Pourqoui la liturgie de l’Église ennuie-t-elle tant de fidèles ?
Question: Why does the Church’s liturgy bore some priests and laymen so much that they feel obliged to make it more attractive by introducing their own gimmicks and commentary?
Response: For many, the liturgy is boring because they no longer know what it is and hence do not see it as much more than a Sunday activity where they must exercise their liberty of expression. This mistake is the root of the entire problem.
The desire for liberty of expression that seems to dominate the liturgy these days shows that the faithful seek a sincere expression of their faith, an expression not limited by pre-established frameworks. Such frameworks would pose an obstacle to a spiritual development that cannot flourish by sticking to a route marked out with rites and practices of another age.
For many, the more the rites demanded by the Church penetrate the most personal sphere of the believer—where he establishes an intimate relationship with God—the more onerous they seem. Few understand that the liturgy given by the Church is actually much more than a sort of “highway regulation” that helps the Sunday assembly avoid, as far as possible, running off road or crashing. The liturgy is concerned with the interior development of the believer, establishing how he must view and shape his liberty. This is why the liturgy first demands discipline and renunciations from each believer—lay or clerical.
Is it not perhaps true that the narrowness of all the rites and ceremonies that structure the liturgy block a route that leads to a much wider horizon? Doesn’t the spiritual freedom of each believer who comes to Mass imply that he should be able to escape the domination of certain liturgical rules that are at times burdensome and abstruse? Doesn’t reinforcing an authentic faith require a flexibility that gives greater liberty to the faithful when they come together to celebrate the Eucharist?
The bitterness that some feel towards the Church’s liturgy also has another origin. In a world ruled by inexorable limitations, many come to Church thinking that Sunday Mass should be a small oasis of freedom to which anyone can retire to express his faith freely in a welcoming atmosphere. The liturgy must therefore be the place and moment where, even for an instant, the dream of a better world can come true. By participating in Mass, one wishes to savor in it the taste of freedom, the feeling of being free, of being outside the cave St. Gregory talked about, referring to Plato.
But since the Church’s liturgy does not exactly give us the well-being we dream about, we seek to make it what we want it to be: the place where all freedoms can be expressed, the place where all our limits are torn down and where we can express our dream of a better Church: a fully human Church, with a sense of fraternity and generous creativity, a Church that is the home of reconciliation of everything and for everyone, a Church where the Word is lived. Thinking such thoughts, many priests and bishops say, “Let us always begin by proposing something new… Let us dare to do it!” And, often, this “let us dare” is said with all the naïve presumption of the soul that thinks itself enlightened and is persuaded that previous generations failed properly to grasp the problem. Or that they were too timorous and ill-advised. We, on the other hand, we finally have the courage and the intelligence. Well then, whatever the resistance that “rigid spirits” might pose to the noble enterprise of creating more “authentic” and “liberating” celebrations, we will implement, somehow or other, our ideas about the liturgy.
The followers of this new way of treating the liturgy—and there are many of them these days!—criticize the Church for not knowing how to integrate the right to liberty extolled by the Age of Enlightenment and later recognized as a fundamental right. Thus, is seems appropriate to begin by showing the way leading toward this fundamental right to liberty.
This path must lead away from a reassuring ritualized liturgy towards living and variegated celebrations thought up by communities where no one will any longer be satisfied with receiving passively the things that make one a “responsible and adult Christian.” Each one will have to become an active player in his Christian life and that of others. The liturgy will no longer come from above, oh no! The local community, which “forms Church” during its Sunday assembly, will think up “its” ways of celebrating, ways that will always be new, changing from Sunday to Sunday, from parish to parish, in an “evolutionary” fashion.
Only thus will the Church’s ossified liturgy be progressively replaced by “our” original ways of celebrating through which the faithful will, at last, be able to feel they are active and responsible actors.
The passive will therefore have to give way to the active. One clearly sees that today in most parishes the liturgy is formed by debates, agreements, and decisions. During these “team discussions”, it is agreed to keep the minimum ritual that is still required, a minimum that is still recognized today by all as belonging to the faith and being a useful guideline. But as for the community, it must also express itself. Nevertheless, on this path to self-realization, Scripture sometimes shows itself to be an obstacle. In that case, since it is impossible to do away with it, one takes advantage of the great variety of translations and interpretations.
