So Very Dry Liturgy

Author: Father Edward McNamara


So Very Dry Liturgy

ROME, 12 MAY 2009 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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 the Eucharist.

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 preaching?

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 Protestants.

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 interesting comments.

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 and fervent.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
© Innovative Media, Inc.

ZENIT International News Agency
Via della Stazione di Ottavia, 95
00165 Rome, Italy

To subscribe
or email: with SUBSCRIBE in the "subject" field