PARISH CELEBRATION OF THE LITURGICAL YEAR

IMG_0883Rev. Fr. Reginald R. Malicdem

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 Introduction

 The liturgical life of the parish centers on the celebration of the sacraments and the liturgical year.  We could even claim that the whole life of the parish revolves around the celebration of the sacraments and the liturgical year.  Remove these celebrations and there is no reason for people to gather.  Without these celebrations all the other aspects of the parish life will have no substance.  This proves that the liturgy is truly culmen et fons, “the summit toward which the activity of Church is directed; at the same time it is the fount from which all the Church’s power flows.”[1] The entire life and activity of the parish are directed towards the liturgy and from the liturgy all the activities of the parish flow.  The sacraments and the liturgical year give life, meaning, and direction to the parish.

The celebrations of the liturgical year include Sunday, as the weekly celebration of the resurrection of the Lord, the temporal cycle, that is, Easter Triduum, Lent, Easter season, Christmas, Advent, and the Ordinary Time, and the sanctoral cycle, that is, the feasts of Mary and the saints.  I do not intend to discuss all these here because of limited time and because we already have had several occasions to discuss the liturgical year and their theological, historical, liturgical, and pastoral aspects. There is no need to repeat them here.

 In this sharing, I wish to focus on an invitation, and even a challenge, to make our parish celebration of the liturgical year spiritually enriching and socially relevant.

 The “Circularity” of the Liturgical Year

I began by saying that the liturgical life of the parish revolves around the celebration of the sacraments and the liturgical year.  This means that year after year, our parish communities celebrate the same liturgical seasons which follow the same liturgical norms and use the same prayers and readings.  In short, the parish celebration of the liturgical year is almost the same every year. The liturgical year is a cyclical memorial of the mystery of Christ. The annual celebration of the mysteries of Christ returns in the anni circulus.  The celebration of the liturgical year, by nature, is “circular” or “cyclical”.

This is something that we should be cautious about.  Because of the “circularity” or the “cyclical” nature of the liturgical year, there is a danger to confuse our annual celebrations with the fatalistic idea of eternal return of the seasons.  This is seen in concrete in our parishes.  When we plan for our liturgical celebrations, the parish priest simply says, “same as last year,” and, almost automatically, all those involved in the liturgy, even the sacristan mayor, know what to do – what decorations to bring out and what to keep, what repertoire of songs to be used and what will not be used, what activities must be planned out and what preparations must be done.  Because the seasons are just repeated every year, there is nothing new.  Everything is just a repetition.

The invitation is to look at our annual parish celebration of the liturgical year as a time that repeats itself, not in a cyclical movement, but like a spiral progressing towards the parousia. The repetition of the celebrations, year after year, offers the Church an opportunity to have a continuous and uninterrupted contact with the mysteries of the Lord.[2]  Odo Casel captures this concept in a beautiful imagery: “Like a path that goes around and up a mountain, slowly making the ascent to the height, we are to climb the same road at a higher level, and go on until we reach the end, Christ himself.”[3]

The challenge, therefore, is to celebrate the same liturgical seasons but in an entirely new way.  We hear the same prayers, we proclaim the same readings, we witness the same rituals, but they are different from how we celebrated the past year.  In our liturgical planning, an essential question to ask is, how will we make our celebrations of the liturgical year this year different from the celebrations we had last year?  And as we evaluate our celebrations, we must also ask: did our celebrations this year enable us to make an ascent to a different height? Did we travel the same road but, this time, at a higher level?  Or did we just repeat everything as if going through a cycle that goes nowhere?  Was there growth? Was there improvement?  Were there better quality, meaning, and significance to our celebration?  This is not just about gimmicks and creative elements that we add to our rituals.  This is about how the liturgy becomes relevant to the people, how the prayers and readings speak to them at this particular moment of their lives as individuals and as a community, and how the celebrations and rituals relate to their own lives.

