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The Liturgy Is More than a Text

Kent G Becker

Msgr. Charles Pope - Archdiocese of Washington - published on 07/31/14

Perhaps it's time to rediscover a wider understanding of Sacred Liturgy.

One of the greatest liturgical shifts in the last 60 years has been in the area of language and the spoken word. The almost complete disappearance of Latin is to be lamented, but the use of the vernacular has arguably produced many positive effects. The augmentation of the Scriptures used has also been notable and helpful. In addition, greater emphasis has been placed on preaching and preparing the clergy to preach well.

Great controversy and debate have accompanied these changes. The earliest debates concentrated on the use of Latin vs. the vernacular. Other debates centered on the nature of the Homily (or was it to be called a sermon?): its length, its content, and whether it should be rooted in the Scripture readings or catechetical themes. Almost everyone agreed that Catholic preaching was rather poor. The most recent debates surrounded a twenty-year struggle in English-speaking lands to get authentic translations of the Latin texts promulgated. All of this emphasis and debate on the texts of the Liturgy may well have been necessary and had good effects.

However, this focus on the texts has tended to reduce the Liturgy to its texts alone. Other areas such as architectural and aesthetic beauty, music, the ars celebrandi (the manner in which the clergy and ministers conduct themselves in the liturgy), and deeper theological understanding and appreciation of the Liturgy have all suffered. To some extent, we have reduced the Mass to the proclamation of a text. To many, it seems to matter little if the building is awful, the music is poor, or the meaning of the Liturgy arcane. Just make sure that the priests and others pronounce the text well, that it is intelligible, that the acoustics are good, and that the Homily is “meaningful.”

Perhaps a quote from Uwe Michael Lang would be helpful here:

The sacred liturgy speaks through a variety of “languages” other than language in the strict sense. [These are] non-verbal symbols which are capable of creating a structure of meanings in which individuals can relate one to another… It is my conviction that these non-linguistic or symbolic expressions of the liturgy are, in fact, more important than language itself.

This would seem especially pertinent in today’s world where images are omnipresent: on TV, video and computer screens … We live in a culture of images … Today the image tends to make a more lasting impression on people’s minds than the spoken word.

The power of image has long been known in the Church’s liturgical tradition, which has used sacred art and architecture as a medium of expression and communication.
But, in more recent times [there is] observed a tendency to see liturgy only as text. And to limit participation to speaking roles … It certainly applies to a broad stream of liturgical scholarship that has largely focused on liturgical texts that are contained in written sources from late antiquity and the early Middle Ages … This approach is legitimate, at least to a large extent, because the Church’s public worship is ordered to the official texts she uses for it.


However … it is sometimes forgotten that the liturgy is not simply a series of texts to be read, but rather a series of sacred actions to be done … words, music, and movement, together with other visual, even olfactory elements. (Quoted in Sacred Liturgy: The Proceedings of the International Conference on the Sacred Liturgy 2013, Ignatius Press, pp. 187-189.)


Lang goes on to affirm the preoccupation with texts
(developing them, translating them, and giving recognition to them) I note above.
Necessary? Sure. But
things have gotten a bit out of balance and it is time to focus more on other aspects of the Liturgy for a while. Even a text translated authentically and well delivered can fall flat in an atmosphere of sloppy liturgy, ugly and uninspiring buildings, and poor music. And thus we do well to spend some time now on visual and other non-verbal aspects.

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