The Priority of God in Christian Worship

Most of us are probably familiar with the word “liturgy.” It refers to any public worship of the Church. Normally that means the Holy Mass, but all the sacraments have their liturgies – their official rites that they must follow (the words of absolution pronounced by the priest, the prayers said at a baptism, etc.). “Liturgy” can even refer to ceremonies that are not themselves sacraments such as blessing Holy Water or religious objects.

Today we are here to celebrate a particular sort of liturgy: what is now referred to as the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. The differences between this form of the Mass and that form with which most of us here are more familiar (the Ordinary Form) can be rather startling. The obvious contrast between the way that this Extraordinary Form of the Mass is celebrated and the way in which most of us experience the Ordinary Form is a good launching point for a question that experiencing this contrast can readily bring to mind: What are we doing at Mass in the first place? Or put slightly more academically, what is liturgy?

The word liturgy comes from two Greek words, “laos,” meaning people, and “operon,” meaning work. How exactly “people” and “work” come together to make liturgy has been the source of significant controversy over the past century. In the mid-twentieth century, the popular interpretation of this term was “a work done by the people.” This approach to liturgy that puts a particular emphasis on the agency of the men and women who celebrate or participate in the Church’s sacred rites led to a series of failed experiments in making the Mass and other liturgical rites more interesting to the faithful (contemporary music, constant didactic interruptions, or invented rituals whose novelty far outpaced their meaningfulness). What was supposed to increase the participation of the faithful in the Holy Sacrifice lead instead to distractions from the essential meaning of the Mass, and the gradual – or in some cases, rather abrupt – deforming of the Church’s sacred rites. The reality is that many, if not most, Catholic parishes have substituted a ritual that is stuck in a very particular place in time (that is, the 1970s) for one that they perceived to be stuck in the middle ages but is really, as we will see, timeless.

Fortunately, “a work done by the people” is not the only way to understand the combination of “people” and “work” that goes into making liturgy. Liturgy is a work that makes us who we are in the Church – it is the work that makes the people. This is a way in which the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite particularly shines: it makes clear who were are and what we believe.

First, the Extraordinary Form makes clear what we believe about the Holy Mass: that it is a sacrifice offered by Christ in the person of the priest in reparation for sins. It makes present the events of our salvation – Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection – in a manner totally outside of our everyday experience. The Extraordinary Form makes particularly clear our own unworthiness of the graces that Christ shares with us in the Holy Mass by the rich texts that it employs and by the sense of awe and reverence that it inspires. (An example of that reverence is the way in which Holy Communion is received at the Extraordinary Form. Since we do not have a communion rail in our church, we will use the first row of pews as the communion rail. In this form of the Mass, Holy Communion is received kneeling and on the tongue without the communicant responding, “Amen,” as in the Ordinary Form.) This is why the Latin language is essential to the celebration of the Mass in this form (and why the fathers of the Second Vatican Council foresaw that while the vernacular could be employed occasionally, the normal experience of Mass would still be in Latin, at least for it central and unvarying parts). The Latin language has a particular elegance of expression unmatched in any modern language, and its near exclusive use in the Roman liturgy further emphasizes the sacred nature of what is taking place. Throughout all of human history, anthropologists would tell us that the use of a sacred language is a consistent element in religious rites, a basic human intuition that the language of worship should be different than the language of the marketplace.

This form of the Mass also makes clear what we believe about the priest: that he is the chosen representative of Christ who renews the offering of the Holy Sacrifice on behalf of the faithful. The Extraordinary Form both greatly exalts and greatly humbles the priest. He becomes the object of much reverent attention on the part of the other clergy and the servers, and his status as the chief human protagonist of the sacred rites is indisputable (as evidenced by the lack of lay lectors, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, etc.). However, the EF also greatly humbles the priest. It places frequent and emphatic words of unworthiness on his lips, and it veils his own personality, forbidding him at any point of the Mass other than the sermon to insert his own words or otherwise exercise his own creativity through a multiplicity of options (such as are frequently possible in the Ordinary Form). This veiling of the celebrant’s own personality is most complete in the way that the ancient liturgy instructs him to turn towards God for the offering of the Sacrifice. While this action is frequently interpreted as the priest turning his back on the people, nothing could be further from the truth. The priest’s posture at the altar invites the faithful to look with him towards the Eucharist Lord with longing and anticipation, and invites them to see in him – the priest – not someone whose personality or creativity determines the effectiveness of the liturgy, but someone who must become a servant in order to lead others, and must not allow his own personality to get between the faithful and their Lord. Offering Mass in this manner allows the priest to recede into the background and take on the persona of Christ.

