Love for Liturgy, Love for the Church: An Ongoing Dialogue

Editor’s Note: Due to the high interest and lively discussion prompted by Fr. Robert McTeigue’s recent article, “What Many Priests No Longer Believe,” the following two responses have been published to offer additional viewpoints on the challenging topic of liturgical reform.


The Liturgical Problem is an Authority Problem

By Alex Erickson

Recently, Fr. Robert McTeigue, SJ, penned an incisive commentary into the heartbreak which many priests experience over the seeming lack of faith of their parishioners. This lack of faith manifests in, among other things, constant tardiness for Mass, not silencing cell phones, and making a run for the exit as soon as the final hymn starts. These behaviors in turn, so it seems, trace back in part to a milquetoast atmosphere at Mass with dated, boring music and vague, platitudinous homilies.

In light of all this, several commentors repeated a similar refrain: “If we go back to the Latin Mass, we wouldn’t have these problems!” Or, “At my TLM (Traditional Latin Mass) parish, these things never happen.” Although Fr. McTeigue’s article never calls for the TLM as the answer to the problem of “St. Typical’s” (as he calls your average parish mass), many commentors (and traditionalists more generally) seem to think the TLM is the solution the Church needs.

I disagree. I believe this solution is untenable both for theological reasons and also because it ignores the real issue. First: the theology. Implicit in the calls to return to the TLM is a call to reject, if not Vatican II as a whole, at least Vatican II’s call for liturgical reform. This is theologically problematic because ecumenical Councils cannot be undone. Ecumenical Councils are solemn exercises of the magisterium and thus possess the guidance and protection of the Holy Spirit. Just as it doesn’t make sense to say “we should undo the Council of Florence, or the Third Lateran Council,” so it also doesn’t make sense to say “we should undo Vatican II.” While this does not mean that every product of the Council was without flaw, it does mean that Catholics owe their “religious assent of mind and will” to the Council.

This includes an assent to the liturgical reform advocated by the Council. This call for reform was not an invention of the conciliar preparatory committees, but was rather already being advocated by figures such as Dom Lambert Beauduin and others even in the early 1900s. In other words, many within the Church recognized a need for reform of the liturgy, as also evidenced by the overwhelming majority of bishops who voted in favor of the final text of Sacrosanctum Concilium (only 4 voted against it).1 One of the central elements of the Liturgical Movement as a whole and especially Sacrosanctum Concilium was “participatio actuosa,” translated often as “full, conscious, and active participation.”2 Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean a frenetic “doing” of roles. Rather, it involves the totality of the person in joining their hearts, minds, bodies, and voices with the priest in offering the Sacrifice of Christ to the Father, each in His own way.

Many traditionalists point this out as a hallmark of the TLM, namely that the faithful are actively praying the Mass with the priest, rather than just passively observing or mindlessly performing some role. Ironically, this fact arises not from the TLM as such, but precisely from the work of the Liturgical Movement.3 Some might object here that the TLM has more built-in opportunities for silence, and so promotes a more conducive atmosphere for actively praying the Mass. Besides the fact that this is not true for solemn masses where there is constant chanting or music, this built-in silence occurs in the rubrics of the Ordinary Form as well, as Father McTeigue mentions.

This presumes, however, that the priest is familiar with and following the rubrics, which also presumes he has been taught how to celebrate Mass well. These two issues, while distinct, are closely correlated. The reason priests who celebrate the TLM nowadays do so by-the-book and reverently is because they were taught to do so, and they submit themselves to the rubrics and the Church’s wishes. But, if the priest decides (or was taught) that he knows better than the rubrics, or that his bright idea can make the Mass more “appealing,” then there’s nothing to stop him from ignoring the rubrics. No matter how detailed the rubrics, no matter how frequent or precise the bishop’s decrees to deal with abuse, none of that matters if the priest decides to not follow the rubrics.

This, then, is the central issue: the issue of authority and its correlative issue of teaching. Unfortunately, the issue with authority often is learned from the top. The immediate aftermath of Vatican II saw many bishops flagrantly disobeying Church teaching not only on dogmatic and moral matters, but on liturgical matters as well. As Juan Adolfo Laise documents in his book “Communion in the Hand: Documents and History,” communion in the hand was introduced by disobedience and deception on the part of bishops, for example. Add to this the widespread abandonment of Latin and Chant, which clearly go against both the letter and spirit of Sacrosanctum Concilium,4 and it is clear that the liturgical chaos that ensued from Vatican II was not because of the New Mass, but in spite of it. All of the horror stories of clown masses, polka masses, etc., cannot be blanketly attributed to the plethora of options in the celebration of the Ordinary Form, as some traditionalists are wont to do. When the rubrics of the Missal are read in light of Sacrosanctum Concilium and the other post-conciliar documents on the liturgy,5 the Mass it describes would look similar to a well-done TLM. However, this again presumes that the celebrant (and the teachers of liturgy at the seminaries) care about the rubrics and follow them. Just as the Ordinary Form can be abused and twisted beyond recognition, there’s nothing to stop a priest at an Extraordinary Form mass from choosing Queen’s “We are the Champions” as an entrance hymn, if he wanted to and if he didn’t care one whit for the rubrics and good ars celebrandi.

