Not surprisingly one of the themes on which the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) placed great emphasis was the centrality of the Eucharist in Catholic spiritual life. "No Christian community," states the Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests (art.6), "can be built up unless it has its basis and centre in the celebration of the most holy Eucharist".
The theme finds an echo in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1969: "The celebration of Mass is the action of Christ and the people of God hierarchically assembled. For the universal and the local church, and for each person, it is the centre of the whole Christian life". And it goes on: "All other actions and works of the Christian life are related to the Eucharistic celebration, leading up to it and flowing through it" (General Instruction chap.1, art.1).
Liturgy, then, cannot be seen as something peripheral, a sort of added extra without any necessary connection to Christians' everyday life. The opposite is true - it is at the heart of our faith. In the Mass we are not only commemorating the Last Supper, at which Jesus gave the apostles his body and blood as food and drink for eternal life, we are also announcing his death and resurrection - the climax of God's revelation of himself - and looking forward to our own death and new life in the Kingdom: "Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming the death of the Lord, until he comes again" (1 Cor. 11:26).
An act of worship
Given these facts, and the Council's firm emphasis upon them, it is all the more ironic that so much of our contemporary liturgy has degenerated into what Cardinal Ratzinger, with characteristic bluntness, once called “claptrap and pastoral infantilism”, making use of practices which “degrade the liturgy to the level of a parish tea-party and the intelligibility of a popular newspaper” (see The Ratzinger Report, chapter 9).
The cause of this degradation is surely not too difficult to discern. The fact of living in a strongly pagan environment has caused the religious and moral beliefs of many Catholics to assume a much more vague and flaccid character than in the past, when Christian faith rested more securely upon social conventions. This seems to be especially true among young people, who have the hard task today of appropriating the faith that has been handed down to them while growing up in an environment permeated by values and beliefs directly counter to those of Christianity.
Responding to this situation, and perhaps over-anxious to make the gospel relevant in terms of an imagined modern way of thinking, priests and liturgy groups - who themselves often hold confused and erroneous notions about the meaning of the liturgy – often lay far too much stress during Mass on trying to communicate their own shallow and poorly-thought out ideas about the faith, and far too little on the Eucharistic event itself.
After all, the Mass is not primarily a pastoral or catechetical exercise. It is an act of communal worship - and worship, by definition, presumes a certain level of belief on the part of the worshippers. “Before men can come to the liturgy they must be called to faith and conversion,” says the Vatican II Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (art.9). This is borne out by the practice of the early Church, by which men and women undergoing instruction prior to baptism (catechumens) attended the first part of the Mass only, withdrawing before the consecration took place.
The homily, during the Liturgy of the Word, is the appropriate opportunity for interpretation and explanation of God's Word. The rest of the celebration is ordered towards giving praise, proclaiming our common faith and receiving Our Lord in the Eucharist. The Mass should never become simply a means by which various “themes” are communicated by the celebrant and his liturgists to the congregation. If it is a means of anything, it is a means by which all present, priest and people, carry out Jesus' instruction, “Do this in memory of me” – and thereby enter more deeply into the paschal mystery.
If the tendency to reduce the Mass to an opportunity for conveying various pet ideas is misguided on principle, the distortions to which it has given rise in practice are even worse. A rupture has taken place between the norms that came out of the liturgical renewal and many current liturgical usages.
There are for instance - to draw on my own experience - marathon Masses with near-continuous running commentaries, liberally interspersed with jokes and funny stories, just to keep the atmosphere “right” (one recalls Fr. Jock Dalrymple's remark: "and the Word was made words..."); proper readings are replaced by others deemed more useful to the planning committee's purposes, the Gospel is dropped in favour of some trite exhortation composed by one of the liturgy team; the whole Liturgy of the Word is removed and replaced by a slide show; the existing symbolism - the altar, the lectern, the tabernacle, the cross, etc., are overlooked in favour of posters and slogans and tacky crêpe-paper displays.
