A Tale of Two Sundays: Liturgical Reform Gone Astray

by Frederick J. Parrella

Dr. Parrella is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Santa Clara, California.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, Oct. 7, 1981, pp. 864-868. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Dr. Parrella, a Catholic, concludes that something is deeply amiss in Catholic eucharistic celebrations — a liturgical identity crisis that has escaped our attention.

Recently I was invited to preach in a middle-class United Methodist church in the San Francisco area. Our ecumenical era permits such invitations to Catholic theologians, whether lay or clerical. During the service, I was struck by the profound differences between the liturgies of Methodists and Catholics, and not simply because Catholics are high church and Methodists are not. I sensed that there is something deeply amiss in our own eucharistic celebrations, a liturgical identity crisis that has escaped our attention.

My first clue was the music. I sat in a red velvet chair at the right of the sanctuary beside a serious young organist who smiled supportively as I fidgeted while awaiting my turn in the pulpit. The pastor had listed three hymns for the day. During the first hymn, I realized that this is one facet of Catholic liturgy that has gone wrong: we lack enthusiastic singing, music that resounds of transcendence.

Putting my nervousness aside, I lifted the hymnal with excitement. The singing was unpretentious, personal, spirit-tilled and majestic: ‘Father all-glorious, O’er all victorious, Come, and reign over us, Ancient of Days." How splendid an image: Ancient of Days. I have heard very little like it in a Catholic church for two decades. What I have heard instead are choruses such as "Be like the sun and shine on ev’ry one," sentiments more attuned to "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood" or "Sesame Street" than to an act of divine worship. Where have we Catholics gone astray liturgically? Is it only in our choice of music, or is there a deeper malaise afflicting our liturgy? What does this situation say about our life in the church and the spirit of our theology?

Hopes Unrealized

Liturgy is not only the theological language of the church’s worship; it is a lens through which one can see the sustaining mood and spirit within the community.

Much has happened to Catholic liturgical form in the past three decades. The traditional Tridentine mass, unchanged and universal since the 16th century, survives now only as a remnant of the Catholic traditionalists’ program. First came dialogue masses, with all the energy required to teach the faithful in the pews the traditional Latin responses of the altar boys. It was considered radical for a layperson to read the epistle in English simultaneously with the priest’s sotto voce Latin recital. Liturgical experimentation abounded in university communities and among progressive Catholics: altars were turned around so that the priest could face the people; the order of prayers was changed; new canons were written and employed at the most sacred part of the mass. There was a certain lightheaded enthusiasm about it all. Liberal Catholics of the ‘50s had triumphed: Vatican II would fulfill all that they had hoped for liturgically and theologically. The most significant changes spread to the parishes after the Council: mass said in English, active participation by the whole congregation, folk hymns and so on.

The widespread hope that the liturgical changes would add new life and spirit to the church were never realized. Some of the clergy failed to prepare the laity emotionally and intellectually for the revisions. They also mistakenly presumed that the laity were as firmly attached to the traditions as they themselves were. Liturgy changed its form with some confusion, and not a little anguish. Classical missals became throwaway missalettes. Venerable hymns, reflections of an older piety, were replaced by contemporary songs, many of them forgettable, gimmicky and trivial.

Today, though conditions vary from parish to parish, we encounter less ferment, more continuity and participation, and sometimes downright enthusiasm at Sunday mass. Ever present amid this enthusiasm, however, is disaffection, apathy, a sense that we paid a terrible price for rescuing the Eucharist from mumbled "per omnia secula seculorums," and restoring it to its primitive, more relevant form. At a Catholic liturgy today, one is aware not of those present but of those absent; of the on-going futile effort to save the saved and enthuse those already enthusiastic (or those who fake it well).

Catholics under 35 are conspicuously fewer at liturgies today, as are those who are confused and uncertain of the meaning of their faith. Having had little contact with the older liturgy, or good liturgy of any type, young Catholics are rootless, lacking historical anchors for critically evaluating their present liturgical experience. They are hungry and thirsty for what they do not know and cannot name: the transcendent in liturgical form, an objective sense of the Holy in the eucharistic drama.

An Eroding World View

What caused this loss of transcendence? Part of the answer lies in the cross-movement of theology and historical consciousness in this century. The changes in the liturgy are rooted in the theological stirrings after World War I: the gradual breakdown of neo-Scholastic metaphysics, the beginning of Catholic biblical scholarship, and a return to the study of the church fathers. Fresh interest in the nature of liturgy and sacraments, especially the Eucharist, inspired theologians from as early as the 1920s to create a new theological perspective that reached fruition at the Second Vatican Council.

