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Liturgy reform flounders in sea of ambiguities.

We are now almost 30 years into the post-Vatican II liturgical world. Since the publication of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, there has been a very perceptible reshaping of the worship life of the Roman Catholic church.

Very few worshiping assemblies resemble those of pre-revision days: The use of vernacular languages and a lessening of an almost total uniformity in liturgical practices are there for all to see.

This success is most evident in the restoration of the symbolic character of worship. This applies not only to such obvious symbols as bread, wine, oil, gesture and the like, but also to the symbolic nature of the assembly.

It is all the more surprising, therefore, that there have been repeated calls in the last several years for a new liturgical movement.

Those who urge this new liturgical awakening are not referring primarily to better translations, more eucharistic prayers or even greater laity participation. It is clearly something more radical, something that points to a serious disease in our body of worship which has seemingly fulfilled so many of the aims of the modern liturgical movement.

The recently deceased Mark Searle called for the church to start over its renewal with greater attention to theological depth. This writer remembers William Leonard, one of this century's liturgical pioneers, saying that with all the changes and revisions of worship, people still did not grasp the heart of the paschal mystery. Pat Collins in several of his writings has described the next step of liturgical renewal as the engagement of the imagination in our worship life.

Why these summons which move far beyond anything like sacramentary revisions, better RCIA programs or the restoration of the order of penitents? The answer is obvious to anyone who pays attention to what is going on in the liturgical assembly.

The earlier enthusiasm has often dimmed, and disillusionment has often become the response to the parish's life of liturgy. There are many places where the liturgy is "well done."

There is still excitement to be found in those oases. But in far too many other assemblies there is a fragmentation and a lethargy that make what perhaps was once a creative situation now feel like the four-hymn Mass of old.

Not even the diversification of roles and an increased budget have been able to avoid the business-as-usual experiences of so many parishes. In some cases disenchantment has led to nonuse, as is often the situation with the sacrament of reconciliation.

The post-Vatican II period of liturgical reform had been envisioned as a time of implementation, experimentation and inculturation. Only the first of these, implementation, can be considered to have been taken seriously by the church leadership. There is no question that rites have been reshaped according to the operative principle of restoration for the purpose of pastoral effectiveness.

We have experienced continual revisions, as witnessed by another projected edition of the sacramentary which will be far more sensitive to liturgical language. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy has labored to provide the proper language for worship, and the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy has done yeoman service to implement those various revisions which originated in Rome.

Furthermore, the latter has conscientiously tried to provide specific rituals for the American context.

But we would be hard pressed to find real experimentation or inculturation going on under the auspices of the official church. That the rites have been adapted cannot be denied. But ritual changes such as the Directory for Masses with Children, while commendable in themselves, can only minimally fulfill the criteria for experimentation or inculturation.

What is eventually produced follows along highly predictable lines. This is not to suggest that this call for a new stage in liturgical renewal is simply a request for more open-ended changing of our forms of worship. But it does point to the ambiguities in which the liturgy now finds itself.

Several such ambiguities can be identified. There is the ambiguity of the spirituality which the liturgy is supposed to articulate. The critical issue here is where we tend to locate the sacred.

Liturgy is a public act. But when the worshipers find that their own interior lives are more readily identified as the place where God can be addressed, the value of worship is weakened if not called into question.

The writings of Christopher Lasch (The Culture of Narcissism) and Robert Bellah (Habits of the Heart) have detailed the degree to which American culture has become inward-looking. The resulting cultural malaise has reemphasized a dualistic spirituality in which the search for intimacy has been equated with the seach for God.

And while this can be viewed as a legitimate theological perspective, if it becomes a dominant mode of perceiving the transcendent in peoples' lives, expectations will be placed on the public worship of the church which it will not be able to fulfill.

To put it simply, worship works when we enter it with the desire to contribute to the experience, rather than with an attitude of what one can get from it.

A second ambiguity is what might be called the "new ritualism." In the first place this refers to such instances as when presiders simply read from the book or do not take advantage of all the options provided. How often have we heard that we have a new library but not a new liturgy?

But this reemergence of liturgical legalism is also present when readers and presiders refuse to make the language inclusive, no matter how offensive it may be.

We see the same tendency in Rome's reluctance to be more generous in what it allows the local church to do. Why, for instance, is the laying on of hands in the sacrament of the sick restricted to the priest? Since he alone does the anointing, why not let the participants share in this other caring and concrete gesture?

