Future Priests of the Third Millennium

A little insight into the life of seminarians from various dioceses preparing for ministry as Roman Catholic priests, including daily activities, personal interests, special events, the spiritual life, news from the seminary, and almost whatever comes to our minds!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Celebrating the Liturgy

The following reflection was written as part of an assignment to offer reflections on Paragraph 40 of Benedict XVI's Sacramentum caritatis.


The human person seems, at some deep level, to need ritual. Ritual is something more than simple habit or routine. Rather, even though it is repetitive, ritual is deliberate; it is precisely in the deliberate repeating of ritual words and actions that deeper meaning is expressed. As a result, it becomes, in a way not common to other human actions, the expression of the transcendent. This fact is seen in many areas of life. For instance, the rituals surrounding military burial, express more profoundly than mere words reverence for the qualities of valor, honor, and generosity. More profoundly, the rituals of the Roman Rite express the abiding love of God for his people. The liturgical colors, the ritual gestures, the sounds, the sights, and the smells should evoke in the faithful a knowledge of Jesus – God with Us – that surpasses the simple apprehension of some other, mundane, sort of truth. In order for ritual to accomplish this feat, however, the celebrant of the liturgy must recognize that the mysteries he celebrates are much larger than his own personality. It seems to be this truth to which Pope Benedict is drawing attention paragraph 40 of Sacramentum caritatis.

Catholic rituals, unlike those of the US Military or even many other Christian denominations are ancient. Catholic rites carry within themselves 2000 years of real worship and lived faith. This is an important fact that priests and deacons should bear in mind as they celebrate the liturgy. What we do, we do because it has been expressive of the faith of the Christian community which has been handed on since the time of the Apostles. In a way, it can be said that who we are, as Catholics, is defined by what we do liturgically. For this reason, it seems extremely presumptuous to either add or subtract from the liturgy as it is practiced in the Universal Church. For the celebrant of a liturgy to add some element or to subtract some element because he deems it necessary to do so suggests of the celebrant that his own wisdom surpasses that of those from throughout history from whom we have inherited our tradition. Am I better equipped to determine how Mass should be celebrated than was Pope Gregory the Great, Thomas Aquinas, or Pope Paul VI?

Obviously, over the course of time, the liturgy has developed. We no longer celebrate in hiding, gathered in small house churches owned by the wealthier members of our communities. Nevertheless, the tradition is contained within the rites as we celebrate them now. In other words, the liturgy is the treasure of the Church, belonging not only to us, but also to those who have come before us and those who will follow. It is not, therefore, the celebrant’s place to capriciously (and in a tradition of 2000 years, even extended reflection could be considered capricious) change the liturgy. Rather, the liturgy itself demands, as the Holy Father writes, “a docile openness” wherein the celebrant recognizes that he has been entrusted with the very instrument whereby the faith of the Church is passed from one generation to the next. He, to speak colloquially, has mighty big shoes to fill, and fill them he must if the Truth is to be transmitted to the generations still to come. Infidelity to the liturgy, then, becomes the transmission of oneself. Focus is taken away from Christ and placed on the personality of the man who, by his ontology, is meant to be alter Christus. A failure of this sort betrays the human need for ritual, and it interrupts the “the different levels of communication which enable [the liturgy] to engage the whole human person.”

It is often quipped, “Keep the rule, and the rule will keep you.” The same can be said of the liturgy. If one celebrates it faithful to the structure of the rites, one can be assured that it will do what it is supposed to do. To insert “contrived and inappropriate additions” bears of the risk of cheapening the liturgy, making it an unnecessary and narcissistic celebration of novelty. While one certainly wants to be able to say of a celebrant something more than that “he got the words right,” one should at least be able to say this much.