The liturgical changes of the 1960s were intended primarily to restore the sacramental rite to its true and full meaning for the whole church: participation as a community not in the performance of rituals or in the fulfillment of requirements but in the mystery of God’s love. Such reforms, long overdue for the renewal of Catholic life, should have succeeded splendidly. Such were the expectations of liturgical liberals of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, progressive Catholic intellectuals who encouraged reform and were involved in liturgical experimentation. What the reformers could not see, however, was that the philosophical and theological world view upon which the liturgical changes depended was passing away. It was as if a house had been freshly painted and renovated just before those who lived there decided to move out. This world view had been eroding slowly over the years; when the liturgy finally moved in one direction, the church’s whole frame of reference moved in another.

Liturgy, the entire sacramental rite, is a profound metaphysical reality. At the heart of baptism and all the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, is personal participation in mystery in the death and resurrection of the Lord. Liturgy touches not only the outer person, one’s appearance and function in daily life; it also affects our inner selves, what we actually are in our innermost beings. Liturgy speaks to the depths within us, to the world we share beyond that of ordinary life, what Peter Berger has so well described as "an infinitely vaster and ‘more real’ world, in which and through which human life receives its ultimate significance." This transcendent world, which is real and objective, the horizon of our meaning and destiny that liturgy makes present in celebration, is losing its power to take hold of human consciousness. The liturgical reforms have taught us to participate, but the reality we are to celebrate together no longer vibrates within us.

This loss of transcendence -- which Peter Berger, Avery Dulles and others have discussed in the Hartford Appeal -- has various names and guises. Some have described it in negative terms as the process resulting from the final breakdown of classical metaphysics. Metaphysics has been a field of study on its deathbed since Kant, its few intellectual life-support systems having finally been unplugged by the very caretakers of the profession that gave it birth -- philosophers of the positivist and linguistic schools. Such a breakdown is one thing in the shifting academic sands, but quite another when rendered democratic and made culturally universal.

Hence, few people today can comprehend reality from a metaphysical or ontological perspective. While they must live and cope with realities of ontological import daily -- suffering, love, death, the meaning or meaninglessness of their existence -- they do so from an almost exclusively pragmatic and utilitarian perspective. A primary vision permitting them to comprehend reality in its wholeness and coherence is beyond their grasp. "Reality" in itself has meaning only as "real" things of ordinary life. This process of segmentation mutes the primary religious act which liturgy celebrates: to stand before the Real with gratitude and accept it as grace.

The Notion of Secularization

Others have described this loss of transcendence in positive terms as the process of secularization, which frees the world to be itself on its own terms. Secularization, however, is a very ambiguous notion. From a positive viewpoint, secularization results from a deeply Christian impulse. Christianity, with its doctrine of creation and redemption that posits the world as all good and all God’s, is not a world-denying religion. Despite some excessive enthusiasm over this point by well-meaning Teilhardians of the ‘60s, no one can deny the central fact of Christianity: God enters into history and into matter in Christ, rendering relative all distinctions between matter and spirit, sacred and secular, before the primal fact of God’s redemptive grace in all things.

Secularization, however, can also mean the process that either makes ordinary life ultimately significant or denies such significance altogether. This attitude reduces the meaning of the world to what appears and what functions, and nothing else. To absolutize reality in these terms is, as a number of theologians have suggested, the heresy of modern times. The secularist, who sees the transcendent as an intrusion into the immanent world, insists that the world must function on its own, free from "supernatural" constraints. Thus, the religious fundamentalist who reduces the natural and the supernatural, the transcendent and the immanent, to two exclusive, antagonistic categories is no more naive than the secular fundamentalist who, in the guise of "worldly" wisdom, either reduces the transcendent to subjective fancy or dismisses it entirely.

Repressing the Mystery

The immanentist, nonmetaphysical, secularist mind, increasingly dominant in the broader culture, is all the more powerful and insidious because of its insistence that its interpretation of reality is not only the best one but the only one. No other options exist; the only world is a self-contained bubble of indeterminate human choices -- in Peter Berger’s terms, "a world without windows." This view has also infected theology, most visibly in the church’s liturgy. Christians continue to affirm with great enthusiasm that the Eucharist is their mysterious participation in the Lord’s death and resurrection, but the meaning of these words has been imperceptibly yet significantly altered.

