The 'Statement of Conclusions' and liturgy: what needs to be done

The 'Statement of Conclusions' and liturgy: what needs to be done

Msgr Peter J. Elliott

It comes as no surprise to find ten sections of the Statement of Conclusions devoted to the liturgy and sacraments. Like the rest of this program of reform and renewal for the Church in Australia, these paragraphs are well put together and balanced. Breathing the fresh air of frankness and honesty, they state where things have gone wrong, while avoiding exaggerations or pessimism.

Bishops gain a sense of what is happening in liturgy because they move around the diocese or region in the natural apostolic role of a leader of worship. They see what is going on in parishes and religious communities. They develop an eye for "trends" and can compare the varying quality of liturgy in a variety of situations. But they do not see the worst abuses, which mysteriously evaporate whenever the bishop enters a church. But that is part of the problem. Letters of complaint from angry laity do not always square up with what bishops see. Dissimulation impedes reform.


The bishop is a liturgist and every priest is a liturgist, working in loyal union with his bishop, a tradition and ideal first described by Saint Ignatius of Antioch. But we must clear away a narrow academic meaning of the word "liturgist". Obviously all bishops and priests are not liturgists in a specialist sense, rather they are practising liturgists insofar as every celebrant is a liturgist though his eucharistic and sacramental ministry. What we need is good practising liturgists.

If clergy are to be practising liturgists, they need training or retraining. Appropriate liturgical formation is the theme of paragraph 46 of the Statement. First of all there is a need to equip the practising liturgist with professional skills, starting in the seminary with continuing education during priestly ministry. This is really why I wrote the manual Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite and why I am working on a sequel, Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year.

Let me begin by suggesting some points for review, by no means an exhaustive list:

* How Mass is celebrated: the use of voice, gestures, habits, fidelity to liturgical law. But beyond law, is a sense of the sacred cultivated?

* The place of silence in parish worship. Is there any silence in our Masses? Do the people fall silent at the consecration and elevations?

* Participation of the people: is it really active, strong, and are the people engaged in the celebration or mere spectators? Are they invited into the mystery?

* Homilies: are they well prepared, related to the Scriptures, doctrinal?

* Are there trained and rostered altar servers with a good parish Cm? Are major feast days celebrated in the solemn form?

* Church music: is there a three hymn rut? Are the choir, the music director, the cantors encouraged? Is money spent on music resources? Are shoddy music and inane songs tolerated?

But the outward signs of liturgy only begin to live when there is inward commitment. Paragraphs 38 to 40 call on priests to rediscover the mystery that passes through their anointed hands. When a priest celebrates Mass in a mechanical or distracted way, when he makes it a personality trip or a chat show, he has lost sight of the Lord Jesus, Priest and Victim of the eucharistic sacrifice.

We are also challenged by the Statement to form others in liturgy. The question of the authentic promotion of the liturgy in paragraph 41 focuses on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism has a liturgical theme running through it, well crafted, spiritual, accurate, bearing out the truth that the lex orandi is the lex credendi. The task of liturgical catechesis falls on priests' shoulders.

Liturgical points could be added to the homily or parish bulletin, with a list ranging from simple points such as, why we genuflect, why we make responses, what the procession of gifts means, to more subtle levels - what is the "work of human hands" we place on the altar, what is an altar, ultimately what is the Sacrifice we offer, who is the Gift we share?

Catholic education

The authentic promotion of the liturgy and formation in liturgy must be part of Catholic education. In fidelity to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we will include liturgical catechesis at all levels of religious education in the Catholic schools of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. This will be evident when the text- based curriculum emerges over the next few years. Sacramental catechesis, for first sacraments and as constant follow-up, must include detailed liturgical education. Always the centrality of the person and work of Jesus Christ must be maintained in such catechesis.

One sentence in the Statement almost leaps out of the page: "Many people today call for a more 'transcendental' Liturgy, and indeed liturgical celebrations must be permeated with a proper religious sense born of faith in unseen realities."

Not long ago a new parish priest was applauded when he announced he would not discuss the football at Mass. Banality is a great Australian problem: frankly much of our liturgy is boring, dull, even ugly. It has become so 'horizontal' that the sacred signs have been dissolved, in the name of being 'pastoral' or of 'communicating'. People come to Mass looking for a sense of God, not to be talked at or entertained.

Another area where transcendental worship has been compromised is the design of churches. This is not mentioned in the Statement of Conclusions, but by the Holy Father himself in his ad limina address to the Australian bishops. The Pope calls for "properly functioning commissions and working groups for the promotion of the liturgy and of liturgical music and art, and for the construction and maintenance of churches which in their design and furnishings will be in close harmony with underlying values of the Catholic tradition."

