By Deacon Frank Agnoli
The publication of the third edition of the Roman Missal provides a great opportunity for each diocese, parish, and individual Catholic to grow in their love for — and knowledge of — the liturgy. As we prepare for the new missal, we will, of course, need to talk about the changes in language (as we did in the first series of articles that we published on the missal in 2009).
But we also need to talk about the basics that perhaps we’ve forgotten or just come to take for granted: Why it is that we gather for liturgy? What it is that we’re doing when we do gather? How might we enter more fully, consciously and actively into the mystery that we are celebrating? After all, while some of the words of the Mass are changing, the structure of the Mass itself is not.
Encounter – Transformation – Sacrifice
Theologian David Fagerberg refers to the liturgy as the “trysting place of God,” the privileged place where God the lover meets his beloved, the Church (that is, all of us). Our teachings remind us that, in addition to the Eucharist, Christ is present to us in the minister, the assembly, and the proclaimed word. So, it is fair to say that liturgy is about encounter, about coming face to face with the God who loves and saves us.
If we are truly present, how can we not be changed by such an encounter? Of course, such transformation takes time; the liturgy has to soak into our bones. By our sharing in the liturgy, we become more and more like Christ.
As we receive, with gratitude, the gift of Christ’s presence — the gift of God’s love and grace — we are invited to respond with our own return-gift of love. That’s what “sacrifice” means for a Christian: not “giving up” something and not trying to appease an angry god, but offering a loving response to being loved first. After all, to love is to die … to die to our selfishness … to die for the sake of the other, God and neighbor. To love is to die, yes; but to die is to live. That’s Christ’s paschal mystery in a nutshell. That’s the truth that soaks into us at Mass.
God is faithful; Christ will be present to us in the liturgy for so God has promised. But liturgy isn’t magic. We can, by our attitudes and actions, facilitate or obstruct the encounter God offers to us, the gift of Christ’s real presence in word, sacrament and in each other.
We can choose to participate fully in the liturgy, with our whole being. Catholic worship uses all of our senses: colors mark the seasons, art draws us to the transcendent, music gives voice to our worship, incense and burning candles echo our silent prayers, oil ministers a healing touch, bread and wine reveal God-with-us. We kneel and stand and sit, we process, we dip our hands in holy water and cross ourselves, we genuflect and we reach out in a sign of peace. Our whole bodies are part of our prayer.
We can choose to participate consciously in the liturgy, wrestling with the great Mystery that is being made present to us. We can take the symbols of our worship and the words we say and hear with utmost seriousness. We can read and pray and study on our own.
We can choose to participate actively in the liturgy by singing, by making our responses, by our silences, and, especially, by opening our hearts. For some, this might also mean taking on a special ministerial role in the liturgy; but — as the baptized — we need to keep in mind that our primary ministry is to pray the Mass.
As members of the assembly, we can work on letting go of those predispositions that make it harder for us to take part in the liturgy — our individualism, our hunger for novelty, our almost reflexive rejection of authority, our desire to be entertained. Do we have a sense that we are surrounded and infused with God’s grace? Do we embrace mystery and metaphor; are we open to imagination and beauty? Are we receptive, humble, and grateful?
As ministers, we can do better, too — for, while God is faithful, we can make it easier or harder for others to encounter Christ. Do we understand our own roles and ministries? Do we allow the people of God to see Christ through us, or do we make ourselves the center of attention? Do we treat ministry as just something we do, or a reflection of who we are? Do we show reverence and respect by the way we proclaim and pray the texts that the Church has given us, by the way we carry and handle the objects we use, by the way we make our gestures and assume our postures, and by the way we interact with the people themselves? Do we reject efficiency (doing the minimum, taking as little time as possible) as the highest liturgical virtue?
In this series of articles, we will focus on how we might pray the Mass more intentionally, more deeply; how we might help ourselves become more open to what we are doing. We will talk about the various elements within the Mass (such as music and gestures and posture) as well as about how the Mass is put together, its structure and flow. Of course, no series, no book, no lifetime can exhaust the riches of the liturgy. All we can do is scratch the surface.
Each article will include two sidebars: the first will offer reflection questions to help us enter the mystery that we are celebrating more intentionally and the second will focus on the ars celebrandi, offering suggestions to presiders and other liturgical ministers on the art of celebrating liturgy well.
If Pope Paul VI was right that the liturgy is our first school of spirituality, then this is a topic worth returning to again and again.
(Deacon Frank Agnoli is director of liturgy for the Diocese of Davenport.)