Priests are by default liturgists. This isn’t to say that they are by default good liturgists, but that every priest by virtue of his preparation and role in persona Christi capitis has an understanding, an appreciation, an attachment to the liturgy. I think that it would be fair to say that this is a reality that is more & more realized as the genuine fruits of Vatican II are re-discovered, practiced and properly placed within the greater context of the the Church’s tradition and doctrine.
I mention this because there seems to be a an idea prevalent in the United States – perhaps worldwide – that the interpretation and understanding of the liturgy stands apart from any Catholic practice prior to 1965 and only in iterations commonly agreed on by common opinion. In short, that the liturgy is defined by the modern age and its experts.
The evidence of this paradigm is evident in many parishes, possibly still the majority in the United States. Once-immutable words are changed according to the whims of what feels right, what seems ‘pastoral’, what appeals to the local assembly.
I remember when it finally hit home just how important the sacrament of penance truly was and that living – and dying – in a state of grace was not just something written in the Catechism, but a genuine necessity for salvation. The reception of absolution became real in a new way and one that could no longer be taken for granted. So you can imagine my shock, disillusionment and even anger when I began to realize that some priests did not offer absolution validly. Here I was, among fellow penitents looking for absolution from our sins – and these pastors saw fit to change the words of absolution away from the form given by the Church (CCC 1449). Nothing soured a good confession worse than reaching the end and realizing that my sins were not forgiven. There’s no ‘go in peace’ from that.
Similarly, it is not hard to look from Mass to Mass and sometimes hear not just ancillary prayers of the Mass being changed, but the words of consecration. There’s a terrible joke aimed at one of the more prominent religious communities of the Church that asks “What is the only thing that never changes when they celebrate the Mass?” and answers “the bread and the wine”. Its only funny until you realize that this is all too true of many Masses across religious and diocesan boundaries. Then its tragic on a monumental scale.
The post-modern mentality of subjective truth is one of the most destructive forces against Truth. Post-modernism essentially makes the claim that truth does not stand apart as something in and of itself but instead is defined by each person. We make our own realities according to our own experiences and opinions.
If you’ve ever watch Star Trek: The Next Generation (incidentally, the best of the five iterations) – you might remember the episode titled ‘Parallels‘. In it, Worf travels through space-time fissure that causes him to jump between universes and ultimately begins to merge all of the universes into one. If the crew(s) of the Enterprise hadn’t figured out how to repair the breach (and of course they do), the result would have been the annihilation of all the universes, because they can’t all exist in the same place.
And this is the reality that current generations are beginning to realize: not everyone gets to be right about what they have chosen to put forward as true. And when it comes to liturgy, there can also only be one proper way to worship, not many.
The proposition that many fail to accept is that the liturgy is given meaning not by those who celebrate or participate in it, but by Him who it is directed towards. The liturgy revolves around God alone. Every word, gesture, posture and movement in the liturgy stems from this meaning.
Take the sacrament of Baptism, the core words of the liturgy: “N., I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (CCC 1240). What changes if this formula is changed to something like “N., I baptize you in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier.”?
Well for one, those are dopey names for the individual Persons of the Trinity. More alarmingly, these new names imply isolated participation in each action named according to the Person indicated. So the Father is solely the creator – and not participating in redemption and sanctification. Likewise the Son and the Holy Spirit have been relegated to two-bit roles in the history of salvation rather than participating as one. Moreover, we’re no longer talking about Persons, but actions. And at the end of the day, an attempted baptism in these words – like changes made to the prayer of absolution or the words of institution at Mass – make the sacrament invalid.
The liturgy, like all things based on objective truth, stands apart from our interpretation of it. This isn’t to say that it can’t speak to us personally or individually, but that it has an objective meaning, purpose and form. Every word of the Mass – or any sacrament – intentionally expresses what we believe (Lex orandi, lex credendi). Our role isn’t to make meaning or to change the meaning to fit our own purposes. Its to find the meaning that is already there.
The next time you participate in Mass – or any celebration of a sacrament or rite, especially in the liturgy – pay attention to what is being said. Watch what is being done, both by the clergy and the laity. What does it mean, objectively? Ultimately, if properly celebrated, the work of the Church is not to draw our gaze back onto ourselves, but upwards toward God, who is Truth – and who is One.
- Fr. Maurer