Liturgy as Catechism

The Liturgy as Catechism


liturgyascatechism.GIF (7784 bytes)


WITH the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1993, there was great
hope and expectation that this was a tool that would put an end to the widespread
heterodoxy found in catechetical materials throughout the Western world, and yet while the
Catechism has been a record seller, it has not yet produced the desired results. In fact,
Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, OSB, chairman of the U.S. Bishops Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee
the Use of the Catechism, recently reported that every catechetical text submitted to his
committee since the promulgation of the Catechism has serious doctrinal flaws (Origins,
vol. 28, no. 17, October 8, 1998, pp. 291-294).
There are many reasons for this. Even though over 2 million copies of the Catechism have
been sold in the United States, it does not follow that all 2 million buyers have read the
document. In addition, there are a great many people who are unable to understand the
contents of the Catechism as a result of its highly technical and scholarly nature. This,
combined with the fact that so many have been deprived of the true faith for so long,
means that it would be very difficult for the average Catholic to comprehend the contents
of the Catechism without assistance. One cannot overlook the fact that despite the
promulgation of the Catechism, those who are hostile to it still dominate the institutions
of Catholic education.
However, the single most important factor in the lack of implementation of the Catechism
is the fact that the average Catholic does not have exposure to catechetical instruction.
For most Catholics, catechetical instruction takes place at Sunday Mass. Their sole
exposure to Catholic life is at the Sacrifice of the Mass, not in the contents of any
catechism or book.
It is noteworthy to realize that the first written Catechism did not come into existence
until the 16th century. Prior to that, all written works in theology and doctrinal
instruction were solely for those studying for holy orders, monks and nuns. While it is
true that the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas was written for beginners in
theology, it is also true that a beginner in any age will find its contents difficult
material. St. Thomas’s catechetical instructions for the laity consisted of sermons given
to the faithful during the liturgical year. For prior to the writing of catechism books
the liturgy served as the catechism for the faithful. Indeed, the liturgy is still the
primary catechetical tool for transmitting the faith. "Catechesis is intrinsically
linked with the whole of liturgical and sacramental activity, for it is in the sacraments,
especially in the Eucharist, that Christ Jesus works in fullness for the transformation of
men." (Pope John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, #23)

Lex Orandi Lex Credendi

In the address previously cited, Archbishop Buechlein, OSB, makes the following point:
What we teach and how we pray as church are integrally related. Correct doctrine and
consistent practice in worship as well as in the catechetical mission of the Church is
important for the very existence of the Church. There is an old Latin saying, lex orandi,
lex credendi (the law of praying is the law of believing). The saying makes the point that
what we pray and do at worship affects what we believe. The reverse is also true: what we
know in faith affects how we worship and pray. The relationship between doctrine and
liturgical practice is important. Bad theology makes for bad liturgy and weakens faith
(lbid p. 294).
The Archbishop’s point is well taken. Few of us who have been reared in the Church since
the close of the Second Vatican Council can dispute the fact that bad theology has created
a liturgy that is a bad transmitter of the faith to its participants. However, the reverse
is also true. Bad liturgy creates bad theology. If our liturgical practice is
anthropocentric and devoid of symbol and mystery, it necessarily follows that congregants
to such a liturgy will necessarily develop a faith that is horizontal and without mystery.
The Archbishop cited ten deficiencies found in modern catechetical texts, all of which
have helped to create bad liturgy:

  1. "There is an insufficient attention to the Trinity and the Trinitarian structure of
    Catholic beliefs and teachings."
  2. "There is an obscured presentation of the centrality of Christ in salvation history
    and an insufficient emphasis on the divinity of Christ."
  3. "Another trend is an indistinct treatment of the ecclesial context of Catholic
    beliefs and magisterial teachings."
  4. "There is an inadequate sense of a distinctively Christian anthropology."
  5. "There is a trend that gives insufficient emphasis to God’s initiative in the
    world, with a corresponding overemphasis on human action."
  6. "Insufficient recognition of the ‘transforming effects of grace."
  7. "We have found a pattern of inadequate presentation of the sacraments."
  8. "We have seen a pattern of deficiency in the teaching on original sin and sin in
  9. "We have found a meagre exposition of Christian moral life." 10.
    "Finally, we have found an inadequate presentation of eschatology."

