“Good Liturgy” and “What I’m Used To”

I sometimes hear a parish described as having “good liturgy.” What I have discovered is that this means different things to different people, from splendid choirs and beautiful vestments to robust congregational singing and use of homemade bread for the Eucharist. In academic settings, I have generally found that what counts as “good liturgy” often corresponds to a particular theoretical stance regarding the nature and purpose of liturgy, or a certain reading of the history of the liturgy. “Good liturgy” means something different to someone who sees the 13th century as a period of liturgical decadence compared to one who sees it as the full flowing of the liturgy’s organic development.

Outside of an academic context, however, “good liturgy” often amounts to “what I’m used to.” In other words, people are drawn to rituals that they have come to feel at home with and which have become meaningful to them. Whether this is “Eagles Wings” being sung at every funeral or the prayer to St. Michael being said at the end of every Mass, people see as good those rituals which have shaped their lives and given them meaning. And I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing.

What I think is sometimes under-appreciated is the connection between repetition over time and something being “meaningful.” Let me give an example.

I have been a Roman Catholic for a little over forty years. For the first thirty-eight or so of those years I could count on my two hands (and maybe a couple of toes) the number of times I heard the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I) used in the liturgy. I didn’t particularly feel as if I were missing something. Not only is it difficult to miss something you’ve only rarely experienced, but my amateur interest in liturgical history and theology had schooled me to think that the Canon was an inferior product, confused in structure, unbalanced in theology, and clogged with the detritus of liturgical history. In short, it did not constitute “good liturgy.”

I thought it was acceptable that it had been retained in the reformed liturgy largely unchanged, since it was a vital part of our heritage, but this was a thoroughly theoretical level of appreciation. On the rare occasions that I heard it used I was quite distracted by its oddness compared to the new Eucharistic prayers: the lack of any mention of the Spirit apart from the doxology, the strange way in which the intercessions were “wrapped” around the institution narrative, the repeated (almost nagging) pleas that God would accept our sacrifice, the long lists of sometimes obscure saints. I thought of it as something like an intricately embroidered fiddleback chasuble that a parish might possess. You could trot it out on occasion, but its archaic character and overall weirdness made it something that no right thinking person would want to use on a regular basis.

A couple of years ago there was a change of priestly leadership at the church I serve as a deacon and suddenly the Roman Canon was cropping up a lot more often—as in, most Sundays. The rationale for this was the statement in GIRM §365: “the Roman Canon… is especially suited for use on Sundays…” Hearing it twice every weekend had the effect on me of not only reducing its oddness, but of making some of its supposed vices seem like virtues: the long lists of saints becomes a widening of the circle of those gathered at the altar; the repeated pleas for acceptance of our offering convey a sense that nothing we offer God is in any obvious way worthy of divine acceptance; the central place of the institution narrative amidst all that pleading reminds us of what we offer and why we dare to offer it. Though the relative absence of the Spirit from the Eucharistic prayer still seems strange, I have begun to see that the Roman Canon has its own kind of logic, focused less on the descent of the Spirit on our gifts and more on our sacrifice being raised to the heavenly altar and joined to that of Christ. In short, by repetition the very things that had seemed archaic and weird to me have begun to make sense. I have come to feel at home with them.

This, of course, is simply how ritual works. We do not engage in rituals because they make sense, but rituals make sense because we habitually engage in them. The point of ritual is to convey a mystery that is not subject to the kind of neat, linear account that reason can give. There is at least a partial truth in the claim of the anthropologist Frits Staal, “ritual is pure activity, without meaning or goal” (“The Meaninglessness of Ritual,” Neumen 26/1 (1976), 9). That is, ritual is not a symbolic expression of a non-symbolic idea, nor a means of attaining some aim beyond itself. Of course, a Christian could never completely embrace such a view, since the Roman Canon itself prays that God would make our ritual offering rationabilem. But it does seem to me the case that what makes a liturgical action or text “good liturgy” is not its correspondence to an idea or its suitability to a purpose outside itself, but its capacity, when repeated over time, to generate meaning. I feel, for example, that my understanding of ritual sacrifice has been deepened by my repeated praying of the Roman Canon in the context of the liturgy, and that this is a kind of understanding that could not be had simply by having an idea explained to me.

