Style and the Mass

Author: Jeff Mirus

================== STYLE AND THE MASS ==================

[Reflections by Jeff Mirus, Sysop, CRNET, November 8, 1994]

A recent discussion of evangelical vs. Catholic styles of worship in this forum has prompted me to offer some clarifications about the nature of Catholic worship. I do not think the discussion has yet taken the essential nature of the liturgy into account.

Different people, of course, prefer different styles of worship. What is very attractive to one may be distracting or even unpleasant to another, especially when people have been formed in different traditions. Within the Church herself, the liturgical upheaval of the past generation has left us sadly divided over questions of ritual, music and participation. When you add converts coming from different backgrounds, you get an even greater diversity of tastes. Those coming from an evangelical background, for example, almost always find Catholic worship dull and even anemic at first.

The critical point to remember is that these questions of style are secondary in Catholic worship for the simple reason that Catholic worship is not primarily about what we do for Christ, but about what Christ does for us.

PRIEST AND VICTIM -----------------

This point cannot be overemphasized. The Mass is first and foremost an action of Christ Himself. At each Mass, through the instrumentality of the priest as "alter Christus", Our Lord reenacts the sacrifice of Calvary in an unbloody manner and becomes present on the altar -- body, blood, soul and divinity -- to nourish us unto eternal life.

Note that I am not saying merely that more graces are available in the Mass than in other forms of worship (though this is true). The comparison is not a matter of tallying up the ways in which a particular liturgical style assists worshippers in becoming receptive to the available stock of grace. Such a comparison may be relevant for different liturgical settings of the Mass itself, but it is completely out of place when comparing the Mass with non-Catholic worship.

What I am saying is that while a non-Catholic worship service is a human action, the Catholic Mass is a Divine action. There is an unfathomable gulf between them -- a gulf so vast that any effort to compare the two without the most careful qualifications and caveats will lead to blasphemy.

LITURGY AND OBEDIENCE ---------------------

The official liturgy of the Church, then, is meant to be both the framework and the actuator of Christ's work at Mass. To achieve this goal, liturgical norms are promulgated by the Holy See and by the Bishops, using the authority that has been conferred upon them by the same Christ. Thus the authority of Christ as teacher and ruler in the Church ensures His continuing action in the liturgy as Priest.

Once we understand this, we see immediately the first two tests for effective liturgy. The first and by far the most important test is whether the liturgy actually brings about the reenactment of Christ's sacrifice. Passing this test means that the Mass has been celebrated validly. The second test, which protects and confirms the first, is whether the liturgy has been celebrated according to the laws of Christ as expressed through the teaching authority of His Church. Passing this test means that the liturgy has been celebrated licitly.

I said before that the style of worship is secondary, but this is true only in the sense that it is not primary. When the whole list of considerations is put in place, we see that style is actually tertiary. Apart from whatever stylistic aspects are enshrined in the proper liturgical norms, considerations of style arise only after the validity and liceity of the liturgy are ensured.

It will be granted immediately, I think, that validity -- the action of Christ Himself -- must take precedence over style, but the case for liceity may not be quite so clear. After all, the liturgical norms in force bear at least partly on questions of style; they both incorporate some elements of style and rule out others. Why is it necessary to subordinate one's own stylistic preferences to those which may be enshrined in the Church's official rubrics and other liturgical documents?

There are many pragmatic reasons, of course, and these arise from the need for legitimate authority to regulate a matter vital to the life of the Church, to safeguard the rights of the faithful against abuses, to foster an appropriate Catholic universality, and to promote the common good. But there is also a deeper reason, namely that salvation comes through obedience.

Just as the virtue of Christ's saving action on calvary consisted in His complete obedience to the will of the Father, so too it is our continual obedience to the will of Christ which continues the work of sanctification in us and brings us ultimately to eternal life. This obedience is expressed first and foremost in our acceptance of the authority of the Church which Christ established to continue His work, and through which we are given His incomparable gifts. We obey Christ when we worship according to the prescripts of His Church, and this obedience itself unites us more closely to Christ's saving action than any liturgical style possibly can. Without this obedience, moreover, the power of liturgical style to foster union is either vitiated or destroyed.

This obedience, of course, ought to be motivated by love. But whatever the motivation, it is the key human response by which we carry our crosses, unite them with the cross of Christ, and offer ourselves with Him to the Father at every Mass.

FORM FOLLOWS CONTENT --------------------

Now the rules governing the liturgy allow scope for a certain creativity on the part of the Faithful in corporately expressing their fervor. In this context, I would be the last to view through rose-colored glasses either the zeal or the appropriateness of worship in many Catholic parishes today; indeed, I can well understand the various grounds for dissatisfaction. Nonetheless, it must be understood that the very nature of the Catholic Mass as an action of God conditions the human style of the liturgy in many ways. One of these ways is critical to our discussion.

