Recently, my sister was visiting with her 8-month-old son. While they were here, I would celebrate mass for them in our house Chapel privately. My sister would just let him crawl around during mass and glance at him occasionally as there is nothing that could hurt him there except falling. I got a little distracted and glanced over at him from time to time, and I had to step around him. In his crawling, one thing stood out: he always kept crawling towards our tiny sanctuary. Our chapel was originally a family room that we converted and we have an area with a step up for the altar and the tabernacle that qualifies as a sanctuary. One day he would crawl over on one side of it and try to climb up – which he couldn’t – and the next day he was attracted to the other side. The third day, he tried from the front.
Then it struck me: The importance that the design – whether simple or complex – plays in the liturgy. My nephew is just going off instinct and doesn’t have the ability to think about the liturgy yet, but by the simple architecture of our chapel, he is drawn to the altar in the tabernacle.
Design is not simply reduced architecture: it involves the way the priest celebrates the mass, it involves the vestments and vessels, it involves the music, it involves the dress and posture of the congregation, and it even involves preparation and parish organization. We have to ask ourselves what we make the center of the liturgy. 20 years ago, Aidan Nichols OP noted that in the Anglo-Saxon world, a type of anthropocentric worship predominates. The Eucharist should not be about me and you, but about Jesus. The way we design the liturgy can turn it into anything from a banal second-rate social engagement to an esoteric otherworldly experience. (This is all without going outside the Roman Missal of the ordinary form – I don’t want to talk about abusive changes to the missal or extraordinary form today.)
First, I’ll give a few examples from how the priest celebrates mass. So often during mass, it’s easy for the priest to look out and try to be appreciated by the congregation. Yet for most of the time, the priest is speaking as Christ to the Father during mass, so it doesn’t make much sense to be doing so while looking out to the congregation. When I celebrate mass, I consciously avoid looking at the congregation between the beginning of the preface and “The peace of the Lord be with you always.” Here “you” refers to the members of the congregation, not to God the Father; in the preface and Eucharistic prayer, “you” always refers to God the Father.
But didn’t Vatican II promote active participation? Yes, in fact here’s the quote from Sacrosanctum Concilium #14: “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.” However, Vatican II didn’t argue that the laity should do as much as possible during mass. No. It argued that the laity should match the dispositions proper to the celebration of the Eucharist both internally and externally through words and gestures. Therefore, a lay person who is looking at the Eucharist and clasping her hands in prayer during the Our Father is participating more actively than the person who is grabbing hands with their neighbor and focusing on the community. The first person matches the meaning of the Our Father more than the second because it is first of all about my relationship with God and only secondarily about my relationship with man. Active participation means to unite ourselves with God through the liturgy. It doesn’t mean that we make our own liturgy.
We need to bring the liturgy back to the Eucharist, back to Jesus. A God-centered Eucharist might take a little more getting used to, but a man-centered Eucharist is much easier to leave behind; it can often be reduced to mere banality. (And how many Catholics do each of us know who’ve abandoned Sunday mass?) We pray towards the east or towards the cross, “the interior ‘east’ of faith” as Cardinal Ratzinger described it in The Spirit of the Liturgy.
Now I want to present some practical points that might help us live the liturgy in a God-centered manner. (Some of these are adapted from Bishop Athanasius Schneider but some of his points may be further than we need to go.)
Dress for mass. This doesn’t necessarily mean a suit and tie – I know a lot of men don’t even own a suit – but something akin to slacks and a polo shirt rather than shorts and a tank top helps us realize how important it is.
- Allow for silence before, during, and after mass. Get to mass a few minutes early and prepare yourself, or give thanks for a few minutes after mass. Don’t get all worried if after the homily the priest sits down for 60 seconds so everyone can reflect on it.
- Make sure that the altar and tabernacle are central in the architecture of churches.
- Music that reflects a sacred character and is easy to sing so everyone can participate – I know I’m asking for a tough balance (I don’t mean to exclude any particular type but examine songs individually).
- Remember the postures that are proper. For example, it would be good if everyone remembered to do what the missal asks us (GIRM 275.a): “A bow of the head is made when the three Divine Persons are named together and at the names of Jesus, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the Saint in whose honor Mass is being celebrated.” When we stand, we should stand at attention not as though we were bored in the checkout line at the grocery store. We sit to receive the teaching of God which is different from how receive Sunday evening football in our living room (i.e. we sit up, not lounge).
I’m sure there are a few others that would help our liturgy become more God centered, but I think these are some clear things we could change without major disruptions. I think this is an important aspect for youth ministry because our tendency can be to try to attract teens with the liturgy centered on them, but if we want to hold them, we need to bring them up to liturgy centered on God. We may have to train teens for a Jesus-centered liturgy but once trained they won’t leave. We don’t make the liturgy; the liturgy makes us.