The Call to Relevance

One way to make our parish celebration of the liturgical year meaningful is to make it relevant to the lives of our communities.  Is the liturgical year still relevant to people of today?  How do the celebrations of the liturgical year respond to the needs and concerns of our parishioners and of humanity?  These questions cannot be neglected for to do so would set aside the liturgical year, and the liturgy as a whole for that matter, to the realm of the spiritual detached from concrete human experience.

Unfortunately, there are groups in the Church that believe that there should really be no connection between the liturgy and the realities of human life.  They believe that the liturgy should be an experience of the “other world” detached from the realities of this world.  They argue that the liturgy is an experience of the mystery, and because it is “mysterious” it cannot be understood. It is alien to us. It is not something that we could not relate to.  The more it is not understood, the more it becomes a pleasing worship to the Father.

But the human person who celebrates the liturgy is the same person who faces the ordeals of daily living.  Thus, “it is imperative that all people who are responsible for the Church’s liturgy – and this means in the last analysis the whole worshipping community but especially those charged, whether ordained or not, with special responsibility for the Church’s worship – must seek out ways for Christian worship to reflect a response to the contemporary world.”[4]

Throughout history, the Church has strived to make herself and her liturgy relevant to the people.  A cursory look at the history of the liturgy shows that the Roman rite evolved and changed over the centuries, often for pastoral reasons, because it tried to accommodate and adapt to the cultural and practical needs of the Church.  Throughout history, the Church has continually worked quite intentionally at contextualizing and incarnating the Roman rite with the diverse cultural contexts in which it is lived and celebrated.[5]

Vatican II, as a pastoral council, enshrined this call to relevance by making as one its aims – “to adapt Church institutions to present-day needs.”[6]  Aggiornamento thus became one of the catchwords of Vatican II. Aggiornamento means dialogue with reality.  It means re-structuring, re-inventing, re-creating the system in order to serve the present needs of the faithful.  Aggiornamento means being pastoral.[7]  Aggiornamento means being relevant.

To achieve this aggiornamento, Vatican II started with the reform of the liturgy which had the call to active participation, as its foundation, principle, and criterion. The call to active participation, therefore, also means a call to relevance.

Active participation is a two way process.  It is not just about the faithful actively participating in the liturgy through words, songs, gestures, and interior participation.  It is also about the liturgy actively participating in the lives of those who come and worship.  These two movements go hand in hand.  The people will be able to fully, actively, and consciously participate in the liturgy if the liturgy fully, actively, and consciously participate in their lives.  People could pray well, sing with all their hearts, and join in the worship if the words, the songs, the readings, and the formularies all speak about what they go through, their concerns, their preoccupations, and their lives.  And all these we bring in worship to the Father.

Even the concept of adaptation, or inculturation, is also a call to relevance.  It is not just about any creative attempt to revise the liturgy.  At the heart of inculturation is the desire of the Church to make the liturgy relevant, something that the people could claim as characteristically theirs, something that they could say their own.

Many may argue that the liturgy is not about us.  It is about God.  And that is right.  The focus of the liturgy is the worship of the Father, in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit.  But that is not complete. While the liturgy is about God, we must not forget those who gather to worship.  I think even God would not be pleased if all we care about is he.  Let us be reminded of what the beautiful preface (in the old translation) says, “You have no need of our praise.  Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to your greatness but makes us grow in your grace.” As we fix our gaze on God.  He, in turn, fixes his gaze on us.  As we glorify him, he sanctifies us. It is about God.  But for God it is also about us.[8]

A few Sundays ago, our Gospel was about Jesus walking on the water.[9]  Jesus let his disciples cross the lake but he was not with them.  Jesus went to the mountain to pray.  Have you ever wondered how Jesus, while on the mountain, deep in prayer and worship of the Father, knew that his disciples were in trouble?  This episode in the life of Jesus and his disciples tells us that one who is truly in communion with God is never detached from what is happening to others.  One who is truly one with God is not insensitive to the needs of others.  The more we worship God, the more we become a true brother or sister who responds to the cries of others, who go to them, run to them, and, if need be, walk on the water, just to save them.

