National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  February 13, 2004

-- CNS/Nancy Wiechec

Liturgy: the challenging call to a new direction

We need more than simply being better at business as usual

This is the third in an occasional series on liturgical renewal. It will explore the impact the Second Vatican Council’s landmark Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy has had on Roman Catholic life and assess the future of the liturgical landscape.

Previous installments in the series were Dec. 12 and Jan. 16.


It seems characteristic of the human spirit that on the occasion of an anniversary of some watershed event or document that this spirit bursts forth in new and challenging ways. Such seems to be the case with the celebration of the 40th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which was published in December 1963. The past year has seen the appearance of numerous articles detailing the place of the constitution in the liturgical lives of the churches. There are articles dealing with the history of the liturgical movement that led to the publication of the constitution, the achievements of the Second Vatican Council enshrined in the document, the successes and failures of the implementation of the constitution during the last 40 years, the implied promises and implicit challenges for the future, the document as a betrayal of the tradition of the church, the lamentations over the perceived rollback of the document on the part of church leaders and the passionate calls to return to the constitution for inspiration and guidance for the future of the liturgy. We have read and heard it all.

But is that it? Is that the bubbling forth of the spirit of God as Christians reflect over the past 40 years of their experience of liturgical worship?

Is the task of the next 40 years simply an intensification of what we are already doing? Are the real questions facing the Christian community in its worship really a matter of continuing to improve the preaching, making better use of the liturgical space, more literate and memorable texts for the celebration, better liturgical leadership? In other words, business as usual but simply better at the business? Or are the real issues -- as certain groups in the church maintain -- the inculturation of the liturgy, a recovery of the place of the imagination in liturgical celebrations including a new inclusive language, and greater accessibility to the Eucharist?

In recent years there have been calls for a new liturgical movement because there is a growing sense that the powerful energies that culminated in the liturgy of the Second Vatican Council have petered out. We are experiencing a loss of nerve. The abiding question for those who belong to the First World, especially the United States, is: In a country that has more liturgical resources that ever before -- more workshops, more training programs, more homily commentaries, more masters of liturgy programs, more programs to prepare people for initiation into the church, more liturgical and musical organizations, and greater emphasis on the study of liturgy under the guidance of the scriptural and ecumenical gains of the last century, as well as a greater integration of the humanistic sciences in the practical spiritual practices -- why have we not yet fulfilled the immediate aims of the conciliar reform? Why is the parish with a good liturgy considered something so exceptional that everyone in the city or state knows about it? Why is there not more passion about liturgy? In other words, why are we starving in the midst of plenty?

Inculturation a threat

One would most likely get a unanimous vote from liturgists that inculturation is one of the elements of the agenda regarding the liturgy in the future. The word is used frequently in theological and liturgical writings. Liturgical scholars have employed anthropology and sociology in their attempt to understand the dynamics of inculturation and what that means for the liturgical celebration. While there are a number of definitions that have been widely accepted, there is not that kind of agreement that would allow one to presume that there is a common understanding of what inculturation is.

While there is a lot of talk about inculturation, very little of it is actually being done. One reason for this is that the leadership of the church does not promote it because it threatens the status quo upon which their position in the church is based. But there is another more pervasive reason, I believe, that prevents inculturation from being a real agenda issue for the liturgy in the future. It is the attempt to distinguish inculturation from creativity. Understandably, church leaders might be reluctant to embrace the concept of creativity since it implies a lack of control and a kind of messiness that is difficult to legislate. But liturgists themselves, including the ones who write about inculturation, are reluctant to see creativity as at the heart of the inculturation of the Gospel. Perhaps it is out of fear that creativity is some kind of mindless activity leading to chaos out of which occasionally something brilliant proceeds. Authentic creativity is closer to what Matthew Fox claims, namely, it is where the divine and human meet. In his book, Creativity, Fox writes: “Creativity, when all is said and done, may be the best thing our species has going for it. … Creativity constitutes the very meaning of our being human and our powers of creativity distinguish us from other species.” Is this not the aspect of our humanity that makes it possible for the Gospel to find a home in any culture?

What kind of inculturated liturgy can we have in which the human gift of creativity is excluded? What would it look like? The answer is found in the official documents that make it clear that an inculturated Roman Rite would still look like the Roman Rite. How can the liturgy be Asian, African or Pacifican if it is still to be Roman? The word Roman may be applicable for all churches that are in communion with the church of Rome but as long as people maintain that the liturgy in Jakarta is supposed to look like the liturgy in Rome, inculturation will be little more than an aesthetic nicety or an idiosyncratic anthropological journey leading nowhere.