A third ambiguity is where people experience the church. Is it local community or the larger community of the universal church? Theoretically, there need be no conflict, but only a healthy tension. But the reality is otherwise. The liturgy is to ritualize the experience of the actual worshipers. But the ritual is determined to a great degree by ecclesiastical authorities who often have little sense of the local church.

The Roman rite is the symbolic enactment of the tradition of the larger church of Rome, but if that is the determining factor in the concrete experience, the rite becomes a celebration of something abstract. It is reminiscent of that older view that when the priest "says Mass" by himself, he is not really alone, but the whole church is there. Even if there is a way in which that claim is true, it is hardly credible today.

The local community itself is a mixed message. In what sense is the parish a community? Are not most parishes simply sociological umbrellas under which one finds communities and individuals of differing degrees of commitment?

One of the disappointments connected with the RCIA (Right of Christian Initiation of Adults) has been the fact that after the catechumens have moved through those highly-sponsored various stages of initiation and are ready for full life in the spirit-filled community, they find the community is not all that it could be. In fact, some would accuse the church of false advertising.

And while the liturgical community is not to be modeled after an intimate relationship, still it needs to be intentional. It needs to be pointed out that there are many fine parishes where the RCIA can achieve its intended purpose, but it is also true that many communities are in conflict, whether because the pastor is an obstacle to the people's desire to move ahead, or because the people themselves are frozen into predictable patterns of behavior. Because liturgy is always concrete, the tensions will surface there.

Often the liturgy is the innocent victim. Imagine a community divided between staunch legalists and angry feminists. What chance has liturgy there?

The fourth ambiguity can be described as a symbolic crisis. There is the obvious contrast between the official liturgical symbols and those of popular religiosity. It may be that bread and wine are central eucharistic symbols, but saying so will not make them so. Such symbols need a context wherein they can be read and experienced properly.

Often popular symbols can supply the affect necessary for such a context. Further integration is needed here. A generous acceptance is called for rather than a grudging attitude emerging from a fear of superstition or certain theological niceties. Otherwise we will only continue the pedagogical approach to symbolism that has been so characteristic of the present renewal. We need to rediscover what Robert Bellah years ago called "symbolic realism."

There has been far too much reductionism in the implementation of our liturgy. In our eagerness to make the liturgy more fully intelligible, we have lost a great deal of its metaphoric character.

We have at times become liturgical fundamentalists. The late Robert Hovda warned us that in our search for a more clearly defined and justice-oriented liturgy we can strip away its beauty and sensuality.

We have so stressed the need to remove the clutter from the rites and their environments, have so promoted those renovators who present us well-manicured and immaculately arranged liturgical spaces, that a certain emotional distancing has taken place. A well-arranged sanctuary space with chair, ambo and table on which only the essentials are placed may be liturgically correct. But it might also be sensually anemic.

A fifth ambiguity is that found at the heart of the community, namely, its belief. And if the symbols have become distanced, this problem is compounded. There is no such thing as a single Catholic theology that supports our various practices and rituals. There is surely belief in our assemblies, but in many ways it as a shattered belief.

In the best of situations, the assembly's faith is pluralistic. In the community there is sharp division over issues of sexuality, the meaning of sin and many doctrinal affirmations. All this is relevant for worship.

Think, for example, of the now quite divergent views on Christ's presence in the bread and wine. Differing views have, not surprisingly, caused conflict in the actual worshiping situation, to say nothing of the preparation of the liturgy.

In no area has this become so acute as in the naming of God. Many attempts have been and are being made to make the language more inclusive and to refer to God with more than masculine categories. But this has irritated those who wish to remain with classical gender language. As we continue to make attempts to reimage God, a more feminist perspective will call into question much of the imagery of the liturgy, which is still more male-oriented.

We have had ritual reforms, but what of the changing forms of theology of the church, of the place of Christ in worship and the movement beyond something such as "transubstantiation" in order to speak clearly of Eucharist?

Many of the problems surrounding belief in God surface in situations where the preaching and instruction challenge such sacred cows as the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, namely, that this is not a local presence, not a physical presence, but rather a full symbolic presence where the bread and wine, while being symbols of Christ's body and blood, must also keep their integrity as material things, that is, bread and wine, if there is to be a sacrament here at all.

The sixth ambiguity is the ambiguity of ministry in general. Who are the ministers of the church? In fact, the official church has limited those who might wish to serve in a special way.

There are many liturgical ramifications here: What is actually the role of lay presiders? What is happening to the eucharistic tradition with the increase in the number of communion services? What is the meaning of the installation of ministers when their role is usually exercised by other people?

