In my previous teaching position I was asked to give an annual workshop to members of a religious community of men on liturgical preparation. I have an extensive knowledge of the history of the Roman Rite both from a textual and an archeological perspective. In addition to my doctorate in History, I have a graduate degree (Master’s) in Theology. And—and this was probably the most significant reason I was asked to do this—I have long personal experience (50 years+) of involvement in preparing liturgical celebrations.
You will notice that I say “preparation” of the Liturgy and not “planning” the liturgy. The Church has already “planned” the Liturgy. The basic elements are there already in the liturgical books. There is a somewhat restricted freedom, sometimes way too restricted, on choosing readings. The prayers are already, for the most part, composed. Back in the wild and wooly seventies things were different but those days are gone—for better and for worse—and the basic format of our communal worship is set. What remains are choices of appropriate music, environment, exercising certain options contained in the ritual books, choosing the various ministers to serve, integrating other rites (baptism, matrimony, unction, the scrutinies, installation of ministries, etc.) into the Liturgy, and other choices that are left to particular congregations and particular occasions.
I always told the participants in these workshops that there were four principles for which we should strive and these are the four in order of importance:
1. Theological integrity: does the choice you are making adequately reflect the faith of the Church (as opposed to private devotion or personal taste). This principle is absolutely non-negotiable: we must not symbolize something that is foreign to the faith of the Church.
2. Historical precedent: does the choice we are making have a historical precedent—is there a historical justification for what we are doing and the way in which we are doing it? This principle is strong, but there is some “wiggle room”—it is not our faith to be locked into the past.
3. Pastoral usefulness: does the choice we are making serve the pastoral needs of those who will be in the worshipping assembly. The Liturgy is a ministry and should be celebrated in such a way as to minister Word and Sacrament in the fashion most useful to serve the needs of the faithful.
4. Aesthetically pleasing. Our worship should reflect “the beauty of Holiness.” There should be a natural beauty and gracefulness to our communal worship.
The biggest problem that I have encountered with liturgical preparation—whether from the neo-trads all across the spectrum to the loony lefties is that they jump to (what they consider to be) the aesthetically pleasing or emotionally satisfying with little or no appreciation for the other three, and especially the first, principle. (Of course those on the extreme left and those on the extreme right have very different ideas of what constitutes “beauty.”) Whether it is festooning lace all over the altar (or the priest at the altar) or hanging immense felt banners from the rafters could we just back off from our anxiety to create a liturgical celebration that enshrines our particular fantasies and focus on the faith of the Church?
Of course one problem there is is that we don’t all have the same understanding of the Church’s faith when it comes to the Mass and Sacraments. This troubles me immensely. This is precisely the fight over the Novus Ordo vs the Tridentine Liturgy. There are two distinct theologies of the Eucharist, each legitimized by the approved rite itself, and they are not always compatible. I think the various permissions given over the years for the continuation of the pre-Conciliar Liturgy is a disastrous mistake as it legitimizes two distinct and sometimes contradictory theologies, but as long as the Extraordinary Form continues to enjoy a legitimacy I think we need to acknowledge the existence of two “official” theologies of the Mass. At the same time I think we need to be careful to understand each but not to mix them. Any sort of hybrid Liturgy or theology of the Eucharist would turn out to be a bastardization of both. But I am heading off on a tangent here and want to return to my main point that we need to make sure that our Liturgies—and the churches in which we celebrate them—adequately reflect the faith of the Church. In those churches where the Novus Ordo is celebrated, we must take care to make sure that the building itself reflects the ecclesiology contained in the 1970 rites.
1. By Baptism we are a priestly, prophetic, and royal people and we all (and each) have a distinctive role in the Liturgical Celebration
2. That the Liturgy is an ecclesial action and thus a communal action
3. That we are called to take a full, active, and conscious participation in the Liturgy.
4. That in the Eucharist we become present to and actively participate in Christ’s self-sacrifice on the Cross.
5. That in the Eucharist we are called to offer ourselves in union with Christ whose Body we are in the sacrifice of obedience to the Will of God
6. there is a distinction in roles between the ordained and the community of the faithful but all are essential to the celebration of the sacrificial banquet of the Eucharist.
7. That the faithful rightfully exercise both “full, active, and conscious participation in the liturgy” as well as their particular ministries in the Liturgy by the authority of their baptism
8. That Christ is truly present, albeit in different modes, in both Word and Sacrament as well as in the assembly gathered and sacramentally in the priest.
9. That the Word of God is an essential element of our worship
10. That the Liturgy is the solemn action of the Church and not the possession of any individual, priest or lay, or any group or faction.