Words from Louis-Marie Chauvet in support of Fritz Bauerschmidt’s post

“Are the Words of the Liturgy Worn Out? What Diagnosis? What Pastoral Approach?” is the title of Louis-Marie Chauvet’s 2009 Godfrey Diekmann, O.S.B., Award Response to the members of the North American Academy of Liturgy in Baltimore. The following paragraphs support Fritz Bauerschmidt’s brilliant post:

. . . I will take, as a basic hypothesis, that, in fact, the “language” of the liturgy poses a real difficulty for the “average” Christian, and that the question to ask is precisely where the difficulty of this language lies. A host of questions spring up immediately. They may be about the vocabulary itself, but also the customary “grammar” of the liturgy, or even the style of prayers, or still more the liturgical ethos of the presider (tone of voice, posture, gestures . . . ) or, even more, the cutting up of texts, etc. I will not go into detail on these different possibilities. What is important here is to understand that when we bring to mind the difficulties of liturgical “language,” we go beyond the simple lexical meaning of the words used.

It happens that words, even though they are part of the common language of people, are not understood by so-called “average” Christians. This is probably less frequent than we think, because the language “of” the liturgy (I am not saying the language “about” the liturgy that has the complexity of its own method: “doxology,” “anamnesis,” etc.) is generally much more simple than that of theology. But, supposing that the words taken individually are understood, it is sometimes their interweaving in an expression which makes them inaudible or strange: “He is seated at the right of the Father”; “It is right and good.” Here, it is the failure of biblical or liturgical culture that is the issue. Misunderstandings (he “descended to the realm of the dead”) or obstacles (“women, be submitted to your husbands”) come from a cultural gap. Or else it is the style itself of an expression that makes the meaning difficult: “ . . . that death be destroyed and that the resurrection be manifested” . . . Or yet again, the difficult arises from the tone of voice (I would say: of the vocal “wrapping”); from a semantic point of view, each one understands an expression like “let us pray” / “let us pray to the Lord”; but there are tones of voice that make this very simple expression almost inaudible, the assembly not sensing at all the invitation to prayer.

From a different viewpoint, we can ask ourselves if the difficulty doesn’t come from the literary genre itself of liturgical prayers: redundancy (“Holy, holy, holy,” “Lord, Lord, Lord” . . . ), ready-made expressions (“Truly it is right and good . . . ”), a too dogmatic style (“It is he whom you have sent as Redeemer and Savior”). In a deeper way, the obstacle can be created by the theological movement itself of prayer, as for example in a Eucharistic prayer: thanksgiving for what God has done “according to the Scriptures,” invocation of the Spirit, anamnesis, eschatological petition . . . The Sunday prayers are interesting in this regard. Let’s take, for example, that of the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time:

“For those who love you, Lord, / you have prepared goods which the eye cannot see: / pour out in our hearts the fervor of your love, / so that loving you in and above all things, / we may obtain from you the inheritance promised which surpasses all our desire”; or again, let us take the prayer of the 10th Sunday: “Lord, source of every good, / give answer unceasingly to our cry: / inspire us with what is right, / help us to do it.” It is difficult to make these more simple, especially with regards to the demands of this last prayer. The “average Christian” can obviously understand each word, each part of the sentence and the whole sentence together. . . . And yet, it seems that many faithful, including those among the regular “practicing” ones, have some difficulty praying with this kind of expression. . . . Where, then, is the difficulty? Perhaps it is this very style of prayer, a style that hardly corresponds to “spontaneous” ways of praying, which gives the feeling that this kind of request cannot “really” concern us. . . .

But what was just said of these prayers, which are simpler in form than many “spontaneous” prayers, leads us to ask if, beyond all reasons of form, the true difficulty might not reside in the core itself, namely, in the conversion required by the prayer to be truly Christian. It is highly significant in this regard that the object of the petition of the Church in these Sunday orations is almost always the very quality of our relationship to God. [my emphasis] The two examples above already show it, but one could cite the thirty-four prayers of Ordinary Sundays where we ask God to give to each one “the clear vision of what one must do and strength to accomplish it” (#1), to “be able to adore you with undivided heart and to have for every person a true charity” (#4), to “live according to your grace” (#6), to “conform our words and actions to your will” (#7), to know “the joy of serving you without anxiety” (#8), etc. To make such prayer one’s own requires an inner work of grieving, letting go of a God who would come to do our own will, the opposite of what we say in the Lord’s Prayer! [my emphasis] This spiritual work of conversion, a working on our inner resistances, is not undertaken joyfully or willingly. In what concerns us here, we should not forget that the real difficulty might well be the call to conversion that is at the heart of the Gospel. . . . But, more deeply, are not these major resistances generated by the fact that the Good News of the Passover of Christ goes through the cross: “if anyone wants to be my disciple, let them take up their cross . . . ”?


  1. Prayer that expresses an openness to conversion and that begins to effect that conversion will be welcomed by Christians. The liturgical prayers should function in this way, both individually and communally. They should also function to enlarge our vision in praise of the God of all creation. But the problem is that somehow they don’t. And Fr Chauvet is talking about the beautiful French translations, so the problem lies deeper than those of mediocre language. The clunky attitude to the Mass, and its routinization, are part of the problem; the Mass has been divorced from a wider context of communal prayer.

  2. “the Mass has been divorced from a wider context of communal prayer”.

    Unlike the east and the Anglican Church, Rome divorces the eucharistic liturgy from that “wider context” to which you refer. Latin church liturgists have only recently come to appreciate that fact.

    No principle sunday or feast day Mass should ever be celebrated without an introductory office, especially , Lauds, and preferably with the Office of Readings (or Matins) fused to it, and Vespers.

    Perhaps, in time a short Office of the Resurrection will become a standard feature of every Sunday liturgy. To be said anytime from the evening before the liturgy to twelve noon.

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