Beauty in the liturgy
Between 2014 and 2016, I served as the campus minister for liturgy at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, overseeing the liturgical life of the university community and facilitating students’ participation in liturgical ministries. The students who served as liturgical ministers came from a wide variety of parish experiences across the country, and there was obviously a wide diversity in spirituality and liturgical style that students desired. There was a group of students that would always advocate for the more traditional practices in the Church: chant, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the recitation of the rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, the Angelus prayers, First Fridays and First Saturdays, even an occasional Mass in the extraordinary form.
I was struck by their passion and their authenticity in their faith. When I pressed the leaders of the group on why they desired more of these customs and traditions, one student offered a particularly beautiful response. She said that it wasn’t a matter of these traditions being better – or more Catholic – than other customs embraced by the Church. It wasn’t an either/or decision for her. It was both/and. The group desired to be immersed in the treasury of traditions in the Church, experiencing those traditions perhaps for the first time and inviting others to experience and take part in those traditions. She found beauty in these traditions but also found beauty in the experience of the [ordinary form] Sunday Masses, which were, more often than not, standing-room only occasions. She found beauty in the Villanova community – her community – gathering Sunday after Sunday to worship God and be nourished by the presence of Christ in Word, Sacrament, and in community. Indeed, most in this more “traditional” group were committed liturgical ministers at our regular Sunday Masses, and they took seriously their call to evangelize – being excited about their faith and offering a warm invitation for others to join them for Sunday Mass.
The recent article in Vermont Catholic about the extraordinary form of the Mass celebrated in Vermont reminded me of this experience at Villanova as I reflected on the presence of beauty in the Mass. It also reminded me of one of my favorite liturgical theologians. In his Wellspring to Worship, Jean Corbon speaks about the synergy that is present in the celebration of Mass. To put it simply in Christian context, synergy is God’s divine energy and the energy of humanity working in tandem, without separation or division. In the celebration of the liturgy, then, beauty is an expression of the very nature of God, the very same God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit that is truly present in the Church’s worship.
When we gather for Mass, whether it be in the ordinary form or the extraordinary form (Latin Mass), Christ is present whenever Mass is celebrated according to the rites of the Church. In Him, beauty itself is present. His beauty transcends anything else we may call beautiful in the Mass: the prayers, rituals, music, art, statues, vestments. Because of Christ’s presence in the Mass, the Mass is always beautiful. In this way, the Mass is God-orientated, because at the center of liturgy is Jesus Christ. This divine “energy” – or better put: this divine person, Jesus Christ — makes liturgy beautiful. I find it good to remind myself of this whenever a particular Mass is celebrated in such a way that doesn’t appeal to my taste or preferred “style.”
Now, we may be tempted and very happy to leave it at that: Christ is present at Mass. But that’s not the full picture. Mass is not celebrated in a vacuum. When Mass is celebrated, it is always done so in a specific time and space and with specific people existing within a specific culture. Mass, of course, transcends time and culture, because God is present. But you and I are also present at the Mass, along with the rest of those who worship alongside us. At Mass, then, we find human energy. This human energy is active in the liturgy, through the work of the sacred ministers and the gathered assembly. That is why the bishops at the Second Vatican Council so urgently called for a renewed participation in the Mass. All the faithful are called to full, active and conscious participation at Mass. You and I are not mere spectators at Mass, but active participants, and you and I have a responsibility to celebrate the Mass well. It is through our work and attention to the celebration of Mass that we can also find beauty in both the ordinary and extraordinary form of the Mass. This beauty is found in the care we have in selecting, rehearsing and singing the music at Mass. It is found in the careful preparation and proclamation of the Word of God. It is found in the reverence we show to the presence of Christ in the Word proclaimed, in the community gathered, in the priest, and most especially in the Body and Blood of Christ. It is found in the attention and adherence to the ritual and in the fullness of the symbols and signs we use at Mass. It is found in the precision, authenticity and integrity that artists, sculptors, metal-workers, vestment-makers, composers, architects and others who design the sacred spaces and the sacred art bring to their craft. When we fail in this responsibility of celebrating liturgy well, beauty is indeed obscured. As the Church has rightly pointed out, “faith grows when it is expressed well in celebration. Good celebrations foster and nourish faith. Poor celebrations may weaken or destroy it” (Music In Catholic Worship, #7; Sing to the Lord, #5).
Whether we celebrate the ordinary form or extraordinary form of the Mass, may we recognize the presence of beauty. Beauty itself in the presence of God – first and foremost. Beauty which transcends anything else we may ever call beautiful. Our only response to that can be praise and thanks to God. But let us also recognize the responsibility that we have in celebrating the Mass well. We indeed bring our own energy to the celebration of Mass, and through our care, reverence and attention to various elements of the Mass, our work also can contribute something beautiful to our celebration of Mass.
— Josh Perry is director of worship for the Diocese of Burlington.