There is a healthy spirit of American pride that tells us whatever we have should be the best we can manage or afford. We like to think of our own mother as the best cook in the neighborhood. Or our house may be small, but it is made of quality materials. The car we drive was purchased for a great price, and it gets excellent gas mileage. Some of the things we brag about may or may not be true, but some of us want to have good liturgy so we can say our parish is the best in the diocese.
As motivational as competition can be, that kind of thinking isn’t going to get us very far in making liturgy more participative. There is no definitive checklist of “good liturgy” things that will rank your parish as better or worse than another. Liturgy is only really evaluated on two things:
- Did the people pray
- with clear signs and symbols that led to conversion to deeper faith?
The symbolic actions and objects of the liturgy matter, but only if they engage the assembly in active, participative prayer. Shortly after Vatican II, the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy said, “If the signs need explanation to communicate faith, they will often be watched instead of celebrated” (Music in Catholic Worship, 8). The symbols we use have to convert the worshipping assembly to deeper faith.
What is “faith”?
If faith is what is at stake, what are we really talking about? Surveys tell us that most Americans believe in God or some higher power, even if they don’t go to church. And while it may be true that someone can be spiritual without being religious, you can’t really be faithful without committing yourself to a worshipping community of disciples. You might believe in marriage, for example, without being married. But you cannot be a faithful spouse without committing yourself to another person.
A living faith, like a living love, requires other people. It is easy to be faithful to an invisible God who remains quietly in the background or high up on mountain tops. It is quite another thing to be faithful to the people of God who are noisy, intrusive, demanding and maybe not too well washed. You can’t be in love by yourself, and you can’t be spiritual by yourself.
The Catechism says faith is our response to God (see 26). That implies a couple of things. To begin with, if we are responding, that must mean God did something first. So faith is first of all something God does. Or, more correctly, something God gives. We can only know we ought to have faith in God because God initially gives us the faith to know at least that much.
Then free will comes into play. We can respond to God’s gift of initial faith or not. Some people do, and some people don’t. For those of us who do, it is difficult to understand those who don’t. And vice versa.
But whether we do or don’t respond to God’s gift doesn’t change the fact that God is always giving. God is always revealing. God is always reaching out.Whether we do or don’t respond to God’s gift doesn’t change the fact that God is always giving. God is always revealing. God is always reaching out. Click To Tweet
There are lots and lots of ways God does this. Our experience tells us the way God reaches out most often and most completely is in the midst of the church at prayer. The fullest revelation of God is in the person of Jesus Christ, and we recognize the fullness of Jesus Christ in the celebration of the liturgy.
Because the fullness of God’s revelation is most clear to us in the celebration of the liturgy, the worship of God through the liturgy is our fullest and most appropriate response to God’s initiative.
Mind your manners
It’s like this. If I give you a gift, what are you going to do? Won’t you at least say, “Thank you”? God is always giving us a gift. The gift of God. The gift of faith. Won’t we at least say, “Thank you”? “Eucharist” literally means “thank you.” Our Eucharist is our thanksgiving to God for our faith. At the same time, it is our response in faith.
But it can’t just stop there, really, if it is going to be an authentic response. What if I gave you gift and you said, “Thank you,” but you didn’t really mean it? Would I have really been thanked? Would you have really accepted my gift in the spirit it was given?
There are about 66 million Catholics in this country. We are, by far, the single largest denomination in the United States. So we have to ask ourselves, why aren’t things better around here?
- Why aren’t the hungry being fed and the homeless being housed?
- Why aren’t the ill being cured and the prisoners going free?
- Why don’t the values of our country reflect more closely the values of the Gospel?
It may be that our “thank you” is insincere. But I don’t think that’s so. I think it is more likely we have never been taught the proper way to say “thank you.” We have, in a sense, not been properly taught our manners.During the pandemic, we had no choice but to watch the liturgy. As our churches begin to open up again for in-person worship, we have to seriously consider what makes live liturgy different from streamed liturgy. Click To Tweet
To put it another way, we have not been given the tools and the training we need to celebrate liturgy well. The result is we wind up “watching” the liturgy, and liturgy is weakened. It still functions as both a revelation of God and our response, but our response is diminished because the liturgy itself is weak. We are not living up to our potential.
During the pandemic, we had no choice but to watch the liturgy. As our churches begin to open up again for in-person worship, we have to seriously consider what makes live liturgy different from streamed liturgy. The symbols matter. But only if they actively engage the members of the assembly in prayer and deepen their faith.