As you may be aware the Catholic Church in the United States and throughout the English speaking world is preparing to initiate a new missal this upcoming Advent.  (The missal is the book used for the celebration of the Mass.)  In my own Diocese of Knoxville we have already had a gathering of the priests on this and there will be more to follow with other gatherings scheduled to be offered for other persons involved in liturgical ministry throughout the diocese.

I must admit that I have not been too focused on this upcoming change.  My attention has been more devoted to my vocation and college campus ministry.  I have known that the change is coming but I have figured that I would cross that bridge when the time comes … well, I guess the time is here.

Why is the Church doing this and why now?  This is a fair question, I believe.  There is so much going on in our world.  In light of the struggles for justice and peace and natural disasters that are occurring why is the Catholic Church seemingly so focused on this “in-house” issue?  Couldn’t its immense energies be better directed elsewhere?  Well, first of all, the Church’s witness to the world remains the same and consistent even as we address and are being attentive to our own celebration of worship.  The truth is that the worship of the Church and its mission are inextricably linked.  As our worship is clarified and focused anew so will our mission in the world.  The two are not separate and any temptation to separate the two is both a grave error and a danger.

I have recently come across three different reflections on worship and liturgy that I have found helpful in my own process of considering why we as Church are doing this and why now.

Pope Benedict XVI

The first comes from an answer offered by Pope Benedict to a question regarding renewal in the Church and the importance of the liturgy as the heart of renewal (taken from “The Light of the World”).  The Holy Father offers these thoughts for consideration:

The Church becomes visible for people in many ways, in charitable activity or in missionary projects, but the place where the Church is actually experienced most of all as Church is the liturgy.  And that is also as it should be.  At the end of the day, the point of the Church is to turn us toward God and to enable God to enter into the world.  The liturgy is the act in which we believe that he enters our lives and that we touch him.  It is the act in which what is really essential takes place: We come into contact with God.  He comes to us – and we are illumined by him…

So liturgy is something that is given in advance?  Yes, it is not about our doing something, about our demonstrating our creativity, in other words, about displaying everything we can do.  Liturgy is precisely not a show, a piece of theater, a spectacle.  Rather, it gets its life from the Other.  This has to become evident, too.  This is why the fact that the ecclesial form has been given in advance is so important.  It can be reformed in matters of detail, but it cannot be reinvented every time by the community.  It is not a question, as I said, of self-production.  The point is to go out of and beyond ourselves, to give ourselves to him, and to let ourselves be touched by him. 

Pope Benedict is rightly highlighting the importance of the liturgical act and its true nature.  True worship is not theater nor is it entertainment and it is not of our creation and effort.  The true origin of worship of the Church is deeper; it originates not from us but from God.  God establishes the sabbath and at the last supper Jesus gives the instruction, “do this in memory of me”.  This being the case, our attentiveness to the act of worship and liturgy is of utmost importance because in liturgy we are brought into contact with God.

Bishop Vincenzo Paglia

 The second reflection I would like to share comes from Bishop Vincenzo Paglia and the words he offered in a homily for the second Sunday of Lent and the gospel passage of the Transfiguration.  Here, Bishop Paglia highlights how the liturgy, in fact, transforms us.

The Gospel of the Transfiguration describes what occurs during every Sunday’s Eucharistic Liturgy.  After six weekdays, Jesus gathers us and takes us aside, to a “high” place.  We need to go up a bit, but not in order to flee or evade, so that everything remains the same afterwards as before.  In the Liturgy we look upon a different way to live, to feel, to behave.  And while we behold heavenly things, we are drawn and transformed within.  Here we become what we behold…

It is the same for us and the Gospel.  If we accept it (the call of the Father to listen to Christ, the Son) we shall be drawn into a new adventure, greater and more beautiful than we could have imagined.

We need to go up a bit…  I find this simple phrase to be very compelling and also very telling of a deep truth within the human condition.  At the core of who we are is a deep yearning for something more than the narrow and limiting confines of our world and its assumptions.  We yearn because we are indeed made for this “more”.  We do, indeed, need to go up a bit.  St. Augustine likewise realized this truth of the human condition and therefore stated, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”  Liturgy answers this need to go up, this deep restlessness of the human heart, in the fact that in and through it we are brought into contact with God.

The final reflection is from a book by Philip Rieff entitled “Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How it Has Been Taken Away from Us”.  I have just begun reading this book and am thoroughly enjoying it and finding it to be very thought provoking.  (I have also read Rieff’s “The Triumph of the Therapeutic”, which I highly recommend.)

Philip Rieff

I will not pretend to do justice to the depth of Rieff’s insight here in this post but I would like to to share two quotes that speak to the power and necessity of ritual in our world.

 First quote – In his unusual depth of intuition, Buber verged upon what I consider the correct interpretation of ritual as a defense against the destructive-ness of power, so far as power is a kind of demand that pulverizes, whether in sexual or religious acts, human personality and subordinates the self to another…

Second quote – Far from being an enlightening process, the destruction of ritual in Western culture is a major symptom of its demonic character, opening up the possibility of some persons feeding upon the destruction of others.  Here, indeed, sex and politics converge in anti-credal movement, a convulsive fury of systematic destruction at once sexual and technological.   

True and authentic ritual protects and just as it brings the worshipper into contact with God it also, by necessity, stands in witness against the powers of the world that deny God and his sovereignty and that feed upon the negation and destruction of others.  Liturgy and worship is a very courageous act and, it might be said, a very subversive act against all that would deny the truth of God and the truth of the human person.

Liturgy matters, as the above three reflections demonstrate.  What we say and what we do when we gather for worship on Sunday is important – for ourselves, for the Church and for our world.