Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

How to Discuss the Liturgy

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 16, 2011

Inevitably the publication of Universae Ecclesiae has stimulated heartfelt exchanges on the liturgy, and once again I have seen a tendency (though not generally in the public posts on for each side to denigrate the other. The presumption, too often, is that those who oppose one’s own liturgical preferences must necessarily possess a deficient piety, a lack of an authentic Catholic sensibility. Because it is so obvious to people on both sides that they are right, they cannot imagine that their opponents might be as thoroughly Catholic as themselves.

This is by far the most unfortunate aspect of liturgical disagreement, this tendency to write those with different preferences out of the Church, or at least to insist that their understanding of the faith is deficient. While many people think that the Devil rejoices when people are attached to the “wrong” form of the liturgy, it is my conviction that what really makes him happy (insofar as the Devil can be happy) is the vicious division caused by disagreement over the “best” form of the liturgy. For this reason, I’d like to suggest some points to keep in mind for anyone who wants to have fruitful liturgical discussion, as opposed to yet another condemnatory rant which does the Devil proud.

1. Recognize that liturgy always enshrines potentially conflicting objectives.

Just as our understanding of God depends on the consideration of different aspects at different times, the form of the liturgy, as a human medium, is incapable of perfectly expressing once and for all the union with Christ’s sacrifice that ought to take place at every Mass. Consider that God is both infinitely transcendent and infinitely immanent, outside and beyond us yet very near and even within us, our Creator and Judge yet also our Brother and Friend, not to mention our Lover! A liturgy can emphasize God’s transcendence only at the expense of his immanence, and vice versa.

Closely related to this problem is the tug of war between mystery and intelligibility. While people generally associate mystery with transcendence and a desire to emphasize reverence and awe, mystery is no less associated with immanence, as in the mystery of the Incarnation, by which Our Lord walks with us as a brother. Either way, however, to create a sense of mystery in liturgy we must conceal something, veiling it in ceremonies and words which repeatedly hint at but do not purport to reveal (for how can they!) the glory of God. But this trajectory generally makes liturgy less immediately intelligible. Thus we may communicate a sense of the ineffable only at the expense of reducing communication about what this encounter ought to mean in our daily life.

Note that these are not quite zero sum games, but questions of degree and balance, as the Mass may, in its unfolding, do more than one thing.

There are other dichotomies as well. Is the liturgy for praise or instruction? Clearly both. Is it to be concerned with the interior life or exterior action in the community? Again, clearly both. Prayers and readings that emphasize our interior relationship with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are certainly appropriate. But so are prayers and readings which emphasize our solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ which is actively formed by the Eucharist itself. The prodigal son, yes; but also the good Samaritan. Similarly, prayers of thanksgiving, penance and praise are wonderful, but if these do not flow naturally into prayers for the assistance of our brothers and sisters in Christ, then we capture only one half of the dichotomy in question.

2. Recognize that it is not the form of the liturgy that saves.

We sometimes hear arguments that the very salvation of the world depends on getting the liturgical form right. We can grant, I think, that one form of the liturgy might reach particular souls more effectively than another, but then I believe we must also grant that this depends not only on the values most effectively communicated in a given liturgy (see previous section) but also on innumerable cultural and even personal factors. It goes without saying that the Church should strive to develop liturgical forms and rubrics which will touch people most deeply and draw them most effectively into the action of Christ. On the one hand, there is no warrant for assuming that the same form will work best for everyone, yet at the same time the Church must obviously impose a certain uniformity on the liturgy to ensure that it remains true to its purpose.

It is fortunate, therefore, that it is not the form of the liturgy that saves, and we must beware of any over-zealous statements which may imply that a particular form is essential to the salvation of the world. This is not the case. It is Christ who saves, through His supreme sacrifice on Calvary which is represented in every liturgical form the Church has ever promulgated. Compared with this, the specific form is of cosmically negligible importance—though it is not unimportant from the point of view of trying to draw us more effectively into union with what Christ does at Mass. Still, this tremendous and even infinite disparity in importance between Christ’s saving action and the particular form of the liturgy should fill us with gratitude and help us to keep a much-needed sense of proportion concerning the human side of things.

