In Defense of Liturgy (With a Little Help from the Irish)

I read an essay a while back in which the author said that he never understood liturgy before he went to Notre Dame.1 It was the stadium, though, and not the Basilica that taught him about the importance of ritual. As he wandered the campus, he saw that there were certain things that must be done on a football Saturday: playing corn hole at a tailgate with a red solo cup full of cheap beer in one hand; eating a charred burger cooked by some student organization at a concession stand on God Quad; watching the band step off from the steps of Bond; lighting a candle at the Grotto.2 There was a certain dress code: jeans and an ND t-shirt (polos acceptable on men of a certain age). The game itself was filled with ritual, from the holler heralding kickoff to the keys jingling on third and long, from “we are ND” shouted like they meant it to the “pushups” on top of the crowd every time the Irish found the end zone. This completely unreligious experience was as liturgical as any the writer (an Evangelical, I think) had ever had.

In this supremely ritualized celebration, we begin to see that there is something liturgical about the human person, something that demands ritual and repeated actions. Just as game days and Christmas dinner and road trips take on the same shape each time, so must our worship. It’s unnatural to try to make worship “spontaneous,” as though resisting the urge to revel in what is familiar somehow makes the familiar less sacred, as though spontaneity is the ultimate value in worship, rather than faithfulness and truth.

There is, of course, an Evangelical Protestant inclination to reject “liturgy” because the “liturgical” becomes scripted, rote, stilted. To that I can only reply that all that is holy is liturgical, if by liturgical you mean ritualized and repeated. Every new mother  gazes at her baby with tears in her eyes and murmurs, “He’s beautiful.” Every groom looks on his bride with something like wonder as she walks down the aisle. And everyone watching at a deathbed holds his breath as the dying man takes his last. That our rituals become empty is our fault, not theirs. We coast through the Mass not because it is insufficiently passionate but because we are. If we could see it with new eyes, looking on the football festivities with the eyes of a freshman, not of a professor who’s had season tickets since Ara, we might begin to appreciate the liturgy that combines the passion of a thousand Saints into the unimpassioned droning of a twenty-first century congregation.

But the worse rejection of liturgy, I think, comes from within our own ranks, from those who want to cut some parts, embellish others, and add commentary throughout. Rather than lamenting the “vain repetition” of the Catholic Mass and moving on to their own (often more passionate but rarely less “liturgical”) services, as do our Protestant detractors, they try to change the liturgy that is cherished by so many. They sit during the fight song or drink milk at the tailgate or wear sundresses and pearls. There’s nothing wrong with those things–and yet, there really is.

One consequence of my new itinerant lifestyle is that I find myself at parishes as varied as American Catholics are, often with little advance warning of what I’m about to experience. In the past 6 weeks, I’ve been to Mass in 12 different states at about 35 difference churches, and let me tell you, there are as many ways of being Catholic as there are Catholics. And despite the joys of seeing Catholics of all shapes and sizes coming together for Mass, what’s struck me most has been the liturgical abuses: the Gospel proclaimed to a seated congregation, the Eucharist distributed to EMs before the priest has received, the hand-washing omitted, the precious blood consecrated in a pitcher and then poured into wooden chalices. And I just have to wonder: why?

I know that some of these priests or liturgy committees or parishes really feel that there’s a good reason to change the way Mass is celebrated. But I just go back to football Saturdays. If the band decided that they were going to skip the fight song and play instead a recently-deceased student’s favorite U2 song after every touchdown, that would be kind, but it wouldn’t be appropriate. The stadium would erupt in boos, letters would be written to the school newspaper, and sizable donations would be withdrawn. The fight song is sacred–you don’t mess with that, no matter how compelling the cause.

How much the worse if such a dramatic change was made arbitrarily–let’s say they decided to change from the traditional student-painted golden helmets to some half-black, leprechaun-emblazoned monstrosity for no apparent reason. The outrage would flood facebook like a clever new meme. Whether you loved football or not, you’d be shocked. When I asked my friend Steve if he’d seen the new uniforms, he shrugged: “You know I don’t care much about football.” Then I showed him the new helmet. “That’s not okay!” Because while the uniform itself may change, the helmets shouldn’t. Maybe the color of the helmets doesn’t matter, but the tradition does.

What makes the fight song or the helmet or “May I have your attention please” or pushups sacred isn’t their inherent value; the Irish are no less likely to win a championship with ugly helmets as they are with the lovely gold ones. What gives every moment of every fall Saturday meaning isn’t why we do it but that we do it. That 80,000 people put their arms around each other and sway to the Alma Mater, that we pump our fists like fighting Irishmen when a certain song is played (or keep our arms crossed in an X if we have the misfortune to live in Zahm), that we risk salmonella to eat an undercooked brat–we do that, together. We join as one body and in doing so give meaning to meaningless ritual.

Now, there’s nothing meaningless about the Mass. But there are steps and words and rites whose meaning we might not grasp–or whose meaning we think we understand to be patriarchal or misogynistic or whatnot. Yet there is a sanctity even to these, not because of what they mean, in this instance, but because seeming to mean nothing they mean obedience and unity and faithfulness. They mean that the Mass is home whether I’m in Jerusalem or Jersey. They mean that we have chosen our God and our Church over our own sensibilities. They mean, in an era of jumbotrons and snazzy uniforms, a tradition that goes back generations and honors those who’ve gone before, uniting us with our ancestors in a way that the latest trends in football or worship never could.

Of course, I’m not rejecting top-down innovations like the forward pass or Vatican II. I’m just begging stylists to leave the uniforms alone, players to stay classy, and fans to keep waving the coach’s initials during the 1812 Overture, whatever you think of his coaching abilities. And I’m not condemning anybody; I try really hard not to judge anybody, especially priests, for whom I have a particular love. I’m just begging priests to say what’s in black and do what’s in red, musicians to remember that this isn’t their show, and people in the pews to rejoice in your Church, even if you think you could do it better.

What makes the liturgy magical isn’t just the consecration or the proclamation of the Gospel; it’s the whole glorious game-day package. Chipping away at the parts we don’t like doesn’t do anything but cheapen it. So here’s to glorious football traditions and deep liturgies–may our rituals ever be mystery and our hearts ever rejoice to seek understanding.

  1. I have googled and googled to no avail. Anybody know where I read this? My apologies to the author for this attempt at paraphrase, but my memory of the essay is essential to the point I’m trying to make. []
  2. If you haven’t been to a home game at ND, you’re missing out. []

About Meg

I'm a Catholic, madly in love with the Lord, His Word, His Bride the Church, and especially His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist. I'm committed to the Church not because I was raised this way but because the Lord has drawn my heart and convicted my reason. After 2 degrees in theology and 5 years in the classroom, I quit my 9-5 to follow Christ more literally. Since May of 2012, I've been a hobo for Christ; I live out of my car and travel the country speaking to youth and adults, giving retreats, blogging, and trying to rock the world for Jesus.
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2 Responses to In Defense of Liturgy (With a Little Help from the Irish)

  1. Mike says:

    Your writer sounds like it could be Ralph Wood.

  2. Pingback: What to Do When Mass Is Awful | Held By His Pierced HandsHeld By His Pierced Hands

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