But this “liturgical re-creation”, where at the very heart of the Church democratic-style self-governance replaces authority, soon gives rise to certain questions: who has the right to make the decisions? On what grounds? With regards to the liturgy itself, there is an even greater problem: if everything is transitory, what men do today runs the risk of being undone by men tomorrow. Whatever a majority decides can be abrogated by another majority. And all that arises from human taste might easily be displeasing to certain people. And so, a liturgy created by group decisions, by a “team,” is a purely human liturgy: the celebration is reduced to the level of what is feasible and reasonable, of everything that arises from personal actions, intuitions, and opinions. Opinion thus comes to replace faith. Indeed, in these spontaneous expressions of faith found in so many religious songs enjoying ephemeral success, the expression “I believe” never means anything beyond “we think” or even “our liturgical team thinks”.
Liturgies that we make up inevitably end up savouring of a “we ourselves” that, quickly revealing its own narrowness, is never agreeable to other “we ourselves.” These celebrations restrict themselves to the realm of the empirical, and the ideal they thought they represented quickly becomes blurred like a mirage.
At that point, the liturgical question splits the faithful up into “activists” who constitute the “faction” opposed to that of the “admirers”: the “activists” restrict the celebration to the dimensions of their own reason and thus entirely lose sight of the dimension of the mystery being celebrated, the very dimension sought by the “admirers”.
In the liturgy, the more the “activist” enlarges the realm of things he himself has decided and put into practice, the more he makes the celebrations stifling and impoverishing for all. He has simply forgotten an essential thing: the grandeur and ability to liberate that a liturgical celebration has does not come from what we are able to do ourselves, but from that which is given unto us, by what does not come from our own will and creativity, but on the contrary, from that which is “bigger than our own heart”, from what precedes us and comes to us to lead us much further than we could ever imagine.
The liturgy necessary for our time, therefore, is not one that we can indefinitely remodel according to “our” way of celebrating the Eucharist, reinventing it at will and without end. We must take down our own constructions and leave room for the liturgy of the Church, which is the reflection of the eternal celestial liturgy and fills our souls with pure liberty. This is what an “admirer” is able to grasp, be it intuitively or because he has taken up the habit of only frequenting the liturgy as it is given by the Church.
To better grasp the principle that allows us to taste and love the liturgy received by the Tradition of the Church, we pick up the metaphor of the sculptor proposed by Cardinal Ratzinger.
“With an artist’s eye,” wrote Cardinal Ratzinger, “Michelangelo already saw within the block of stone he had before him the masterpiece secretly waiting to come to light and be freed. According to him, the task of the artist was only to remove that which still covered the image. Michelangelo understood that the true artistic act was to bring something to light and freedom, not to produce something. The same idea, applied to the human realm, is already found in St Bonaventure, who, basing himself upon the metaphor of the sculptor, explains the way by which man becomes authentically himself. The sculptor does not do anything, says the great Franciscan theologian. His work is rather an ablatio: it consists in eliminating and removing what is inauthentic. Thus, through an ablatio emerges the nobilis forma, the precious form. Likewise man, in order that the image of God may shine in him, must above all and first of all receive that purification by which the sculptor—i.e. God—frees him from all the dross that obscures the true appearance of his being and makes him seem like a crude block of stone, while in reality the divine form dwells within him.”
This image allows us better to appreciate how the liturgy must be understood and treated in order to be loved and no longer be boring. We must not “do”; we must “eliminate”. We must remove everything from our celebrations that comes only from our own creativity, so that the nobilis forma of the liturgy might come into view, with its specific style that makes it a reflection of the heavenly liturgy. This ablatio, this “negative liturgy” is the only way that leads to an absolute positive: only by taking this path will the Divine in Whose name the assembly is constituted penetrate within us, through the liturgy. In this parish community, no “I” will be opposed to another “I”, no “self” to another “self”, and the ability to give oneself up in full confidence—that which is proper to love—allows for the welcoming all that is Beautiful, Good, and True.