Ars celebrandi is the second issue. Good liturgy comes not only from studying and following the rubrics, but by being taught and modeled well, in conformity with what Vatican II and the post-conciliar magisterium desire. Fundamentally, good liturgy flows from an attitude of humility. The liturgy is not meant to be “Fr. Bob’s stand-up hour.” The priest should be a monstrance showing Jesus Christ the High Priest preaching, teaching, and offering Himself in the Mass. Any time the priest focuses the liturgy on what he can do, he becomes no better than a car salesman, as Shia Lebouf remarked in his post-conversion interview with Bishop Barron. The attitude of attention-seeking is all the more absurd because a priest wouldn’t be a priest without Christ. He cannot ordain himself, nor sanctify himself, nor do anything apart from Jesus the vine (cf. John 15). All of this, rubrics as well as ars celebrandi, has to be taught well, and then lived well.

Living this well, as with any attempt to follow seriously Jesus’ teaching, will inevitably provoke opposition. When priests abandoned their responsibility for the liturgy in their parishes, overeager laity filled the void with “creative” liturgies organized around themes which passed out of vogue as quickly as they came into it. Thus, when Father attempts to celebrate liturgy by the book, it provokes a veritable struggle session among the self-appointed liturgists. Worse still, the bishop often either doesn’t support Father or takes the side of the liturgists, chiding his young son for “going against Vatican II.” Granted, changing the liturgical culture of a parish is best accomplished gradually, but in cases of serious abuse immediate action is sometimes needed. As Pope Francis reminds bishops in article two of Traditionis Custodes, they are the “moderator, promoter, and guardian of the whole liturgical life of the particular Church entrusted” to them. Thus, when they consistently ignore liturgical abuse in their diocese, or fail to promote good liturgical formation in seminaries, the problem only becomes more deeply entrenched, and they fail to live out their Christ-given role.

Of course, moving the liturgical life of a parish to what the Church desires is a seemingly insurmountable task, let alone trying to accomplish the same for a diocese. This is an area where the cooperation between clergy and laity, so extolled by Vatican II, can prove fruitful. For one, as Pope Francis mentions throughout Desiderio Desideravi, the faithful must be formed well in the theological sense of the liturgy, in order to truly understand the great mystery in which they are called to participate. The same goes for priests in their formation, both initial and ongoing. There are many wonderful resources available for the study of the liturgy, particularly in its theological aspects. Priests should empower and raise up qualified laity to help form their fellow parishioners in the riches of the Church’s thinking and teaching about the liturgy. Priests must also utilize their authority as the guardians of liturgy in their own parishes to root out abuse and catechize their flock, always acting with tact and charity. Bishops must support their priests as a father supports his sons, and work to bring the liturgy of his particular Church into line with the wishes of the Magisterium. Bishops should also work for further reforms of the liturgy, such as re-implementing the ancient Pentecost octave, re-examining the plan of the lectionary to re-incorporate ancient readings which were removed (such as the warnings of 1 Corinthians 11 about unworthy communions), or reestablishing Ember Days in their regions in line with the General Norms of the Liturgical Year and Calendar.6

To adapt the famous phrase, “lex liturgizandi, lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi.” The way we do liturgy is of central importance in determining the manner of prayer, belief, and life. Vatican II urged a renewal in the way the Church celebrates liturgy, and this work remains an ever-present task of the whole Body of Christ. This work of liturgical renewal is difficult and will take time, patience, and prayer to do well. However, the Church cannot succumb to easy answers with dubious theological underpinnings. Rather, the Church must use the tools at her disposal, tools of prayer, teaching, and authority, to prune the liturgical vine so that it can bear fruit in the lives of the faithful, and nourish them with living faith, hope, and love.

From the Pews of St. Typical’s

By J. Merrill

The following is a fictional letter to the pastor of St. Typical’s, from a registered parishioner.

Reverend Father,

I understand your grief. Apathy, Apostasy, and Anger seem to be among the governing spirits of our age, and they have emptied the Church’s Masses, hollowed out the spiritual lives of many who remain, and, quite often, they have interrupted the transmission of the Faith to the next generation. Your description of having to check under pews for the Eucharist, so our Lord won’t be abandoned on the floor and trampled underfoot, turned my stomach. You’re grieved, and I’m grieved, too. How could anyone who loves Christ and His Church not be grieved?

