Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington



From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302


Liturgy Reflections:
Mysterious liturgy

by Father Jan Larson

(From the July 6, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Jan Larson I was recently watching a part of the daily televised liturgy on EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network). The liturgy there is an odd mix of English and Latin, while following the texts of the current Roman Missal. The priest and ministers of the liturgy look way too somber and serious. The ritual is performed with all the exaggerated exactness of the pre-Vatican II Latin liturgy. The Mass is overly formal and mechanical. Needless to say, there are no women allowed in the sanctuary area, there is no procession with the gifts, no Sign of Peace, and, of course, no Communion from the cup for the lay people who are present. The liturgy, in effect, is unlike anything that Catholics experience in the vast majority of Catholic parish churches.

I am certain that the planners of these liturgies would explain their differences from parish liturgies with the familiar refrain that the post Vatican II liturgical reforms have taken too much of the mystery away from the Holy Mass. Certainly, they say, allowing the congregation full, active and conscious participation in the ritual is what empties the rites of their mystery, so the further we keep the secular congregation away from the clerical activity and space, the better to preserve the liturgy’s mystery. Thus the need to eliminate any personal touch with the lay folks, and, by all means, do not allow them to communicate with each other, even to wish one’s neighbor the peace of the risen Christ. (One wonders what these people think of the pope as he hugs and kisses the children who present him with the gifts to be offered, giving each of them a small gift as a remembrance of the liturgy. Perhaps it is all right for the pope to be warm and personable during the liturgy, but inappropriate for lesser souls.)

I think the folks responsible for these stuffy liturgies are confusing mystery with mystification. Rites that express mystery will invite people into the unknown, into what lies beyond the action of the ritual. Liturgy done well this way will cause people to ask, “How does this ritual which I can see, and in which I am participating, lead me more deeply into the beyond, into life of the God of mystery whom I cannot see?” Mystification, on the other hand, leads one to ask, “What on earth does that mean, and why in God’s name is he doing that?”

Luke Timothy Johnson, author of The Creed and other works, wrote recently in Commonweal magazine about the concerns of many conservative Catholics that paying attention to one another during the liturgy (what he calls “horizontal” values) have distracted us too much from the “vertical” values – our relationship with God and Christ. He writes:

“Critics who complain that these ‘horizontal’ values have been realized at the cost of ‘vertical’ ones, that mystery and a sense of the transcendent have disappeared among all the folksiness, need gently to be reminded of the difference between mystery and mystification. We who grew up in a Tridentine liturgy and who witnessed the travails of reform can bear an important witness to those of a younger generation who hanker after the ‘good old days.’ Some fear they have missed the solemn richness of Catholic piety, believing that the reformed liturgy comes dangerously close to Protestant worship, and that the perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is the essential expression of authentic Eucharistic theology. But we are in a position to state that for every example of splendid monastic liturgy in the old days there were countless examples of parish worship that appeared meaninglessly mechanical.

“We know that birettas and fiddle-back chasubles, mumbled (and often mangled) Latin, and truly execrable renditions of Gregorian chant were no more aesthetically than theologically impressive. Having lived through ‘speed-typing’ Masses guaranteed to last no more than twenty minutes, we can point to the greater seriousness, even greater solemnity, of parish worship today. Those who call contemporary worship insufficiently sacred literally do not know what they are talking about.

“As for the growing similarity among the Eucharistic celebrations of Catholics and Protestants, we should rejoice that Catholics now feel at home at Lutheran, Methodist, and Episcopalian worship, and that our Protestant neighbors have gained much through our process of renewal and reform. The Catholic form of worship remains a strong motivation for conversion among adults. As we have known all along, God works powerfully through the words and gestures of the liturgy; the hard work of renewal has served to make God’s work plain and public each Sunday when we gather as ‘church.’”

(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)


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