I personally doubt whether the “Youth masses” or the boisterous family liturgies so beloved of the Church's ageing trendies actually succeed in deepening any child's or young person's faith in Christ. They are just as likely to provide a pretext for intelligent and sceptical teenagers to desert Catholicism altogether. The remark of one liturgy planner, confronted with the prospect of yet another youth celebration, sums up the tiredness and triviality of this whole approach: "Right, we'll have that Michael Jackson number and we can do 'Jesus Our Friend'".
This kind of liturgical dilettantism merely betrays a superficiality of outlook which, far from contradicting or challenging the forms of secular consumer society, mirrors them exactly. The celebrant becomes the compère, his teamsters the backing singers, the congregation becomes the audience and the Mass a fun-packed hour of live entertainment. As one budding clerical chat-show host said at the end of his youth mass: 'See you here next week, same time, same channel!' - and then, preposterously - 'The Lord be with you...'!
Refusal to be silent and allow God to speak
The lack of spiritual appreciation of the Mass on the part of the avant-garde liturgists is shown up above all in their dislike of quiet. Both the Vatican Council's Constitution on the Liturgy and the General Instruction on the Roman Missal - as well as any elementary liturgical handbook - draw attention to the important need for silence during the Mass. But our liturgical mood-managers won't stand for it, preferring bursts of syncopating rhythm, some over-loud C.D. recording, or some trite “meditation”, to periods of quiet reflection. Are they afraid to stop and think for a moment? Do they find prayer wearisome? Must they have the Mass 'full of sound and fury, signifying nothing'?
Almost forty years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Council, the Swiss theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar wrote a little book called Who is a Christian? in which he lamented the absence of worshipful silence from modern liturgies. He regretted that "the clergy have taken it into their heads to fill out the time in a practical way and with a pretty varied run of activities: there's not a moment left free. Noisy all the time; if it's not prayers out loud or bible readings and expositions, then its singing and responses that have to be listened to; even the canon of the Mass booms out of the loud-speaker". (This was before the lay functionaries also got hold of the microphone!)
And the end result of this frantic liturgism? Von Balthasar concludes: "The priest is pleased with the congregation for co-operating efficiently, the congregation is pleased with itself for receiving the benefits of a spiritual feast. Yes, that's the Church: pleased with itself: the spiritual self-satisfaction of the congregation...a pietistic liberal prayer service that makes you feel all self-satisfied as you pour out smiling at one another!" And the cause of this impoverishment is plain. Those who direct the liturgy have themselves failed to comprehend the nature of the mystery which they purport to communicate so meaningfully.
Need for a “quiet revolution”
"The renewal in the Eucharist of the Covenant between the Lord and man draws the faithful into the compelling love of Christ and sets them afire. From the liturgy, therefore, and especially from the Eucharist, as from a fountain, grace is channelled into us; and the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God, to which all other activities of the Church are directed as toward their goal, are most powerfully achieved" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, art. 10).
The deeper appreciation of the Eucharistic mystery anticipated and encouraged by the Council has still to be realised. During the last forty years several factors, not least the strange mixture of complacency and loss of direction on the part of the bishops, have led to a gross degeneration in the quality of our celebration of the Mass.
The result is that many modern congregations hardly seem to possess a sense of the sacred at all. They feel no obligation to “take off their shoes” because they are "standing on holy ground" (Exod 3:5), and the numerous official “renewal” schemes which overlay the Mass with all manner of extraneous themes and activities have only added to the general de-sacralisation.
I sincerely hope that the special Year of the Eucharist which Pope John Paul is to inaugurate at the close of the World Eucharistic Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico later this month will encourage spiritual-minded pastors to lead their communities back to a proper understanding of what they are doing when they take part in the Mass. A new movement along these lines would constitute the “quiet revolution” which the Catholic Church in Britain urgently needs at this moment. I for one will certainly be praying for this revolution during the course of the next twelve months.