I also understand your discouragement. If Uzzah died by touching the Ark of God’s Covenant improperly, how much more injured must be the man who dropped the Body of God, Himself, on the floor and immediately asked for “another one,” even if he doesn’t now realize he’s injured? How much more injured must be the woman who tried to take Christ’s Body away for use in a “ministry” which may-or-may-not involve something I don’t want to think about with essential oils and crystals? You must be injured, too: anyone who loves both Jesus and the human race must be hurt by seeing our brothers and sisters treat Christ so shamefully, and so shamelessly.

I know many of us in the pews are behaving badly, but could we be behaving badly out of ignorance? If our ignorance is the source of your discouragement, please, be patient with us, Father, and with yourself. The past’s lapses in catechesis weren’t your fault, I know. I also know cleaning them up can’t be easy, because teaching such wayward children as we are can’t be easy. Please don’t be discouraged with us. We may complain at being corrected, but we all should be grateful for your vocation, if your vocation leads you to correct us out of paternal love. Persevere in teaching us, and we will learn. Persevere in calling us, and those of us who are yours will know our shepherd.

If your discouragement stems from our perceived lack of faith, that seems more serious. Forgive me for writing this, Father, but it may be so serious a problem that it’s beyond your help: please remember that those of us who come to Mass on Sunday – or on Saturday evening – are already acting against the zeitgeist of our age. The One who knows our hearts is the One who will separate those of His sheep who have behaved badly in His presence out of ignorance, or out of human weakness, from the goats who behave badly because they were never His. When He calls, He will know His own.

I heard you say once in a homily that faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Would the Spirit have sent you to us if we all were for the fire? Perhaps there are only ten or twenty souls in our parish who will repent. Please don’t give up on us, Father: God promised to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if He could find only ten righteous people living there. Perhaps there’s only one soul here who will repent. Please don’t give up on us, Father: A man who has a hundred sheep and loses one will leave ninety-nine in the desert and go looking for the one he’s lost. If the entire fruit of your vocation is to bring back just one of us back to God, Heaven will rejoice with you, and consider your life as well-spent.

Also please remember, Father, sometimes the saying “One sows and another reaps,” is true. It may be that you plant a seed of faith which looks tiny now, and doesn’t seem to sprout, but which puts out great branches later. It may be that some of those sulky teens found families of their own, someday, and the little bit of leaven you cast into them now leavens faith within their families for generations. I know it’s not easy to hope for that now, but comic-book tee shirts and yoga pants don’t last forever. Hope does. So do faith, and love.

Again, please, forgive me for writing all of this, and understand I’m only writing out of concern for you, my shepherd, and out of concern for my brothers and sisters in the pews. I can’t remain silent having heard my shepherd is so grieved and discouraged, especially when it seems to me that you’re ignoring the greatest gift the Holy Spirit has given St. Typical’s: the parishioners who attend the “other-language Mass.” Yes, they put less money in the collection basket on a per-capita basis. So did the poor widow who offered two copper coins. Ask a few of these parishioners about how they arrived in your flock, Father, and I’m certain you’ll find you’ve been blessed with many costly pearls, gathered to you through great difficulty.

Our Savior taught us that “if two of you on earth agree on any matter, whatever you ask, it will be granted to you by my Father in heaven.” Whatever our parish needs, whether it’s a renewal of faith, a return to good order, or even just repairs for a leaky roof, if you ask them, I’m sure these parishioners would pray for it — most of us would. I’m certain our Father in Heaven will hear: blessed are the poor in spirit.

Also, I know we haven’t all been as generous as we should be when the collection comes on Sundays. If you pray in faith for the Holy Spirit to soften our hearts, He can call us back to supporting our Church, and you, the way we should, so that a leaky roof isn’t such a disaster. We might be an unruly flock, but we do love you, Father. We’ve been given to you, but you’ve also been given to us. We come to you to ask for your prayers, and your help. Can’t you come to us for our prayers, and for our help?

Father, I fear to write this, and please, forgive me for doing so, but if you’re discouraged because your faith is failing, that strikes at my heart. You are important to us. Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter. Please remember, you have a shepherd, too. Maybe you feel distant from your bishop. The vow to obedience isn’t always easy. I know a little about that: remember that I vowed to “love, honor, and obey” my wife on the day you said our wedding Mass. (Celibacy may be more of a gift than you realize, Father.)

Even if you’ve had a difficult relationship with your bishop, consider: if one of us came to you discouraged, and in need of a shepherd’s guidance, wouldn’t you try your best to reflect God’s mercy for us? Wouldn’t you try your best to help us? Would our difficult relationship matter? I know this might be hard to imagine when you’re tending such a needy flock as us, but if you had to spend most of your time on administrative matters, and dealing with a hostile media, wouldn’t doing a little pastoral work sustain you? And please, be patient with your bishop, and with yourself, Father. Our prelates are cleaning up the lapses of the past, too, and it hasn’t been easy for them, either. It’s weighing on them.

