Disputes Over Liturgy

“The cantor was flat and nobody knew that opening hymn!” These words were angrily spat out by a member of the assembly as we emerged from the church after Mass.
This was the latest in a string of criticisms of liturgical practice directed towards me in recent weeks, from people who could be described as conservative Catholics as well as those who would consider themselves to be progressive and informed.
Other complaints have been about shabby churches and tacky décor; parishes holding Passover meals on Holy Thursday, passion plays on Good Friday and baptisms on Holy Saturday; boring homilies; people holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer. Some of these are trivial issues concerning matters of personal taste, some unfair and unfounded (I knew that opening hymn very well!), others, such as celebrating sacraments on Holy Saturday, clearly are in violation of church law. But somehow all receive the same strident condemnation.
Constructive criticism which includes positive feedback is fine. It was the extreme negativity, the readiness to pass judgment without checking the facts, that left me feeling despondent and dismayed. We seem to have forgotten what liturgy is – the gathering of the faith community to give veneration to God, not a battle ground!
As I despaired over this state of affairs a “pigeon feather”, as a friend refers to timely reminders of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our everyday lives, dropped on my table in the form of an article entitled “Liturgy, Law and Life” by Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk in the latest issue of Origins (Vol 31 # 39).
Pilarczyk explains that liturgical law leaves room for different opinions and tastes. What one person happens to like is, perhaps surprisingly, not necessarily what everyone else likes, nor is it guaranteed by the authority of the church! Also there are some people who will always find fault, no matter how hard we try to accommodate them. “They have a claim on our love”, Pilarczyk says, “but not a claim on our continuous and undivided attention”.
He emphasises that the liturgy is not intended to be an exercise in rule-keeping but an exercise in worship, a community event in which each participant has the right to know what to expect and the right to be clear about how he or she is called to participate. Just following the rules won’t create the kind of liturgy that the church wants for its members, but systematically dismissing the liturgical rites and flouting liturgical rules won’t either!
All participants in any liturgical celebration share responsibility for making it what it is meant to be. Everybody has the opportunity to enrich our worship, just as everybody in the church has the capacity to mess it up. Before complaining about the liturgy, we need to stop and consider what we can do to make it better.
Pilarczyk’s final words speak to us all: “Struggles over liturgy are not good for God’s church. I believe that they could be reduced in number and softened in tone, that the Prince of Peace could be better served if we were all consciously working toward peace, if we all avoided extremes, if we all stayed conscious of the nature of the liturgy, if we all understood the law and its intent and its interpretation and if we were all ready to love one another – even those whose liturgical opinions might be different from our own”. (p. 650)

Elizabeth Harrington