 

This call to make our liturgy relevant is consistent with the example of Jesus who by his incarnation made God relevant to the world.  Jesus did not speak about consubstantiality and theology.  He spoke about birds in the air and flowers in the field.  Jesus did not use highfaluting words or taught confusing doctrines.  He spoke about mustard seed, weeds and wheat, salt and light. At the heart of the ministry of Jesus is his response to the needs and concerns of the people.  He healed the sick.  He freed those possessed by evil spirits.  He raised the dead back to life.  He fed the hungry crowd.  What the needs of the people were became the concerns of Jesus.  He contextualized his teachings on the experience of his listeners.  He made his ministry relevant to the people.

Some contemporary Western liturgical commentators admit that in the West the liturgical year has sadly become irrelevant to people’s lives.  One finds it difficult to relate the reality of one’s life to the celebrations in the liturgical calendar.  John Baldovin comments, “The liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church and other mainline Christian Churches is indeed problematic today, for it presupposes in many ways a social and cultural world that no longer exists. . . The liturgical year and our own socio-cultural calendars do not match.  It is extremely difficult for the liturgical year to mold people’s everyday experience.”[10]

What adds to the tension of the seeming irrelevance of the liturgical year is what Baldovin calls as the “antifestal situation of modern society.”[11]  He observes that “modern society does not lend itself well to feasts.  The time off, necessary for the feast, does not seem easy to come by, and increasingly other activities compete for the time of Christians.  Unless Christian feasts are made to coincide with civic holidays (a venerable solution), most feasts will be celebrated in the evening, after work.”[12]

In the Philippines, however, the situation is greatly different from what was described.  If in the Western experience the liturgical year seems to be irrelevant, detached from people’s lives, and even obsolete, in the Philippines, thanks be to God, the liturgical year continues to shape the life of the people.  It is still very much tied to the cultural and sociological aspect of people’s lives.  But we must not succumb to mediocrity lest we suffer the same fate of the Church in Europe and in America.  We need to constantly find ways to make the liturgical year meaningful and relevant to the lives of our faithful.

Making the Liturgical Year Relevant

A liturgy that is relevant to the lives of the faithful is what Fr. Anscar Chupungco calls as a truly pastoral liturgy.  He wrote,

I maintain that pastoral sense and common sense are two essential requirements of a truly meaningful and memorable liturgy.  When natural or human-made disaster strikes a community, the nation, or the world, the priest cannot ignore it, as if nothing had happened, by simply reciting verbatim the introductions in the Holy Mass.  At the end of the day, what matters is not a scrupulous observance of rubrics and Church-related texts, but salus animarum.  I recall that my professor, Fr. Salvatore Marsili, had observed how some bishops and priests regarded liturgical texts, which are ecclesiastical in origin, as untouchable as the word of God.  ‘Sometimes,’ he noted, ‘they have no qualms about changing the words of Scripture but are absurdly scrupulous when it comes to modifying liturgical texts.[13]

Fr. Anscar even invited us to maximize our options which the official books provide and select for Mass other readings and prayers that are more appropriate to the occasion, as when floods or earthquake or fire had killed people and ruined homes, murder had been committed in the community, or on a positive side when God had blessed the farmers with bountiful harvest: that is pastoral liturgy and common sense.  It would be insensitive if such events, both positive and negative, happened in our parish community and nothing is even heard about it at the Sunday liturgy.  The liturgy is not celebrated in a vacuum or in the medieval past.  It cannot be totally unmindful of what happens in the community and the world.  Rubrics should not take precedence over the spiritual needs of the people.[14]

