Saturday, January 23, 2010

On Liturgical Conformity

Shortly after my arrival here, I was given a copy of Liturgiae Celebratio: The Celebration of the Liturgy at Mundelein Seminary.  It's a very thorough (and well-footnoted) little book, covering practical details of liturgical celebration without glossing over brief moments of theological explanation.

So that you can see I don't exaggerate when I say it is a thorough book, I reproduce here its table of contents.  It has particular instructions for: Assembly, Celebrant, Concelebrants, Deacon, Acolyte, Lector, Psalmist, Musicians, Master of Ceremonies, and Sacristan; it also contains a chart for progressive solemnity, a section on the Liturgy of the Hours, and, in closing, some spiritual and ecclesiological perspectives.

Naturally, most of those parts don't apply to me.  But I thought it only fair to read the bit on the Assembly, since I was given a copy, and I do form part of the assembly.  Most things I read were familiar enough, but the last bit of the "Sign of the Cross" section quite upset me:
Note that the General Instruction provides for no Sign of the Cross during the formula following the Act of Penitence. The priest's absolution in this instance "lacks the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance." (Liturgiae Celebratio, p8, cf. GIRM 51)

I was absolutely floored by this!  Sure, I could see that it'd be important to train devotional habits out of future priests, who will be in the sanctuary, easily visible by all, and an acute symbol of Christ the Head.  But me!?  Why couldn't I be that little lady who sits in the congregation with her old-fashioned piety and worships Our Lord in her own little way, without detracting from the Holy Sacrifice taking place at the altar?

Some semblance of decorum prevailed, however, and so I refrained from making a noticeable sign of the cross at this point.  Not quite what's asked of me, I confess, but I have a strong attachment to this pious act, learned in childhood at my parents' fairly typical Catholic parish, an act which now reminds me of the EF liturgy that I hold so dear.  It's difficult to let go of a beloved tradition when a non-binding rule asks you to without explanation.

When Fr Martis first mentioned in class that we're supposed to shun all displays of individualism in the liturgy, I was taken aback.  I immediately considered defensively the hardly-discernible devotional actions I make during Mass, and the prayers from other liturgical traditions that I have incorporated into my private preparation for the Eucharist.  Then I recalled a more reliable source than my own sentiments: our holy father.  He explicitly commends beating the breast at the Agnus Dei (not a prescribed action!), to keep in mind the sacrifice of the Lamb Who was slain for our sins (cf. Spirit of the Liturgy, p207).

The subject fell to the back burner, but Fr Martis mentioned again at the Triduum conference yesterday that we are not present at the sacred liturgy to pray how we want to pray but how God wants us to pray (my paraphrase, his ideas).  This does make sense - the whole reason we have rubrics to follow is because the liturgy is not our own creation but something that Our Lord has handed on to us, something that we must do in a certain way simply because He has asked us to.

Not that I ever doubted Fr Martis's scholarship, but a rule feels more binding if you see it in print yourself.  And sure enough, clearly stated in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal:
The faithful [. . .] are to shun any appearance of individualism or division, keeping before their eyes that they have only one Father in heaven and accordingly are all brothers and sisters to each other. (GIRM 95)

Shun is a very strong word for the Magisterium to use in a document.  Have you ever noticed that Rome kind of stays away from particularly strong words, that every Decree ends with the phrase, "Everything to the contrary notwithstanding", that most scheduled events can be pushed to a different time if pastoral judgment requires it to be so?  And yet here, Holy Mother Church asks us to shun individualism, and anything that might even look like individualism, in the context of the liturgy.

That's a big deal.

I should be so united with the rest of the congregation in my liturgical prayer that you would hardly be able to pick me out from the crowd.

Certainly, our hearts should all be upon the Paschal Mystery, upon the sacrifice taking place at that altar.  And it is perfectly understandable that our bodies should show a certain degree of uniformity.  For we are not acting as individuals in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; rather, we are entering into the Body of Christ and speaking with one voice as His Bride.  Still, because the liturgy is my nuptial union with my divine Bridegroom, I want to have a satisfying emotional experience.  Oops.

The deeper in I get to the Roman liturgy, the more deeply I notice its essential differences from the liturgies of our Eastern brethren (in this case: the demanded uniformity of the faithful's exterior participation).

And the more I wonder how much of my attachment to various liturgical forms is due to devotional piety, rather than to that piety proper to the sacred liturgy. Expect more on this in the weeks to come.  It scares me.


