What is the sacred liturgy that Catholics experience every Sunday? While occupying the central role in our lives as Catholics, it’s fair to say that many faithful are quite uninformed as to what exactly liturgy is. Why is this so? How can something that is so important, so vital, be so misunderstood by so many? Is liturgy simply a gathering of “the assembly” to pray to God, made more attractive and complete with the addition of religious music, readings from Scripture and a feel-good homily by a recognized “minister”? Well, not really. While those elements are important, I could gather together some friends and do more or less the same thing from the comfort of home. So why bother going to church? What sets the Catholic Mass apart from what most Protestant Christians do every Sunday?

As the Milwaukee Archdiocese gears up for the Synod, the Milwaukee Catholic Herald recently posted an article on this very question. It starts off listing some rather discouraging statistics about declining Catholic participation in liturgy and in the sacramental life of the Church, Confession in particular. Fewer self-described Catholics regularly attend Mass and go to Confession. No big surprise here. So we’ve clearly got a problem.

The article then lists some possible reasons for these depressing stats. They are all reasonable, but one in particular struck me as spot on.

“Changes in the liturgy after Vatican II led to many Catholics losing confidence in the church or a loss of awe and wonder of God’s holiness in their midst.”

(Note the careful phrasing: “after” not “because of” Vatican II. The author wisely avoids the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy.) Wow. I was genuinely surprised to see this one make it on paper. You see, there is a stubborn narrative out there that holds that the “changes in the liturgy after Vatican II” were unquestionably positive, pure and necessary, and that everything beforehand (in other words, the Old Latin Mass) was stuffy, “rubric-centered” and “defensive”. I have to say, it is encouraging to see an admission from our Catholic Herald that liturgical abuses and aberrations in the post-Vatican II era have, in fact, played a significant role in the “tuning out” factor of so many Catholics. The deleterious consequences of decades of liturgical abuses, and how to eradicate them, should occupy much more of the Synod’s attention. These changes (and I’m talking about the abuses) were supposed to make liturgy more inviting, and they were to assist in inaugurating a new era of lay participation and presence, but in reality, exactly the opposite happened, as the statistics demonstrate. People checked out.

From here, the Herald piece gets a bit foggy. The author wades into the “Theological foundations” of the liturgy and some of the points offered for consideration manifest a hazy, not totally false, but certainly not complete presentation of what liturgy in fact is. Here you have them:

Liturgy is living out the mission of Christ and his church – “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19-20) and “Do this in memory of me” (1 Cor 11:24). [Ok…but no mention of the Eucharist when asserting, “Liturgy is…”?]

Liturgy is the ritual enactment of Christian life – it is not separate from the rest of life.

Beauty in the liturgy is found through poetic, figurative language and symbolic forms such as bread and wine, the altar, ordained presider, the assembly and Scripture. [No mention of Sacrament. Beauty in liturgy is primarily derived from the action/act of God in the Sacrifice of the Altar. Anything we add to it, language, music, symbols, etc., may be beautiful, but it is secondary to the act of God Himself, who is Beauty. And, while I know what the author is saying, I’m not really comfortable referring to the “bread and wine” without placing both within the context of Transubstantiation. Belief in the Real Presence is perhaps at an all-time low, so let’s be very clear and unambiguous when we talk about the “bread and wine” becoming the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ during Mass.]

In liturgy we receive God’s gift to us in Christ [in the Eucharist] and become God’s gifts to others.

The liturgical assembly is a sacramental realization of the whole church. [Okay, but what does that mean? Vague.]

Liturgy incorporates witness, service and worship – three major ways the church manifests her essential nature in the world. [Again, meaning what, exactly? This makes it sound as though liturgy is something the assembly creates on its own.]

I think, in terms of offering “theological reflections” it would have been helpful to spend more time focusing on the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Real Presence. Sacrifice in worship is a primordial element found in most religions, and Catholicism is no different. Using Pope Benedict XVI’s The Spirit of the Liturgy as a springboard into a serious Synod discussion on liturgy would help cut through so many of the ambiguities and misunderstandings surrounding the subject.

And for those interested in doing some extra credit on the question of liturgy, check out Msgr. Nicola Bux’s outstanding book, Benedict XVI’s Reform: The Liturgy between Innovation and Tradition. Msgr. Bux is a protégé of Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI and frequently writes on liturgical matters.