The ten commandments of liturgy
In light of Pope Francis’ determination to suppress what was until recently called the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite—that is, the Traditional Latin Mass—it may be opportune to remind everyone of the ten commandments of our participation in the Church’s liturgy. I made these up myself, of course, but hardly out of whole cloth.
I want to argue very strongly that these ten commandments, or really ten closely-connected principles, capture an essentially Catholic understanding of how we are to respond to the Sacred Liturgy—an understanding which ought to reduce our own personal preferences in liturgical matters to just exactly that—preferences which, on careful study and consideration, can be recommended to the Church for her official consideration; but preferences which we do not allow to obscure or diminish our own reception of the Divine Liturgy as made available to us through the Church herself.
The crystallization of these principles in my own spiritual life can be traced back more than a quarter century to a family road trip “out West”. Apparently, after attending Mass in various places around the country, I had fallen into the habit of commenting on what the priest or deacon or altar servers or lectors or choir had done badly. But then, as we were driving out of one church parking lot, I overheard some of my children gleefully deconstructing what they had just witnessed.
Now, of course, this was entirely my fault. I realized in that moment that I had a serious responsibility to put an end to it. Getting everyone’s attention, I emphatically stated a superior truth:
“The most important thing to remember in all this,” I said, “is that none of us is worthy of even the most poorly-offered Mass.”
For those who were old enough to get the point, I’ve been told this made a lasting impression. I certainly hope so—especially given the number of times I had fostered the opposite impression. I mean the impression that each of us is worthy to pronounce judgment on every Mass—and that Our Lord Himself waits with bated breath (even if His Church does not) to be instructed by whatever judgments we might deign to make.
So here are my ten principles of a good Catholic’s participation in that Sacred Liturgy we call the Mass:
The work of Christ through His Church
The first and second principles are that (1) Liturgy is the work of Christ through the Church, which means that (2) Liturgy is not our own to order as we prefer, except within the parameters established by the authority of the Church. In this, of course, we recognize that the fundamental elements of the liturgy have been given to the Church by God, but also that the Church alone can rightly determine the precise manner of presentation of these elements, according to the judgment of the competent ecclesiastical authority as to what particular forms, at any given time, best serve the good of souls.
The highest form of worship
The third and fourth principles are: (3) Liturgy is our highest form of worship because it is offered by Christ through His mystical body the Church, to His Father. In the liturgy, Christ becomes present to us again, first through His Divine Word in Sacred Scripture and then through the re-presentation of His sacrifice for us to the Father: In the Eucharistic elements He becomes fully present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. And therefore (4) The liturgy is not to be reflective so much of our own personal preferences, enjoyment or pleasure as it is of the ordering and presentation of the essential elements by the Church herself in order to effect these mysteries repeatedly through our earthly time and space.
All of creation
The fifth and sixth principles are: (5) Liturgy is the ongoing process by which all of creation is sanctified and returned to the Father; and this leads directly to (6) The significance of the liturgical action exceeds our understanding and so demands, as our primary response regardless of form, a kind of astonished humility. We must start with the assumption that our personal moods and judgments of the strengths and weaknesses of any liturgical form are essentially irrelevant in each particular opportunity for worship. These are to be set aside precisely in the effort to achieve active (and actual) participation in the liturgical movement and mystery.
Incorporation into Christ
The seventh and eighth principles are that (7) Liturgy is the process of our ecclesial and sacramental incorporation into Christ. It follows that (8) Liturgy is not to be used by us as a source of pride or personal exaltation. This categorically excludes any assent to feelings of condemnation of others, or of self-satisfaction with the superiority of our own liturgical preferences or participation as compared with others. If we do not strive first and foremost to banish such thoughts, we have failed the very first test of genuine participation.
Obedience and sacrifice
Finally, the ninth and tenth principles are that (9) Liturgy is a continuous participation in Christ’s obedience and sacrifice, through which He draws everything to the Father. It follows that (10) Liturgy must never become a battleground for the triumph of our own personal preferences and judgments, as if liturgical value depends on our personal satisfaction. The personal reality at the heart of the liturgy is always our union with the Christ who saved us through obedience.
If we cannot get past our own satisfaction or dissatisfaction, no matter how righteous we believe them to be, then we have not yet even begun to grasp the essential nature of Sacred Liturgy. There is even an important and very legitimate sense in which it is more fruitful that we should find suffering rather than exaltation in the liturgy, even though we must not work deliberately to make the liturgy trite or otherwise repulsive. Our Lord, in any case, is very likely to permit us to feel such pain—under any conceivable liturgical circumstances—in order to test not our sensibilities but our obedience and love.
Of course, any of us may, as a labor of Christian love, work to make the precise outward forms of liturgical celebrations as good and helpful to all as possible—assuming (on our part) prayer, study, a sound perception of our own strengths and weaknesses, and, above all, humility. But it remains true that if we are upset about the liturgy, we ought first to take our cue from Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, as recounted in Luke 22:42:
“Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done.”
All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!
Posted by: winnie -
Dec. 23, 2021 1:58 PM ET USA
Many good points here, Jeff! Richard DeClue said something during an interview with your son, Thomas, that stays with me. My approximation: How can you love the Church by hating it? I realized that I had at times perhaps given others the impression that I hated the Church, because of the sarcasm, nastiness & bitterness of my remarks. Although, criticism is at times valid & necessary, DeClue made me realize that I must examine my conscience and motives before opening my mouth.
Posted by: dianekortan5972 -
Dec. 22, 2021 12:41 PM ET USA
Thank you for your wise and conciliatory advice. Yours is always the voice of moderation and love.
Posted by: Jeff Mirus -
Dec. 22, 2021 10:08 AM ET USA
Eric: If the actual rubrics as established by the Church are not being observed, then it is certainly appropriate to point this out to the pastor and/or the bishop. It is also appropriate to change to a parish in which the rubrics are observed. Finally, it is important to preserve our spiritual equanimity, by not giving in to the temptation to extreme, denunciatory reactions to minor ritual failures, as long as the substance is there.
Posted by: Eric -
Dec. 21, 2021 2:58 PM ET USA
Good points Jeffrey, but how are we to act when the objections I have revolve around the degradation of the Mass as defined by Holy Mother Church? In other words, my concerns deal with issues that the Church says are important (e.g., appropriate vessels for communion), not aesthetic judgment calls or my own personal preferences?