Given the principle of lex orandi lex credendi, it follows that what is lacking in our
catechisms is what is lacking in our liturgical practice. One of the original ideas in the
promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was to bring a common and unified
presentation of the faith in the midst of cultural diversity. The problem is that our
liturgical vehicle is intrinsically subjective and particular Thus, it is not consistent
with the aim and spirit of the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The Use of the Vernacular

One of the original intents in allowing for vernacular languages in the liturgy was to
make the liturgy accessible and understandable to the laity. What has resulted is a
nationalization of the liturgy such that different offerings of the same sacrifice bear no
resemblance to one another. What is more, the liturgy has lost the sense of mystery. that
it once held for the faithful. Part of the problem is the fact that the original intent
was intrinsically flawed. The liturgy is in itself a mystery, and as such cannot be. fully
understood. Rather, it is a mystery that is meant to be experienced and contemplated.
It is ironic that a great many young people are attracted to Eastern Orthodoxy, even those
who have no such ethnic attachment to particular forms of Eastern Orthodoxy. Thus, they
attend a liturgy in a language that is unintelligible to them but which attracts them
because it is essentially unchanged and transmits a definitive sense of awe, mystery and
tradition. As
a result, they are eager to learn the new language of their new faith.
The liturgy is certainly an expression or exposition of the Christian mystery. And yet,
like the Church herself, it is fundamentally a mystery. For the eternal triune God comes
to participate in the finite time of men. No language can give full expression or
comprehensibility to this mystery. The liturgical language of Latin in the western Church
maintained in an external symbol the sense of mystery that is essential to Christianity.
More to the point, however, is the fact that it was the will of the Council Fathers to
retain Latin as the official language of the liturgy:
"Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved
in the Latin rites. But since the use of the mother tongue … frequently may be of
advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended. These norms being
observed, it is for the competent territorial Ecclesiastical authority to decide whether,
and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used" (Sacrosanctum
, #36, 1,2,3).
It is evident that the vernacular language was to be the liturgical exception rather than
the rule, though one would never know this from contemporary liturgical practice and
experience. The Code of Canon Law seems to reiterate the will of the Council Fathers where
it decrees that: "The Eucharist is to be celebrated in the Latin language or in
another language provided the liturgical texts have been legitimately approved"
(Canon 928). It is interesting to note that the Canon first mentions Latin, and then
secondarily vernacular texts that have received approbation, implying that Latin continues
to be the norm in the sacred liturgy. Even our Holy Father has mentioned this abuse as
recently as October 9, 1998, in his address to American bishops on their ad limina visit
to Rome. "The use of the vernacular has certainly opened up the treasures of the
liturgy to all who take part," he stated, "but this does not mean that the Latin
language, and especially the chants which are so superbly adapted to the genius of the
Roman rite, should be wholly abandoned. If subconscious experience is ignored in worship,
an affective and devotional vacuum is created and the liturgy can become not only too
verbal but also too cerebral."
The only place one can find adherence to this principle are in those authorized
celebrations of the Roman Rite according to the liturgical books of 1962. It is a wholly
foreign idea to present day liturgical practice in the so-called reformed Roman rite.

Meal vs. Sacrifice

One of the most profound emphases of the post-conciliar liturgy has been the stressing
of the liturgy as a sacred meal or banquet. While it is true that the primary element of
the Mass as a sacrifice has not been denied or omitted, it is also true that its role has
been diminished in favor of the idea of the sacred meal or banquet. The problem with such
an emphasis is that it places the anthropocentric element in primacy over the theocentric
What is more, it overlooks an element of basic common sense. In order to have a meal
something must first die before we can eat it. To give an everyday example, we could not
eat chicken and salad for dinner without the chicken and vegetables first dying. In the
same way, we cannot partake of Holy Communion – the body and blood of Our Lord – without
His sacrificial death taking place first. The aspect of sacred meal is necessarily
dependent on and secondary to the sacrifice of Christ. And yet in our present day liturgy
it is exactly the reverse. Is it any wonder that a significant majority of Catholics in
the United States do no believe in the Real Presence, and believe that the Mass is merely
a commemorative meal? Again, the fault lies not so much with bad theology but with bad

