What Is Good Liturgy?

Fr Pat ODonoghue takes us through some pastoral liturgical pointers…

I want to begin by placing my understanding of the Eucharistic liturgy in the context of the institution narrative of the Gospel of John.

‘They were at Supper… and he got up from table, removed his outer garment and, taking a towel, wrapped it round his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciple’s feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing’. (John 13:4-5)

Service is at the heart of the Eucharistic Liturgy and the example of Jesus sets up the model for our ritual life. Liturgy exists to serve the People of God and, except as an academic study, does not have life without their presence. All those called to service in the Eucharistic Liturgy should have a clear understanding of their role as servants. The celebrant, in particular, is called to lead by example giving life to the witness of Jesus who came ‘to serve and not to be served’. However the call to service does not remain within the confines of the Church building or the particular celebration. The words of dismissal should be ringing in our ears all week – ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’. The fruit of our response to that challenge during the week is an important component of ‘good liturgy’. When we have imitated the sacrifice of Christ by our compassion, generosity, sense of justice and overall selflessness then we truly have something to celebrate and much to give thanks for in our Eucharist.

Justice and Eucharist are inextricably linked. Our concern for having all the Eucharistic gifts within the confines of the large corporal should be matched by our efforts to keep those who are on the margins of our community within the fold of our hearts too. When we come to receive the Body and Blood of Christ we are called, in the words of St. Augustine, ‘to become what we have received’, the Body of Christ. This responsibility to build up the Body of Christ is the challenge of all who gather to share in the Eucharist regardless of our particular role within the liturgy. The spirit of working together for the good of our community should be a mirror image of the spirit of co-operation that exists among those who contribute in their ministry to the public celebration of the Eucharist. In other words, principles, such as the awareness of others’ needs, the openness to others, the practice of charity and compassion, should be evident in the way we celebrate Eucharist together. Any other way is a ‘sham’. Jesus changed the meaning of ritual meals forever by giving his own Body and Blood as nourishment for all.

We should be generous enough to allow others to benefit from that blessing as we in turn nourish the hearts of those we encounter throughout the week. We use the term the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to describe the Eucharist because that is what is at the core of our celebration – the challenge is to live it within and without the liturgy. When I find myself getting worked up about the details of a liturgy the words of Psalmist come to my mind.

‘Your justice I have proclaimed in the great assembly

Your lips I have not sealed you know it. a Lord.

You do no ask for sacrifice and offering but an open ear

You do not ask for holocaust and victim instead here am I’ .

So to answer the question ‘What is good liturgy?’ we must start the journey of discovery from within. We must look at our own disposition towards the liturgy and those with whom we celebrate, regardless of our role, whether as celebrants, ministers of music, welcome, word or Eucharist or if we contribute in any other way to the preparation of the ritual by way of environment or practically as a sacristan. We are in this together whether we like it or not. When there are blocks or divisions then it is difficult for us to have the transparency to allow Christ shine through our words and actions. Regardless of our imperfections it is consoling to realise that despite our best efforts to the contrary Christ has his own unique way of penetrating our celebrations. Let’s not make it too hard for Him by placing our own egos in his path.