In non-Catholic worship, the key to a successful service is the quality of the sermon and the fervor of the responses, be they spoken or sung. It is the work of man that is at issue. In the Catholic liturgy, however, the key is Christ's action, and the success of the secondary elements must be measured according to how well they foster our recognition of and union with that action. What Christ does is reenact his sacrifice for us at every Mass; in doing so He makes Himself fully and really present and gives Himself to us in holy communion.

Let me say it again: God the Son appears on the altar at every Mass.

The proper response to the Real Presence of God is awe. Despite its ups and downs over the centuries, each particular form of the Catholic liturgy has officially aimed to assist the faithful to do two things at one and the same time: to unite themselves with the sacrifice of Christ and to stand in awe before the Word made Flesh. This is so true that the Church's teaching about the importance of "active participation" in the liturgy has less to do with songs and responses and styles than with the degree to which each member of the Faithful unites himself to Christ by offering himself with Christ back to the Father; and the degree to which he stands in awe of the God Who condescends to give Himself as food. This awe-inspiring union -- this reverent love -- is the desired effect of every Mass, for both the individual and the community as a whole.

This is also why, even when Catholics worship with the greatest possible fervor, a Catholic Mass will never be -- ought never be -- anything like a Protestant worship service. There will always be a difference in tone, in progression, in emphasis, in desired end; and there will always be a place for that interior union which is often best-fostered in silence. Many would argue, in fact, that the gradual Protestantization of the Catholic liturgy over the past generation has both coincided with and contributed to a decline in understanding of what the Mass really is.

EXTERNALS AND INTERNALS -----------------------

Does this mean, then, that all liturgical planning and all effort to foster greater involvement in the externals of the liturgy are vain? By no means. But here we must make another distinction between the externals of the liturgy and their internal effects.

There are many ways to stimulate a deeper union of the faithful with Christ at Mass. Because we are profoundly influenced by our senses and the emotions they stimulate, these methods center on the use of "externals". Church decorations, bodily postures, liturgical formularies and responses, symbols, holy water, incense -- all are outward proclamations of God's presence, all are designed to draw us into closer union with Him. Sermons, too, should both instruct and inspire the congregation with a sense of the presence of God. Finally, music has great power to involve the person, excite the emotions, and elevate the soul.

All of these external elements ought to be used to stimulate the interior union of the soul with God. Nonetheless, the two are not the same. And there are at least four intrinsic obstacles to making an effective connection between them:

(1) The Catholic Church admits an astonishingly large group of people to her worship. Many if not most Protestant churches are composed of people who have specifically chosen a particular church or congregation because it suits their tastes. The congregation of a Catholic church, in contrast, is made up of everybody in the neighborhood who feels Catholic enough to want to fulfill the general obligation to attend Mass. This may not be the ideal situation as far as fervent worship goes, but it is nonetheless the situation which God desires. He does not want us to choose our religions and our churches based on personal preference.

(2) The Catholic Church admits an astonishingly diverse group of people to her worship. Because of her very universality, and because she does not encourage the division of parishes on the basis of liturgical preference, the Church's liturgy must attempt to appeal to that which is most universal; in any case, it can never appeal completely to the particular tastes, backgrounds and traditions of each type of person in the pews. This fact offers significant possibilities for the development of truly great liturgies, as the achievements of past ages attest, but when faced with the non-traditional and frequently barren pluralism of contemporary culture, it makes it very difficult to implement a form of liturgy which doesn't annoy a good many people a good part of the time.

(3) Excessive emphasis on any external method draws attention away from Christ's action in the Mass. If the music is too grand, the Mass runs the risk of being appreciated primarily as a concert. If the participation is in too vigorous a style, the Mass may be experienced more as a rally. Too much action turns it into a show. A long and moving sermon draws attention away from the essential action of the Mass to the inspiring brilliance of the priest. Successful liturgy, in a word, requires an exquisite balance of elements.

(4) The essential elements of the Mass are themselves often the most eloquent expression possible. Sometimes the Mass which most successfully fosters interior union is the quiet weekday Mass, largely devoid of distractions, in which it is possible to focus intently on every word and action of the priest. Indeed, nothing is more calculated to provide a clearer understanding of the essential action of the liturgy, and it is doubtful that full worship on Sunday is possible for those who have never followed the sacrifice of the Mass in the quiet of their hearts.