Images and Symbol in Liturgy and Church Architecture

In a penetrating essay in the October 1998 issue of Crisis magazine, H. Reed Armstrong
makes the argument that liturgy, art and architecture affect the belief of the faithful.
He reminds us that art and architecture are integral and essential elements of Christian
liturgy, and forms part of the principle of lex orandi lex credendi:
In manifesting the underlying principles of the Catholic faith, liturgical art is integral
to both the lex orandi (mode of prayer) and the lex credendi (mode of belief) of the
Church. The age-old axiom lex orandi lex credendi originated with the solemn
pronouncement of Pope Celestine I, legem credendi statuit lex orandi, regarding
the definition of Mary as Theotokos, Mother of God …. His words implied that the liturgy
of worship is a chief instrument in the perpetuation of true doctrine. Many centuries
later, Pope Pius XII, in his 1947 encyclical on the liturgy, Mediator Dei, pointed out
that the reverse is also true: Lex credendi legem statuat supplicandi (the true faith must
establish the mode of prayer). In short, what the Church believes and how she prays are
intrinsically one – and the liturgical arts form a part of this union.’
When a person entered a church built in classical styles, the entire form of the church
was a lesson of faith. The Transceptual church formed the shape of a cross, with the
sanctuary as the head of Christ, the transcepts and nave representing His body. In the
same way, the use of stained glass images, paintings and frescoes that depict scenes from
the Bible and the lives of the saints, served as teaching tools that would help in the
transmission of the faith.
This is true of the liturgy as well. St. Thomas Aquinas points out that every word and
gesture of the liturgy is filled with significance and meaning: "There is a twofold
manner of signification in the sacraments, by words, and by actions, in order that the
signification may thus be more perfect. Now, in the celebration of this sacrament (Holy
Mass) words are used to signify things pertaining to Christ’s Passion, which is
represented in this sacrament; or again, pertaining to Christ’s mystical body, which is
signified therein; and again, things pertaining to the use of this sacrament, which use
ought to be devout and reverent. Consequently, in the celebration of this mystery some
things are done in order to represent Christ’s Passion, or the disposing of His mystical
body, and some others are done which pertain to the devotion and reverence due to this
Sacrament." (ST 111, 83,
In the response to objections in the same article, St. Thomas cites several examples from
the liturgy to denote the significance of the symbolic gestures of Holy Mass. To give an
example, the Angelic Doctor states that: "Five times does the priest turn round
towards the people, to denote that Our Lord manifested Himself five times on the day of
His Resurrection. But the priest greets the people seven times, namely, fives times, by
turning round to the people, and twice when not turning round, namely, when he says ‘The
Lord be with you’ before the Preface, and again when he says, ‘May the peace of the Lord
be ever with you’, and this is to denote the seven fold grace of the Holy Ghost. But a
bishop, when he celebrates on festival days, in his first greeting says, ‘Peace be to
you’, which was Our Lord’s greeting after Resurrection, Whose person the bishop chiefly
represents" (lbid, ad 6).
Of course, St. Thomas was referring to the form of the Roman Rite prevalent at that time,
the form of which is almost identical to that liturgy which immediately preceded the
Second Vatican Council. Space prevents quotation of the entire article cited above, though
it is worth reading to discover the significance of many words and gestures that are, or
ought to be, present in the liturgy.

The Root of the problem

While progress has been made since the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic
Church in the area of doctrinal orthodoxy, the full solution to the problem will not come
to fruition until the crisis in the liturgy is addressed. For th6 past three decades we
have suffered under a liturgy that does not adequately transmit the faith to the people of
God, and since the liturgy is the primary catechetical source for the faithful, it
necessarily follows that our solution can only lie in a return to the perennial traditions
of the Roman rite.
It is true that bad theology existed prior to the liturgical reforms of Pope Paul VI, but
the poisonous results of bad theology did not affect the laity because the liturgy
continued to transmit the fullness of the faith in its words, forms, and gestures, as also
in its music, art and architecture. When the liturgy was drastically changed and
promulgated without access to the pre-conciliar liturgical forms – something unparalleled
in the history of the Church – then and only then did the faithful feel the effects of bad
theology. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger cites the reform of the Roman Calendar as one such
One of the weaknesses of the postconciliar liturgical reform can doubtless be traced to
the armchair strategy of academics, drawing up things on paper which, in fact, would
presuppose years of organic growth. The most blatant example of this is the reform of the
Calendar: those responsible simply did not realize how much the various annual feasts had
influenced Christian people’s relation to time. In redistributing these established feasts
throughout the year according to some historical arithmetic – inconsistently applied at
that – they ignored a fundamental law of religious life."’
(Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Feast of Faith Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1986,
pp. 81-82.)
Several aspects of the liturgical renewal have been cited above as negative developments
of the Faith. These criticisms are not merely academic, for they derive from the
experience of the average person in the pew. Empirical evidence is abundant, am it would
be eye opening for everyone to conduct this or experiment: The next time you attend Sunday
Mass, look around the church and pay close attention to the people in the pew. What is
their age and disposition? The vast majority of Roman Catholic churchgoers is older. ‘Mere
is not a plethora of young people in attendance at Sunday Mass. For the past thirty years
this has been blamed on the failure of modem catechesis, but this is clearly false. So too
is the reference to materialism and secularism a cause of the decline in churchgoing among
the young.
In many ways both poor catechesis and secularism have always been with us, and yet the
young people continued to attend Holy Mass. What is unique to our time is that we now have
liturgy that has no connection and continuity to any previous liturgical forms of the
Roman Rite. At this point someone will counter and cite the liturgical books under current
use in the Latin form and defend their orthodoxy. The orthodoxy of the official liturgical
texts is not at question, for such a liturgy does not exist anywhere in the West. The
common experience of the faithful is the banality of bizarre innovations and subjective
celebrations of the liturgy that are solely along the lines of the horizontal. Is it any
wonder that many flee their parishes for the Eastern rites or authorized celebrations of
the traditional Roman Rite according to the liturgical books of 1962 while those that
remain either devolve from a Catholic theology to a belief system that is wholly heterodox
or at best endure patiently these travesties until relief comes?
The liturgy is no longer a transcendent action that is filled, with awe and mystery. It
does not inspire or attract people to Christ in the way that the ancient traditional Roman
Rite has done for so many centuries. Can one honestly attribute this quotation from Oscar
Wilde, a great sinner who eventually converted to the Catholic Faith, to the contemporary
It was rumoured of him once that he was about to join the Roman Catholic communion; and
certainly the Roman ritual had always a great attraction for him. The daily sacrifice,
more, awful really than all sacrifices of the antique world, stirred him as much by its
superb rejection of the evidence of the, senses as by the primitive simplicity of its
elements and the
eternal pathos of the human tragedy that it sought to symbolize. He loved to kneel down on
the cold marble pavement, and watch the priest, in his stiff, flowered vestment, slowly
and with white hands moving aside the veil of the tabernacle, or raising aloft the
jewelled lantern shaped monstrance with that pallid wafer that at times, one would fain
think, is indeed the panis coelestis, the bread of angels, or, robed in the garments of
the Passion of Christ, breaking the host into the chalice, and smiting his breast for his
sins. The fuming censers, that the grave boys, in their lace and scarlet, tossed into the
air like great gilt flowers, had their subtle fascination for him.’
Even for a non-believer, the ancient Roman liturgy spoke to him of the Passion of Christ,
the very lesson it is supposed to convey, as St. Thomas Aquinas mentioned over seven
hundred years ago. The contemporary liturgy as currently offered no longer conveys that
essential meaning, and as a result souls are not attracted to Christ and the crisis of
faith among Catholics exists and persists.