3. Recognize that the current ordinary and extraordinary forms, under any names, are very closely related.

People have such a strong emotional reaction to even small changes in the liturgy that they often tend to view the current extraordinary and ordinary forms of the Roman Rite as polar opposites. One can, of course, argue about how much change is too much, or whether particular changes are good or bad. But if you want to contemplate what a truly foreign development would be, or an obviously “inorganic” change (as the expression has it), then consider the Mass without one or more of its essential parts.

All liturgies of the Church are built on the same principle. The liturgy of the Word prepares the congregation for the liturgy of the Eucharist, and the height of the Mass is the representation of the sacrifice of Christ in the consecration, in which Our Lord gives Himself for us, followed by the Communion by which we actually eat His gift of Himself and are formed into one body, the Mystical Body of Christ. The goal in developing what is now called the ordinary form was to strip away various accretions from this essential structure which had accumulated over the years, and to make the basic structure clearer and more intelligible—to recover and enhance, if you will, the noble simplicity characteristic of the Roman Rite. Certainly we can discuss the degree to which various changes succeeded, and it goes without saying that some sense of mystery as well as some beloved aspects of the extraordinary form were sacrificed. But the far larger point, though it may startle you to hear it, is that the two forms are essentially the same thing.

Indeed, we may like or dislike this or that change, especially the more noticeable ones such as the direction the priest faces or the language. Every liturgical change is significant in its province, and may be rendered even more significant based on how it is received, for good or ill. We are well within our rights as Catholics to advocate changes, renewals or restorations which we believe will best serve the Church, as long as we do not credit our own judgment too highly or grow to think that we are the supreme architects of the Church's form of worship. But we are foolish if we exaggerate the significance of any change that still leaves the fundamental structure and purpose of the Mass intact (as anything approved by the Church will do). The extraordinary and ordinary forms, as formulated by the Church, are as closely related as any of the other approved liturgies of the Church are to each other, and in most respects more closely related. At root, in any case, they are all the same thing expressed in different human ways. It is essential to remember that in discussing the liturgy.

4. Recognize bad arguments when you hear (or make) them.

There are many cogent arguments that can be advanced in favor of or opposition to different approaches to the liturgy. But certain common broad and sweeping arguments are so weak (and even ludicrous) that they really need to be dropped from the discussion as quickly as humanly possible.

For example, proponents of the ordinary form will argue that their opponents are stuck in the past, want to roll back the clock, and refuse to mature in their faith in the ways emphasized by the Second Vatican Council. In some sense, these things may be true of people on all sides of the debate. Some seem unable to leave the 1940’s behind, just as others seem eternally mired in the 1960’s! And I sincerely doubt there has ever been a magisterial call to ecclesial responsibility that has not been too frequently ignored by people in all camps. But this “stuck in the past” business is not an argument; it is a prejudice. The same sort of prejudice on the other side seeks to make an “argument” that love of the ordinary form is restricted to those with little interior life who possess only a horizontalist spirituality fueled primarily by the errors of popular culture. The proof of this is circular: They love the ordinary form.

Then, too, a specious argument from “attitude” is often used against those who love the extraordinary form (sadly, such an argument is convenient only when one’s own side is in the ascendancy, else all Catholics could more often use it against the surrounding culture without assessing its worth). It holds that all those who prefer the extraordinary form are disobedient, self-righteous and narrow-minded. But looking once again from the opposite side, we find an equally specious argument from “fruits”. This argument holds that the ordinary form of the Roman Rite is responsible for the crisis of Faith and upheaval in the Church of the last forty years, even though this crisis and upheaval was initiated before the Novus Ordo even existed by a priestly and episcopal intelligentsia, born and bred on no Mass but the Tridentine, which had been seduced by the academic culture of Modernism—and as if the massive cultural secularization which swept the entire Western world in the 1960’s, much to the Church’s detriment, had either never occurred or was also caused by the introduction of the Novus Ordo in 1970.

