The Catholic Letter

Catholic Explanations

Does Liturgical Orthodoxy Matter?

Giving to Ceaser, giving to God

Travel across the nation, sampling Catholic parishes, and you'll see every style imaginable for performing the Mass. Some priests delegate practically everything except the Consecration itself, sitting out even the ministry of Holy Communion. Some make the rounds after the Lord's Prayer, shaking everyone's hand like they're running for president. At some parishes, people hold hands for the Lord's Prayer, and some even change the words.

At one parish, instead of the priest announcing the dismissal (you know, the part where he says "The Mass is ended go in peace,") the entire congregation announced some silliness that began "The Mass never ends. . . ." One is tempted to turn to his neighbor and ask "So, do we have to stay here forever, then?"

At some Masses, the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion wear special garb to announce their position, and participate early and often in the rite of Communion. At others, there are no extradordinary ministers of Holy Communion, the priest being the sole minister.

In some parishes, people kneel for the Eucharistic Prayer, as well as during the Communion rite, until the priest sits down after the ablutions. At others, people stand for the entire Eucharistic Prayer. At still others, people kneel for the Eucharistic Prayer but stand during Holy Communion.

Some parishes use what is called "liturgical dance." Some use balloons as altar decorations. Some put on what are called "children's Masses," in an effort to make things more relevant to the little ones.

All of this diversity reflects the numerous--almost infinite--local, and even personal, flavors of worship that the members of the Church can bring to it's central act of woship. It takes a simple gift and presents it back as a rainbow.

Nonetheless, there are many who oppose the development of such variations and novelty. Why?

The Customization of Perfection

Well, for one thing, that God didn't ask for a rainbow. In fact, He's kind of a specialist at rainbows, anyway, so any attempt on our part to create one is likely to turn out something pretty meager.

Recall the scene depicted in the Gospel, when the scribes and chief priests challenged Christ on the lawfulness of paying tribute to Ceasar. Jesus' response was a question to them: Who's inscription and image are on the coin used to pay the tax? Of course, it was Ceasar's. Then, He gave them His answer: Render, then, unto Ceasar the things that are Ceasar's.

The principal, here, is that Ceasar was the issuer of the coin, and therefore there is no reason that he cannot then collect the coin as a tax.

But then Jesus says something else: But render unto God the things that are God's.

And of those things that we have, what is God's more completely and perfectly than the sacrifice of the cross represented in Holy Mass, and its sacramental extension to us in Holy Communion? Nothing, for the Mass not only has God's image; but is God Himself. On the cross, the Son offered Himself to the Father in the perfect sacrifice of obedience. At Holy Mass, He represents that very same sacrifice in such a way that He is present not only symbolically or significantly (as Ceasar is on his coin), but really and completely. This is the meaning of the Real Presence.

The Holy Mass, then, is God's coin , bearing his inscription and image and being. It is the act of God, offered by God to God for our benefit; however, it only benefits us when we join Him in offering it, joining ourselves to it. We do this not by adding our own flavor to it, but by more perfectly losing ourselves in its liturgical forms and language.

The Church is the mystical body of Christ on earth, and the liturgical actions of the Church are the mode by which we participate in that body. The more completely we are incorporated into the Church, particularly in the sacred liturgy, the more the Father sees the Son when He looks at us, and the more complete is our inheritence of the Kingdom.

This is why a strict observance of the liturgical norms by bishops, priests, and the laity is important. The sacred liturgy is the act of Christ, not of men. It is, therefore, an act of the entire Church, not that of our own local community or of that entertaining priest down the block. To the extent that we make it a local expression (except where localization is provided for in the liturgical instructions), our participation in Mass ceases to be liturgical. To the extent that our participation is non-liturgical, we are not rendering to God the coin that He Himself minted for that purpose.

So, the next time someone suggests that the flowering of local variation and novelty in the Mass is a good thing, perhaps they would also entertain the idea of paying their next tax bill with a rainbow.