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Liturgy is Dialogue
At liturgies celebrating special occasions, it has become increasingly common for all present to be given worship booklets containing virtually every word of the service – all the prayers, scripture readings, blessings, etc. This is particularly common at weddings, funerals and school Masses.
The practice is disturbing because it reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of liturgy and because it is a real barrier to good liturgical celebration. Liturgy calls for the full, conscious and active participation of all the faithful. How can an assembly possibly participate fully when everyone is absorbed in printed words on a page, paying scant attention to the presider, readers and those around them? It makes for a very individualistic worship; liturgy is meant to be a communal activity.
Liturgy is also a dialogue between God and the people of God assembled for worship. Pieces of paper get in the way of this conversation! There is nothing more detrimental to the proclamation of the word of God than having it punctuated by the sound of hundreds of pages being turned over simultaneously. The presider might as well announce at the beginning: “We will now have 30 minutes of silence while everyone reads the service from their booklets”!
Besides being bad liturgical practice, there are other reasons why people should be discouraged from providing full orders of service. Locating texts, typing them up, running off hundreds of copies, folding and stapling booklets and so on consumes a lot of hours and a lot of trees!
I have heard the practice defended on the grounds that people keep the booklets as a memento of the occasion, but I wonder how many do. I have also heard it claimed that we should use the senses of both sight and hearing in liturgy. Yes – and of smell, touch and taste as well – but not to convey the same message simultaneously.
To say that people need the words because they cannot hear the readers or see what is happening is attacking the problem from the wrong end. The solution lies in fixing the sound system, training the readers, using big symbols and gestures and rearranging the worship space.
I am not suggesting that worship aids are never appropriate. For most celebrations, however, even for weddings and funerals where non-Catholics or non-churchgoers are present, all that needs to be printed in the worship aid is the Order of Service, that is, the heading of each major part and an outline of its component parts.
It is also important to include those texts which the whole assembly will sing or say: the words of hymns, responses, etc. Where the bulk of the assembly is familiar with Catholic liturgy some of the common responses can be omitted, but where there are a number of visitors all the people’s responses should be included.
It may be helpful to give very brief explanations of what is happening so that extra words do not have to be added during the rites and to include directions such as “all stand”, “please sit”.
As we listen together to the Word of God and attend to those who lead us in prayer, our hearts are joined as one body of believers.