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Clarity and Charity in the Liturgy Wars

The liturgy is the ritual and ceremony through which we offer worship to God. We make Abel’s sacrifice, and perhaps then we should ask why Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable.

Was it acceptable simply because it was a lamb and Cain’s was produce? That can’t be because later in the Old Testament God commands grain and wine and oil offerings.

Was Abel’s sacrifice more acceptable because his heart was in the right place and Cain’s was murderous? Maybe we’re getting somewhere now, and the “acceptable sacrifice” is not one that merely follows a particular order, but one which conforms to the correct order, but also is worship that is in the right spirit. Remember the Lord’s words, “God is spirit and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”

The acceptable sacrifice is therefore the one where the worshippers worship in spirit and in truth. I would interpret this as “truth” being the fullness of true Catholic doctrine and discipline. That means being faithful to Catholic teaching in all ways and submitting to the liturgy–saying the black and doing the red. “Spirit” is surely worshipping the Lord in the fullness of the Holy Spirit–as much as possible worshipping God with hearts full of charity, faith, hope and all the gifts of the Spirit.

Given those two qualifiers many different forms of worship are acceptable. There is nothing wrong with different cultural expressions of worship. There is nothing wrong with the Mass being celebrated in spirit and in truth with everything from an ornate Baroque Latin liturgy to an African folk Mass with clapping and dancing. What is important is that the different styles are in spirit and in truth and that there is true reverence and love for the Lord.

Here’s a personal experience. I have loved attending and celebrating Mass at charismatic conferences, high Anglican style Catholic masses, Mass in a village in El Salvador where the music was loud and Hispanic, Super formal Latin Masses with Gregorian chant and polyphony and just about everything else imaginable.

I have seen very few scandalous liturgical abuses. There are many things that are not to my taste and many details that are sloppy, shoddy or poor quality. Much could be improved and much could be better, but the idea that one particular type of Mass is best or that one particular style of Mass is the only valid one only engenders more division.

Just what is a liturgical abuse anyway? I’d argue that apart from clear departures from the liturgy and the rubrics and Catholic truth, that a liturgical abuse is anything that calls attention to itself and therefore draws attention away from the action of the altar.

Therefore, yes, giant puppets and clowns are an abuse. Look at me priests are an abuse. Sloppy altar servers chewing gum is an abuse.  Music that is showy or draws attention to itself is an abuse–that is both music that is showy because it is so wonderful or music that is showy because it is so awful. Altar servers who slouch and pick their nose are distracting, but so are servers who are so militaristic that they look like God’s robots. Vestments that are poor in quality and tacky in design are an abuse–but so are vestments that are so ornate, rich and opulent that they draw attention to themselves. Poor quality, cheap sacred vessels are an insult to the liturgy–but so are sacred vessels that are so studded with jewels and heavy with ornament that they draw attention to themselves.

Abuses? They occur on both sides of the liturgy wars.

The fact of the matter is the Catholic Church is a big tent. There is room for everyone as long as they stay inside the tent and don’t go out and pitch their own.

What is needed is clarity of understanding and charity in relationships.

If we can’t manage that then why on earth do we pretend to be followers of Jesus Christ?