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Oct 24, 2019

What ‘Liturgy’ Really Means

Dr. James Merrick

When I entered the Catholic Church, one family member voiced a concern about worshipping God through liturgy.

The concern was twofold: First, this individual worried that the structure of the liturgy was stifling, keeping people from offering God the genuine or sincere praise that springs spontaneously from one’s heart and mind. Why say someone else’s words when surely your own are more honest? Second, they felt that the Catholic liturgy was manmade, an invention of a Church dissatisfied with the simple message of Scripture or intent upon keeping people servile with the addition of extraneous, non-biblical, and superstitious practices, like repetitive responses, the use of holy water, or strange gestures. 

As we continue our series reflecting on the restoration of reverence in the Mass, it is a good time to consider what liturgy is. That’s because the next parts of the Mass we examine are both called “liturgies”—the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Sacrament. You can find the other parts in this series below:

Toward Recovering a Love for the Eucharist

Is the Way Catholics Worship Weird or Wonderful?

Sing for the Love of God: Insights from St. Augustine

Revering God’s Name at Mass

The two liturgies comprise the substance of the Mass and our worship. They are the twin actions of God upon us, and it is through these two liturgies that we receive God’s grace. 

Overcoming a Common Mistake

Before we respond to these criticisms of the Liturgy and reflect on why Catholic worship is liturgical, we should understand the term itself. Today, when we talk about a “liturgy” or say that we practice “liturgical” worship, we denote a certain style of worship. “Liturgical” worship is worship that has a definite structure and set of fixed prayers or parts. While helpful in our context, it does not explain why ancient people used “liturgy” to describe their worship.

More recently and popularly, there has been an attempt to recover the original meaning of the term “liturgy” by pointing out its etymology. The term “liturgy” in fact combines two Greek words—the word for “people” and the word for “work.” This has led to the widespread notion that a liturgy is simply the “people’s work” or “the work of the people.” 

However, this rendering of “liturgy” risks an etymological fallacy—a fallacy that defines a term on the basis of its roots rather than on its usage. As simple as a mistake as this is, it is not harmless. It has been used to validate a certain agenda, namely, a more egalitarian approach to worship where everyone equally is involved in the worship service. If the Liturgy is “the work of the people,” then the people need to be more involved and the distinction between the laity and the clergy should recede. 

When we study the Greco-Roman context, we discover that “liturgy” originally meant something more like “public service” or “public duty.” In the Greco-Roman world, a liturgy was something done for the sake of the public. In other words, it is more “work done for the people” than “work done by the people.” In the context of religion, a liturgy was worship offered on behalf of the public. The worship of God was performed for the protection and prosperity of the city.

Liturgy Means Worship Is A Mission

By calling the two parts of the Mass “liturgies,” the early Christians didn’t intend to signal that their worship was egalitarian, but that it was a public act of service to the people of society. Christians would gather to hear the Word of God and receive the Eucharist for the salvation of the world. This is not to deny that they did it first and foremost to worship God and to procure salvation for their souls. But it does help us recognize that Christian worship is inherently missional, offered for the benefit of the world. Even today we often “offer the Mass” for others who are in need, in the hopes that in some sense our worship of God will bring grace to them.

The missional dimension of our worship is also illustrated by the fact that in the Western tradition the liturgy is called “Mass.” This term does not come from the fact that worship is a gathering of the “masses,” as my students often guess. Rather it comes from the Latin word missa or missio which means “dismissal.” In the original worship services, there were two dismissals, one at the end of the Liturgy of the Word and another at the end of the Mass. Thus, the expression “Go, you are dismissed” was said twice. Hearing this Latin word missa frequently led people to call the service, “Mass.” 

There is a nice meaning here, even if it’s unclear whether the nicknaming intended it. Identifying worship as the time when you are “dismissed” or “sent out” strengthens the notion that Mass is for the sake of the world. Mass is what equips and encourages us to fulfill our baptismal vocation to be priests, kings, and prophets in the world. It is the place where we go to be sent out into the world to spread the gospel. Here we see just how selfless our worship is: it is offered to God for the sake of our neighbors. 

Is Liturgy Insincere?

In our time, liturgy stands for a style of worship that has an immutable structure and stock of prayers. The priest cannot come in and decide to celebrate the Eucharist first, or to substitute a time of sharing in the place of the Liturgy of the Word. The evangelical pastor, however, who has no definitive pattern of worship may change things up as he (or she) sees fit. 