Finally here is one more, in its multiple forms: (a) It is necessary for the liturgy to be in Latin because an unfamiliar language reserved only for worship enhances the sense of transcendence and mystery; (b) It is necessary for the liturgy to be in Latin because this manifests the Church’s universality (with the practical advantage that we can all be comfortable with it when we travel abroad); (c) It is necessary for the liturgy to be in the vernacular because this makes it more accessible to most people; (d) It is necessary for the liturgy to be in the vernacular because God wants us to pray in the language in which we think, the language of our hearts. Each one of these statements, suitably modified, is a reasonable argument for or against Latin, and for or against the vernacular. But the very fact that they contradict each other serves mainly to demonstrate legitimate liturgical tensions that only authority can balance.

All of the arguments in this section betray a combination of over-simplification, ignorance and prejudice which have no place in serious liturgical discussion. I will take the liberty of stating once again that such specious arguments can survive only when emotional attachments are perceived as inherently and exclusively logical, and so are rated far more highly than they deserve.

5. Recognize that we are all unworthy of even the ugliest Mass.

I said elsewhere that I tended not to become emotionally attached to any form of the liturgy, by which some have concluded that I think liturgy is unimportant—an appalling leap of logic. But my emotions can be roused, and here are two things sure to do it:

  1. The insistence that the ordinary form of the Roman Rite is deficient as to form, and either is or may be invalid. In response, I must ask: Do we inhabit a Church characterized by an authority principle or not? Has Christ promised that the Gates of Hell will not prevail? And has He, or has He not, promised to be with us until the end? How many popes must affirm the validity of the ordinary form, and even insist on acceptance of that validity, before this canard is laid to rest?
  2. The denigration of any Catholic who attends Mass simply because he or she prefers one lawful form of the liturgy to another. There is no need, I suppose, to belabor this point. I cannot say this strongly enough: Anyone who does this is being used by Satan.

And to these two, let me add a third. If you want to see me really angry, then say something to denigrate or demean any approved liturgical form of the Mass. If you make reasonable arguments for the improvement of any liturgy, I am open to discussion, but if you dismiss any approved form as worthless or abominable or evil, you cross a very dangerous line with me. I should make the same point about valid masses you may encounter away from your usual parish, where you may not like the musical selections, the quality of the lectors, the personality of the priest, or the gender of the altar servers. I recommend you give thanks that you were fortunate enough to attend Mass at all. In any case, if you dismiss any legitimate form of the Mass as worthless, you have started a fight with me.

So much, then, for my own emotions. The plain fact is that not one of us is worthy of even the most poorly said Mass. Never in our wildest dreams could we ever be worthy. The Mass is an incomparable gift. In any form whatsoever, it is the living and continual representation of an infinite act of Love. For us! Our first obligation is to receive this gift with supreme gratitude and to treasure it in obedience to the authority God has established to provide it.

But is this how we act? No. Instead, suddenly everybody is a critic. Or more likely a parrot of a critic. And so I fear we all have sins to repent in the liturgy wars. In fact, if we repented of these sins, there wouldn’t be any wars. There would be only treasured discussions of the best ways to assist others in fruitfully receiving so incomparable a blessing—discussions in which we listen as well as talk; discussions in which we learn as well as teach. And should we still disagree in some measure (as, being all different, we surely will), we would no longer fear that salvation has departed from the Church of Christ—if only we remain obedient to that Church. For apart from the Church we have no guarantees, but with the Church, in whatsover form she may choose, we are guaranteed the Mass.

The Mass! It is enough.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: New Sister - Jun. 08, 2011 2:49 PM ET USA

    bkmajer3729: Big topic. Consider reading “the Heresy of Formlessness” by Martin Mosebach. The EF of the Holy Mass is superior because it is incomparably more beautiful. This is not a matter of personal taste, but of objective truth. Only by great effort of a priest does the NO approach the solemnity, reverence, and majesty of the EF. And yes, it is LAZY of us to not strive for the most beautiful and reverent liturgy possible, defeastist to say “God’s too great anyway.” re-read B16's quote - try!