There are many ways to do this.  We can integrate it in the introduction of the Mass, in the homily of the priest, and in the petitions of the prayer of the faithful.  How many times have we settled to use the prepared prayer of the faithful in books and in the missalettes where the petitions do not even speak about the particular needs of our parishioners? We could select liturgical songs whose lyrics speak to the concrete experiences of our people.  In the annual celebration of our parish fiesta, how could our celebration reflect the realities of our community?  This calls for a very careful preparation, both external and internal.  It is not an easy task and will need much reflection, consultation, and planning.  It necessitates a good formation of the clergy and the laity and a constructive cooperation between the two.  It demands being immersed in the lives of the parishioners in order to be more grounded to their experience.

I remember that after typhoon Yolanda, Cardinal Tagle asked us, priests and laity of the Archdiocese of Manila, to gather in an evening of prayer.  He called it a “Liturgy of Lamentation.”  By using the lamentations in Scriptures, especially in the book of Psalms, we collectively expressed the sorrow, pain, and mourning we felt as well as our empathy with the victims and their families.

Last Holy Thursday, for the washing of the feet at the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Cardinal Tagle decided to wash the feet of those involved in the government’s fight against illegal drugs.  Among those whose feet he washed were surrenderers, former drug addicts, a mother whose son who was killed by the police, policemen, barangay officials, government officials, and volunteers of rehabilitation centers.  For the offerors, we chose two refugees and victims of human trafficking who are housed at the Hospicio de San Jose in Manila.  This made our Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper meaningful, a living out of the mandatum of Jesus, a response through the liturgy to the events in society.

Another element that could make the liturgical year relevant is the Ember Days.  The determination of Ember Days was left to the discretion of national conferences of bishops.[15]  These celebrations originally had a penitential and supplicatory theme, particularly related to the prayer for favorable weather. In contemporary times, there is no reason why such celebrations cannot be remodeled to focus more on the pressing needs and concerns of the local community, the diocese, the country, or even of the whole world.

A possible modification of the Ember Days could be the inclusion of the Season of Creation in the national or particular calendar. It is a period when the faithful are called to thank God for the gift of creation, are made aware of current ecological problems and concerns, and are encouraged to become responsible stewards of God’s creation. This celebration, which has long been part of the church calendar of some Protestant and Orthodox churches, has been gradually being adopted in some dioceses in the Philippines.  In the Archdiocese of Manila, the Season of Creation was first celebrated in 2013, ten years since the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines called for its introduction to the Philippine Church.[16]  The Season of Creation usually opens on September 1, in solidarity with other Churches in the world who observe this day as Creation Day, and end on October 4, the memorial of St. Francis of Assisi, whose life manifested his pure love for all of God’s creation.

Another area worth looking into is the feast of saints.  History proves that it is the feast of saints that provided local identification for the Church.  “People relate best . . . not to ideas but to flesh and blood human beings who exemplify for them, in the contemporary cultural circumstances, what it means to be in Christ, to be grasped by the power of God . . . Saints here are far more than models for moral imitation; they are tangible reminders that God’s power has been at work in human beings.”[17]

When Vatican II revised the liturgical calendar and reduced the number of feasts of saints, one criterion used was the saint’s significance, as the Constitution on Liturgy desired.[18]  In the reform of the calendar, it was considered that saints be represented from various parts of the world and different historical epochs to bring out the universality of holiness, both geographically and chronologically.  Thus, we have in the calendar saints from every continent and from every century.

But there is more that we could do in the sanctoral cycle.  In order for the calendar to make an impact on contemporary society, saints who can inspire people to holiness and to work for unity, justice, and peace must be seriously considered for inclusion in the calendar.  Saints to whom our parishioners have a special devotion, because of work, livelihood, social conditions, or common experience, could be declared secondary patrons of our parishes, after petitioning the bishop and the approval by him.

