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Online Edition - Vol. IV, No. 1: February/March 1998

"KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING"

Has the liturgical reform gone of the track? A California bishop recently expressed this concern in his diocesan newspaper.

"Even some of the most ardent supporters of liturgical reform have asked whether the effort has wandered off course," observed Orange, California Bishop Norman F. McFarland his front-page "The Bishop Writes" column in the February issue of his diocesan newspaper, The Diocese of Orange Bulletin.

The bishop's reflections on the liturgy were occasioned by reports of the National Catholic Youth Conference held in Kansas City last November.

Although he noted that the gathering of 14,000 youths at the NCYC was "an impressive witness of faith" of the young people "who obviously attached great value to their identity as Catholics", Bishop McFarland also "detected a disconcerting note" that despite their enthusiasm, "it was not evident that they had much of a real understanding of what the Mass is truly about".

The bishop deplored the pervasive attitude of the "need to be entertained" evident in reports of the NCYC conference. The Mass is not intended to be "amusing", he said. Following are excerpts from Bishop McFarland's column:

Relating this notion [of "entertainment"] to the Mass, even some of the most ardent supporters of liturgical reform have asked whether the effort has wandered off course. They note that peripheral elements eliciting feelings of togetherness-- in entrance processions, clasping hands during the Lord's Prayer, exchanging greetings--frequently overshadow the central and more religiously challenging parts of the Mass, the proclamation of Scripture and the offering of the Eucharistic Prayer. Liturgical planners seeking spontaneity and continual innovation often achieve no more than banality and weariness.

This is not to disparage the communal and participatory liturgy which is by authoritative design and all to the good. But such participation must be based on understanding if it truly is to support the words and actions of the Upper Room in which the Church finds its "source and summit" and "proclaims the Lord's death until He comes."

The Eucharistic Liturgy evokes the miracle that has us penetrate the space-time continuum to become actually present at the Last Supper and on Calvary, all three being the one and the same perfect and infinite sacrifice of the great High Priest Himself, offering not the blood of goats or sheep but His own self, body and blood. In the words of Pope John Paul, "[In the Mass] are the continued presence and action of Christ; it is He who, represented by the celebrant, makes His entrance into the sanctuary; it is He who is the offeror and the offered, the consecrator and the consecrated."

"When the Church does what Christ did and enjoined us to do, there He is among us--there as the High Priest of His community before the God of all worlds and of history, there as the sacrificial victim to be eaten and consumed by us. The eternal validity of His offering of Himself to the Father in the Upper Room and on Calvary becomes sacramentally one in our presence.

If this is what it is about--and it is indeed--and the liturgy is meant to provide an appropriate setting for the Holy and Sacred, engaging fully our minds and hearts in the ineffable mystery of faith, "to have fun" seems a witless expression to characterize the context and the goal of participation. Could one imagine going over to Calvary "to have fun?" Although, as a matter of fact, some of the participants in the passion and death of Christ pursued precisely that objective: Herod looked for Him to entertain with some tricks of magic; Pilate's soldiers gleefully mocked His kingship with a crown of thorns and a cloak of royal purple, and later threw dice for His tunic.

But the essence of Calvary was not fun and games, nor is the Mass. Liturgy's purpose is enchantment, not entertainment; posture, demeanor, word and song should speak to wonder and awe and joy and thanksgiving, not to inanities and foolishness which might be an acceptable diversion in some settings, but certainly not in this one. An eagerness to dismantle what is seen as narrow rigidity and dullness can end up gerryrigging an irrelevance.

My purpose is not to criticize the exuberance of youth, but to have it rightly directed in service of all of us to a better understanding and appreciation of Christ's inestimable gift. Adults as well as youth need to be reminded of these things occasionally, and the admonition given to the candidate in the ceremony of ordination to the priesthood could well serve as our mantra: "Know what you are doing and imitate the mystery you celebrate".

Return to March 1998 Table of Contents

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