Some, like my family member, think this inflexibility and structure makes worship formal, rigid, and therefore inauthentic. The great beauty of the evangelical service, we are told, is that it can be tailored to the needs, tastes, and expressions of the worshipping community, making it more likely a true expression of people’s piety. 

A few things can be said. First, the Catholic Church in no way discourages personal and spontaneous prayer and praise. Quite the contrary (see the Catechism on prayer. But in the context of corporate worship, order, decorum, and consistency are important. As St. Paul warned, “God is not a God of confusion but of peace” and therefore “all things [done in worship] should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:33, 40). 

The Rebellion at the Heart of the Great Awakenings

This particular criticism of liturgical worship comes out of the Great Awakenings in America and Britain of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This was the era of Enlightenment, which encouraged humanity to reject authorities, particularly if those authorities were priests, bishops, or the pope. Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher of Enlightenment, famously exhorted: “Dare to use your own reason!” Think for yourself, in other words. 

While the Enlightenment philosophers were telling Europeans to think for themselves, the preachers of the Great Awakenings were exhorting Brits and Americans to believe for themselves. Faith should be a personal encounter with Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, not some dry intellectual acknowledgment of scholastic articles of faith. Liturgy and traditional church were stolid, stodgy, stale, they thought. 

The evangelicals of the Great Awakenings saw themselves as continuing the work of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century by further purifying the churches of the Reformation from residual Catholic elements. So, just as Enlightenment intellectuals tried to discourage the society from listening to priests, so the evangelical preachers issued warnings against the clergy. Preachers like George Whitfield deliberately preached in the fields, rather than in churches, and warned his audience against the clergy who he thought were often unconverted phonies. 

These Awakening preachers emphasized “heart religion,” a religion that was deeply emotional and enthusiastic. And, indeed, people were known to have responded with shouts of joy and tears of sorrow. They thought that a scripted or formal worship service kept people back from a genuine encounter with the Holy Spirit that should lead to spontaneous eruptions of feeling and sentiment. Therefore, prayers should be “from the heart” of the common Christian rather than prescribed by cold clerics. It is in this context that the evangelical critique of liturgy as an insincere and false form of worship arose. 

Simplicity Doesn’t Guarantee Sincerity

What can we say in response? It doesn’t follow that because worship is indeterminate and spontaneous it is therefore more authentic. Simplicity doesn’t equate to sincerity. Surely someone could “go through the motions” of a more exuberant or impromptu worship service. What is the real difference between making the Sign of the Cross and hands raised or swaying arms? They are both gestures. 

In fact, I was in an evangelical chapel service not too long ago and saw that the emotional expressions and gestures can be faked or performed with great ease. I observed a worshipper enter late, immediately raise her hands, lift her head toward heaven, and sway to the beat of the praise song. But, upon receiving a text message, took her hands down, responded to the text while continuing to sway, occasionally lifting up one arm and waving it. And then she left, apparently to meet up with whoever was texting her. It didn’t seem that her more emotional expressions meant that she was more in touch with the worship than the person reciting the responses in the Mass. What seems to matter is the disposition of the worshipper and not the style of worship, and a truly devout heart could be passionate about any form of worship. 

Prescribed Prayers Aren’t Necessarily Impersonal

In the second place, prescribed prayers aren’t inherently impersonal. They can be profoundly transformative, soliciting our desires and preserving our praise from error. While perhaps more generic and formal than spontaneous prayers, prescribed prayers are intentional and can often inspire in us an aspiration beyond those which we feel in the moment. They are regularly based on passages from Scripture or derive from traditional prayers from the Church’s past, thus putting us into contact with a Church that transcends our moment. It is nice to know that our prayers are not just our own, that we aren’t some isolated individual before God, but that we stand amidst a great cloud of witnesses who have encountered God before us and who might be able to teach us how to improve our devotion to God. 

In fact, it regularly happens that the great prayers of history are not only more profound and meaningful than any off-the-cuff rambles I could formulate, but they often bring to mind certain thoughts or feelings that wouldn’t have occurred to me apart from them. Indeed, they are regularly not the prayers I would have said but the prayers I need to say. They make me aware of things that prove to be important for my worship of God. 

There is also great comfort in these prayers, for they have been “vetted” so to speak by the Church. This assures us that we are not praying poorly or, worse, giving ourselves false impressions about God by bending God to our feelings, but are conforming our feelings, desires, and intentions to the nature and will of God. This is very important if the ancient axiom that the way we pray shapes what we believe (lex orandi, lex credendi) is true.