Because people in our culture, including those who fill our churches, no longer see the world in metaphysical terms and are more secular in their orientation, the idea of mystery as an objective fact, inaccessible to empirical study, has less of a hold on their consciousness. Since we by nature must seek out mystery and live with what philosophers call a sense of wonder, the. weakening of the mysterious element at the center of our life forces mystery into the dark corners of our psyche, emerging sometimes in the bizarre and the demonic. Mystery can be repressed and distorted but never destroyed. Cultural patterns in recent years -- in the arts, mores, life styles -- all bear witness to this fact. In the history of Christian liturgy, we can observe three distinct interpretations of the relationship of the self and the sacramental rite. First, through the death and resurrection with Christ in the sacraments, the self participated in the fullness of Christ’s life. Such a sharing did not deny an individual’s subjectivity but completed it; by embracing and being embraced by the mystery of grace which transcended objectification as well as one’s subjectivity, the person lived fully in the Spirit of the Lord.

This ontology of participation gave way to a gradual reification of the mystery so that it appeared over and against the subjective self -- that is, as an object. Because this mystery retained an ontological and psychological prominence, its objectivity seemed to subdue rather than fulfill subjectivity. Finally, subjectivity reacted, individualizing and relativizing the nature of mystery, thus reducing the personal encounter with mystery to a process interior to the self. The subject no longer discovers mystery from without but produces the effect of mystery from within by what sociologist Philip Rieff calls "psychologizing interminably" about its own interiority.

Liturgy today is too much like this third interpretation. The sacramental encounter with the transcendent mystery of Christ’s Paschal self, which nourishes and transforms our own sinful selves, has evolved to a plunge into our own mysterious selves where we, not Christ, are the primary points of reference. In philosophical terms, we have moved from an ontology of participation to an ontology of distinction and finally to an absence of ontology altogether, with persons and things accepted only on the basis of appearance and function. We are unable to comprehend the meaning of death and resurrection without metaphysics -- not as an intellectual discipline, but in its capacity to deepen and enrich life in its wholeness, beyond all of its individual manifestations.

A Trendiness That Underwhelms

No one is suggesting a return to the pre-’60s world of Catholicism and liturgy as if that were the only proper norm. What before the reforms passed for transcendence in liturgy was cast in a hardened ritualistic shell that muted the profoundly personal reality taking place in the sacramental act. Transcendence must always have the quality of the personal rooted within, engaging and beckoning one to deeper levels of personal communion. The mutation of this personal quality into external ritual made the Tridentine mass a symbolic object of rebellion for literally millions of Catholics growing up in recent decades.

At the same time, what today passes for transcendence in liturgy is illusory. The quality of the personal was too quickly. translated into a self-centeredness. Liturgy evolved from the encounter with divine mystery to the solution of human problems. Philip Rieff was indeed correct in his conclusion that the therapeutic has triumphed. Two years after the close of Vatican II, he wrote:

Nor does the present ferment in the Roman Catholic Church seem so much like a renewal of spiritual perception as a move toward more sophisticated accommodations with the negative communities of the therapeutic. Grudgingly, the Roman churchmen must give way to their Western laity and translate their sacramental rituals into comprehensible terms as therapeutic devices, retaining just enough archaism to satisfy at once the romantic interest of women and the sophisticated interest of those historical pietists for whom the antique alone carries that lovely dark patina they call faith [The Triumph of the Therapeutic, pp. 253-254].

Over the past decade, mostly on college campuses, I have participated in countless liturgies devoted to the therapeutic. Students talk about "getting something out of the liturgy" (or not getting it), as if Eucharist were some sort of spiritual gas station where one could fill up on spiritual high-test or at least get some fresh oil in one’s crankcase of guilt. The shift from boring, spectatorial, objective, irrelevant masses to liturgies filled with relevance and sensitivity was a dramatic one.

I tell students a story that almost all, even the younger ones, agree with. Sometime in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s you were in a grammar school or high school religion class, and on Friday the nun or brother, dressed in habit or clerical garb, was demanding verbatim catechism answers that were fully self-contained and highly rational. By Monday, the nun had put on makeup, retired her habit in favor of a chic blouse and skirt, put Simon and Garfunkel or the Beatles (preferably "Let It Be") on the stereo and pronounced the new kerygma, "You’ve just got to feel it." Religious teaching, dry as dust and heavy in books, became mushy and shallow on colored wall hangings. The world had changed almost overnight, but no one knew the full implications. Catholicism, mercilessly immobile for years, became hopelessly trendy on the spot.