It may be that creativity has a bad name among many of the people who are responsible for the liturgical life of the church because of the pervasive influence of an anthropological understanding of ritual. But what can be a helper can become a master. This comes to the fore when you hear people say that the ritual should not change, that people prefer a ritual in which there are no surprises, that ritual comes in a tradition and is to be received as such, that the introduction of spontaneity is a form of manipulation. One can ask whether the church’s liturgical life is any better now that we have another uniform ritual after the changes made under the impetus of the Second Vatican Council. Have we not have entered into a new age of rubricism?

Creativity: the lifeblood

People may feel less surprised in the liturgy than in those years immediately following the council, but are they any more challenged by the Gospel? Creativity is the lifeblood of Christian ritual. It both flows from it and flows into it. In the Christian belief Christ came to make all things new, not to ensure that how we celebrated Christmas last year we will repeat the same way this year and the next. If inculturation is to be one of the agenda items for the liturgy in the future, it will be because the sense of creativity has been released in those involved in this work.

Closely connected with inculturation is another possible agenda for the liturgy in the future, namely, the use of the imagination in liturgical planning and celebration as a way to recover a sense of mystery that the present liturgy seems unable to provide. It is art rather than theology that is the instrument at getting at the invisible. In the liturgy we celebrate Jesus Christ, the basic metaphor of Christianity. The Word made flesh is more like an art object than a theological statement. Fr. Andrew Greeley has made the case for the religious imagination being the source of the power and energy of faith.

Naturally, I know of no one who is opposed to the use of the imagination in Christian life, especially in spirituality and worship. But the place of the imagination in the liturgy, as in other areas of church life such as ethics, flounders on the stormy waves caused by the tension of opposing sides. A clear example of this tension, which I believe is caused by the lack of metaphorical thinking, is the matter of inclusive language. The free range that the liturgical scholar as well as the ordinary worshiper need to allow a more inclusive language to grow is not conceded by either the church officials or by those who are most vigorous in promoting a more inclusive language.

On the one side there are those who maintain that language that favors the male gender is not only theologically correct but even spiritually necessary. On the other side, there are those who in effect exclude gender-oriented language to such a degree that it is never permissible to use a word like Father in traditional formulas such as the Sign of the Cross. In my view they are no more respectful of metaphorical language than the other group.

Metaphorical meanings

Liturgy and its language is not text, it is context. This is not an excuse to address a gathering of women and men by calling them all brothers, but it is to recognize that gender specific words in the liturgy (or the arts) are not meant to be exclusive. To rephrase this more in the language of theological aesthetics, words like mother, father, lord, king are not meant to lead us to any particular mother, father, lord or king or some visualizable combination of mothers, fathers, lords or kings. These words, like all real metaphors, like all evocative liturgical language, are meant to abstract the forms of human feeling associated with fatherhood, motherhood, lordship or kingdom without presenting the actual feelings of any mother, father, lord or king. When such words function in that way, they move beyond patriarchal or narrow gender-specific dimensions. They operate in an aesthetic mode. It is the way the imagination works.

There is another example, current in the comments from church leaders, of what precludes this freer flow of the aesthetic consciousness. It is usually mobilized around the post-conciliar use of the phrase, “The people of God.” We are familiar with the cautionary remarks from some groups in the church that there is a danger of stressing the horizontal over the vertical (that is, hierarchical) character of the liturgy. There are those who distrust claims that the assembly is the primary symbol of the presence of Christ in the liturgy. We are exhorted to remember that it is God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who are the main persons of the liturgy, that the saints and angels come before the members of the local worshiping assembly and that the order in the liturgy is not horizontal.

This is a case of what Alfred North Whitehead calls “misplaced concreteness.” Of course God is more important than we are. Of course the liturgy is a transcendent activity. Of course church buildings are meaningless if their purpose is not the glory of God. Those are not the concrete issues. The point of stressing the primacy of the assembly is that God, the saints, the angels do not need liturgy. I would imagine that they could get along quite well without the Roman or any other kind of rite. The liturgy is primarily for the assembly, otherwise why bother? Mystery and transcendence are also found in the assembly.

Communion rails, tabernacles in the sanctuary, elevated religious language, restricting who may serve at the altar or how close they may come to it, forbidding people to hold hands during the Our Father will not restore the true sense of mystery to the liturgy. To claim that they will is a case of Catholic fundamentalism. Such literalistic thinking is destructive of the imagination in all human living, and certainly in the liturgy.

