Liturgy in the Modern World

Celebrating the Eucharist: Sacrifice and Communion ed. Gerard Deighan (Smenos, €20.00 + p&p / £16.30 approx + p&p; from

Benedict XVI and the Roman Missal, ed. Janet E. Rutherford and James O’Brien (Four Courts Press, €30 / £25) 

I began thinking about this review on that recent Sunday when the two Popes were canonised. This was a great day for the Church, and it was seen worldwide by an inestimable television audience. Direct from Rome they were able to participate in some of the grandest liturgical ceremonies of recent times, the sort of ceremonies that seem to characterise the Church for many, conducted by large numbers of bishops and priests, presided over by Pope Francis.

Yet on that same Sunday, the parishioners in the Church of the Three Patrons in Rathgar – a dedication that invokes the ancient tradition of the church in Ireland – were being polled on what sort of arrangements they would prefer for the summer services in the parish, which now has too few clergy to provide the Masses that were once commonplace every day of the week. This news was received by a small, much reduced congregation.

Here then is a contrast between the liturgical ideal in Rome and the social reality on the ground in many parishes. 

It is said, of course, by many that the future of the Church and its liturgy lies in other parts of the world, especially in Africa and Latin America. Yet there, as the Pope is only too well aware, a glaring contrast between liturgical grandeur and popular poverty should be avoided. In both continents religious movements that offer very active congregational participation of a kind unknown in the Catholic Church are gaining ground.


These two books are publications of the proceedings at the annual Fota Liturgical Conferences, under the general editorship of Fr Vincent Twomey SVD.

At these, those attending hear papers and discussions on liturgical matters, very much in the spirit of the liturgical revival that has its roots in the 19th Century. Their interest is focused on the traditional theology and forms of the liturgy. Not many participants care for the ‘innovations’ that resulted from Vatican II. Yet these essays represent distinguished and excellent work by a wide variety of scholars and writers. They will prove of lasting value in many fields. Yet how their insights can be made to connect with the social and religious reality facing the parishes remains a disquieting problem.

The scholars involved are right, of course, to explore these issues, especially at a time when one often feels that the theology involved to many people in the parishes is increasingly obscure and the real nature of liturgical acts through which the sacraments are performed is lost. But it would be a pity if the gifts of tradition became a barrier rather than a way to faith.

The content of both these books is important. But it has also to be faced that some new accommodation has to be found between the ideal and the reality. This, one suspects, will be the purpose of the present pontificate. The canonisation of the two Popes was widely seen as representing the reconciliation of two different trends within the Church, one of opening up to the present and the other of cherishing the past.

Perhaps we have to recognise that there is no one way of  celebrating being Catholic. To adapt the title of a famous book, there are varieties of Catholic experience, and all are value.

A Mass in St Peters in the grand traditional form is not more effective, is no less a sacrament than a Mass said in the African bush on a rickety table, the priest’s vestments flapping in the hot winds of that continent, or in a tumbling favela in Brazil amid the squalor of poverty.

All this is troubling, and disquieting. But then Jesus tells us that he came not only to comfort us, but also to trouble us.