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Musical Musings: Liturgy

Catholic Identity

by Gary D. Penkala

The Archbishop of Washington DC, James Cardinal Hickey, is recognized as a strict adherent to the decrees of Vatican II. These are some comments, however, from his first news conference in Washington. "I think it was a mistake for us to give up (mandatory) abstinence from meat on Friday. It was a symbol of belonging to a specific group from which one draws strength and in which one feels at home... We have to watch what symbols we have in the Church and what they say about our being a part of the body of believers." Just how are the Cardinal's words applicable to the symbols in our liturgy?

  1. The holy water fonts at the entrances of our churches should be used by the faithful upon entering as a baptismal remembrance and a symbolic cleansing.
  2. A genuflection is made toward the tabernacle as a sign of respect for the Blessed Sacrament. It is the Eucharistic Presence we are honoring and we should genuflect facing the tabernacle, not, necessarily, the altar or the front of the church.
  3. The Entrance Song and Procession symbolize our entry into a community of believers. It has musical, liturgical, catechetical and symbolic value and deserves more respect than a convenient verse or two to "get the priest to the altar."
  4. The Sign of the Cross, certainly a powerful symbol and a Catholic "trademark," is properly made with the first three fingers of the right hand in an unhurried and graceful manner. Sloppy symbols speak of apathy.
  5. The Rite of Blessing and Sprinkling Holy Water is an option which can replace the Penitential Rite at any Sunday Mass. It is particularly appropriate during Eastertide. Careful attention to the prayers of blessing reveals the meaning behind this ritual.
  6. The Lectionary used at Mass is in itself a symbol of the beauty of God's word. This sign is lost when each lector reads from throw-away newsprint or loose-leaf paper, for "convenience."
  7. Incense made a church smell "Catholic." Now, churches smell like fiberboard, carpet cleaner, coffee and Pledge. Incense, symbolizing the offering of our prayers to God, touches our senses with an aura of sanctity. Many Catholics are being denied this powerful sign by those who "don't care to find another altar server."
  8. The Rite of Peace should be a symbolic gesture, offering Christ's peace to our neighbor. When exchanging this Peace, let the figurative "neighbor" become the literal "neighbor." The Rite should not be an extended greeting to everyone around us.
  9. In the Eucharist we receive the Body and Blood of Christ; communion with our God in union with our fellow man. It is just this unity which is expressed in the Communion Hymn. How many of us ignore both this song and the other members of the community in a sort of private, "I-don't-want-to-get-involved" attitude? Proper planning of Communion time by musicians should allow moments of quiet reflection and also time for corporate praise. Congregations should respect these times.
  10. The singing celebrant is himself a symbol of the participation encouraged for the people. The priest who does not sing at least the Opening and Closing Songs and the Mass responses promotes poor liturgy and because of his example, need never expect his congregation to fully participate in the liturgy. Over-amplifying his voice in a microphone is the other (equally disastrous) extreme.

We must avoid teaching our children a sterile, lecture hall image of the liturgy. Signs and symbols clothe the Mass in rich meanings which otherwise may go overlooked or unheeded. "Convenience" is a term which infects many aspects of our daily life. Will it also strip us of our Catholic identity?

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