The pizza bar, the hotel foyer, the factory, scarcely seem to be "in close harmony with the underlying values of the Catholic tradition", but they all seem to be predictable and boring models for many of our new churches.

Thankfully, we may be on the brink of a quiet revolution in the design of Catholic churches. We may observe what is emerging from the University of Notre Dame school of architecture in the United States. There is also a stronger sense of the need to be sensitive to an existing environment when remodeling old churches, evident in the restored central sanctuary of St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne. But already there are several examples of a recovery of tradition, hence transcendence, in newer parish churches in Australia, and at least one projected church, with a basilica plan, reveals this new and welcome trend.


References to liturgical translations in section 43 are addressed primarily to bishops. Many of us share concerns about the translations of the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) in use for thirty years. Various existing ICEL texts are inaccurate, doctrinally weak, even wrong, and ICEL has a bad record for good English style.

However, ICEL as it stands today has responded to demands for better translations. At least we have the assurance that the new collects will be longer, richer and more hieratic and the rewriting of other parts of the Mass apparently will eliminate graceless expressions in favour of a better style. Various groups have made proposals. Rome is directly involved and conscious, as never before, of the doctrinal and ideological problems involved in English translations, so we may hope for the best.

Lastly is what I consider to be the real issue underlying the whole question of liturgy raised in the Statement of Conclusions. This is the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. It is common to hear that "the sacrament of Penance is in crisis". Unfortunately, we rarely hear this said of the Holy Eucharist. Perhaps we encounter a different kind of crisis in the case of the Eucharist, not so much people avoiding the sacrament, rather a tendency to take it for granted, to demean it. This is closely related to the issue of banal liturgy. What then is to be done in the face of such a crisis which cuts at the heart of our faith?

In some parishes, even where the tabernacle is in a prominent place, genuflecting has simply vanished. What is needed is more catechesis on the Real Presence, on the meaning of eucharistic reservation, on how we behave before Our Lord. This must begin with the smallest children at home and in school. Their example can show the way to older folk who may have become casual.

Some people become uncomfortable or evasive when the possibility is raised of genuflecting before receiving Communion. In one place the faithful were discouraged from genuflecting because someone allegedly fell over a genuflecting parishioner and broke a leg during the Communion procession! Resorting to that kind of argument reveals an underling fear lest eucharistic devotion flourish in a visible way. But ours is an incarnational religion, with faith in actions. Even the best doctrinal lectures or fine theological expositions are no substitute for an act of eucharistic faith. The incarnational, embodied, nature of our faith, calls us to bodily actions, signs of faith and reverence.

Then, according to the perverse logic of some liturgists, the more you hide the Blessed Sacrament the more popular devotion increases. Now I agree that the liturgy abounds in paradoxes, but this is not one of them. Relegate the tabernacle to a room or an obscure corner and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament soon fades; and with it a real sense of the supernatural reality of the Eucharist as a sacrament. There is a relentless logic here. Promote devotion to the Eucharist and people make better Communions. Play down devotion to the Eucharist and you strike at the very heart of eucharistic communion and the eucharistic community made one by that "one Bread and one Cup".

In an appendix to Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite I have attempted to set out a case in favour of an outstanding location for the tabernacle in our churches. I indicated what I see as an interesting development since Vatican II which favours such a case. Certainly there is no single solution for the location of the tabernacle, but it is to be set up in a "distinguished place" in the church, as envisaged by Canon 938 of the Code of Canon Law. In most churches this will be a central place.


Another example of the way some liturgists are out of touch with the Catholic faithful is where a campaign has been run, especially in the United States, to eliminate kneeling at Mass. Their particular target is kneeling during the eucharistic prayer or at the consecration. What is really under attack here is the idea that there is an actual moment of consecration, hence that the elevation of the Host or Chalice should be seen and that these beautiful actions should provoke personal and communal adoration. What is at stake within this agenda is, of course, transubstantiation itself, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1373-1377, 1413, notwithstanding.

In his ad limina address to the Australian bishops, the Holy Father recalled our eucharistic heritage: "Earlier generations of Catholics in Australia showed the depth of their faith by their high regard for the Eucharist and the other sacraments. That spirit is an integral part of Catholic life, a part of our spiritual tradition that needs to be reaffirmed."

Msgr Peter J. Elliott is the Episcopal Vicar for Religious Education in the Archdiocese of Melbourne and the author of several books on liturgy.

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