October 15, 2012

WASHINGTON – Liturgy sometimes suffers from being too wordy, according to a liturgical expert who says the celebration of the Mass would benefit from fewer hymns and more silence.

"Part of taking part (in liturgy) is listening, silence and being awestruck at what is going on," Msgr. Kevin Irwin said Sept. 28 in a talk on the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. "That is what makes liturgy tremendous and mysterious."

Often, the liturgy is celebrated without enough emphasis on transcendence and "the amazing grace of God," Irwin said.

The priest is former dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America and currently holds the Walter J. Schmitz chair of liturgical studies at the school.

He spoke at the university's symposium on Reform and Renewal: Vatican II After Fifty Years.

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, also known as Sacrosanctum Concilium, emphasized that the liturgy should build the full, conscious and active participation of the faithful. For Irwin, "Participation is not a sop to extroverts."

"There is an earthiness to our liturgy," he said, noting its use of elements of creation such as water, light and darkness, as well as manufactured items such as bread, wine and chrism.


Emphasizing the role of such signs helps to provide an encounter with God's action, he said.

"Sometimes, I think we have forsaken that for much more wordiness than the Roman rite deserves."

Irwin recalled writing in a 1994 book, "'Hymns should not be used in the celebration of the Eucharist.' More than once I've had to put on my bulletproof vest to defend that statement."

Hymns are part of the Liturgy of the Hours, but not the Eucharist, he said. They are a carry-over from American Protestantism. "Roman Catholics do antiphons and psalms."


He recalled living two and a half years at St. Anselm's Monastery in the mid-1980s. "All we sang at the Eucharist were verses of antiphons and psalms. We never carried a hymnal into church; we knew them by heart."

The Psalter ought to take deep root in people's minds and hearts, he said. Then less attention is paid to the words and more to what the words are meant to do – "to draw us into the mystery of God."

The overuse of hymns also adds to the wordiness of the Mass, he said.

Irwin also maintained that too much emphasis in the liturgy is placed on a remembrance of the past and not enough on our final destination.


"Liturgy is not turning back the clock to be at the cross or the empty tomb," he said. "Liturgy is not dramatizing the events of first-century Palestine. Liturgy is the threshold of the future."

He quoted a line from a song from the Weston Fathers: "Oh Lord, at length when sacraments cease."

"That's the point: They're supposed to cease and cede to the Second Coming and living with God forever," he said.

Irwin said one of the most neglected sections of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy are its five articles calling for liturgical education. The lack of such education "is one of the most egregious deficiencies" in implementing the teachings of Vatican II, he said.

In celebrating the liturgy, Catholics ought to be more careful than in doing anything else, he said. "It's where everything comes together."