STYLE AND THE MASS
by Dr. Jeffrey Mirus
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
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
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
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
(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 internal 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 internal union is not so clear.
Nonetheless, this is one of the most important distinctions in the
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 inspire or 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 AND 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 generally a spiritually immature
question. By focusing disproportionately on this question, many 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.