Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Putting the Liturgy in Perspective

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 19, 2009

Reading a fine article by Msgr. George P. Graham in the October issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review put me in mind once again of the key to understanding the Mass and how the Liturgy should be absorbed and evaluated. The Liturgy is the public worship not primarily of a “congregation”, a collection of individuals, but of the Church qua Church. That is, it is the worship of the Father by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, head and members.

The Mass is the representation in an unbloody manner of the decisive and infinite act of worship which took place in Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary. At each Mass, Christ is the victim and Christ is the priest who offers Himself, for the human priest acts in persona Christi with a Divine power. Moreover, the worshipping community is also Christ, the body of Christ into which we are incorporated by virtue of our membership in the Church. Hence the Liturgy is always first and foremost the work of God, a sacred action in which we participate only because we are members of Christ.

In almost any discussion of the liturgy, people will be critical of the weaknesses they perceive in the rite, the celebrant, the lector, the music, and so on, primarily according to their own personal sensibilities, preferences, spiritual formation and liturgical theories. I do not mean to dismiss such concerns, for they can have significant value insofar as they are directed toward more effectively drawing all the Faithful into deeper participation in the Mass as the Work of God. But all human differences and deficiencies in the celebration of a legitimate Mass are ultimately secondary; the human side of liturgy is by its very nature a necessarily imperfect clothing for the always infinitely perfect act of worship that is the Mass.

It is good to remind ourselves that we are utterly unworthy of incorporation into so perfect an offering. In other words, none of us is worthy of the Mass. This is true no matter how poorly or even irreverently the Mass is said. Every one of us is unworthy even of what appears to be, from the human point of view, the most paltry Mass. For the Mass is not to be judged primarily from that point of view. If we keep this in mind, we will unite ourselves more effectively to the sacred action regardless of the external circumstances, and so incorporate ourselves ever more firmly into Christ’s body. As a refreshing byproduct, we’ll also lose most of the righteous indignation which so often accompanies liturgical criticism.

Henry IV, the French Huguenot who could not secure his claim to the throne without being triumphant in Paris, and who could not be triumphant in Paris without becoming Catholic, famously said that Paris was worth a Mass. He was right, but only by Divine condescension, for not even Paris is worthy of the Mass unless she be joined to the Body of Christ. To please God, we must all worship as Church, relying not on who we are, but on what the Church is, and ultimately on Who Christ is. The Mass is not ours insofar as we are ourselves; it is only ours insofar as we are the Church. Next time we’re tempted to pass judgment on everything that’s wrong with the liturgy, we should count to ten and think about that.

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: - Oct. 21, 2009 5:39 AM ET USA

    hhmmm...I mostly go to hispanic mass here in my Maryland parish. And I must say this article really puts things into perspective for me. I am often prone to pass judgement on everything that's wrong with the liturgy of our hispanic masses (I long to be in Rome!) next time it comes up, I think I will count to ten and think about what you just said! Thanks!

  • Posted by: - Oct. 20, 2009 1:31 PM ET USA

    How is Diogenes taking this mild scolding?