Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Following the liturgical plan
by Father Jan Larson
(From the July 1, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)
Some liturgists would remind us that the liturgy does not need to be planned, but it does need to be prepared. The point is that “planning” can imply that the groundwork of a project or task is not yet there, whereas “preparing” can imply that the groundwork is there, but people must familiarize themselves with its content so that the project can come alive. There is wisdom in these words.
Liturgy is a work or a project. In fact, the word means a “work of the people.” Its foundations are already there. The planning was done long ago, and these plans are found in our liturgical books. Together they are called the Roman rite. So in a real sense, we don’t need to do any liturgical planning, at least with our official liturgical rites. What we need to do is to prepare for their celebration. We need to familiarize ourselves with the rites, clearly understanding the various components and carefully distinguishing the various roles in the assembly – those which belong to the entire assembly, and those which properly belong to the presider and to the different ministers.
Those who prepare liturgies are sometimes tempted to tamper with the basic plan, whether it be changing parts around, adding elements that do not belong, or eliminating certain items. It is of the very nature of the liturgy that it is ritual, a pattern of religious actions that have a set structure and order. Ritual is a pattern of actions that discloses an experience that an individual or a group are having. In our Catholic Christian tradition that experience that our ritual expresses and intensifies is the paschal mystery - the mystery of the dying and rising of Jesus and our incorporation into that mystery.
It is the ritual that also serves to carry and preserve and protect these precious meanings from generation to generation. Indeed, the liturgy is the first catechism of the Catholic Church. To find out what we believe, the first source is the liturgy, not printed catechisms. The word “orthodox” originally meant correct worship (as in “doxology”) and only later came to mean mostly correct belief. So there is simply too much at stake to tamper with the liturgy, for changing things around risks confusing what the liturgy is supposed to mean, what it is that we are really doing at the liturgy, and what the liturgy does for us.
In a day when a television might have hundreds of channels available, and people can have a number of differently colored cell phones to match their whims or their outfits, it may be tempting to introduce inappropriate variety into our ritual. But there’s the rub. The liturgy is by its very nature intended to be fundamentally unchangeable. It must by its nature be repeated and predictable, century after century, even at the risk of being called repetitious and boring.
This certainly does not mean there are no choices in preparing liturgical celebrations. The liturgical books are filled with opportunities for creativity. Those who prepare the liturgy may choose scripture readings and music. Many introductions, greetings and instructions may be adapted or even composed anew. General intercessions and preaching are intended as legitimate diversity within our rites, as well as taking advantage of our 10 Eucharistic prayers and the options within each one. The design and decoration of the liturgical space may change with the feast or the season. But there is great wisdom in being fiercely protective of our sacred rituals, in following the liturgical books carefully. Parishes and other communities usually discover that doing what is in the liturgical books well is quite sufficient. Why tamper with a good thing?
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)