Is not the de facto situation quite otherwise than the official position regarding the ministries of word and eucharistic sharing? Does this not continue to render the situation ambiguous, if not increasingly incredible?

With the growing phenomenon of "priestless Sundays," is not the Eucharist being held captive? What is really the value that is being maintained here? Many liturgists are concerned that we will again revert to an experience of the eucharistic celebration as equated with "communion."

The ancient fourfold eucharistic action of taking, blessing, breaking and sharing is being lost experientially for the purpose of some nonliturgical reason such as who may preside.

Finally, there is that most traumatic of ambiguities afflicting the current liturgical celebrations, namely, the very ambiguity of the place of women. Readers do not need further treatment of this issue here. But once again, the liturgy suffers.

It is not only that half of the Catholics are marginalized, but that in many countries the majority of the worshipers are left in a liminal state. And the women themselves are ambivalent, moving all the way from those who no longer participate in Roman Catholic Eucharists to those who unequivocally defend the status quo.

But for those who choose to stay and participate and also minister in the liturgy in significant ways, there is an ongoing tension. There is the continual struggle with patriarchal structures, male-dominated texts (although that is improving) and the frustration of thwarted creativity.

Although these women and the men who sympathize with them still participate, we have what can only be called "affective schism." They are forced to pick and choose, to live with a certain amount of alienation, demoralization and loss of idealism.

And yet the prayers and songs of the liturgy speak as if our worshiping community were otherwise. It is increasingly difficult to proclaim something that prescinds from the reality. We have yet to learn how to celebrate in a feminist mode.

This seems to be a litany of woes of the contemporary liturgical scene. But it is equally clear that much has been accomplished and there is much cause for hope. But hope is realistic and not simply a form of optimism.

To turn these ambiguities into strengths and sources of energy, two things must become the focus of a new liturgical movement: social justice and the imagination. Bringing together the liturgy and social justice can provide for a less dualistic liturgical spirituality, a fresh look at old texts and rites and an alleviation of discrimination.

In The Liturgy that Does Justice (Liturgical Press, 1990), the late Dominican Father Christopher Kiesling and I tried to raise the justice aspects of the current liturgy that often lie dormant. It was just a beginning. Society of the Sacred Heart Sister Kathleen Hughes and Viatorian Father Mark Francis have done us a special service in their Living No Longer for Ourselves (Liturgical Press, 1991) with reflective essays on liturgy and justice in the 1990s.

In an article in Modern Liturgy titled "How Does A Just Liturgy Feel?" I tried to speak more directly to liturgy as it pays attention to the feminine dimension, that is, celebrating in a connected mode. These, of course, are not recipes for overcoming the estrangement between justice and liturgy, but they do set the agenda and point in the right direction.

But none of this is possible if the imagination is absent. In the past 15 years, theologians have been paying a great deal of attention to the imagination and its implications for theology (for example, David Tracy, Ray Hart, Margaret Miles, Garret Green and others, as had William Lynch earlier).

The imagination is a kind of crossroads for the entire human psyche and the psyche's relationship to the environment. We need the imagination in order to find the most enlivening balance between our ancient symbols and the new ones arising.

Imagination is at work when we learn to live within the symbols of a tradition. It shapes us and forms us as it helps create that special environment we call the assembly at prayer. Imagination provides the sense of direction and purpose that ensures that creativity is more than mere whim or chaos. Images motivate us because "images think."

Imagination provides the space for an experiential grasp of the transcendent in worship. It draws us into the unknown and unconscious dimensions of our lives. It is here that we find some of those "signals of transcendence" that Peter Berger spoke about years ago.

Our ability to express the mystery of God in liturgy is dependent upon the quality of our imagining. It brings us to the limits of this mystery in a way that reason and will cannot.

It is imagination that makes the wedding of liturgy and social justice a true marriage for it gives the worshipers the alternate images and realistic possibilities out of which they might live in a more just way. In the imagination, past oppressive images can be destroyed or be allowed to atrophy so that they can be replaced by other, more humanizing ones.

Finally, inculturation would be little more than the extrinsic imposing of some kind of grid if the imagination is not guiding the process. In the forge of the imagination are made the links between peoples, between cultures and nations.

Here we build those bridges between our outer and inner lives. For, most of all, the imagination moves beyond our logical ways of thinking and transcends our world of ideas to identify that vision without which worship remains lifeless and empty.
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Author:Empereur, James L.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Dec 11, 1992
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