unite his or her prayer presented to the eternal Father
united together with Christ's supreme sacrifice; to have the possibility
of sharing the Bread come down from heaven
how could such a Catholic ever compare this privilege to any Protestant
service, even though admittedly it might have better music and more able
At the same time, the Church's liturgy is already endowed with
flexibility and a richness that can readily respond to local
characteristics as determined by the national bishops' conferences.
Apart from the essential problem of lack of liturgical formation there
is the question of the abandonment or lack of use of many treasures,
both ancient and new, that can transform our liturgies into beautiful
and deeply spiritual experiences.
When the full possibilities of genuine Catholic liturgy are used, the
celebration is not a tad less participative, spontaneous and meaningful
than any non-Catholic service. The difference is that in liturgy, just
as in sports, authentic spontaneity, participation and creativity are
found within the rules and not outside of them.
Apart from the liturgy Catholicism has a plethora of forms of prayer
and associations, from historic confraternities and sodalities to modern
charismatic prayer groups and ecclesial movements. I believe that these
multifarious expressions can satisfy all forms of spiritual sensibility
and desire for involvement much better than any individual group of
Therefore if some of our Catholic faithful are migrating to
Protestant groups, I don't think we should be blaming the liturgy but
rather double our efforts to celebrate it properly and proclaim the
truth of the great mystery of faith.
* * *
Follow-up: "So Very Dry" Liturgy [5-26-2009]
Pursuant to our May 12 column on "dry liturgy" we received a couple of
One reader wrote: "Whereas I agree with you for the most part, I believe
we must get past the rubrics and spend time celebrating the liturgy
properly, with enthusiasm. In my priesthood of 42 years, anyone who
shows enthusiasm, is a good homilist, and celebrates with joy and
happiness gets dissed by other priests because people are going to a
different parish. I have always felt that if a priest sees his
congregation dwindling in favor of another parish, he ought to go over
and find out what that parish is doing and perhaps learn from them. You
can follow all the rules and rubrics and have a meaningful celebration
of the liturgy. Good music, good homily, prayerful presiding will turn a
dry liturgy into a true celebration of God's gifts to us.
Unfortunately, jealousy reigns."
While it is true that human limitations such as jealousy can also be
present, I agree with our reader on persisting in celebrating the
liturgy with faithful enthusiasm. In the end the effort will bear fruit
where it matters most, the salvation of souls. To paraphrase an
expression of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta: "If in doing what is
right people say you are working for egotistical motives or seeking
personal adulation, don't worry; do what is right anyway."
Another priest correspondent, writing from India, commented on the
original letter: "The question of 'So Very Dry Liturgy' I found very
disappointing/disturbing. I do not know whether that is the questioner's
personal experience or that he is quoting from hearsay. I am also an
Indian priest but working in Nepal. And I have traveled through many
parts of India and have known many dioceses and missionaries and am in
touch with many areas of the Indian Church on a regular basis. And my
own personal experience has been quite contrary to what the questioner
writes. On occasions I have heard from non-Catholics who attend our
liturgy that they find it deep and much more meaningful than theirs,
except maybe for the singing and 'entertainment' part.
"Of late I am afraid some think
maybe with the influence of the mass media
that liturgy has to be entertaining, and occasionally we do find some
priests attempting comical things to make it 'more interesting.' Once,
even someone came to complain to me that one of the priests asked the
gathering of the youth, 'Would you like to have a short and enjoyable
Mass or a boring and dry long Mass?'
"I was so surprised that a priest was able to say such things to
youngsters and also that he had different categories of Masses in store
for them. Unless we have it clear within ourselves that the liturgy and
especially the Eucharist is not an entertainment program but worship
'source and summit of our Christian life'
I think these types of questions are natural. And I fully agree with you
that what is lacking in such areas (if it is true as the questioner
says) is proper catechesis, and [hence a need to] develop true and
authentic devotion at the sacraments. In many parts of India there are
very many prayer groups, charismatic and others, where spontaneity finds
its proper application. And I find it very difficult to accept that
fidelity to liturgical norms makes it 'dry.'"
I am grateful for this comment. While I have not yet had the privilege
of visiting India, my work in Rome brings me into frequent contact with
Indian priests, seminarians and laypeople of various Catholic rites.
Every time I attend one of their liturgies I perceive an enthusiasm and
degree of participation that is anything but "dry" but rather reverent