Mass Confusion: Liturgy – What Difference Does it Make?


I’ve been reading through the lively discussion under my last post about laity assuming the orans prayer posture during Mass. In it, I laid out arguments surrounding the topic from the points of view of the USCCB, the liturgical rubrics (a k a the Vatican), a canon lawyer, a priest and a Catholic apologist.

The debate on this will certainly continue in other quarters, but these kinds of questions began for me when I decided to actually find out why we do or don’t do things during Mass.

So, why did I bother to do this in the first place? Because liturgy matters, and even more important than that, understanding liturgy matters.

During my wilderness years before I came back to the Church in which I was baptized and confirmed, like many people, I got interested in the New Age movement. I focused my studies particularly on neo-paganism, specifically modern interest in the purported beliefs of pre-Christian Celts (as you can tell from my name, I’m of predominately Irish heritage)

Although neo-paganism has about as many variants as participants, nature-oriented modern witchcraft, or Wicca, is its most public face. It definitely gets the most screen time, from movies like “The Craft” and “Practical Magic,” to such TV shows as “Charmed” and the new “Witches of East End.”

In the course of meeting some of these folks and reading accounts of people who became Wiccans, I encountered several fellow lapsed Catholics. They had a lot of different stories about why they left the Church and sought out something else, but among the reasons some chose Wicca was one thing that resonated with my childhood experience of not really comprehending the significance of the Mass.

Wicca has developed a set of rituals and also built out a yearly cycle of observances around Celtic holidays like Samhain (modern Halloween) and Beltaine (May Day). Of course, there’s no formal authority controlling any of this, but a common thread is that each person participating in these rituals knows what they’re doing and why they’re doing it (as often as not because they’ve created parts of it themselves).

This has caused me to wonder how many of those lapsed Catholics wound up in Wicca at least in part because they had a hunger for religious rituals in which they knew the reason behind every symbol and gesture. Sadly, their Catholic education and experience somehow hadn’t provided them with that.

If only they – or I – had realized that the Mass is the way of worship laid out for us by Christ, transmitted through His Apostles, developed within the tradition of the Church He founded, and that it contains the most transcendent moment possible – the consecration of the Eucharist.

But the number of people that can be told that and then just accept and follow it in pure faith is dwindling every year among the highly educated populations of Western Europe and the U.S.

At a recent workshop in Gregorian chant, the teacher – who’s been working in church music for many decades – said that people today don’t like to sing a piece unless they understand the meaning behind the words. Even if it’s Latin, once they know what they’re saying, they get enthusiastic and appreciative – if they get a chance to sing it at all.

In some areas, it’s hard to find a parish that regularly features this ancient music of the Church in a liturgy. That’s a little hard to understand, in the light of this:

“The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as proper to the Roman liturgy; therefore, other things being equal, it should be give pride of place in liturgical services.” [Vatican Council II: Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, No. 116]

Unfortunately, because the document says “should” and not “must,” the life’s work of generations of monks, a prayer through song that even some of the least religious among us consider uplifting and ennobling, yields the floor to compositions by such modern composers as Protestant Marty Haugen (which, if you look at this Facebook page, doesn’t sit well with all Catholics).

More on this at another time.

Because we belong to a Universal Church, with a teaching authority in the Magisterium, headed by the pope, we stand upon the shoulders of untold multitudes of clerics, lay scholars and monastics who contributed uncounted hours of study and prayer to the development of the form, words and music that comprise the Mass.

The Church has changed the Mass over the centuries, and no doubt changes will come in the future, but there’s a specific procedure for that, and the final decision rests with the Holy Father alone. We don’t need to make it up ourselves, and out of obedience and respect, we shouldn’t.

Here are some resources to deepen your understanding of the Mass, or introduce it to friends and family, both from the Latin and Eastern Rites.

American Catholic – A Walk Through the Mass: A Step-by-Step Explanation

USCCB: The Structure and Meaning of the Mass

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM, 2011), a downloadable PDF

Common Questions on Liturgical Norms

The Roman Missal, Third Edition (downloadable PDF)

Catholic Chant: Keeping the Faith Through Music

Laudate  (one of several Catholic apps – and the one I use – with the Order of Mass, prayers, preparation for Confession, Sacred Scripture and more, available for both Android and iOS devices.)

iMissal (another popular app for Android and iOS, also available for the Kindle Fire)

Sancta Missa: Tutorial on the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (a k a the Tridentine or Latin Mass).

Latin-English Missal for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (downloadable PDF).

Eastern Rite Catholicism

Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (according to the Byzantine Rite of the Catholic Church)

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

A native of the Adirondacks and Saratoga Springs in northern New York State, journalist and fiction writer Kate O'Hare now lives in Los Angeles, where she's on a neverending quest to find a parish in the L.A. Archdiocese with orthodox preaching, excellent traditional music and parking.

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