What Eucharist is

It would be easy to get agreement from all sides on this third possible agenda for the liturgy in the future. I refer to the greater availability of the Eucharist for Catholics in all parts of the world. Usually this unavailability is described in terms of the lack of vocations to the ordained ministry with the result that there are fewer priests to celebrate Mass. But in reality, people are being deprived of the Eucharist not so much because there is no priest to celebrate Mass, but because there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what Eucharist is.

Apart from the reasons put forth for why there are fewer vocations, the claim that “Catholics are being deprived (or starved) of the Eucharist” is not the way to put the issue. It is more than a question of having more priests to celebrate Mass. Simply having more people, married or not, who can say the words of consecration is not going to bring back real eucharistic living for most Catholics. As much as we might not like to admit it, there seems to be little difference for Catholics between a rite presided over by a priest and one presided over by someone who is not ordained as far as the meaning of Eucharist goes.

It is regrettable but nonetheless true that whether at Mass or some kind of Communion service Catholics see what is happening as “going to Communion.” That is what Eucharist means for them: going to Communion. Let there be no mistake about it. Catholics do miss the priest. But this has more to do with being connected with the whole Catholic church and the Catholic tradition than it does about having an experience of Eucharist, an experience that is not simply “going to Communion.”

I would agree that many Catholics today are being denied the Eucharist, but that also often includes those people who have the opportunity to participate in Sunday Mass with a properly ordained priest. The reason for this is that they are being denied the full proclamation of the Word. When the Word is not proclaimed, that is, not properly prepared, well articulated, effectively preached, the congregation remains unfed and starving. While such a Mass is considered a true Eucharist according to liturgical and theological norms, the people are not experiencing Eucharist, they are experiencing “going to Communion.”

What will make this a eucharistic celebration for the worshiper? Full access to the sacramentality of the Word. As the great theologians of the Eucharist, Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx put it 40 years ago, the whole celebration of the Eucharist is a service of the Word. The Eucharist as sacrament does not begin with preparation of the gifts; it is not a sacrament of “going to Communion.” The entire service must be a sacrament of the Word for it to be a Eucharist.

The former master general of the Dominican Order, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, has brilliantly analyzed this sacramentality in an essay in the book, Liturgy in a Postmodern World (Continuum, 2003; edited by Jesuit Fr. Keith Pecklers). He says that today’s preacher must do what Jesus did at the Last Supper. “1. Jesus reaches out to his disciples in their individual puzzlement and confusion; 2. He gathers them into community; 3. He reaches beyond this community to the fullness of the kingdom.”

First, sacramental preaching reaches out to a world of postmodern consumerism that is characterized by individualism and secularism. Contemporary preachers must embrace the negativity of that world, which is as puzzled and confused as were the disciples of Jesus. The question that is on our liturgical agenda today is: How is our preaching to acknowledge and embrace all the doubts and questions of our generation and offer a powerful word?

Second, for Radcliffe, like Jesus at the Last Supper, the preached word “gathers into communion.” This happens when the preacher tells the truth about human experience. This happens when people recognize themselves in the words of the preacher. This happens when the preacher is not afraid to confront the complexity of human experience. For Radcliffe, if the preacher really took on the joys and sorrows of humanity, the usual ecclesiastical language would be clearly inadequate. “We would find ourselves drawn into discussions that alarm us.” Preaching that brings about communion is the kind in which people can find themselves and hear the echo of their lives. It is a preaching that creates a common language because there is dialogue between the preacher and the congregation and because the preacher allows the voices of the usually silent such as women and ethnic minorities to be heard.

Radcliffe’s third point is that at the Last Supper Jesus reaches out to the future. At the moment that he creates intimacy with his little group, he is about to scatter them to the corners of the world to preach the good news. Sacramental preaching does the same. In the very creation of the community’s identity it subverts that same identity by challenging the community to give hospitality to the stranger. And there will come times when the preacher in order to speak the truth will reach the limits of language. It is then that the poet in the preacher must take over.

Are people being deprived of the Eucharist? Yes. But not because they cannot find some time and place where they can go to Communion. They are deprived of the kind of preaching that Radcliffe espouses. For it is that kind of preaching that makes Eucharist possible.

An agenda for the liturgy in the future is surely that all Catholics have the opportunity for Eucharist. But the solution lies less in the state of life of the preacher than it does in being a sacramental minister who can do in preaching what Christ did at the Last Supper.

The liturgy will not have a promising future if we only improve our business as usual. It might even decline as it has in the past. Inculturation inspired by creativity, liturgy under the guidance of the imagination and a vibrant eucharistic spirituality made possible through the sacramentality of the Word provides some new directions for the liturgy in the future.

Jesuit Fr. James L. Empereur is parochial vicar and liturgist at San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio. He was formerly professor of liturgy at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, February 13, 2004

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