I meant to post about Thin-Mints yesterday, but I forgot and can’t bring myself to do it today.  “Musings on Thin-Mints” on Ash Wednesday would be sheer torture– both for the author and her readers.

Instead, we turn our thoughts to liturgical matters.  I received an interesting flyer in the mail the other day.  Apparently when one becomes the campus ministry department at an institution of higher learning, your name goes out on some epidemic mailing list across the globe.  Suddenly I’m getting information on every conference, every foreign mission, and every religious order that has access to paper and mailing labels.

Anyway, this flyer was advertising a conference on “effective liturgy” called “Formed by the Word.”  At first glance, when I just saw “liturgy” and “the Word,” I became interested and gave it a second glace.  That second glance gave me the adjective “effective” preceding “liturgy” and made me a bit skeptical.

But I kept reading.  “Join liturgists, preachers, deacons, campus ministers, catechists, musicians, worshipers, and all those engaged in making liturgy the preachable, teachable moment it is meant to be.”

First red flag: Priests, anyone?  Where was the mention of clergy or the priesthood in that lineup?  “Preachers” … a veiled reference to the priesthood if you’re the type of person who wants to make it a reference to the priesthood.  But if you’re not that type of person, then there’s no offending mention of that misogynist class of intolerant men.

I bit my tongue to stop my cynicism, and in an attempt to be more open-minded about the conference, I opened up the flyer and began to look over the topics.  An interesting selection, varying from a talk connecting the economic crisis and conversion, to a talk on “Dr. King as Preacher” by an undercover nun.  (See, they’re not thinking that preacher equals priest.)

I put the flyer down.  Not because I have a fear of undercover nuns, nor because I’m close-minded (okay, maybe a little) or don’t like Dr. King.  I put it down because there was no true understanding of liturgy.

The underlying motif of the entire brochure was that we as individuals make the liturgy effective.  The brochure pointed out that some liturgical experiences have a greater impact or feeling and questions why this doesn’t happen all  the time.  I feel the need to quote directly so as not to skew their words: “Most liturgy planners, preachers, and celebrants [hey, we’re getting closer to uttering that “priest” word] recall times when all the elements came together to give worship that feel of both transcendent power and deep grounding and relevance.  The readings and music speak directly to the heart, the homily connects powerfully, the ritual signs become visible and effective.  Communion overflows with love, everyone leaves church moved to tell others what they have experienced.” 

First, I’m not sure what they mean by ritual signs becoming visible and effective, but I’d like to venture to say that the “ritual signs” become effective at every Mass, regardless of our feeling or experience.  Christ comes down on to the altar regardless of how warm and fuzzy that homily might have made us feel.  And I’d also like to say that while Communion is ultimately about love, it ‘s not the love they’re probably thinking of.  It’s a sacrificial union whereby we become an intimate part of the Trinity when we eat Christ’s flesh and drink His blood, the most intimate union possible.  But I’ve already discussed how the modern notion of “communion” is flawed, so I digress.

The fact is, the liturgy is not the property of we as individuals.  While we can do things to screw up the liturgy and we can do things to better prepare for mystery we celebrate, liturgy is ultimately the action of the Church, not me.  To dwell on what we do to make the liturgy effective is putting the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble and is dangerous.

Our liturgical life is a gift from Christ, entrusted to the Church.  The sacraments have been given to us because we are sinful human beings who need help becoming the saints that God created us to be.  In the Garden, Adam and Eve walked with God.  But after the Fall, man lost the divine likeness in his soul.  While we’re still created in His image, we lost His likeness.  So our all-merciful Father gave us the gift of His Son, begotten, not made, the perfect image of the Father.  His Son founded a Church and gave us the seven sacraments– not simply as nice rituals so that we could get presents and eat cake, but as supernatural aids to help us get back to the Garden of Eden– so that we could resume that walk with God. 

The liturgy of the Church, therefore, is not ultimately for us.  It’s been entrusted to the Church so that our sinful natures have a way of communicating with the Divine.  When we complain that we “get nothing out of the Mass,” perhaps we should think about the fact that God has given us a life to which we have no right.  Every millisecond of every day we are what He loves us into being to be.  If for ever a second He stopped loving us, we would stop existing.

So perhaps that one hour a week isn’t about what we’re getting.  Perhaps it’s about what we’re giving, in thanksgiving (eucharistia) for our very heartbeat.

So a conference about “effective” liturgy should perhaps not be worrying about what we can do to “make the visible signs more effective” as if we had some say into what the liturgy was.  This is not to say, of course, that our actions have no part in whether a sacrament is effective.  If we are not prepared to receive the sacraments, they will not be effective in our souls.  St. Thomas reminds us, “The effect of the Sacrament is likewise impeded through the fault of the recipient, for example, if one feigns to receive it and with a heart unprepared to receive it worthily. Such a one, although he actually recieves the Sacrament, does not receive the effect of the Sacrament, that is, the grace of the Holy Spirit.”  So it’s not wrong to look inward and see what we could be doing to better prepare our hearts for Mass, to better examine our conscience for Confession, or better educate ourselves so as to enliven our hearts and minds to receive His truth and grace.

In addition, I’m not saying that priests should not read and study so as to better prepare their homilies so as to help their words “connect powerfully.”  And I’m not dismissing the fact that sinful man can do a lot to mess up the liturgy.  I’m not against a conference to help priests and laity better understand the liturgy so that we are more aware of the mysteries unfolding before our unworthy eyes.  But I think the liturgy is pretty darn effective the way it is, as long as the priest does what he’s supposed to do and the laity do what they’re supposed to do.  The only meeting or conference that’s needed is just a lesson on the rubrics of the missal.

An emphasis on the “we” of liturgy and a de-emphasis on Christ and His Church is a insidious twisting of the very nature of liturgy.  Do you know how often “Christ” is mentioned in that entire brochure?

Never.  Not once.  


Once, when the brochure says the Celebration Conference will ” examine the essential elements of worship and preaching, asking what invites an assembly to hear Good News, to entrust itself to God’s promises and to pray with confidence that its mission will be blessed, especially on behalf of peace and justice.”

That’s it.  And that’s dangerous.  God is not even the topic of that sentence.  Just read it a few times.  Where is the emphasis?  The assembly.  Us.  God is mentioned, but in relation to us.  What He has promised to do for us.  Our mission.   What can we do?

On my fourth glance through the brochure, I thought to look over the schedule of events.  Much to my surprise (I should know better by now, I suppose), never on the schedule is the Divine Liturgy, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  Just an exegesis of lectionary readings or a prayer service with a “dialogue homily.”

And that, folks, says it all.

What can we do?  Listen to Christ.  “Do this in memory of Me.”

Gotcha. With that Church You built on Your Rock?  (Mt 16:18)  Sure thing.