Only the people in such an assembly will truly appreciate that admirable statement of the “prodigal” Father reminding his jealous eldest son of the basis of all liberty and of all dreams come true: “All which is mine is yours…” (Lk 15, 31; cf. Jn 17, 10).
An authentic liturgy consequently arises from an ablatio that becomes the basis of the congregatio and the source of the ecclesia.
Let us try to better grasp this idea. Above we have suggested an opposition between the “admirer” and the “activist” and we have expressed our preference for the former. But what is the meaning of such an opposition and such a choice?
In the liturgy, the “activist”, he who always wants to “do”, places his own activity above everything. He thereby limits his horizon to the realm of the feasible, of that which can become the object of “his” action. Strictly speaking, in the liturgy he only sees objects, gestures, words, and rites. He is unable to perceive that which is greater than himself, since such a horizon would limit his own activity. Thus, he restricts the liturgy to what can be experienced, and in the end this transforms liturgical celebrations into prisons against which, in turn, he himself will protest vociferously.
The “admirer” on the other hand stands firmly athwart anything that might limit the liturgy to the empirical realm. The “admirer” is awe-struck, and his awe disposes him to an act of faith which opens up for him a great horizon towards the Eternal and the Infinite. The “admirer” realizes that only the unlimited—and not the empirical—is sufficiently grand for human nature, because only the unlimited suits the vocation of each of the faithful. When this unlimited horizon disappears, any liberations one might propose through “festive” and “convivial” celebrations seem an ever insufficient and insipid substitute.
This ablatio, an ever-new act of faith, is what allows us to love and understand the sense of the liturgy received from the Church. It makes us realize that the liturgy, with its rites, can lead us far: to a “spacious place” as the psalms say. If we refuse this ablatio, then we condemn ourselves to a liturgical pragmatism that leads us away from God and withers up our souls. A merely pragmatic liturgy that responds, for instance, to a pastoral project can certainly allow us to reach many things; nonetheless, we will ultimately be stuck because the frontier imposed by the quantitative and the feasible will never be breached.
The fundamental liberation the Church’s liturgy can give us when it is celebrated as it should be is to place us before the horizon of the Eternal and allow us to escape from the limitations of our knowledge and our power.
The liturgy has no need to be reformed, improved, and adapted in order to be “interesting” and “captivating”: we are the ones that need to be corrected, repaired, and transformed. How? By agreeing to enter into the celebration not of our feelings but of the faith of the Church in all its glory. That is what the liturgy needs in order to become passionate, entrancing, and enriching! Celebrating the liturgy is in no way an “ecclesiastical therapy” consisting in embracing one’s ailment in a vain attempt to make the Sunday Eucharist more interesting.
We do not need a liturgy adapted to our capacities, but a liturgy that is more divine. Only then will our celebrations be truly human.
Within the Church, the atmosphere becomes alarming and suffocating when ministers forget that the sacrament did not emanate from their own powers, but rather comes from their self-renunciation in favour of Him in Whose name they speak and act. When an ever more important responsibility—that of the minister of the altar—corresponds to an ever greater personal self-renunciation, then no one will be enslaved to anyone: then the Lord Himself will preside and then will St Paul’s principle apply: “Now the Lord is a Spirit. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17).
The more we make up Masses intended to please us, however modern they might be, the less space there will be for the Spirit and the Lord, and so the less freedom there will be for the faithful within the celebration. In fact, the point of the liturgy is not to interest us like any old earthly activity, it is rather to give each of the faithful access to eternal life. The liturgy is not just the product of little teams of activists that get together to make up new ways of celebrating. Neither is the liturgy the product of those who get together on Sundays to celebrate the Eucharist. The liturgy is only the product of men of all times and places whose hearts, full of hope and love, turn towards Christ, Who is “the author and finisher of faith”, as the epistle to the Hebrews reminds us (12:2). From them do we receive the liturgy in its full extent and it will speak to us and interest us from the moment we approach it not by seeking to do something but by entering into this process of ablatio—renunciation of self—by which God removes all the dross that obscures His image as much as our own.
Denis Crouan has a Ph.D in theology and teaches literature and history in Colmar. He is also an organist and choir-master. Since 1988, he has been president of Pro Liturgia, an international association that promotes the correct celebration of the post-Conciliar liturgy.