  1. This is somewhat disturbing to me as well. One of the ways I've learned to appreciate the low mass in the EF is the fact that in the EF there are no prescribed rubrics for the laity, only local custom. I've been instructed by spiritual directors (both from the ICRSP) to say the rosary or another devotion during the mass; all the actual liturgical actions of the mass are carried out by the servers and celebrant. There are times I spend the entirety of mass in the EF kneeling and contemplating.

    Was the professor speaking explicitly with reference to the OF, or for liturgy as a whole?

  2. The booklet, the General Instruction, and the professor's comment were all for the OF.

  3. Not surprisingly, given my string of late night ramblings tonight, I think I disagree with you.

    Don't get me wrong: it's been my opinion for some time now that the primary way in which we honor God in the Liturgy is by obedience to what the Church does.

    My problem is that I don't think the GIRL, a book written by high clerics, liturgists, and theologians is the binding rule of "what the Church does." Rubrics are a guide where the Pope, the custodian and authentic interpreter of tradition, sets out guidelines to help people do what the Church does. This is why, of course, the spirit of the liturgy is so important, because the rubrics separated from the spirit that inspired them are as a corpse separated from the soul that guided its development.

    Rubrics, of course, can be wrong-headed, and the church can reject them. I think our sense of obedience to the Church's liturgical law has to be absolutely free from all shadow of American legalism.

    In the case of the concept that the "The faithful [. . .] are to shun any appearance of individualism or division, keeping before their eyes that they have only one Father in heaven and accordingly are all brothers and sisters to each other," I think that the authentic tradition of both East and West mitigates (although does not contramand, naturally) this. It is, as far as I can tell, a fact that no liturgy prior to that cobbled together in the late '60s had any sort of rubrics for the faithful. We may say that the advent of rubrics for the faithful (in as much as there are rubrics for the faithful) is a genuine development. I'm not entirely sure of that myself. But we can leave that point behind.

    In the East it is obvious that there is great liberty in the ways in which people participate in the liturgy. It was like that in the West, too.

    In fact, a lot of these ways were devotional.

    This makes sense to me. We have to walk a fine line between obedience and devotion to be able to both "enter into" the public work of the Church and "own" it.

    The Western liturgy, prior to the recent reform, was marked by a particular and almost outrageous individualism! I like it. It is, at the same time, just about the most corporate and the most individual liturgy I have ever participated in.

  4. I think a case can be made that, if the western tradition is to be maintained, there has to be a greater freedom for individual piety within the Mass that is nonetheless focused toward the Mass.

    With that said, what shall we make both of this quotation and of what your professors are saying?

    First the quotation. Although the GIRM, I am convinced, will be substantially reformed to eliminate some of its more unfortunate aspects, it stands as it stands today. We owe it obedience as proper law within the whole context of authentic liturgical tradition.

    This particular sentence is non-problematic to me except in the strength of the terms used. One thing I have to get better at is taking a "humble appearance" at Mass, if, for no other reason, than that allowing my individuality to "stick out" too much fosters pride.

    It has never been the western tradition to draw attention to ourselves at Mass. I don't think that this sentence says anything more than that. We should not make ourselves stand apart either by exalting ourselves or by condemning others, either by individualism or division. No problem.

    If this is the strongest condemnation of Mass-centered piety within the Mass, I find it lacking in force. If anything, it is more an admonition to watch what we're doing and avoid excesses (even of piety) than anything else.

    As far as making the sign of the cross, I think that this peace of piety is especially appropriate. First because it is in obedience to the way the Church has worshiped throughout history. Second because it is in obedience to the traditions the authentic traditions that have developed since the reform. Third because it is unobtrusive, non-divisive, and can hardly be said to intrinsically promote individualism.

    I'll offer a compromise, it is the compromise I have followed for years:

    If one is actually serving the liturgy, one ought not to do it because of the special liturgical office (i.e. the office of acolyte) that one is filling in for. If it would be divisive in a congregation or excessively promote individualism, one ought not to do it. If, however, it is unobtrusive, and one is assisting at Mass without any special office or ministry, I think one can and should feel free to do it. In fact, I think it is a laudable thing in those circumstances.

    I'd love to go into my reasons, but you're probably sick of this alright, and I probably should close it for the night...or, rather, for the Lent.


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