Following the Rules is Not Enough


Celebrating liturgy well is not simply a matter of saying the words and doing the prescribed gestures exactly as set out in the ritual book. Turning the texts of the liturgical books into liturgy, which is an action/event, is a process of translation and interpretation. On the one hand we must celebrate the Roman rite, but on the other it must be an appropriate and intelligible celebration for this particular assembly of the people.

One hundred years ago, the need to follow the rules exactly when presiding at liturgy was considered of utmost importance. But in extraordinary circumstances such as the battlefront during the two world wars, it was not always possible to follow all the rubrics. There was no sanctuary, no altar, no candles and no vestments. Yet the experience of worship was often more powerful and therefore more fruitful than many a "correct" parish liturgy.

Australian clergy had had experience of adapting the Roman liturgy to the extraordinary conditions of the Australian setting since the days when our pioneer priests travelled overland on pastoral visitation, celebrating the Mass with what they could carry in a saddle bag. Even today, remote rural churches do not have the facilities found in a large church in Rome or cathedral in Australian and which the liturgical books presume.

In the liturgical reform of the last few decades, the Church has tried to shape the celebration of the liturgy according to principles rather than rubrics. When preparing a liturgical event it is important to ask questions such as: What is the purpose of the rite? How is it structured? What are the key gestures and symbols of the rite? How then can it be celebrated powerfully and expressively?

This approach recognises that the liturgy will not always be celebrated in exactly the same way because the circumstances will vary. We are, of course, celebrating the one rite following the same liturgical books. But it is always necessary to ask how we turn the liturgical text into an evocative liturgical event for this particular group on this particular occasion. It is here that real creativity comes in.

Creative liturgy preparation does not mean overloading the liturgy with decorations and mimes, poems and stories, explanations and descriptions. It involves studying the rite to see how it is structured and how one part flows into the other. It is appropriate to use a banner, drama or poem if it helps to make a symbol or moment of the rite expressive, if it leads the people into the liturgical action more deeply, or if it gives the liturgical text a voice.

While the rites we celebrate are set out in ritual books, it requires creative people to bring to life these words on a page – much like a good cook who can turn a recipe into a delicious dish. To do this well people need to have a love for the liturgy and an appreciation of its central place in the life of the parish. They must also be prepared to study the rites of the church, the liturgical tradition and official liturgy documents.

Intelligence and creativity in using the liturgical books are essential if the rites are to be celebrated in such a way that the sacred mysteries shine out in the particular situation in which the Church has gathered.


Elizabeth Harrington