This trendiness often underwhelms rather than overwhelms. Subtle and deceptive, its infiltration is at first undetectable. But soon it permeates the music, the homilies, the entire mood of the community. The first clue is prolonged pre-mass music rehearsals. Homilies, invariably on the theme "What does it mean to you?," convince me that they are the scattered and unpolished ramblings of a man, regardless of his spiritual insight, embarrassed to take his work too seriously. Why do we defer and apologize awkwardly as if to deflect some unknown criticism from those who hide within the fortress of feeling and relevance?

Our present liturgical malaise results from the fact that while the content moved toward the trendy, the formal thought patterns underlying the older orthodox mind prevailed. The Catholic mind at Vatican II was emerging from a vision of faith as an everlasting fortress against a changing world. The initial enthusiasm after the Council belied a craving for security, for a "pinning down" of reality into intelligible categories. Hence, everything new, regardless of its provisional nature or its shallowness over the long run, was set in concrete too quickly, thus frustrating, especially at the popular level, the real essence of the reforms, which was to introduce an authentic historical consciousness into the Catholic tradition. Too many people today are bored at mass because they are celebrating a transcendence that is vague and too quickly transformed into categories immanent and psychological. They are celebrating the most serious element of their human lives in forms that trivialize the mystery rather than support and expand it into ever-widening horizons both personal and cosmic.

A Sacramental Tradition

Admittedly, I am portraying only part of the current liturgical picture. While I learned a great deal in preaching to our United Methodist sisters and brothers, I certainly would never want to be less a Catholic or more a Methodist than I am now. Perhaps I was touched by something in the Methodist service that is quite "Catholic" in spirit: a substance in which the Holy could be truly, fully experienced as objectively present. Despite the absence of a formal sacramental ritual, God’s word in the lessons, my own words in the sermon, and the voices of the people in song possessed a quasi-sacramental character. Their actions -- gathering in community, singing hymns, attentive listening -- were visible signs of God’s invisible presence in a way that, while it was fully Protestant, could also touch a Catholic’s heart. I felt that I had worshiped God in spirit and truth.

Worship for the Catholic, however, in its fullest sense, must always mean Eucharist, the breaking of bread and sharing, by sacrament and sacrifice, in the inner life of God. The United Methodist service, though appealing, seemed strangely incomplete, as if everyone were dressed for a wedding and either bride or groom had failed to appear. I do not mean to criticize the great tradition of Protestant spirituality. Rather, I want to remind Catholics of the import of their own sacramental substance, of God’s presence in visible symbols and rituals. Such sacramentalism is the central tradition of Christianity.

Liturgy is God’s gift to us, as well as our own activity, something we do and share together. The Eucharist celebrates that night when "heaven is wedded to earth and [humanity] is reconciled with God." Such a celebration must therefore be filled with prayers and songs which speak not only of humanity but of our relationship to God, not only of our accomplishments but also of our sinfulness.

I commented to a friend recently that the prayer "Spare us" or "Have mercy on us" has almost disappeared from liturgical language, and with it a vital element, fear before the goodness of the Lord, has been lost. The liturgical encounter with the pure holiness of God can fill us with new life and hope only if it also creates in us an understanding of our own unworthiness and sinfulness. Transcendence can fulfill and transform only if it first judges. Those in the New Testament who were deeply attracted to Jesus also felt great awe before him, a sense of distance between their sinfulness and his utter goodness. This awareness of sin cannot be explained in mere psychological terms, nor transformed into good feelings about oneself. Madison Avenue jingles are no substitute for the worship of God in spirit and truth by the whole person.

I am not proposing a new otherworldly piety in our liturgy but simply a re-creation of holiness and transcendence in liturgical form. Without a sense of the Holy, we cannot pray, ask forgiveness, worship, be filled with gratitude before God’s grace or, most significantly, know each other as brother and sister, which is God’s gift in everyone to everyone else. If my comments seem excessively negative, I have outlined the problem as I see it without suggesting any practical solutions. I don’t believe solutions are simple when they involve a corporate spiritual consciousness. Most of all, I’m afraid of the gimmicky; I think we’ve been bombarded with too much of that.

