Since the time of the liturgical reforms promulgated by the Second Vatican Council 40 years ago, two main weaknesses have emerged in the way Sunday Liturgy is often celebrated.
Both these weaknesses are often present in the one celebration of the Liturgy, particularly at the parish level, where the great majority of church-going people celebrate the Liturgy.
Different groups of people are sensitive to one or other of these two weaknesses in the celebration of Sunday Liturgy. But both weaknesses need to be addressed, and they can be.
One weakness, spotted by those who have a strong appreciation of traditional values, is that there is often not a proper sense of the transcendent in the Liturgy as it is celebrated in most places. In other words, the reverence and awe and respect and silence that we readily associate with the almighty God of Mystery is sometimes deficient in the way liturgy is celebrated.
The old Liturgy, prior to
The Latin language and the way it was used in the Liturgy promoted the feeling that God is different and distinct from everyday life. Latin took on the aura of a unique sacred language. Simply by hearing the Liturgy in Latin the message was communicated that something special and sacred was happening when Liturgy was celebrated.
This way of achieving the sense of the sacred in the past often blocked out the possibility of developing a good, consciously participative and communicating community. That is why much was changed.
Now that many of these things have been changed there is the challenge of finding new ways of communicating the sense of the sacred. At this stage there is still much room for improvement. It is out of the question to try to return to Latin and to many of the other old ways.
The other weakness in the Liturgy is the level of communication and participation. Communication and participation are required if a community, aware of its identity, is to be formed and built up. Catholic Liturgy is liturgy celebrated in and by a community. Without a community we can’t have Liturgy.
The low level of community awareness was a major weakness in the old Latin, parish-level Liturgy that the Second Vatican Council set out to overcome.
So far the efforts to achieve this have only been partially successful. The attitudes of withdrawn, community-indifferent, individualistic piety that had developed over generations in the celebration of parish liturgy are not easily overcome.
Certainly, the introduction of vernacular languages into the Liturgy was a major step towards overcoming the weakness in community awareness. Still, in the matter of vernacular language itself, some problems persist. People need to come to the realisation that all languages can be sacred. Latin has no monopoly on sacredness, even if old ears might be more tuned into sacredness in Latin. Because vernacular languages that are in everyday use are constantly changing, it is impossible to develop set texts for the Liturgy that will remain fixed for long periods of time. If set texts become absolutely fixed they will cease to communicate the messages we want them to communicate – again to the detriment of community formation.
One of the criticisms directed against ordinary parish Sunday Liturgy is that it is ineffective. Many people claim to be bored. A lot are voting with their feet. Sunday Liturgy often is not an inspiring community experience in which people participate in such a way that they feel their presence is recognised and appreciated.
In the Liturgy of the Word the scriptures are proclaimed to the community for the purpose of developing the mind and attitudes of Jesus Christ in all those present. The homily is supposed to promote this. Generally speaking, it seems that people, young and old, are not coming to a deeper commitment to the way Jesus thinks through their presence at Sunday Liturgy. As an occasion for learning, the present celebration of the Liturgy of the Word rates poorly.
This was a major weakness before the time of the Second Vatican Council. It still is.
The Vatican Council sought to overcome the weakness through its insistence on active participation. The idea is sound, but more effective applications need to be found. There is no one simple remedy, but we can draw on some insights from the principles of good learning in community.
We know that people learn best if they are actively involved in a learning process that is relevant to their lives: indicating through their responses what they are picking up in the process; contributing their own insights, convictions and pearls of wisdom. The whole process becomes more realistic when ideas are discussed in connection with the issues of everyday life. This means that normally the homily is not good way to promote learning in the community.
Improved community communication and participation is expressed in people joining in the prayers and hymns and exercising various ministries during the Liturgy. All of this has improved since the time of the Second Vatican Council. But a community weakness remains. Largely because of the passive way in which the scriptures are proclaimed and received, the community is not growing as a well-informed community, committed to the continuation and extension of the mission of Jesus Christ.
To summarise: Two general weaknesses:
1. A loss of the sense of the sacred
2. A failure to develop vibrant community.
At the local community level, returning to the use of Latin is absolutely unrealistic.
ˇ Make positive use of prayerful silence during the Liturgy
ˇ The custom of having a period of silence after Communion has been distributed is fairly well accepted. Perhaps it needs to be explained occasionally. Some of you may have experienced in a small group a sense of deep, shared silent prayer. We could aim to achieve this during the silence after Communion.
ˇ After the presider’s invitation “Let us pray”, there can be a brief period of silence, as indicated in the rubrics.
ˇ A distinctive period of silence can follow each intention in the Prayer of the Faithful. That is how it should be. Many communities have developed bad habits in this regard, with lengthy petitions, often trying to tell God what to do, and leaving no time for silent prayer at all. The procedure should be: The brief announcement of an intention, followed by silent prayer, a unifying voiced invocation after a recognisable cue. For example: Lord, hear us: Lord, hear our prayer.
ˇ Scripture readings should be proclaimed with a sense of them being the Word of the Lord. A pause of reflective silence could follow each reading. One suspects, that generally speaking, the quality of proclamation in the Liturgy is still of a fairly low standard.
ˇ Likewise, after the sharing of reflections following the gospel, there could well be a period of reflective silence.
ˇ Other things, such as well-chosen music and hymns, appropriate décor and decoration and movement in the space for Liturgy also contribute to the sense of the sacred.
The Sense of Community: welcoming, communicating, participative, forgiving, healing, caring.
Active participation is one of the main recommendations about the Liturgy made by the Second Vatican Council. This participation needs to be inviting, respectful and conscious if it is to work properly. Simply joining in the prayers and hymns, or exercising some ministry in the liturgical celebration is not an adequate level of participation.
A most important time for conscious, active participation is in the sharing of reflections after the gospel. It is through the sharing of good reflections that the community, facing the realities of everyday life, grows in appreciation of the mind of Jesus Christ.
This kind of participation can only happen in a relative small Sunday Gathering for Liturgy. This is the great advantage that small communities have. (The occasional large gathering, on a special occasion, with a well-prepared homily, has its place).
It is improper to put pressure on people to voice their ideas and insights following the readings. Children and young people should be encouraged to share their thoughts – their participation will probably be the main way in which they will grow in the understanding of their faith. Even the silent members of the congregation will probably learn much more from following a good sharing of reflections than in sitting through a 10 minute homily.
The facilitators of the sharing of reflections have an very important ministry. As with all ministries, those exercising this ministry need guidance, and on-going support and a commitment to refine their skills.
At first glance, the sense of the Sacred and the sense of Community might seem to be in conflict with each other. Properly understood, that is not the case: one complements the other. Both are absolutely necessary.
How do you rate your gatherings for Liturgy: Sacred-wise? Community-wise?
What might you do to improve?