Celebrating the liturgy

Question: Pope John Paul II wrote in 2003: “I consider it my duty therefore to appeal urgently that the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist be observed with great fidelity. [Liturgical] norms are a concrete expression of the authentically ecclesial nature of the Eucharist” (“On the Eucharist and Its Relationship to the Church,” No. 52). He also said that, “Every Catholic has a right to an authentic liturgy.” 

Are these statements meant to get rid of abuses in the liturgy, including priests and ministers calling attention to themselves? 

— Name and address withheld

Answer: What Pope John Paul II meant by these and similar statements is that the liturgy belongs to the whole Church and is not the possession of any group or individual. Bishops, priests and deacons (and indeed all those who serve in lay liturgical roles) should not see the liturgy as something they perform for the people in the manner of an actor pouring his or her personal creativity into a drama, adapting it or molding it to fit personal tastes and dispositions. 

The liturgy is first and foremost Christ acting sacramentally for the salvation of the world. All the prayers, rites and symbols of the liturgy are expressions of Christ’s living action in the midst of his people. Christ is the primary actor in the liturgy. Both ordained and lay ministers who act in the liturgy are servants of Christ, who is head of the liturgical assembly. They must, therefore, have a certain self-effacing quality so that their personal qualities and personalities do not intrude upon the liturgy and become centers of attention. 

Above all, priest-celebrants are called to carry out the liturgy accurately, precisely and without deviations, additions or subtractions. This may sound to some like I am promoting rigidity and rubricism (the excessive attention to ritual detail), but I am not. I am talking about careful, prayerful and conscientious service of the liturgy. 

When the priest fails in this matter, there is created a new form of clericalism in the liturgy. The clericalism of the “old” days took the form of priestly inattention to the congrega-tion and the celebration of the liturgy as if the congregation did not exist or was at best marginal. 

The new forms of clericalism have many expressions: priestly showmanship, joking, ad-libbing, self-referencing, multiple homilies, inappropriate introductions of people and the like. These are all intended to assist the people with participation in the Mass, but they actually marginalize the congregation by creating an atmosphere in which the whole center of attention is on the priest. 

When Pope John Paul II spoke about the “authentically ecclesial nature of the Eucharist,” he had in mind the truth that the liturgy belongs to the whole Church and is not owned by any group — including the clergy. The liturgy is the work of Christ, of the angels and saints, of the holy men and women of all ages, of our parents and ancestors. Every local celebration takes place in union with the whole Church on earth. Every particular Mass is celebrated in continuity with all the Masses of history. And every Mass is a participation in the eternal liturgy of heaven, and a prefigurement of the Supper of the Lamb at the end of time. 

Pope Benedict XVI, long before he was even pope, also warned about the introduction of novelties and initiatives that offend against the truth that the liturgy belongs to the whole Church. 

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.