Solid Food

Perhaps the solutions are closer to us than we think. The Catholic tradition remains abundantly rich and filled with immense resources, consistently moving persons to call the church their spiritual home. The tradition states that we always remain children of God, that his transcendent holiness pulsates within us. This living holiness is what people wish to celebrate in any liturgy, regardless of its form. What must be transparent to this reality, however, is precisely the form. The church must have the courage not to reduce the liturgy to what people think they want on the basis of superficial cultural patterns but to make of it what they really want at the deepest levels of their being. If the liturgy has been hurled at us like a stone -- an obligatory stone -- for too many years, the solution is not to transform it into an action dependent upon our participation as a prerequisite for its meaning, rather than a response to God’s meaning already present.

Many in the church, even those who rebelled against the static, obligatory nature of liturgy, are aware of the problems with the present situation. Let me quote a Catholic college senior who speaks with great sincerity and wisdom in an open-ended final exam question:

I know that I cannot reach God on a person-to-person level without struggle. Having recently returned to church, I have found I’m not being told this at all. It is as if the church is trying to bribe us into staying with God -- look see how personable God is -- he’ll fit right into your lives as a warm fuzzy. And yet I come away feeling I want more -- I know I believe in God in a much deeper, possibly traditional manner, and they are feeding me milk toast as if I’m not able to handle any solid food.

Transcendence is surely the "solid food" of our lives, and this is precisely the "more" my young student speaks so candidly of desiring.

Before Vatican II, liturgy was out of touch with modern experience; now, however, the pendulum has perhaps swung too far in the opposite direction, reducing the liturgy to a product of such experience. Today we need a new orientation, a centered-ness, an awareness of how God can be present in human life through symbol and sacrament. Those who are apathetic and no longer participate in the sacraments, as well as those who attend half-heartedly, need a form of Eucharist neither cerebral nor emotional, neither isolated from daily life nor reduced to one component within it.

Liturgy, after all, celebrates the heart of human life, and even the young quickly learn that this heart is a strange mixture of suffering and struggle, accomplishment and joy, bondage and liberation, beauty and pathos, meaning and emptiness. Only the transcendent lies at this heart and draws persons to itself; the transcendent alone is the authentic source of hope within life, the only real power of transformation. Without it we are left to ourselves, to our own goodwill, often to our own shabby devices and crafts. Without it, we must daily create whatever meaning we can by ourselves, thus exhausting our psyches and enervating our weary, restless spirits.

Liturgy makes the power of the cross and resurrection visible and effective in life and history. Such power, never a matter of common observation, lies hidden in the depth of human life where the Divine Spirit cuts across the human spirit and makes it most itself. This transcendent mystery is intelligible to us only in terms of immanence, but even more, of what is completely immanent, so fully at home with all things that it cannot be identified with this or that. This reality, which appears so "other" to our own individuality yet is so close to us, can be addressed, by only one name: the Holy. The cross and resurrection manifested the utter holiness of God, revealed the outpouring of his love into all creation and into every human life. We share this holiness in the breaking of the bread. It must be palpably present in a substance that can grasp the hearts and minds of those at the altar and challenge them to a more perfect form of Christian love.

A Mid-Reform Correction

In re-evaluating the present state of our liturgy, perhaps we Catholics could learn a great deal from our United Methodist and other Protestant friends. We who proclaim that we are bearers of the mainstream of the Christian tradition should not reduce the heart of that tradition to shallow whim or fancy. We can learn perhaps from a more rigid piety that our efforts to make doctrine and liturgy relevant to modern experience ought not to dilute the forms of God’s liturgical presence to what is easiest for human experience to accept and integrate. Reality is much too rich to be reduced to what individual consciousness can grasp at any point. Liturgy must address human experience and summon it out of its self-seclusion. The mystery of God’s grace, not human experience, is the norm for defining and building the liturgical act. Otherwise, the result is a liturgical narcissism: when experience is bankrupt, the mystery also dies. To paraphrase Philip Rieff: experience can be a swindle; ask those who have experienced.

The Holy must transcend any form that embodies it, call into question any self-satisfaction with our own experiential awareness of it; most important, we must not see too much of our own face in the mirror of the sacramental forms that mediate its presence. The liturgical reforms in Catholicism have, for the most part, been good and necessary; but wherever they have gone astray, the distortion is subtle yet dangerous. We need a mid-reform correction to deal with the current liturgical malaise. I thank the "Ancient of Days" for reminding me that I must be more than a "little Mary Sunshine" as I seek to enhance what is good and struggle with what is evil in this God-created but also God-redeemed world.