Authentic Worship Satisfies God, Not Us

Finally, and most significantly, surely what makes worship authentic is not the satisfaction of the worshipper but the satisfaction of God. True worship adores God appropriately, truly, and in accordance with his desires. Our feelings, while not insignificant, are not determinative. 

The problem with modern worship is that it has inverted the order of things, making human pleasure more valuable than divine praise. As Fr. James Jackson, F.S.S.P. has observed:

“Modern man has given in to the temptation to adapt religion to man, rather than what the Church has always striven to do: to adapt man to religion.”

Nothing Superfluous: An Explanation of the Symbolism of the Rite of St. Gregory the Great, 5

Why would we think that the satisfaction of our hearts is a good standard for what constitutes genuine worship? The prophet Jeremiah tells us that the human heart—which is the seat of our desires and emotions—is “deceptive and desperately corrupt” (Jeremiah 17:9). 

Instead, our hearts must be conformed to the glory of God, that they learn to delight not in an emotional rush or musical or rhetorical experience but in the glory of God. This is the reason why the liturgy is often staid. The steadiness of the Liturgy allows the worshipper to concentrate on the meaning of what is being done and said. Fr. Jackson again:

“Divine realities only gradually yield their full significance. So understanding the liturgy is a lengthy and progressive process of becoming familiar with a particular reality. This is one of the many reasons why the liturgy must have a great stability, not just in texts but also in gestures, vestments, and music…The liturgy needs time and silence to deliver its riches.”

Nothing Superfluous, 3

There is, then, great wisdom in having prescribed liturgy. It can ensure that we worship God in truth, not in fashion, sentiment, or whim. It can give to us a richness that takes us beyond our narrow minds and hard hearts. It can open us up to praise that comes from God, rather than from us. And this leads us to our last point.

Is the Catholic Liturgy Manmade?

Ask a good Catholic who is in charge of the Church’s worship and they will say Christ. Here again the people are not the primary focus. As Vatican II stated in its document on the Liturgy:

“The liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ” .

Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7

While the priest offers the Mass, he does so in persona Christi. The teaching of the Church is that the offering of the Mass, at the profoundest level of reality, is in fact Christ’s offering of himself to the Father. The Mass is, in other words, Christ’s gift to the Church. It is our inclusion into the Son’s eternal relationship to the Father. It is our incorporation into the life of the Trinity. Said simply, the Liturgy is divine not human, something given to the Church by Christ, not invented by clerics. 

This is not to say that the Church has not developed in her understanding of and capacity for this gift, and expanded aspects of the Liturgy as a consequence. But the main parts of the Mass—the reading of Scriptures and the offering of the Eucharist—were commanded by God. And we have already discussed how the features of the Preparation portion of the Mass come from biblical encounters with God, like the sinner’s cry for mercy or the angelic hymn sung on Christ’s birth.

The best we can say to those who would argue that the Catholic Mass is a human creation is that they need to go to Mass and read their Scriptures more attentively. The Catholic Mass is at the very least a conglomeration of liturgical elements and expressions taken from the Scriptures. At most, the Mass is the very form of worship God gave to and demands from his people. This will be the subject of our next reflection. 


You May Also Like:

Toward Recovering a Love for the Eucharist

Is the Way Catholics Worship Weird or Wonderful?

Sing for the Love of God

Revering God’s Name at Mass

A Biblical Walk Through the Mass: Understanding What We Say and Do in the Liturgy [book]


Dr. James R. A. Merrick is lecturer at Franciscan University of Steubenville, reviews editor for Nova et Vetera, and a theology and Latin teacher at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. Dr. Merrick is also on the faculty for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown’s Lay Ecclesial and Diaconal Formation program. Previously he was scholar-in-residence at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. Before entering the Church with his wife and children, he was an Anglican priest and college theology professor in the United States and in the United Kingdom. Follow Dr. Merrick on Twitter: @JamesRAMerrick.


Featured image by Jonathan Weiss on One Secret Mission


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  • Some time ago, while visiting a Protestant friend and her family, they decided to accompany me to Mass. It was even a little more of a traditional style than I was used to: kneeling to receive the Eucharist, the Gloria recited in Latin, etc.
    Nonetheless, after we were dismissed, my friend commented to me very earnestly about how impressed she was with the amount of Scripture involved! I don’t know whether she picked up on any beyond the readings, psalm, and Our Father, but it was definitely one of those moments that make you smile.

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