If it’s the state of the world around us that has you discouraged, Father, please remember: whatever happens in our little parish, we’re part of the larger drama of Christ’s ultimate victory. Consider: in our time, 73 million children are sacrificed on the altar of abortion worldwide every year, many times the total population of the land of Canaan during Joshua’s time. The priests and temple prostitutes of Asherah would have been familiar with practices like “marriage equity” and “gender-affirming care,” albeit under different names. There’s enough evil in these sins; let’s not even speak about what’s happening in the media, the entertainment industry, and certain “after school clubs.”

The world disguises these cruelties as “compassion” and “safety” for the victims. It defames those who speak to protect those victims as “cruel” — or worse. It demands everyone affirm its lies, attacks those who don’t, and calls that “freedom.”

Worse, the smoke of Satan doesn’t seem to be entering the Church through “some crack,” but through a chasm between the faithful. One one side are our brothers and sisters who have swallowed the lie that all the detestable practices of Sodom and Gomorrah can be justified by an appeal to “progress,” and who now believe that the Church is denying Christ’s mercy by calling sin by its name. On the other side of the chasm are those of us whose souls are in even more danger: we risk filling ourselves with the bitter zeal of the world, and thereby making ourselves into pharisees, who would slam the Church’s door shut in the faces of those who need the Christ the most.

I know shepherding us can’t be easy, Father. Everyone is angry. Brothers are against each other, mothers are against their daughters-in-law, and children denounce their parents. You stand in persona Christi for us in an age when when we all imagine ourselves to be soldiers, fighting for some foolish thing or other, and standing before us means standing at the pillar to be scourged.

You and I might not be able to heal these wounds, but our God is a God whose mighty deeds are clearly seen. Who is like God? Who has God’s strength? Who can heal us like God can? We certainly need His healing. Our God has been putting His power on display since He led the Israelites out of Egypt in a pillar of fire, and the history of the Holy Catholic Church is a history of His miracles.

You are grieved, and I am grieved, as everyone who loves Christ and His Church is grieved — including Our Lady. She’s been telling us about her grief — and warning of us things to come — at La Salette, at Fatima, at Akita, and at other places. God’s patience is Divine, and His mercy is beyond our comprehension, but do you think He’s going to tolerate this state of affairs forever?

Father, every weekend (usually Sunday, but sometimes Saturday), I listen to you say, “We await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior.” Various rites have come and gone, but the embolism prayer is ancient like the Mass is ancient. If the lawlessness and destruction in our world continue to grow, and the Holy Church’s tribulations continue to grow, let’s not be troubled: we don’t know the day, or the hour, but perhaps these are the birth pangs we’ve been waiting for. If not, let’s be grateful that God has given us more time to repent, and bear cheerfully whatever trials we suffer as individual disciples. Haven’t you told me yourself, the cross is the only way to salvation?

Thank you for caring for us, Father. Thank for the sacrifices you have made for us, and for the sacrifices you continue to make for us. Thank you for the burdens you bear for us. Most of all, thank you for your prayers: the prayers of an upright man are powerful. You spoke of the aphorism, “Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi.” Every stage of that saying cites law, and the Law was one of God’s first gifts to the Israelites, to prepare the world for the coming of Christ. Still, I think the order of the words is also notable: credendi and vivendi come only after orandi. Oremus.

With filial love,

An Errant Sheep

  2. Sacrosanctum Concilium 14.
  3. See, for example, the works by Prosper Gueranger, Pius Parsch, and others.
  4. SC 36.1 and 116.
  5. See, among others: Musicam Sacram, Liturgiam Authenticam, Redemptionis Sacramentum, Dominicae Cenae, and Sacramentum Caritatis.
  6. General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar, nos. 45–47.
Alex Erickson About Alex Erickson

Alex Erickson is a recent graduate of the Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul, MN. After spending time with the Central Province Dominicans last year, he now works as a Faith Formation Coordinator at a parish in the Twin Cities. His theological interests include liturgy, sacramental theology, Thomism, and Ecclesiology.

Avatar About J. Merrill

J. Merrill was once a sullen teenager who was dragged by his mother into Mass every Sunday. He returned to the faith last year, after falling away from the Church and behaving extremely badly for almost two decades. He's grateful to a priest who, through great effort, cast a little bit of leaven into him a long time ago, but who, in this life, never got to see it grow into anything. That's a debt J. can't pay back, but reader, if you can spare some prayers for the repose of the soul of Father Erwin Schweigardt, formerly of the Diocese of Albany, J. would be grateful.