I think a legitimate criticism of the liturgical reforms after the Second Vatican Council, a criticism made at the time by anthropologists like Victor Turner and Mary Douglas, is that they were too much based on theological accounts of what is going on in the sacraments, or on historical narratives of how the sacraments developed, and not enough on an appreciation of the way in which ritual is not simply reflective of meaning but generative of it. A deeper appreciation of how “what I am used to” might be a factor in what constitutes “good liturgy” might have made the reformers a bit more cautious about eliminating rituals deemed “meaningless,” such as the use of salt at baptism or repeating “Lord I am not worthy” three times at the invitation to communion.

Is this to say that we cannot employ reason to distinguish between “good liturgy” and “bad liturgy” or that liturgical rites should never be reformed? Not at all. But it might shift somewhat our criteria for such judgments. Any reform of the liturgy to ensure that it retains its character as rationabilem has to appreciate the resistance of ritual to rational reduction. It must also be careful about the way that novelty can undermine the power of ritual. For what constitutes “good liturgy” is not determined by a theory or a historical account, but rather by what, through repetition over time, habituates us in such a way that we can see ever more deeply into the mystery we celebrate.






22 responses to ““Good Liturgy” and “What I’m Used To””

  1. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

    While I celebrate the so-called Reformed Mass the majority of the time, I also celebrate the TLM regularly but a limited amount of the time. I can’t imagine anyone, priest or laity describing the TLM as good, mediocre or poor liturgy, although they might praise the brevity of the homily and the quality of the chanting. Hymnody selected by the choir director or a committee or a grieving family for a Requiem doesn’t figure into it as hymns aren’t sung except maybe at the recessional. As it concerns the evaluation of the Reformed Mass, what qualifies as good, mediocre or poor liturgy varies according to the individual. It is fiercely individualistic and usually based on congregational participation, hymn choices, the personality and style of the priest and who does what, especially within the context of inclusivity. In other words, the evaluation of the Reformed Liturgy is all over the place as is the manner of celebrating it as to what constitutes good or bad liturgy.

  2. William Frederick deHaas Avatar
    William Frederick deHaas

    Thanks, Fritz – many of your points and experiences reflect mine and your explanation made me think – thank you (esp. Eucharistic Prayer I – very influenced by Jungmann)

    Per the first commenter – yes, I can personally say that the TLM is both mediocre and poor liturgy….if anything, it points out a limitation in Fritz’s point that repetition may influence you to say *good liturgy*. I can agree with his final paragraph as it pertains only to the *Reformed* Mass – comparing TLM to Reformed moves this conversation to another level and respectfully say that repetition does not impact that consideration.

    Fritz – hope other commenters stick to your post and not go down a rabbit hole to the TLM.

  3. Daniel McGuire Avatar
    Daniel McGuire

    Here is another way of looking at “good” or “bad” liturgy. Instead of what makes people happy/comfortable; what gives praise and honor to God as the central focus? Neither the choir nor the celebrant ought to be the focus. Is the sacrifice of Calvary supposed to make us comfortable or to transform us?

  4. Todd Flowerday Avatar
    Todd Flowerday

    “What I think is sometimes under-appreciated is the connection between repetition over time and something being ‘meaningful.’”

    Isn’t this nearly always a function of local implementation and celebration? Where we are at the mercy, more or less, of pastors and liturgy people?

    It was a post-conciliar inpulse that settled liturgical reform on the ground into some positive developments: sung Mass settings consistently repeated over stretches of time, singing the Psalm, dispensing with the indulgence of the “new song of the week,” and the like.