EMOTION AND UNION -----------------

It is probably easy to see that the external celebration of the liturgy and the interior union with God which is the liturgy's goal are different, though related, things. However, it is characteristic of our age that the difference between our feelings and interior union is not so clear. Nonetheless, this is one of the most important distinctions in the spiritual life.

Our age perhaps more than others is terribly confused about emotions. If we feel an emotional high at prayer, we believe we have made progress toward union with God; if we feel dry at prayer, we believe we have failed. The reality is often quite the opposite.

I do not mean to offer this as an excuse for anemic or grudging external participation in the liturgy, for which (if the liturgy is licit) there is really no good excuse. But I do mean that the importance of a "rousing" liturgy that leaves us with an emotional high is vastly over-rated and may, under certain circumstances, even be false or dangerous. The soul is perfectly capable of making spiritual progress without positive emotional feedback. In fact, this is so from the very nature of Faith itself.

In this life, we live by Faith -- meaning that we see only as through a glass darkly. It takes no special abandonment of our own will to love God when we are on an emotional high at a particularly satisfying worship service. But it does take abandonment and a deliberate effort at obedient union when the emotions are negative or aren't there at all. Under which conditions does the soul make greater progress?

The Christian life was designed to be a life of Faith precisely in order that we would profit interiorly by not seeing -- or feeling -- God's presence too clearly. We can't love fully when the object of our love is making us feel good; our love of self is always in the way. It is also generally true in the spiritual life that "highs" are given only occasionally, as glimpses of the Divine, to excite our souls and spur us on. Moreover, these "highs" are given more frequently to spiritual beginners, and they are generally withdrawn progressively as souls advance in holiness. This is an axiom of the spiritual life. Those who do not understand this will grow discouraged as they progress. They may seek false "highs" elsewhere and so fall away, failing to understand that the opportunities for union are greatest not when we are with Christ on Palm Sunday, but when we are with Him in the Garden.

It is perhaps difficult for non-Catholics, who have virtually no theology of suffering, to understand this all-important spiritual point. Still, my purpose in introducing it here is not to make an argument in favor of bad liturgies or lackluster participation. Rather, I wish to point out what to some may seem a startling liturgical conclusion. It is this: Liturgies that aim specifically to produce emotional highs are seriously flawed. Liturgy is not primarily an effort to excite the participants; still less is it any kind of entertainment or show; and still less is it a rapturous celebration of the life of the community.

No, liturgy is first and foremost the public action of the Church in which Christ re-presents His saving sacrifice and offers Himself as nourishment to His people. The externals have as their primary and only essential goal the widespread recognition of, and union with, that tremendous mystery. In pursuit of this goal, and this goal alone, can liturgy as a whole give to God that glory from which it derives its dignity.

PRAYER IN PRACTICE ------------------

Several conclusions follow from this imperfect exposition. Perhaps the most important for us now -- both for those within the Church who are fighting over various liturgical forms, and for those attracted to the Church but put off by her liturgy -- is that the question of how emotionally satisfying we find the liturgy is very often a spiritually immature question. By focusing disproportionately on this question, many people have sadly worked to impoverish the Church's liturgy, others have been led out of the Church (in a whole variety of directions), and still others have refused to enter or have maintained dangerous attachments to other forms of worship. To rely on a non-Catholic form of worship in preference to even the poorest Mass is to put one's trust in men rather than God.

Such attachments also give scandal by proclaiming to others that the action of the Mass is somehow on a par with purely human prayer. Catholics, and non-Catholics on the verge of conversion, persist in such attachments at their peril. While focused on things good in themselves, such inclinations need to be put in proper order. Otherwise they are, indeed, inordinate attachments. They must, in a word, be mortified.

Prayer groups and other informal Christian gatherings which include prayer provide better opportunities for people to pray in their own preferred style. But with respect to the liturgy as a whole, personal preferences can serve the Church only when they are considered in their proper place somewhere near the bottom of the liturgical ladder. Only in that relatively small and well-circumscribed space can these preferences be directed and harnessed properly to honor God and inspire souls.

I do not wish to be misunderstood. In the economy of salvation, considerations of liturgical style still partake of that singular importance which attaches to all things that directly serve the majesty of God. Many are undoubtedly called to work tirelessly to improve the liturgy and foster a fuller and deeper participation in it. All are certainly called to respond by joining in liturgical worship.

But before we can worship worthily we must first understand the nature of the liturgy. It is not of personal preferences and emotional highs that great liturgy is born, but of the Holy Spirit relentlessly at work in our minds and hearts and souls, transforming and sanctifying all our attachments, incorporating them into Christ, and offering them as a sacrifice truly pleasing to the Father.