What Makes Liturgy Sacred?

What Makes Liturgy Sacred?

The Roman document Liturgiam Authenticam which guided the new English translation of the Missal now being implemented in Australia calls for a “higher level” language from that used in the Missal that has been in place for almost 40 years.

It advocates a “vernacular of a sacred style” which may differ from usual speech and which may adopt a manner of speech considered obsolete in daily usage. Words and expressions which differ from usual and everyday speech are deemed to be often truly memorable and capable of expressing heavenly realities. The aim is a “sacred style proper to liturgical language”.

Examples of the consequence of this approach are seen in the use of “chalice” (or “precious chalice” in Eucharistic Prayer I) instead of “cup”, “merit to be coheirs to eternal life” instead of “worthy to share eternal life”, “oblation” instead of “offering”, and “venerable” to refer to Jesus’ hands (I always associate the word with the very elderly!) in the new the Eucharistic Prayers.

Efforts to produce a more sacred style have led to some puzzling features in the new Missal. For example, words like angels, saints and apostles are now capitalised, ignoring the fact that the English-speaking world has for many years been moving away from the use of capitals except for proper nouns. One wonders how these capitalised words are proclaimed or heard differently from when they were printed in lower-case in the 1975 Missal.

I believe that the influence words have on the assembly’s experience of transcendence is fairly minimal. I cannot see the thousands who supposedly left the Catholic Church because of the “banal language” of the current Missal flocking back on account of the revised translation! There are many other aspects of public worship than can lift our minds and hearts to God – or not, as the case may be.

Firstly, the impression that something sacred is happening will not be conveyed unless the worship space is tidy and aesthetically pleasing, vestments are clean and in good repair, the sacred vessels of good quality, liturgical books well bound and in good order, furnishings elegant and polished.

New words will not lead to an experience of the transcendent if they are proclaimed in a casual, inaudible manner. Prayerful leadership of liturgy has a vital part to play in developing or maintaining a sense of the sacred. Our rites can be welcoming and inclusive without losing their dignity. Sensitive preaching that reaches into the hearts of people can lead to that sacred hushed silence in which all present know that grace has spoken.

Music has a great capacity to lift our hearts and minds to God. Biblical writers who portrayed the heavenly realms in terms of massed choirs of angels were working from their own experience of transcendence in worship. The hymns that we sing need to speak of the wonders of God, of the paschal mystery, and of the power of the Holy Spirit among us using music that conveys a meaning beyond the words themselves.

All liturgical ministers have an influence on the tone of a liturgical celebration. Even utilitarian actions carried out during the liturgy should be performed with a grace and a sense of purpose that befits the sacred liturgical action.

Elizabeth Harrington