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Musical Musings: Liturgy

Value of the Mass does not depend on externals

by Russell Shaw

This article is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author, and of William Cone, editor of The Pittsburgh Catholic, where it appeared in the February 13, 2004, edition.

Beware of people who say that they know nothing about opera — or poetry or painting or whatever other form of artistic expression is in question — but they do know what they like. No doubt they do. But ignorance of the genre itself makes it all too probable that what they happen to like isn't terribly good.

Something like that also may apply to certain farily common responses to the liturgy. How often has one heard it said that the speaker "doesn't get much out of Mass" as if the Mass were to blame for that? If someone doesn't get much out of the Mass, though, one reason may be that he or she doesn't put a lot in.

I suspect that quite a few Catholics come to church more or less looking to be entertained. That is a mistake. The Catholic liturgy isn't meant to be entertaining. And where it is entertaining to any notable degree, that fact in itself may be a symptom of something rather badly out of kilter.

Like people who don't know much about art but know what they like — and settle for mediocrity as a result — those who approach the public worship of the Church expecting entertainment have only themselves to blame if in the end the very best they get is exactly that — entertainment.

In An American Conversion (Crossroad Publishing, 2003), an account of his coming over to Rome from having been a Southern Baptist, Crisis magazine editor and publisher Deal Hudson admits to an occasional hankering for the "full-throated hymn-singing" of a Baptist congregation. But he cautions against confusing the "adrenalin of religious enthusiasm" with authentic witnessing to faith.

"The worst thing the Catholic Church could do is give the Mass away to those who want to 'jazz it up' by stealing our silence," Hudson writes. "At least a lackluster liturgy keeps us from the heresy of emotivism, that is, identifying our feeling states with our beliefs."

This is not a plea for liturgical incompetence — bad music, bad homilies, a general air of sloppiness and indifference. These things are abuses just as much as the most egregious liturgical bells and whistles, like celebrants who parade in the aisles at the handshake of peace, lectors who use the readings to emote, cantors who think they're onstage at the Met and perfect strangers who want to hold hands with you at the "Our Father."

But in all cases, nevertheless, the crucial fact is that the value of the Mass doesn't depend on externals. The central action is the action of Christ. Obviously, it's preferable that what celebrant, lector, cantor and congregation do be done with dignity and style, but it takes nothing away from the action of Christ if it's not.

In a recent apostolic letter marking the 40th anniversary of Vatican II's constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, Pope John Paul II made the important point that "the experience of silence" needs fostering as an integral part of community worship. "In a society that lives at an increasingly frenetic pace, often deafened by noise and confused by the ephemeral, it is vital to rediscover the value of silence," John Paul remarked.

It goes without saying that the public worship of the Church can't consist exclusively of silence and nothing else. Catholics are not Quakers after all. But neither are they religious emotivists gratifying themselves by putting on a show. The point the pope was making should be taken altogether seriously by those who plan, conduct and participate in our liturgies.

Reprinted with permission of author.

Russell Shaw is a writer and journalist in Washington DC. He has contributed to such journals as Our Sunday Visitor, The Pope Speaks, and Columbia

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