Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of August 22, 2005
Pray, read, withdraw, be silent
Liturgy is our response to the action of God
A Shepherd Speaks
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
In the summer of 1967, I served my pastoral internship as a deacon at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Sarnia, Ont. The pastor insisted on my attendance at what seemed like a weekly Saturday ritual. I would get the lawn chairs out of the garage and position them in front of the rectory near the curb on Christina Street and together we would watch a parade go by. This regular occurrence culminated in the big one, the Saturday Labour Day parade.
During the big one, as my pastor puffed on his cigar, he elbowed me in the ribs and said: "Now that's liturgy, that's life!" Perplexed at the time, I'm beginning to understand what he meant.
Work of the people
Our word "liturgy" is rooted in the ancient Greek word, "leitourgia," a compound word translated literally as "the work of the people" or "the work on behalf of the people." In the world of antiquity, "leitourgia" could describe any activity - including religious activity - undertaken on the authority of the commonwealth and for the good of all.
Early Christian thinkers used the term "liturgy" to describe the central acts of communal prayer in the life of the Church. A true liturgical celebration draws up all of our lives, and all of every life, into the common praise of God, in thanksgiving to him for all he has done for us.
Unfortunately, the experience that many people have of the liturgy does not support what I have just said.
When you listen to what parishioners grumble about, it's pretty easy to come up with a list of 10 complaints, in no particular order. This might be somewhat similar to David Letterman's Top Ten Liturgical Complaints:
- "I can't hear what's being said. He slurs his words and mumbles."
- "Why do we have to sing every verse of every song."
- "The organ drowns everything out."
- "Why can't he just say the prayers as they are written in the missal?"
- "The sermon is too long."
- "Nobody speaks to visitors."
- "Parents won't quiet their screaming children."
- "Everybody sits toward the back of the church."
- "I can't follow along with all the hymnals and worship folders."
- "The Church is always asking for money."
Young people in particular seem to complain that liturgical celebrations are boring, irrelevant or lifeless. Their complaints point to a disjunction between the liturgical celebration and their ordinary life experience. They object because they think that the liturgy should connect to their lives. Their criticism thus shows that they believe the liturgy should be relevant to them.
There is a need for each of us to link, or to integrate, our secular and spiritual lives.
Liturgy is our work, a human work, and so it runs a risk common to all human works. It may decline into routine, becoming a purely formal, external ritual. Those who collaborate in liturgy, like those who participate in the pursuit of common human goods, must be cultivated and trained to the work if they are to do their parts well.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux put it this way:
Peace within the cell; fierce warfare without.
Hear all; believe a few; honour all.
Don't believe everything you hear;
Don't judge everything that you see;
Don't do everything you can;
Don't give everything you have;
Don't say everything you know.
Pray, read, withdraw, be silent, be at peace.
Unless its participants cultivate their personal spirituality and a life of prayer, liturgy can disintegrate into a quasi-mechanical exercise from which the hearts and minds of those present are disengaged. The liturgical work demands their active participation in the celebration, the engagement of their personal spirituality with the prayer of the community as a whole.
Weave into life's tapestry
Conversely, the liturgy may also be degraded through the assumption of a kind of false "otherworldliness." Liturgy that leaves the participants with the impression that what they do outside the sanctuary is disconnected from what they do within it promotes their disconnection from the world.
Liturgy disciplines and refines personal spirituality: if we enter into the liturgy, we will find our spirituality opening to fellowship; we will find our views undergoing correction in light of a comprehensive vision; and we will find ourselves far less confident of our own spiritual maturity. Liturgy challenges spirituality to openness, objectivity and honesty.
Vital personal spirituality turns liturgical celebration toward the spiritual lives of those celebrating. Thus, in the liturgy all that we do in the world, together with our own personal spirituality, are drawn together and directed toward the most excellent activity in which we can participate on earth: the worship of God.
It is vital to remember that in every liturgical celebration, we have both the descent of the grace of God (through the Holy Spirit) and the response of the community in worship, thanks and intercession. In other words, liturgy can never be considered merely our act toward God; it is, rather, our response to the action of God. God's initiative is primary. This reflects the basic giftedness of creation to us.
"Now that's liturgy, that's life!"