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Jun. 05, 2011 10:13 PM ET USA

    Clearly, this is a most important topic for many of us - as it should be. But, humor me, how is the referenced position "defeatist and lazy"? It may, in fact, be so. But the claim is really not substantiated - even by the quote from Pope Benedict XVI. I mean no over criticality and clearly we all have a right to our own opinion. Yet, to make an all encompassing judgement ("defeatist & lazy") there needs to be something to lead to such an encompassing conclusion. Do tell, please.

  • Posted by: New Sister - Jun. 03, 2011 8:55 AM ET USA

    The position that we’re “not…worthy of even the most poorly said Mass” is true, but defeatist and lazy. His Holiness Benedict XVI in his address to Priests of Paris: “our earthly liturgies…will never fully express its infinite meaning…[yet] the beauty of our celebrations can never be sufficiently cultivated, fostered and refined, for nothing can be too beautiful for God. May our own celebrations…resemble [heavenly] liturgy as closely as possible and give us a foretaste of it!"

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - May. 30, 2011 12:41 PM ET USA

    Pray for unity. Paul I never said eliminate/discard the EF. Nor did I intend to imply the NO is superior to the EF. The terms fabrication and banal "seem" to me to come from a personal pespective. The difficulty to me is individual priests & Bishops not being faithfull to Rome in how the NO is/was celebrated. Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. Terms like "solidly catholic and greatly superior product" are judgements. So let me ask, why & how is the EF superior to the NO?

  • Posted by: - May. 18, 2011 1:53 PM ET USA

    I'm with you Paul - the N.O. is fabricated and banal - a product of the moment you might say. The EF is a solidly Catholic and greatly superior 'product'. The N.O. was contrived and all this by many who wanted to undermine Catholic faith.

  • Posted by: richardols3892 - May. 18, 2011 11:17 AM ET USA

    Agree wholeheartedly with bkmajer3729.

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - May. 17, 2011 10:41 PM ET USA

    Wouldn't it be sad, if years to come we had no Mass, either because of no priests or prohibition by civil authorities? These current arguments would be trivial, indeed.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 17, 2011 6:43 PM ET USA

    A real life example might help elucidate the issue. My wife had never been to a liturgy other than the Tridentine Mass prior to our marriage. In the 1990s, she attended her first NO Mass with me. Afterwards, she reported she could not believe it was a Catholic liturgy and that she was uneasy the whole time. Years later, we went to a Byzantine Mass. She enjoyed it and found it to be a comfortable experience. Why such a profound difference? What are the implications? Do they matter?

  • Posted by: - May. 17, 2011 10:29 AM ET USA

    Well said, sir. I think, though, that the relation between liturgical "form" and faith is intrinsic, and not merely extrinsic, as you seem to suggest. "Lex orandi, lex credendi" - said often, always true. Liturgy nurtures faith as food does the body - the one shapes the other, for better or worse. Also, indifference to the form of God's mediation to us seems to be an approach more Protestant than Catholic. That said, I'm happy with a valid & reverent OF or EF Mass.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 17, 2011 8:13 AM ET USA

    One may make an argument about the history of a liturgy with no judgment about its validity or efficacy. Of great significance is the history of the Ordinary form of the liturgy. It proves a remarkable departure from all liturgical precedent. Regardless of content, its development and promulgation is unprecedented. When the Church departs dramatically from what She has always done, people take notice. Both "liberals" and "conservatives" have taken notice of this reality for decades.

  • Posted by: Paul - Ave Law '07 - May. 16, 2011 11:18 PM ET USA

    And what will you do if I call the Novus Ordo "a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product"? ;)

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - May. 16, 2011 10:16 PM ET USA

    On the mark! One of the most difficult things is to look inside seeing our own prejudices & judgments for what they are. In many ways this is part of making spiritual progress if we are honest, open minded and willing to make the journey. Tough stuff. I wonder if most of the push back is really due to fear of the unknown or letting go. I really believe change creates opportunities. Regardless of language, Christ still becomes present; the Holy Sacrifice remains the Holy Sacrifice.