    You and I recognize EP 1, but the repetition for the ordinary Catholic is likely the long narrative before Communion, regardless of how long it is. Yes, the saints; listings are impressive, but for me, certain phrases were what I noticed as a pleasant repeat (“Fountain of holiness” and “From east to west” and “no longer for ourselves.”) that indicated what prayer was engaged.

    Good liturgy doesn’t call attention to itself, either with repeated innovation or a mindless autopilot.

    1. Fritz Bauerschmidt Avatar
      Fritz Bauerschmidt

      Todd, I suspect all the EPs are experienced by many (most?) as the long narrative before Communion, with maybe a phrase or two standing out. I don’t want to go back to the silent canon, but I can kind of see why no one objected when it happened.

      1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
        Karl Liam Saur

        Especially since that development happened during the age when Latin and its vernacular Romance progeny were moving in different directions.

      2. Todd Flowerday Avatar
        Todd Flowerday

        Another thought on the use of EP 1 … For a priest who chooses it most Sundays, it will be about 10-25% of his Masses, but most of the Masses for most of his parishioners. I know people bemoan not hearing it, but I can’t really recall a pastor in my last thirty-some years who didn’t use it on major feasts at the very least. Of course, these guys were hiring a liturgist, so … it would seem that clergy who care about good liturgy tend to utilize it, regardless of how progressive they might be or might style themselves.

  5. Jeff Armbruster Avatar
    Jeff Armbruster

    “We do not engage in rituals because they make sense, but rituals make sense because we habitually engage in them. The point of ritual is to convey a mystery that is not subject to the kind of neat, linear account that reason can give…”

    Wonderfully put. I might elaborate by saying that the sense, the meaning of the Mass in particular isn’t simply conceptual. We are being made over, and it takes time. Hence, the necessity of repetition. Being made over IS the meaning.

    For me, the great–indispensable–advantage of V2 is that it brings priests and parishioners together into this great work of transformation. Yes, it’s wonderful to sing Marian hymns and others in Latin. The entire Mass, in Latin, with most struggling to follow along at best, or merely giving up and falling into their own separate thoughts…? No.

  6. Edward Hamer Avatar
    Edward Hamer

    It’s lovely to hear from you again Fritz. My only addition would be to say that it’s good when a particular priest in a particular place keeps things consistent across Masses, to help people form the familiarity and sense of meaning which, as you say, comes with repetition. There are times when I feel very much in need of saying the confetior and am already mentally entering into it only to hear the priest say “You were sent to call sinners – Lord have mercy”, and it’s like tripping over my own feet.

    1. fr. Jack Feehily Avatar
      fr. Jack Feehily

      There are three forms of the penitential act in the Missal. The one employing the “I Confess” prayer is one of them. But forms B (the shortest and almost never used) and C reflect the fact that the penitential act is intended to be a prayer of praise to God for his great mercy. I have read that Form C is the most frequently used. The selection of these differing forms is left to the discretion of the celebrant. There are some parishes, however, in which the celebrant always chooses Form A. An occasional departure from this by another celebrant may be a little jarring, but easily adjusted to.

      I seldom, if ever, choose form A because its wording makes it appear to be a form of the sacrament of penance. This form was taken from the old prayers at the foot of the altar which took place right before Mass began in the TLM.

      1. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

        I personally like the first and second options because it allows the Kyrie to remain “freestanding” and independent of the Penitential Act. Unfortunately the second option is seldom chosen. The third option in the American Roman Missal allows for additional options or “tropes” in the appendix of the Missal, but these too are seldom used. Worse yet, are made-up tropes that are like an examination of conscience and foreign to the Mass in any form. The greater problem, though, is a form of clericalism where the choice to use or not use a particular option allowed in the Missal is the priest’s sole decision based upon flawed or valid ideologies about the Mass. I think the freestanding Kyrie should never be omitted if some other “rite” precedes it, such as the Rite of Blessing and sprinkling of Holy Water. In the ancient Mass, technically the Mass did not begin “officially” until the Introit was recited or chanted then followed immediately by the Kyrie. The Kyrie by itself is indeed a prayer of praise to God and not penitential. But having a Penitential Act, such as “A” and “B” is precisely that, a Penitential Act.