The challenge to make the liturgical year relevant must lead to creative ways of making the liturgy truly responsive to the concrete realities of contemporary human life.  The many issues and concerns that face the present world can and must all be integrated in our liturgical celebrations.  This integration, however, must be met with popular acceptance and must still respect the nature of the liturgical year.  A religious faith is worthless if it has nothing to offer to satisfy the needs that people experience.[19]

Conclusion

 Finally, let me say something that is part of my personal liturgical advocacy. The invitation to make our liturgical celebrations relevant and meaningful, something that does not go in circles but ascends and moves higher and higher, is applicable not only to our parochial celebrations of the liturgical year.  Stretching the argument a little further, this also applies to our liturgical discussions, conferences, seminars, and classes, which have oftentimes been restricted to the discussion of do’s and don’ts.  Every time we attend liturgical seminars we simply discuss, and even debate, on what should be done and what should not be done, on what is liturgical and what is unliturgical.  Those who attend our classes and conferences go back to their parishes telling their priests the wrong things that they do.  Is this all there is to the liturgy?  Are we not just going into the fatalistic idea of eternal return?  Or is there something more, something deeper, something more relevant and with substance?

There is more to the liturgy than the rubrics and useful and practical concerns.  There is more to the question “who, how, where, or when?”  That more is the “what” or the nature and purpose of the liturgy.  If the liturgy is not studied contemplatively and beyond what is rubrical, practical, and useful, then we will be left to a shallow understanding of the liturgy, something that is concerned only with the externals.[20]  This makes us no different from those who claim to be “conservatives” and “traditionalists” who criticize every mistake done in the liturgy, who prey on priests who commit liturgical abuses, and who spend their time looking at pictures posted on social media that they could bash on.

The Constitution on the Liturgy reminds us that, “when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observance of laws governing valid and lawful celebration.  It is also their [of the pastors] duty to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by their effects.”[21]  That “something more,” if discovered, makes the celebrations of the liturgical year and other liturgical celebrations in our parishes meaningful, relevant, something that people could relate to, something that they could own, something that is truly pastoral.  This makes our liturgy alive.  This proves that the liturgy is our life.

That in all things God may be glorified.

Sources:

[1] Second Vatican Council, “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium (4 December 1963)” 10.  Henceforth SC.

[2] Cf. M. Augé, “A Theology of the Liturgical Year,” in Handbook for Liturgical Studies 5: Liturgical Time and Space, ed. A. J. Chupungco (Collegeville, 2000) 322.

[3] O. Casel, The Mystery of Christian Worship (Westminster, 1962) 63.

[4] J. Baldovin, SJ, “The Liturgical Year: Calendar for a Just Community,” in Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year, M. Johnson, ed. (Collegeville, 2000) 429-430.

[5] Cf. K. Pecklers, The Genius of the Roman Rite. On the Reception and Implementation of the New Missal (Collegeville, 2009) 20-21.

[6] SC 1.

[7] Cf. A. Chupungco, Pastoral Liturgy: Shepherding God’s (Manila, 2013) 9.

[8] Cf. Ibid., 110: “There are two persons essentially involved in Christian worship: Christ and the Church.”

[9] Cf. Matthew 14, 22-33.

[10] Baldovin, “The Liturgical Year,”432.

[11] J. Baldovin, SJ, “On Feasting the Saints,” in Between Memory and Hope, ed. M. Johnson (Collegeville, 2000) 382.

[12] Ibid., 381.

[13] Chupungco, Pastoral Liturgy, 27.

[14] Cf. Ibid., 130-131.

[15] Cf. Sacred Congregation of Rites, General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar (21 March 1969), 45-47.

[16] Cf. Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, A Pastoral Statement of the CBCP Permanent Council “Celebrating Creation Day and Creation Time” (1 September 2003).

[17] Baldovin, “The Liturgical Year,” 436.

[18] Cf. SC 111.

[19] Baldovin, “The Liturgical Year,” 444.

[20] Cf. Chupungco, Pastoral Liturgy, 129.

[21] SC 11.

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