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Liturgical Game Changers


In his classic work The Spirit of the Liturgy, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger references the Israelites worship of the golden calf at Sinai as an example of mans inclination to profane worship:

“The people cannot cope with the invisible, remote, and mysterious God. They want to bring him down into their own world, into what they can see and understand. Worship is no longer going up to God, but drawing God down into one’s own world.”

Understanding this, it is easy to see why certain liturgical practices-long associated with the traditional Mass and even the Reform of the Reform movement-are so widely opposed. In his post-conciliar zeal to desacralize the Holy Mass, man has no place for either mystery or the transcendent. Setting ones gaze upon God is antithetical to modern anthropocentric worship. This is also the reason why certain traditional practices are nothing less than liturgical “game changers” when restored to the Mass. These game changers are ad orientem worship, the use of Latin in the Liturgy, and the reception of Holy Communion on the tongue while kneeling.

The priest offering the mass ad orientem, facing the altar (or tabernacle) instead of the people, is the first liturgical game changer. This, of course, was the historic manner in which the Church celebrated the Mass for nearly two millennia. As Fr. Joseph Fessio SJ of Ignatius Press noted:

“It has been the practice in the entire Church, East and West from time immemorial. Contrary to a prevailing misconception (even among liturgists) there is no evidence for celebration of Mass coram populo (facing the people) in the first nineteen centuries of the Church’s history, with rare exceptions. (Cf. The Spirit of the Liturgy, by Cardinal Ratzinger, pp. 74-84.) The practice of reducing an altar to a table for a service facing the people began in the 16th century — with Martin Luther.”

Only after having frequented masses offered ad orientem can one truly grasp the relevance and theological richness of this traditional practice. As the entire community presents God with their prayers and offerings, priest and laity alike, it is only fitting that they approach Him together. In his book Turning Towards the Lord, Fr. Uwe Michael Lang writes:

“The catchphrase often heard nowadays that the priest is “turning his back on the people” is a classic example of confounding theology and topography, for the crucial point is that the Mass is a common act of worship where priest and people together, representing the pilgrim Church, reach out for the transcendent God.”


The second game changer is the use of Latin in the Mass. This language of the liturgy has all but disappeared from the Roman Rite over the last five decades. In the weeks prior to the implementation of the Novus Ordo Mass in 1969, Pope Paul VI provided his reasoning for a largely vernacular Mass:

“Understanding of prayer is worth more than the silken garments in which it is royally dressed. Participation by the people is worth more—particularly participation by modern people, so fond of plain language which is easily understood and converted into everyday speech.”

However, the near complete abandonment of the traditional language of the Mass had never been advocated for by Holy Mother Church. Latin was always viewed as a source of unity for the universal Church, both across cultures and centuries. Less than twenty years before the Second Vatican Council, Pope Pius XII reminded the faithful in his encyclical Mediator Dei that the “use of the Latin language, customary in a considerable portion of the Church, is a manifest and beautiful sign of unity, as well as an effective antidote for any corruption of doctrinal truth.” Even Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, reiterated the need for the faithful to be able to say or sing the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin.

In his address at the 2013 Sacra Liturgia conference in Rome, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith explained how the use of Latin was far more than just a matter of preference or aesthetics:

“The liturgical use of Latin in the Church, even though it starts somewhere in the fourth century A.D., gives rise to a series of expressions which are unique and which constitute the very faith of the Church.  The vocabulary of the Credo is quite clearly filled with expressions in Latin which are untranslatable.  The role of the lex orandi in determining the lex credendi of the Church is very much valid in the case of its use of Latin in the liturgy.  For doctrine often evolves in the faith experience of prayer.  For this reason a healthy balance between the use of Latin and that of the vernacular languages should be maintained.”

Of course, Latin represents a significant stumbling block for those who prefer a liturgy which seeks the horizontal over the vertical dimension. Because there is no room for personality or improvisation in a liturgy offered in a “dead” language, it naturally thwarts those who view the Mass as an opportunity for self-expression and innovation. An anthropocentric liturgy cannot tolerate the use of Latin as it prevents the community from celebrating itself.

Additionally, the use of Latin further highlights that the Mass is a sacrifice offered to God. Indeed, it is our participation in the Sacrifice of Calvary, and not simply a communion meal as commemorated by Protestants. This emphasis on the Sacrifice of the Mass is something largely rejected by those ecumaniacs (as Cardinal Heenan called them) who have sought for decades to Protestantize the Catholic Mass.


The third and final liturgical game changer is the reception by the faithful of communion on the tongue while kneeling. Nothing speaks more clearly to our belief in the Real Presence than the manner in which we receive Our Lord during Holy Communion. The traditional practice of receiving the Eucharist on the tongue while kneeling is one of humility and reverence. This public and liturgical affirmation of our belief in the Eucharist is the most counter-cultural thing we do each week. It is the ultimate “Amen!”…the physical manifestation of “I do believe!”

In Dominus Est-It is the Lord, Bishop Athanasius Schneider explains the power behind this manner of receiving:

“Allowing oneself to be fed like a baby by receiving Communion directly into the mouth ritually expresses in a better way the character of receptivity and of being a child before Christ Who feeds us and nourishes us spiritually.”

This of course makes it perfectly clear as to why this is such a game changer. How many Catholics today have the humility to be fed the Body of Christ? How many today truly believe that it is The Lord who they are being asked to kneel down before? Restoring the traditional practice compels the faithful to demonstrate what it is we profess: that this Eucharist is not just ordinary bread. Lukewarm Catholics will not kneel and be fed.

In October 1966, noted Catholic theologian Dietrich Von Hildebrand wrote, “The new liturgy actually threatens to frustrate the confrontation with Christ, for it discourages reverence in the face of mystery, precludes awe, and all but extinguishes a sense of sacredness.” For fifty years the faithful have seen a sense of the sacred extinguished in their parishes through liturgical innovation. It is my hope and my prayer that these liturgical game changers would receive further attention. May that generation of priests and pastors who came of age during the papacy of Benedict XVI seek to implement these practices, and in so doing, better aid the faithful to soar up and encounter God in the Holy Mass.

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