Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
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
Discerning the consequences
by Father Jan Larson
(From the July 3, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)
There is virtually no change in our human habits that does not bring with it mixed consequences, We realize, usually after the fact, that change normally implies pluses and minuses, positive results and negative results. This is particularly true of liturgical changes, whether it be the rendering of the liturgy into the language of the people, or something as simple as changing the Sunday Mass schedule. Our worship is deeply rooted in ritual, which means that liturgies are repeated and predictable –qualities that allow ritual to give us a needed sense of security and rootedness in our tradiation and beliefs.
Philip J. Murnion, former director of the National Pastoral Life Center, has described changes in parish life, particularly liturgical changes, as necessarily having “intended and unintended” consequences. He quotes Gregory Dix, author of the classic The Shape of the Liturgy, describing the process through which the celebration of the Mass unwittingly became an occasion for private, devotional meditation on the Lord’s passion and death. In the fourth century, the Church suddenly found itself with massive numbers of new members, the barbarians. Because of the rather brutal lives of these people, great emphasis was placed on moral teachings rather than on the Church’s doctrines and dogmas. At the same time, the Church began to underscore St. Paul’s warning against approaching the eucharistic celebration unworthily, and so gradually there arose a climate that discouraged people from receiving Holy Communion frequently.
Over time, Communion came to be regarded as the regular prerogative of only the priest, and with this came the reduction of people’s participation in the liturgy. The congregation was reduced to silent witnessing of the actions of a priest speaking in a language that became increasingly foreign. People naturally began to see the Mass as an occasion for private, devotional meditation on Christ’s Passion and death.
This historical development in the liturgy well illustrates how changes occur. The Church intended to stress moral development, but did not originally intend to separate the priest from the assembly so radically, nor to turn the corporate prayer of the people into an occasion for private prayer and devotion. These latter results were unintended – consequences of the Church’s attempt to answer the pastoral need of its new barbarian members. Liturgical renewal today, particularly the reform initiated by Vatican II, is meant to correct some of the unintended consequences that were byproducts of liturgical renewal from days long past. Certainly all unintended consequences are not bad, but liturgical scholars and historians must always try to distinguish between what was intended and what was not, and how all liturgical change and reform will inevitably affect the Church’s liturgy and its principles either for the better or for the worse.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)
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