      2. Anthony Hawkins Avatar
        Anthony Hawkins

        For me the most troubling feature of the “penitential act” is the annotation on the prayer which ends it “The absolution by the priest follows”. In the 1570 this was attached to a subsequent prayer, which was droppped, retaining the rubric and attaching it to a prayer said in the 1570 by the servers seems not just totally bizarre, but perniciously misleading. I sometimes wonder whether it has had an importrant influence on the decline in Confession/Reconciliation.

  7. Anthony Hawkins Avatar
    Anthony Hawkins

    It’s usually a mistake to say, of the NO, that option X is almost never used. My own geographically very limited experience is that all options are used, though not every option by every celebrant.
    In particular, I have heard every adult EP used on a Sunday, including the options in the Appendices, by careful choice for relevance and/or solemnity.. And I know celebrants who normally choose among the troped Kyries, again for relevance.

    1. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

      The troped Kyries are problematic from the point of view of making the Kyrie a part of the Penitential act as the “absolution” follows it. Whereas when the Kyrie is “freestanding” it follows the “absolution” and is the act of praise for God’s mercy which Fr. Feehily describes.

  8. Alan Johnson Avatar
    Alan Johnson

    If the Kyrie is an act of praise, why is it worded as a plea for mercy? What is it that I am not “getting?”

    1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur

      Because the terrain, as it were, of God’s mercy is much vaster than just the forgiveness of sins for which we have expressed repentance, vast as that alone is. The Kyrie is a act of agency on our part, uniting ourselves to the will of Divine Providence.

      PS: The Confiteor has a explicit dimension that is also easily overlooked – we expressly ask for the prayers of our fellow congregants in our struggles with our particular sinfulness, and, therefore, also should be praying for our fellow congregants’ struggles with their respective particular sinfulness. It’s an eminently communitarian prayer and should not be treated as if it were an awkward piece of liturgical furniture left over from the preconciliar era.

    2. Chuck Middendorf Avatar
      Chuck Middendorf

      This is when I feel blessed to work at a majority African American parish for several years. “Lord have mercy” now rings differently in my ears. Everything from “My this food is delicious: Lord have mercy!” to “Jane got accepted into her preferred school: Lord have mercy!” to hundreds of other situations. I now hear “Lord have mercy!” as an expression of praise, as much as a plea for mercy.
      And it’s not unique to African Americans.

  9. Anthony Hawkins Avatar
    Anthony Hawkins

    “eleos” is used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew “chesed”. Modern translations frequently translate this as “loving kindness” where older translations employ “mercy”. It is the key concept of God;s unquenchable love for creation in general and each person in particular. “eleison” was not translated into Latin for our liturgy but left in Greek, but it is more to do with “misericordia”, tenderness of heart, than with a plea for mercy.
    I don;t think any of the ancient tropes after which the Kyries are named contains a plea for mercy, they like the modern options are in praise of God;s loving action.

    1. Alan Johnson Avatar
      Alan Johnson

      Maybe the English should be re-translated to better express the meaning of the Greek.

    2. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur

      Or perhaps we just need to remember that mercy is more than just forgiveness.

  10. Scott Knitter Avatar
    Scott Knitter

    We’ve occasionally had a bit of this confusion when we’ve got a priest or acolyte whose personal piety moves them to bow their heads during the Kyrie. One Sunday just before Mass started, an assisting priest asked, “Oh, aren’t we bowing at the Kyrie anymore?” The celebrant suggested we’re about to start Mass and should plan to discuss the question later, but the answer is no, and bowing there has never been prescribed or even mentioned in liturgical manuals. It was never a thing, let alone a thing that has fallen away.

    1. Paul Inwood Avatar
      Paul Inwood

      That’s the kind of thing that some (but not all) Anglicans do. Some who have become Catholic don’t realize that it’s not part of RC practice.

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