One of the most common hang-ups against the Catholic Church from an outside perspective is that it is “too ritualistic” or “too rehearsed”. Comments like these lead people to the idea that the Catholic way of worship is completely and utterly man-made. I used to be on the other side of the fence so I do have a bit of perspective to offer on this subject.
First off, it is the understanding of most evangelical Christians that the manner in which we worship should contain a certain degree of spontaneity. Is this spontaneity for its own sake? Not at all, in fact, spontaneity isn’t even the point of evangelical worship, although it is viewed as somewhat necessary. Whether you attend a “service”, a “mass” or the newly-termed “gathering,” the end by which you justify your means rests in the encounter. How might we encounter God? Much of the differences in worship that we find from denomination to denomination depends greatly on a particular group’s interpretation of Scripture. (p.s. Scriptural interpretation is not where we’re going, that’s another blog, or book, altogether…) Believe it or not, the Catholic liturgy is primarily concerned with an authentic encounter with God, as well.
It is my understanding that many protestant groups have gravitated towards limiting, and even reducing, the established ordering of their services. A beautiful sentiment, really, because the reasoning behind this seeks to leave room for the moving of the Holy Spirit. For those of you reading who only understand “moving of the Spirit”, at least in the protestant sense, as a foreign concept let me explain. As a Catholic, I have come to know God in the Eucharistic sense, the real and physical presence of Christ at each liturgy. For our brothers and sisters who do not recognize the Eucharistic presence of our Lord, they seek to achieve “the encounter” by other means. It is a common belief that there is an ongoing and new revelation happening within the church, public (not just private). The truth of the matter is that all public revelation found its completion in Christ. He is truly the author and finisher of our faith.
Let’s discuss the finisher part that I mentioned. The entire Deposit of Faith is reflected in the contents of Christ’s teaching, particularly in the forty days following his resurrection where he taught about the Kingdom of Heaven. His concluding moments with the apostles included a great commissioning. He commanded the apostles to go out and baptize all nations… teaching them all that He had shown them. From this, and the contents of the New Testament Letters (not to mention, Sacred Tradition), we understand that our faith is one that has been handed down. Our call is to understand and preserve the faith of the apostles, not to change it. In the earliest days, and for most of its history, Christian worship has been more liturgical in its practice. The emphasis of ‘spontaneity’ is actually a more recent development.
Apostolic worship, although consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, was led predominantly by Jews at its inception. In the apostolic worship practice readings from the Torah and the Jewish prophets were a mainstay simply because Jesus commonly spoke about the faith of his upbringing and the prophesies of which he fulfilled. In the eyes of the early Church the Old Testament (as we refer to it) was part of the good news! Afterwards, they would sing the Psalms as a form of praising God and venture right into the letters from the missionaries (other apostles). Then, the focus would go towards the Gospel readings and into a deeper reflection on the divinely-inspired words that have been proclaimed. After this, of course, the focus would shift into the liturgy of the Eucharist.
“When he was at the table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight… Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” – Luke 24:30-31,35
My point is this: the truest encounter one could ever hope to have with Christ on this side of heaven comes to us in the most literal form that it ever could, the Eucharist. When the true presence is not proclaimed, the people are left hungry and thirsting for more. An overwhelming feeling of “there must be more out there” would encompass an entire body of worshipers if the Eucharist is not at the summit. A great oversight such as this seeks compensation in the elevation of private revelation, overstimulation of the senses, and by an ever-shifting understanding of Christian worship. The Catholic liturgy is not dead or man-made. The Mass, as we encounter it, seeks to preserve the living truth that was given to the apostles for the edification of all the Church. This truth of our faith finds itself in the reality of the Eucharist.