A Solution at Hand?

It would be nice to believe that the liturgy will reform itself, and that a
"reform of the reform" will take place, but quite the opposite is happening. A
new lectionary has already been approved, and is being used, that employs inclusive
language in the texts of Sacred Scripture. Nowhere in the Western world is the official
text of the Roman Missal of 1970 in use, nor in any place are the norms of the Second
Vatican Council regarding the use of Latin and Gregorian chant in the liturgy obeyed, save
in those communities that offer the Holy Mass according to the Latin liturgical books of
The faith cannot be transmitted in a mere intellectual presentation as found in catechisms
and textbooks. It must be transmitted through the liturgy which speaks not only to our
mind, but to our senses, our hearts and souls. As long as the liturgy remains a merely
cerebral, subjective experience devoid of beauty, mystery, and objectivity the crisis of
faith will persist.
The faithful simply cannot wait any longer for a new development or a "reform of the
reform." They are being catechized each day in the liturgy while not receiving the
whole doctrine of faith in it. Parents can no longer be expected to teach their children
the Catholic faith at home with sound materials and at the same time attend a liturgy
where they encounter that which is not consonant with what they learned in the Catechism.
Such a socialization leads to a schizophrenia and fragmentation of the Christian life.
Catholics should not be required to live the life of a liturgical refugee, running hither
and yon in the never ending search for a Catholic liturgy. Nor should the crisis of faith
continue with the ever evolving subjective application to the current liturgy. For those
who wish to remain in the Roman Rite, there is an alternative given to us by our Holy
Father Pope John Paul II:
It is necessary that all the Pastors and the other faithful have a new awareness, not only
of the lawfulness but also of the richness for the Church of a diversity of charisms,
traditions of spirituality and apostolate, which also constitute the beauty of unity in
variety: of that blended ‘harmony’ which the earthly Church raises up to Heaven under the
impulse of the Holy Spirit …. Moreover, respect must everywhere be shown for the
feelings of all those who are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition, by a wide and
generous application of the directives already issued some time ago by the Apostolic See,
for the use of the Roman Missal according to the typical edition of 1962 [motu proprio Ecciesia
, 5a; 6c].
It is the only solution that is at this time tenable, for we know that this form of the
liturgy has nourished and formed countless saints and martyrs, while we cannot be certain
of new experiments hatched in the hives of academia that have no connection or continuity
to tradition and Christian living. It is a liturgy full of Catholic doctrine and symbol
that transmits the faith in a more perfect Way than the post-conciliar liturgy.
To those who think such a solution is in contradiction to the norms of the Second Vatican
Council, it would seem to be incumbent upon them to truthfully answer two questions: Where
are the specific contradictions between the liturgy of 1962 and the teachings of the
Second Vatican Council? (to sufficiently answer this question, it is necessary to cite
specific texts in both the Council documents and the Missal of 1962), and which liturgy is
a better expression of the Catholic faith as contained in the official Catechism of the
Catholic Church?



Una Voce America