The Extraordinary Form also is the work that makes the people who they are by forming Christ’s faithful in their identity. Now, here there is the possibility of a serious misinterpretation. Many critiques of this form of the Mass would claim that the EF makes the laity into passive spectators, debasing their dignity as sons and daughters of God with a true calling to holiness, but precisely the opposite is true:

1) The EF refuses to water down the richness of its liturgy because of a presumed lack of capacity on the part of the laity. It upholds their dignity by maintaining that, with an honest effort, they can come to appreciate these ancient and mysterious rites.

2) The EF emphasizes that all of us come to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as those dependent upon God’s grace – that we come here to receive. It does not equate the fruits of the Mass with one’s own effort (as well-intentioned as those who claim that “you have to put something in in order to get something out” may be), but instead invites all the faithful to assume a posture of receptivity and thankfulness for God’s manifold gifts.

3) The EF creates a profound unity among the faithful in the sense that it imparts of having gone through such an intense experience of worship together. The difficulty of this form of the Mass is also a great leveling factor. No one here is a native Latin speaker, and even the most learned of scholars will never figure out exactly how all this complicated ritual developed. All of us are moved to recognize the richness of the waters and the depth of the well from which we come to drink.

Of those three points, the decisive character of the Extraordinary Form is in the second: that each and every one of us comes here not primarily to contribute something of our ourselves, but rather to receive. Even more so then being a work that makes the people who they are, or a work done on behalf of the people by the sacred ministers, the liturgy is not primarily the “opus hominis,” the work of man, but the Opus Dei, the work of God (the original meaning of that term before it become associate with a Spanish lay movement often confused with an albino monk in a Dan Brown novel). We come here to be filled with God’s work so that we might be sent back into the world to do His work in our own lives.

In this way, we can answer another frequent critique of the Extraordinary Form: that it reveals in its practitioners a tendency to think that if we can just do these rituals correctly, all the problems in the Church will go away. Or, a tendency to think that salvation is about a rigid clinging to rules – what I do – rather than about a loving relationship with the God who loves us so much that He died for us – what God does. One author even expressed this as a “self-absorbed promethean neo-Pelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past,” (as if applying more “–isms” towards one’s ideological enemies somehow strengthens one’s argument).

This critique also falls flat on its face when it is held up to serious consideration. Pelagianism, of which the EF was accused by the (I think, rather representative) author I cited above, is a heresy that claims that man is able to earn his own salvation. But the emphasis in the Extraordinary Form – as difficult as a ritual as it may be to perform or comprehend – is decidedly not on what man does, but rather upon what God does. This is the case because of the way in which it demands that we all become servants to the liturgy. The priest does not choose which prayers he will say, the choir does not pick which hymns they will sing. Rather, all involved look to the approved liturgical books to ascertain what are the prayers and chants that God desires to be prayed at this Mass. The weakening of human agency opens a space for God’s initiative, and the faithful are invited to feast at the table of the work of God.

Disputes about the liturgy following the reforms of the mid-twentieth century have focused largely on how much agency to give to the priest and how much to the lay faithful: How much of the role traditionally reserved to the priest can be given to the faithful? Who gets to be the protagonist of the liturgy: the priest or the people? Who gets to make the decisions about how Mass will be celebrated? The Extraordinary Form makes clear that this debate begins from the wrong premises (specifically, the premise of Pelagianism, which holds that one dignity in the liturgy corresponds to what one does, and the premise of clericalism, which holds that it is better to do things traditionally reserved to the clergy, as if it were necessary for the laity to imitate the clergy in order to have an important role in the liturgy). Rather, here we see that the protagonist of the work offered on behalf of the people, the liturgy, is neither the priest nor the faithful – it is Christ. By veiling the priest’s personality and emphasizing that we are all here to humbly receive the fruits of our salvation by receiving the Church’s tradition rather than exercising our own creativity, the EF brings us to a liturgical expression of our faith that puts God back at the center of worship rather than man, be he layman or cleric.

The first time I attended the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite I remember being confused and overwhelmed. I thought that it would be generally the same as the Mass with which I was familiar, just in a language I did not understand, but it turned out to be much more different than I thought. Maybe some of you are experiencing just that! My best advice to you is this: That is okay. Resist the urge to feel that you have to understand every word that is spoken or sung, audibly or inaudibly, as the case may be. Feel free to set aside your program and simply take everything in, getting caught up in the mystery. After all, this is all about what God is doing, not you and I.

The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, A.D. MMXVIII

The sermon was given in the context of a Solemn Mass in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.

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