As a liturgical musician, it is easy for some of the annual celebrations to run together in my mind. I usually can’t remember if we sang a certain arrangement of “Silent Night” last year or four years ago. But I’ll never forget oneChristmas Eve. I was directing the choir, singing carols before the “midnight” Mass at 10 p.m. (We were in the middle of “Once in Royal David’s City”) and a parishioner came up to me, literally screaming. “That is my reading. I always proclaim the first reading at Christmas!”
I was used to getting yelled at by parishioners; this was nothing new. I can’t begin to count the times people would come up to me after Mass saying, “I hated that song” or “the organ was too loud” or “you shouldn’t let that cantor sing because she isn’t any good.” But this was before Mass. It was also Christmas. This lector was upset because someone else was scheduled to proclaim her reading.
Liturgy is simultaneously personal and relational. It makes sense, then, that we can have such attachment to the way we pray communally. Because liturgy is “the work of the people” it is impossible to separate our humanity from our prayer. We live and work and pray in a particular time and place, bringing with us our delights and longings, accomplishments and dreams, and yes, even our personal preferences. It becomes problematic, however, when we allow our individual preferences to dominate the communal experience or perpetuate possessiveness. This is the delicate and perpetual dialogue required of liturgical prayer—because liturgy is not about any single individual.
This seems especially relevant considering today’s “liturgy wars.” Personal preference continues to perpetuate the divisions that are not of God. We can’t always get what we want. We won’t like every song sung or every prayer prayed. We won’t fully appreciate every aspect of liturgical decor. We won’t fully appreciate every homily we hear. But that’s OK, because liturgy isn’t personal devotion or private prayer.
One of my favorite lines from any church document comes from Music in Catholic Worship (1972), the predecessor to Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (2007): Each Christian must keep in mind that to live and worship in community often demands a personal sacrifice. All must be willing to share likes and dislikes with others whose ideas and experiences may be quite unlike their own.
The 1965 document Gaudium et spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) from the Second Vatican Council beautifully describes this relationship, noting that “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and anxieties” of this age are indeed “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” When celebrating liturgy, we have the responsibility to honor these realities of the entire people of God. This is not some sort of liturgical relativism or a liturgical “free for all.” Rather, honoring the realities of the entire people of God in liturgical prayer requires an understanding of the incarnation that stretches beyond ourselves and our own personal preferences or ideologies.
In his 2020 follow-up to the Amazon synod, Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis writes, “Starting from our roots, let us sit around the common table, a place of conversation and of shared hopes. In this way our differences, which could seem like a banner or a wall, can become a bridge. Identity and dialogue are not enemies. Our own cultural identity is strengthened and enriched as a result of dialogue with those unlike ourselves. Nor is our authentic identity preserved by an impoverished isolation.”
Liturgy isn’t personal devotion or private prayer.
We need to apply this same idea to our liturgical prayer. It is possible to remain faithful to Catholic liturgical theology and practice while still making a commitment to authentic dialogue and encounter. The two are not mutually exclusive.
When we refuse to listen, we reveal our own possessiveness of the liturgy. I am guilty of this myself. I have my own preferences, shaped by my experiences of God and community and prayer. I prefer certain physical church buildings over others, certain artistic representations of the divine, certain songs over others. I have deep-seated opinions on how I think liturgy should be celebrated. But I try to remain cognizant that the experiences of other people are just as valid as my own.
With this, authentic liturgical enculturation is not about changing the Mass. It is not about adding ritual or altering prayer text. It is not about somehow enhancing what is already the greatest expression of Christian prayer. Instead, it is an invitation and response to Jesus Christ who says, “Do this in memory of me.” The this is the sharing of the bread and cup, the body and blood of Christ, but it is also a command to follow the very example Jesus set. It is a command to preach the good news, to heal the sick, and to bring life to others. It is a command to willingly choose to be in relationship with those people who society would ordinarily reject. It is a command to make ourselves vulnerable. It is a command to listen and learn. It is a command to love.
This is what happens when we allow liturgical prayer to transform our lives. We remember the past in such a way that we live in the present and look forward to the future. Liturgy transforms us, if we allow it. It forces us to look beyond ourselves so to live not as isolated individuals but instead as treasured parts of a beloved community.
As Christians, we believe that the kingdom of God is both “here” and “not yet.” God is intimately present to us, active in our daily lives. Likewise, we are never not in the presence of God. Yet we still look forward for the time when God’s kingdom will come to full fruition. We look forward to the time when wars will end and all types of injustice will be no more. We look forward to the time when healing replaces division, where friendship replaces fear, where community replaces isolation. And as we wait for the coming of God’s kingdom, we can actively participate in the building of God’s kingdom—here and now.