Celebration in Silent Halls
Fr. William Messenger
One of the most sensitive stories on forgiveness occurs in Luke's gospel in the parable of the prodigal son. Not only are we told how the Father forgives us, but we are told how to forgive one another--and why. In the telling of the story, the older son comes in from the field to the sound of music and rejoicing, only to discover that the party is for the return of his younger brother who had previously separated himself from the family. The older son refuses to join in the festivities, and upon complaining to the father is told, "My son, you are with me always and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice! This brother of yours was dead, and has come back to life. He was lost, and is found."
Celebration is essential to the Christian life, and is rooted in the experience of reconciliation. In the same way that the Jews felt a need to celebrate their deliverance from slavery, we feel a need to celebrate our deliverance from sin. And it is not just a personal celebration. We read in Luke's gospel, "I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to repent." But have our gatherings of prayer always expressed that sense of celebration? Many Catholics can remember back to the days before the Second Vatican Council. We used to call the Liturgy "the Mass" and generally speaking there was little joy in our prayer. Celebration was relegated to the parish hall, and it was considered profane to even speak in church. This meant that it was possible to pray next to a person who might be thinking of suicide and never even know it. Imagine! A person commits suicide who an hour before had been praying beside you to the God of love. Not much sense of celebration or community there! We were isolated and our prayer became personal. We did not reach into the lives of others and share our experience of a God who calls us together as his family.
Add to this that the prayers were said in a language that we did not know. Many people used a missal that presented the prayers in Latin on one side of the page and English on the other. They believed that in this way they were praying along with the priest. Still, we must face the fact that the missal was an attempt to correct a bad situation. And it was not all that successful. When each person is riveted to his or her own book, we have a collection of mannequins--not people.
So the Council sought to bring about change and restore to the liturgy some of the community and celebration it had lost. The first point to note is the use of the word "liturgy". The Mass is only one part of the Church's liturgy, but it is the central part, and to restore the word "liturgy" to common usage creates a context: Liturgy means "public" service or celebration. The mass was never intended to be a "private" prayer. To look at it as such is to deny the situation in which the Lord gave us this prayer and his purpose for doing so.
The most obvious change in the liturgy is the use of language. The Council restored the language of the people as the proper medium for prayer. People cannot pray in a language that they do not understand--even the use of missals indicated that. But even more, the use of Latin had restricted the participation of the congregation. Praying in our own language enables us to be more involved. We can speak not only to God, but to one another. Perhaps the 3rd Eucharistic Prayer for children expresses it best:
"You made us to live for you and for each other.
We can see and speak to one another,
and become friends,
and share our joys and sorrows.
And so Father, we gladly thank you. . ."
This one simple prayer expresses the whole spirit of the Catholic liturgy. But is the liturgy really that much of a celebration?
Unfortunately, the practice does not always match the ideals. In most parishes the congregation is encouraged to use a thing called the "missalette"--its name indicates the mind set out of which it comes. As to be expected, it results in separating people from each other and the Word of God. It is a tool which should be outlawed from every liturgy. Another problem is that many in the congregation have not come to learn the meaning of the liturgy as "public" prayer. There is strong resistance from many older people to the idea of participation. Many wish to remain isolated from others. These people should be treated with care, but encouraged to become real participants with the rest of the congregation in order to create a genuine community.
The role of the priest is perhaps the most crucial of all. As celebrant and president of the assembly, he does more to create a "spirit" in the liturgy than any other individual. It is his responsibility to see that an atmosphere is created in which people can interact with each other and realize the presence of Christ in their midst. An atmosphere which is filled with such warmth that it enhances the human spirit, and creates a desire in others to be present and active in community prayer.
There are many other aspects to the renewal of the liturgy in today's church. These highlight the activity and participation of the congregation and hopefully point a direction for continued development in liturgical prayer. It is still possible to pray next to someone who is depressed and lonely, but it is much more unlikely. Today the liturgy provides a better opportunity for people to realize the promise of the Lord Jesus: "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I."
(Fr. William Messenger is a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles)
(This article was published in The Catholic Agitator)