Monday, April 13, 2015

What Is Good Liturgy?

Most Catholics refer to their "Sunday Obligation" as Mass, which is derived from the dismissory exhortation "Ite, missa ist"  (Latin for "Go forth, the mass has ended").  Eastern rite Christians (as well as the Orthodox Christians) refer to their worship as "the Divine Liturgy".  The etymology of liturgy is from the Greek meaning "public service". It may surprise some Roman Catholics that they celebrate two liturgies in a Mass-- the Liturgy of the Word (when scripture is read) and the Liturgy of the Eucharist (when the sacrament of the Eucharist is sanctified).

As someone who cares about good liturgy (or is deemed a liturgy snob), it begs the question-- What is good liturgy?  For me, good liturgy can be achieved in many ways.

Some revel in the majesty of the Tridentine Mass (the traditional "Latin Mass" instituted by Pope Pius V in  1570).  Yes, that can be beautiful, as I experienced for the funeral of March for Life founder Nellie  Gray.  

Nellie Gray Funeral at St. Mary's Church, Washington DC 24 August 2012 [photo: BD Matt]

But a low Mass rapidly mumbled by a curate who barely knows Latin is not.   While I endorse the Extraordinary Form as an option, I do not consider it the Alpha and the Omega of  good liturgy.  I have no issues with a Novus Ordo liturgy (sometimes known as the Mass of Pope Paul VI from 1970), but I do not feel drawn to worship that way every week. 

As a Vatican II baby, I do not automatically recoil when I hear the sound of guitars coming from the choir.  I readily attest that I have often enjoyed worshipping with the  People of God in the pews as we  enthusiastically sang hymns by the St. Louis Jesuits.  But I have cringed when understaffed contemporary choirs bite off more than they can chew playing grandoise arrangements.  I shudder when a multi-culturally minded folk choir  imposes "Pan de vida" on an unrecipricating Anglo assembly to no avail.  I lament when the triumphant Easter Vigil song "The Lord Has Done Great Things for Us" sounds like a chuckwagon ditty scored with two acoustic guitars.

The church can inspire good liturgy (or be redeeming visuals for mucked up Masses).  The beauty of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception has some wonderful liturgical art which inspires a sense of divine wonder.  In my mind, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, Virginia incorporates the best elements of Vatican II with a beautiful historic landmark.  The National Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan  has a striking sanctuary in the round with Art Deco fresco angels. But a building need not be a basilica or a historical landmark to evoke a sacred space that compliments good liturgy.  The Pope St. John Paul II Shrine in Washington, DC has a temporary 3rd floor chapel which is a wonderful worship space, that includes a reproduction of a mural by  Fr. Marco Ivan Rupnik behind the altar.

St. John Paul II Shrine Chapel altarpiece by Fr. Marco Ivan Rupnik
Altar at St. John Paul II Shrine in Washington DC featuring reproduction of Marco Ivan Rupnik mural and first class relic of St. John Paul II's blood from assassination attempt [ Photo credit: BD Matt] 
Rupnik is a Slovenian artist and theologian who also created  the Redemptoris Mater in the Vatican, which served as the private chapel for the Polish pope. Rupnik is designing several floor to wall murals in his distinct neo-byzantine style for the permanent JPII Shrine main sanctuary.

Good liturgy, like church, is not bound to a building.  In college, I chose to walk across campus at Marquette University to avoid an unappealing "smells and bells" service held in a cafeteria for the simplicity and quiet dignity of the "Tower Express" where seventy souls were in, out and back on the streets in 25 minutes with a thought provoking homily.  It look me longer to get to and fro the Mass than the worship itself.  But for me, it had spirit.

While beautiful churches can augment the worship experience, I have appreciated pool-side masses, elaborate Archdiocesan liturgies held in gyms and worshipping in quiet but sparsely adorned chapels.  In those instances, location was less  crucial than a sense of commuity reverently worshipping.

Music, architecture, art, vestments all can augment praying the Mass.  But as Christians who have a liturgical, ritualistic and sacramental religiosity,  Catholics  ought to experience  authentic liturgy through following the rubric for the Eucharist.  Since the advent of the Third Translation of the Roman Missal, improvising is impermissible during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Much to my chagrin, some cantakerous clerics still  persist in going their own way on the Anaphara or offer other subtitution language (e.g. "The Lord IS with you").

Discerning what is good liturgy is the mission of Confessions of a Liturgy Snob.  But a good working definition of good liturgy  is public worship which is authentic, worshipful , and spirit filled which expresses itself in conformance with the rubric.

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