When I first became Catholic, one of the hardest things to understand was the uproar over liturgy. I had seen an ad in the bulletin for Catholic match. I had decided to try my luck. I never did have any luck romantically (online dating is hard), I did make a couple of friends. I still remember staying up to 3 am arguing with my friend about liturgy. See, my friend had a very narrow view of the liturgy. For example, he was adamant that hand-holding during Our Father is wrong; you should wear suits to church, you should kneel during the consecration. He was always complaining that Catholics were driving miles away to other liturgically incorrect churches. Looking back I can see that he was correct about everything, but at the time all I could picture was a somber unloving church. My basic response at the time was that aren’t those a matter of worship preferences. His response was the fact that you call it worship means you understand nothing. As a baby Catholic enjoying the milk of her vibrant but liturgical irreverent parish, I was thoroughly confused. However, I have graduated to solid food and am ready to settle the debate once and for all, what is liturgy and is it worship?
The term liturgy comes from a Greek word that means public service. In a Christian sense then Liturgy is the work done by the church for the people of God (Catechism 1069). The New Testament refers to the liturgy in three contexts: divine worship, the proclamation of the gospel, and active charity (Catechism 1070). Acts 13:2 hints at the divine worship aspect when it states,
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
So the liturgy is the corporate worship of the church in connection with the sacrifice of Christ. The purpose of liturgy is to set us apart and sanctify us. It receives its power from being divinely connected and inspired by the heavenly liturgy depicted in Revelations 4. The Catechism explains the symbolism as followed:
Recapitulated in Christ,” these are the ones who take part in the service of the praise of God and the fulfillment of his plan: the heavenly powers, all creation (the four living beings), the servants of the Old and New Covenants (the twenty-four elders), the new People of God (the one hundred and forty-four thousand),4 especially the martyrs “slain for the word of God,” and the all-holy Mother of God (the Woman), the Bride of the Lamb,5 and finally “a great multitude which no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples and tongues.(Catechism 1137-1139).
When viewed in this light, we can see that the liturgy offered by the church is indeed an act of worship. Church liturgy attempts to unite us with the heavenly liturgy in which all the elders and saints gather around and worship the Lamb. The Eucharist as Christ’s body becomes the lamb for us and the altar becomes the heavenly throne. Of course one must view this in a spiritual sense; otherwise, one misses the opportunity to see the beauty of divine worship. Instead, it becomes empty rituals devoid of meaning.
The Catholic liturgy recognizes beautifully the holistic nature of mankind as both physical body and soul. Because we consist of a physical body, the church takes care to express spiritual realities using physical signs (catechism 1146). These signs include words and actions; singing and music; and Holy images. I would like to briefly touch on each one.
Regarding words and actions, the Catechism describes it as “a meeting of God’s children with the Father in Christ and the Holy Spirit” (Catechism 1153). We hear from God in the reciting of his word and God hears from us when we respond.
The second sign includes singing and music. Now, this topic divides a lot of Catholics so I will try to tread lightly. According to the Catechism, Songs and music act as signs when they closely connect to liturgical action (1157). The liturgical action includes, “delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites.” ( SC 112 § 3). I think the church has a difficult time with songs and music because what causes one person to delight in prayer may cause another to go completely mad especially true of the Gather us in hymns. Thus the church should use solemnity as the default measuring stick. I’ve written a lot about the state of Catholic music (probably much more to come), I believe a false dichotomy exists between contemporary music and traditional music in that both can honor the solemnity of the Sacraments. One can say much more on the topic; however, I wish to stress that when evaluating the appropriateness of music for liturgical worship, one must consider solemnity above all else. This focus on solemnity separates liturgical worship from other types of worship.
Holy images serve as a reminder that we belong to a great cloud of witnesses (Catechism 1161). They must always point to Christ. Even though the Catechism makes no mention of this, I believe that Holy Images must also respect the solemnity of the sacraments. Ugly, crude, or tasteless artwork is equally out of place as no artwork.
In summary, liturgy is the Church’s public worship designed to give glory to God through hearing the word of God, singing praise, lifting up prayer, and offering sacrifice (Catechism 1199).
A secondary concern is whether the liturgy encompasses all worship. The Catechism states,
The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church”:10 it must be preceded by evangelization, faith, and conversion. It can then produce its fruits in the lives of the faithful: new life in the Spirit, involvement in the mission of the Church, and service to her unity (1072).
The different types of worship include adoration, prayer, and sacrifice. Hence, in my opinion, exuberant praise such as shouting, lifting holy hands, and body movements enjoy equal validity as signs of adoration as the worship displayed in the sacred liturgy. Accepting both as equally valid does not mean both have equal weight. Due to its closeness with the heavenly liturgy and its ability to aid in sanctification, one should give more weight to the Church’s liturgy. Even more importantly, one must remember that the ultimate form of worship involves exercising the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Pope Francis address these concerns:
Still, some Christians insist on taking another path, that of justification by their own efforts, the worship of the human will and their own abilities. The result is a self-centred and elitist complacency, bereft of true love. This finds expression in a variety of apparently unconnected ways of thinking and acting: an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programmes of self-help and personal fulfilment. Some Christians spend their time and energy on these things, rather than letting themselves be led by the Spirit in the way of love, rather than being passionate about communicating the beauty and the joy of the Gospel and seeking out the lost among the immense crowds that thirst for Christ (GAUDETE ET EXSULTATE, 57).
We cannot let our zeal for liturgical correctness stifle our charity towards others. We should spend our time and energy loving one another and spreading the joy of the gospel. I deeply desire beautiful reverent liturgies, but I desire more that people experience the love of Christ. We have bought into the lie regarding an either-or dichotomy; we can have radical love with beautiful liturgies. We should want both and demand both from our parishes.