How to avoid banal, superficial liturgies

How to avoid banal, superficial liturgies

Bishop Kevin Manning

This is the edited text of Bishop Manning's address at the Sydney Thomas More Centre Summer School, 9 December 2000.

Many of the abuses in the liturgy since the Second Vatican Council, such as insistence on cultural adaptations and selective changes, point to a misunderstanding of the Church and flow from a flawed ecclesiology and understanding of what liturgy really is.

Some marvellous concepts flowed from the Second Vatican Council, but one, the "People of God", stood out. Decrees, other than Lumen Gentium, balanced this concept, but the balance would seem to have been lost. To limit the definition of Church to the expression "People of God" means that we are not deepening the New Testament understanding of the Church, whose character is better contained in the concept, "Body of Christ".

To confine the Church to a "People of God" limits its understanding and essence. Any concept of Church has to be closely related and understood in terms of Christ, for the Church is not made up of a collection of believers, but is the "Body of Christ" much more than a simple sum of all her members. She is the Kingdom of Christ now present in Mystery (Lumen Gentium n. 3). So it is not "our Church" which we can manipulate as we please. It is rather "His Church." What is only "our Church" is not the real Church, for it would then be merely human and transitory.

Christ's authority

The consequences of it being "our Church" are enormous and are reflected in many of the abuses we encounter because it means we have departed from our roots. If it is merely "our Church" then we are justified in doing away with the hierarchy, rejecting Christ's authority and being ruled by a consensus of the majority of the members of the organisation.

However, the Church of Christ is not a party, not an association, not a club. Her permanent structures are not democratic but sacramental, consequently hierarchical, with a hierarchy based on Apostolic succession, which is an indispensable condition for arriving at the strength, at the reality of the Sacrament. This authority is not based on a majority of votes. It is based on the authority of Christ Himself, which He passed on.

In the question of liturgy we are dealing with the very core of Christian faith, so in experimenting with liturgy we need to be very, very clear that we are experimenting with the nature of the Church.

The Second Vatican Council anticipated there would be "creative experimentation" in the Liturgy and made clear what its mind was: "Regulation of the Sacred Liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and as laws may determine, on the Bishop: therefore, no other person, not even a priest, may add, remove or change anything in the Liturgy on his own authority" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n 22: 1, 3),

The Council did this, because the Liturgy is not a road-show, a multicultural Olympic Opening, a sacramental spectacular, to satisfy bored pleasure seekers and discontented teenagers. Liturgy is not an expression of what is current and transitory, for it expresses the "Mystery of the Holy" and enduring. Those who want liturgy devised by the community according to their own mind will finish up with a liturgy measured by its effect as a spectacle, or entertainment - this, without understanding that human beings cannot make something which manifests the holiness of God.

While saying this I am not for a moment contradicting the Church's desire to have active participation. Unfortunately, some people confine this to singing, reading, speaking, physical movement or shaking hands. The Council, however, included silence under "active participation." This silence helps to attain a deep personal participation and allows us to listen inwardly to the Lord's words. This becomes more difficult nowadays because of the noise which abounds in our churches.

If the inner dimension is neglected then we will find our liturgies boring, unintelligible, and chasing the development of a kind of 'party atmosphere.' It leads to people providing their own action in place of the deep contemplative following of the Mass, which is a shared action at a much deeper level. Let me emphasise: true liturgical meaning cannot be achieved in a purely external manner, and faith requires a continual process of education, otherwise the words of faith begin to lose their meaning.

The liturgical assembly must not measure the success of the celebration by the degree of its own edification, satisfaction, participation, or involvement. Instead, it is measured by how we are moved by God and allow Him to take over. Abuses lie in people celebrating themselves, not God.

One has to question whether the forced joviality and familiarity of some congregations are really representative of Christian culture. After all, we are mere servants of the Mystery being celebrated, the centre of which is not each person being in contact with the celebrant. That can take place afterwards.

Individual recollection

A congregation will celebrate itself instead of God if its faith in the reality of the Eucharist is weak. The worthiness of the liturgy increases in proportion to the participants' awareness of their own unworthiness. And, it is impossible to manipulate and technically produce this worthiness. When the Christian attitude and culture of the congregation and of the priest are genuine, the celebration will be worthy.

The Christian assembly for some can easily become a purely social event which largely foregoes personal prayer. Perhaps they have been forced to this point because of the uninterrupted talking of the celebrant, commentators, and the singing of the crowd. Amid the stress of daily life, people can find neither a place nor the time for personal prayer. Communal prayer and singing ought to leave room for individual recollection.

An area which exemplifies fairly well what I am saying is that of some of our present-day Church music and hymns. Many of the hymns which carried our tradition and Catholic culture have given way to infantile, superficial, banal and utilitarian substitutes.

Church music is meant to uplift minds and hearts to the eternal, to bring true inner feelings and desires before the Lord. It means we do not merely cater for what we like, what we are comfortable with, for we are seeking to glorify the "Eternal Other."

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and the Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity allow for the possibility of adaptations to the customs and cultic traditions of people. But this allowance was obviously directed to "mission lands," although you will see in the Missal there are alternative provisions which give some scope for local variations.

However, we need to be careful about going beyond what has been legislated. The Church, in the beginning, was slow to adapt forms of pagan liturgies into her own. She operated on the form of the Jewish synagogue service, which is extremely modest, from the point of view of ritual, to the celebration of Eucharist, the great prayer of thanksgiving. At the core of this thanksgiving the Church placed the account of the institution of the Eucharist. This prayer in turn mediates the idea of sacrifice insofar as it is attuned to the prayer of Jesus Christ in His self-surrender to the Father, who makes this self-offering present in time.


