WHY THE "DETAILS" OF THE LITURGY MATTER
Making the Holy Mass a Generic Worship Service In a Generic Worship Space?

June 1999By Donald Dwight Hook

Donald Dwight Hook, the author of many books and articles, is Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages (Linguistics and German) at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and a pioneer in the new field of theolinguistics.

Every practicing Catholic in America has observed that formal worship in our churches has changed considerably in the past three or four decades. Since the rate of change shows no signs of slowing, the types of changes we are making to our worship must be all the more closely examined and their effects understood. Even small alterations may have serious consequences: A marksman aiming at a target may shift his aim by just a little — and thereby miss.

So we, as Catholic worshipers, must be sure what we are aiming at. If our aim is to make our Masses virtually indistinguishable from the generic services in some community church — to make the Mass into a cheerful Sunday hour of vague uplift — we are pointed in the right direction. Our current liturgical practices, if persisted in, should get us to that goal in ten years or so. It is time — and past time — to ask ourselves if that is what we want. With new and remodeled churches that look more like bus stations than houses of worship, with liturgical language and music that bespeak the banal and promote the prosaic, with Masses that are deformed into flatness rather than shaped to yield a taste of transcendent beauty, we American Catholics are well on our way to liturgical amorphousness. Shapeless, do-it-yourself liturgies will work insidiously to make our doctrines and articles of faith formless and self-serving as well. We should take the Catholic adage lex orandi, lex credendi (what you pray is what you believe) as an urgent warning.

This flood of changes is traced by some to the Second Vatican Council. But there is no compelling written evidence that Pope John XXIII and the 2,600 bishops who opened Vatican II in 1962, or the many bishops who served until the end of the ecumenical council in 1965, or any of Pope John’s three successors, intended the liturgical course that has resulted in the nearly complete alteration of Catholic worship, the decline into liturgical looseness, and the concomitant abrasion of Catholic theology and ecclesiology. Who is responsible? I cannot treat that here. I do suggest that if this decay continues, we will have only ourselves to blame. For the people of God, laity and clergy alike, have every right to protect their religious heritage within legitimate postconciliar guidelines, and no one has the right to effect such alterations in ritual, language, music, and architecture as may change doctrine.

Yet at the local level, in chanceries and rectories and parish offices and committee meetings, Catholics both clerical and lay are apparently granting themselves permission to emend and revamp all parts of our public worship. There are many worrisome aspects to this presumption, but not enough people seem to be worried. A few theolinguists have warned of the dangers of so-called inclusive language as promulgated by enthusiastic feminists and their followers. Perhaps because of a wish to be ecumenically inoffensive, hardly anyone has urged Catholics to take a lesson from the damage done in the Episcopal Church by ill-advised official changes in, and irresponsible ad hoc tampering with, prayer book language.


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