The liturgy of the Church has for its primary aim to honor and glorify God, and in so doing, to sanctify our souls, leading us to an ever deeper intimacy with Jesus Christ. In accomplishing these aims, the liturgy furthers the brotherhood of man: it enables fellowship to exist, for there is common brotherhood only in the common adoration of the Father through His Son. The problem with the notion of “fraternity” is not that it is completely false, but that it has been sundered from the only context in which it makes any sense, the only source from which it can actually come.
Sometimes people of “liberal” or “progressive” persuasions accuse traditionally-minded Catholics of so overemphasizing the transcendent and divine aspects of worship that we neglect the immanent and human aspects—that God gave liturgy to us for our benefit (“the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath”), and that it is a communal activity that expresses and builds up our social bond with one another.
Now, there is no question that liturgy is a public and communal action, and that it redounds to our benefit; God is already absolutely perfect and unchangeably good in every way and cannot be improved by anything we do for Him. It is good and fitting for us to pray to God as a people and to be conscious of our neighbors as fellow citizens of the household of God. (All the same, the public character of the liturgy consists not in any number of people being present, but because of the action of Christ the High Priest as Head of His Mystical Body that extends through time and space; this is why even a “private Mass” offered by a priest alone is still a public and corporate act.)
This being said, we must make sure that our grasp of the meaning of community is sufficiently in tune with the real nature of the Church.
First and foremost, when we worship we are in the presence of God and of His angels and saints. Reverence, solemnity, and majesty belong to worship precisely because it is no mere human gathering, but a momentary opening up of our world to the life and grace of the heavenly Jerusalem. We are joined to all the saved who have worshiped in the past, with all who worship in the present (whether next to us in the pew or anywhere else in the world), and, in a way hidden in God’s foreknowledge and predilection, with all who will worship for ages to come. It is not just “our” worship, the action of this particular local community; it always has a cosmic, universal, transtemporal dimension to it.
The glorious reality of the communion of saints should decisively shape the way we worship publicly. The liturgy in itself is not—and will only be cheapened if it becomes—a gathering for waving to your neighbor, exchanging news, shaking hands, “dialoguing” with an improvisatory priest, or the like. This sort of thing may have its rightful place before and after Mass and outside of the place of worship, but it is certainly not of the essence of the thing, and more often than not it is a serious impediment to participating in the mysteries of the liturgy and attaining those goals at which the liturgy aims.
The experience of community proper to the liturgy is an experience of common adoration, all faces, all hearts turned towards the sanctuary, focused on the divine truths announced and the divine sacrifice renewed. In a paradox well known from the lives of the saints, it is usually when we most forget ourselves and our neighbors in our intense concentration on the Mass that the seeds of true charity towards neighbor and self are most deeply planted in our souls.
Similar observations can be made about the role of speech and song. Unquestionably our souls can be stirred up and our awareness of unity in the church strengthened when we make dignified responses with one voice, or when we join in singing songs with reverent and doctrinally rich words, such as the Gregorian chants continually recommended for our use by the Church. All of this can be a fitting way to nurture and express the faith.
The ideal of full, actual, conscious participation in the liturgy has as its goal the forming of the Catholic soul, the shaping of the Christian character. This suggests what speech and song should not be in the liturgy—an always-having-to-say-or-sing-something approach, which ends up being a kind of busywork, distracting and counter-spiritual, much like exercises in arithmetic given to an ornery pupil who cannot sit still.
“Speech” does not mean filling the air with talk, any more than “song” means a rousing chorus into which all voices must be drafted. The words one speaks should be a response to something one has had opportunity to hear in the silence of the soul; the songs one sings should enrich and instruct rather than fill up gaps in time or give one “something to do.”
From this perspective, one can only hope for a day when priests and others charged with liturgical ministries will appreciate that there should be much space for silence, for meditative reflection, for pondering the age-old sacred texts our holy faith hands down to us, for listening to the uplifting melodies of Gregorian chant. It would be easy and profitable to replace banal songs with Gregorian melodies that have a sweeter tone on the lips and a more lasting influence over the mind; it would be an easy and vast improvement if we could have a quiet church before Mass, a holy stillness during the Canon, and an atmosphere of peace after Mass for those who wish to linger in their thanksgiving (with the celebrant setting the example). Sitting still for five minutes with one’s mind on God requires and fosters more spiritual maturity than singing for an hour.
Our forefathers who worshiped in the traditional Roman rite understood well the value of stillness: “Be still, and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth! The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” (Ps. 46:10-11). The silences of the ancient liturgy give the soul time to absorb the mysteries, to reflect on God’s speaking to us in His revealed Word and Our Lord’s coming to us in the Eucharist; the soul is given a chance to become deeply aware of His mercy, His glory, His presence. “The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.”