The big danger is that the distinction between liturgical and social conventions becomes blurred, e.g., priests not receiving Communion until others have been served first, or their inability to say: "I bless you" at the end of Mass because they do not want any distinctions to be made between themselves and the people. The greeting of peace is another example which, at times, presumes liberties which even secular society does not accept. Other abuses include changes made to the Eucharistic Prayers, to the point where they can become invalid.

Throughout the entire history of religion, sacrifice and meal are inseparably united. Sacrifice facilitates communion with the Divine and humans receive back from the Divine gifts in and from the sacrifice. This exchange is transformed and deepened in many ways in the mystery of Jesus Christ.

In the Mass the sacrifice is the Incarnate Son of God, it is God who gives Himself, taking us up into His action, enabling us to be both gift and recipient. So that which happened on Calvary becomes present when the words of Jesus: "This is My Body, this is My Blood" are said.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger writes in Feast of Faith (p. 94.): "But the speaker of these words is the 'I' of Jesus Christ. Only He can say them; they are His words. No man can dare to take them to himself. The 'I' and 'my' of Jesus Christ's words must be said if the saving mystery is not to remain something in the distant past. So authority to pronounce them is needed, an authority which no one can assume, and which no congregation, nor even many congregating together, can confer. Only Jesus Christ, Himself, in the 'sacramental' form He has committed to the whole Church, can give this authority.

"The Word must be located as it were in 'sacrament,' it must be part of the 'sacrament' of the Church, partaking of an authority which she does not create, but only transmits. This is what is meant by 'Ordination' and 'Priesthood.' Once this is understood, it becomes clear that, in the Church's Eucharist, something is happening which goes far beyond any human celebration, any human joint activity, and any liturgical efforts on the part of a particular community.

"What is taking place is the mystery of God communicated to us by Jesus Christ through His death and Resurrection. This is what makes the Eucharist irreplaceable; this is the guarantee of its identity. The reform of the liturgy has not altered it; its aim was simply to shed new light upon it."

To describe the Mass as a sacrifice is a dogmatic statement referring to the hidden theological essence of what takes place in it. Reference to the meal structure, on the other hand, is to direct attention to the visible liturgical performance. What is presented liturgically in the structure of the meal can, without difficulty, mediate what dogmatically speaking is a sacrifice.

In the case of Sunday Eucharistic Services in the absence of a priest, I refer to another book by Cardinal Ratzinger, A New Song for the Lord (p. 74), in which he enunciates two principles when dealing with "The Meaning of Sunday": "[The] Sacrament must take precedence over psychology, the Church must take precedence over the group; operating under the proviso of this hierarchy, the local Churches must seek the right answer for each situation respectively knowing that the salvation of all humans is their real mission. In this orientation of all their work both their obligation and their freedom are to be found."

Drawing on Cardinal Ratzinger's essay, I would like to apply these principles to the increasing demand and preference, in isolated cases, to the question of Sunday Services without a priest.

Ideological theories

In mission countries, and situations of persecution, people who do not have access to the celebration of the Eucharist on Sunday have to try to take part in the Sunday of the Church to the degree that is possible. Nowadays, the decline of priestly vocations is more and more giving rise to such situations.

Unfortunately, the search for right answers has been substituted with some ideological theories based on community that stand in the way of the real concern rather than being of service to it, e.g., it is being said that every church that once had a pastor or, at least, regular Sunday worship, should continue to be the place of assembly for the parish of that location. Only in this way can the church remain the focal point of the town, and the parish stay alive as a parish.

For this reason, it is said it is more important for the parish community to gather, and hear, and celebrate, the Word of God than to take advantage of the actually given possibility of participating in the Eucharistic celebration in a church close by.

I do not doubt that the movement is well meant. But it ignores some fundamental facts of our faith. In this way of looking at things the experience of togetherness and the fostering of the local community rank higher than the gift of the sacrament.

When one places the experience of community above sacramental reality in such a way, the congregation does no more than celebrate itself and the Church becomes a vehicle for social purposes. At the same time she is promoting a romanticism that is somewhat anachronistic in our mobile society, which has no problems in travelling two hundred kilometres to a football match.

The unconditional "must" which the Church has always spoken about cannot be inherent in a prayer service. But, then, according to an inner logic, this evaluation expands to include the real celebration of the Eucharist as well. For if the Church, herself, seems to be saying that assembly is more important than Eucharist, then the Eucharist is also just "assembly." Otherwise it would not be possible to treat them as equivalents.


The whole Church then sinks into what is self-made, a self- portrayal of a community. Whoever elevates a community to the level of an end in itself is precisely the one who dissolves its foundations. What might seem pious and reasonable, initially, is a radical inversion of the important concerns and categories in which we eventually achieve the opposite of what was intended.

Only when the Sacrament retains its unconditional character and its absolute priority over all communal purposes and spiritually edifying intentions does it build community and "edify" humans.

Even if our sacramental liturgy had fewer psychological trappings and was subjectively more lacklustre and more dull, it is still socially more effective in the long run than the self- edification of a parish community performed with psychological and sociological expertise. We are dealing here with the fundamental question of whether something happens here that does not come from us, or whether we alone plan and shape the community ourselves. If there is not the higher "must" of the Sacrament, the freedom that we claim for ourselves becomes empty since it becomes robbed of its content.

In all considerations, it is important that we understand that the Church is not celebrating itself but the Lord whom she receives in the Eucharist, and towards whom she moves.

References: New Elucidations by Han Urs Von Balthasar; A New Song for the Lord and Feast of Faith by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger; Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful In the Sacred Ministry of the Priest (Various Vatican Congregations and Pontifical Councils).

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