How can differences over the Liturgy be resolved?

How can differences over the Liturgy be resolved?

Fr John O'Neill

One sure way to lose friends is to have a definite "position" about the Liturgy, especially the Mass. Because Catholics (those practising) love the Mass so much, then such is the measure of the tensions, sometimes running to bitterness, among us over liturgical differences.

We the members need to be as large-minded as our Mother the Church and draw out of her treasure house "things both new and old", for new and old both enwrap her truth and grace.

Firstly, the Tridentine Rite is celebrated in its Missa lecta form in "my" parish every Sunday, and if the Latin Mass Chaplain cannot come, I celebrate it myself, and enjoy its beauty, even in its "low Mass" form.

In its fullness - the Solemn High Sung Mass - it is inspiring and awesome in the true sense of producing awe of God, but also fostering an awareness, through faith, of the intimacy and presence of His love. I was brought up on it at St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, as a server, and during eight years of seminary life. In all those places we had the best of singing, both chant and polyphony, to say nothing of good organists.

There were some problems, however. People, except a few, did not understand Latin. Many priests, not gifted in languages, did not understand it either. Following in a translation was only second best, and often a race to keep up with "father," leaving out prayers to catch up at the Nobis quoque peccatoribus.

For the celebrant, the Rite contained a very great deal of detail, both in actions and prayers. It did not do for the priest to be afflicted with scrupulosity, or he would spend half his life going to confession!


Some readers might be horrified that this priest is suggesting that the Tridentine Rite needed some pruning. There are examples of perhaps unnecessary repetition of themes throughout the Rite, such as the Aufer a nobis and the Oramus te after the Psalm forty-two and the Confiteor, the three prayers before Communion and the Placeat tibi at the end.

The many signs of the Cross over the bread and wine continue even after the Consecration. If these are blessings, then it is hardly necessary to bless the Lord Himself. Perhaps the crosses at this stage of the Mass had some meaning that was not explained to us when we were learning to celebrate Mass. Then there are the many genuflections, which may not be necessary even for proper reverence.

It is not a shocking thing for the Church to make some alterations in her liturgies, as long as they are only alterations and not demolitions. Sadly, the Church is rife with demolishers of the Liturgy.

The introduction of the vernacular shocked many, some of whom saw it as a move towards Protestantism. Yet, the Church was doing only what she did at the beginning.

Surely it is not unreasonable for people to be able to take part, without having to use a translation, or without the necessity of education in a language foreign to them, in the worship of their God in their Church's Liturgy.

The Liturgy must always be majestic, for God's sake, but it must also be simple, for man's sake. The two are not incompatible: indeed, the Roman Rite is beautiful for the element of practical simplicity that is one of its attractions.

We need to be mature enough to accept legitimate change. The operative word here is "legitimate".

The Novus Ordo, when celebrated in Latin, with the beautification of the Chant, incense (but not too much) and other liturgical refinements, preserves the simple majesty and beauty and appeal of the Roman tradition. It is still the Roman Rite.

We priests need to remember that. Today, the Liturgy suffers from those who think it is up to them to entertain the people. A fine priest, now deceased, once said the priest's task was to "feed the sheep, not entertain the goats."

If only priests, and all interferers, would celebrate and conduct the Liturgy according to the Missal, then we would see some dignity, even with the very inadequate translation that has been foisted upon us. (It is a mystery how official approval was ever given to the ICEL mistranslation. We await a better effort in the English: but we might have to wait per omnia saecula saeculorum the way things are going.)


The Church, in her experience and wisdom, sustains the Tridentine Rite, and will, we hope, perfect the vernacular rites, which are not going away, to that dignity of the Roman liturgical tradition that has come down the centuries. In the meantime, let us have fidelity to whatever rite we are using, realising that liturgical abuses are not new.

It is a dream to think that "in the old days" there was liturgical perfection: there was as much abuse then as now; it is just that it was not then as obvious to members of the congregation.

Most important, let us remember that the whole great central wonder of the Mass lies in what Jesus Christ is doing, namely, renewing Calvary. That happens despite our inadequacies.

To protect the Mass, it is necessary to bring back reverence, the positive silence of respect for His presence in our churches as houses of prayer. Consciousness of Our Lord's presence in the tabernacle needs to pervade the congregation, striking each one entering the church. How lamentable (even liturgically so) has been the determination of some to shift tabernacles out of central focus.

Above all, at the human level, it is up to us priests to realise the Lord's presence. The Mass in any of its forms will inspire the people, provided it first inspires the priest.

May patience with the human inadequacies, which have been and will be present in any rite, preserve us from bitter divisions and lack of charity. Only Christ can keep us together, and if we are not conscious of Him in the Mass, we will certainly not carry Him from this source of salvation to the world which is thirsting for Him. The salt will lose its flavour!

Fr John O'Neill is the parish priest of Doonside in the Parramatta Diocese.

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