Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
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'Mysterious liturgy' revisited
by Father Jan Larson
(From the Oct. 26, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
In May of this year I wrote an article titled “Mysterious liturgy,” offering my opinion that those who plan the
ETWN daily televised liturgies could do better
(IR 7/6/06). The
article resulted in a flood of emails, most of them critical of my comments.
I am reminded that I am certainly not the first one to be uncomfortable with these televised Masses. In February of
2000, the bishop of Birmingham, Ala., where these broadcasts originate, found it necessary to issue guidelines for
televised Masses in his diocese. He was clearly not happy with the way ETWN liturgies were departing from what the
celebration of the liturgy usually looks like.
And here is exactly the point I am trying to make: One can speak of various liturgical styles. There are, for
example, liturgies with contemporary hymns, or with the more classical hymns, or liturgies with some Latin or some chant.
There are liturgies planned for certain groups of people in mind, for example, young children, teenagers, elderly, people
on retreats, military people engaged in combat, and so forth. One kind reader reminded me that ETWN liturgies are really
the liturgies of a monastic community, to which the public is invited. Her implication was that the monks have their
private Mass, so they can do what they want, even though a lay congregation is present.
I think this is wrong on two counts.
First, there is no such thing as a private Mass. All liturgies are the public prayer of the church. Therefore, even
monks, if they open their chapel doors to lay congregations, should plan those liturgies to incorporate the full and active
participation of the lay people present, as well as of the monastic community. Thus lay people should be encouraged to be
readers and servers. At least on Sundays there should be the prescribed procession with the gifts. There should be the
exchange of the Sign of Peace, and Communion from the chalice should be available to all. Also Communion should not be
distributed from what has been reserved in the tabernacle from previous liturgies. Also, if Latin is used in the liturgy,
it should be used sparingly.
These are simple norms providing for full and active participation of all in the assembly – not just for a chosen
few. These norms apply even more obviously when the liturgy is going to be broadcast daily to thousands and thousands of
households worldwide. These elements that deepen the participation of the laity are a part of the liturgy in the vast
majority of parishes worldwide. I think that a daily televised Mass ought to reflect the way the liturgy is celebrated in
Priests today try to be personal and warm at our parish liturgies. As I have said, ETWN priests appear to me to be
cold, impersonal, mechanical and lifeless. I doubt they are that way personally, but the ETWN style forces them to appear
that way. That is my impression. I feel that Jesus at the Last Supper was warm, inviting, personal, and yet was leading
“authentic” liturgy. If this does not happen in parishes, then many people, especially young people, will stop coming to
the liturgy. I am always moved by the way the pope will greet children as they bring him the gifts of bread and wine for
the Mass. He embraces them, kisses them, and gives each one a gift. This is a small thing, and not even a part of the
official liturgy, but it allows the pope’s warm personality to help shape the sacred rites. I see nothing of this personal
touch on ETWN.
I appreciate the sense that readers expressed that the liturgy needs to have a sense of mystery about it. The
challenge to those who plan the liturgy: how can the priest be warm, personal and friendly, and still maintain the sense of
mystery that the liturgy requires? I believe that if the priest just follows what the liturgical books indicate, and does
everything well, the sense of mystery will be preserved, and the priest does not have to become mechanical and lifeless in
the process, nor does he need to become like an entertainer or a game show host. The sense of mystery is lost when priest
and planners make the liturgy more of an experience of entertainment than an experience of prayer.
Finally, some readers are rightly concerned about what they perceive to be liturgical abuses. Certainly there are
liturgical abuses happening in various places, as there always have been. But heeding the words of Pope John Paul II, on
the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, it is unfortunate that some “have turned
back in a one-sided and exclusive way to the previous liturgical forms which some of them consider to be the sole guarantee
of certainty in faith.... This should not lead anyone to forget that the vast majority of the pastors and the Christian
people have accepted the liturgical reform in a spirit of obedience and indeed joyful fervor.” I am happy to include myself
in this vast majority, and hope that each reader may come to share this common joy.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)
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