Liturgy and Civilization: The Problem of Authenticity

by Timothy P. O’Malley

gaurdiniLast time I wrote for Pray Tell, I described the link that Romano Guardini made between the cultivation of cult and world. For Guardini, the construction of a humanizing, transcendent social order is necessary for the flourishing of divine worship. That is, social and cultural renewal is not separate from but intrinsic to liturgical renewal.

One area that the liturgical theologian must attend to in the present milieu, specifically in the United States, is the emphasis upon authentic subjectivity. American religion (and in fact perhaps the entire national project) is founded upon the inviolability of the subject’s experience. Walt Whitman sings a song of myself. Henry David Thoreau goes to live alone at Walden Pond so as to test the authenticity of his own existence. Revivals of American religion take place as the individual testifies before the assembly that he or she has authentically experienced the saving power of Jesus. The consumer forms a “supposedly” unique and authentic self around purchases made.

This culture of glorifying the authentic subject has spilled over into Catholicism in a variety of ways. The thin conception of confirmation employed by most catechetical programs defines the sacrament as “making” Catholicism one’s own, encouraging an “authentic appropriation” of the religion. Youth ministry, for those who participate, establishes a habit in adolescent and emerging adult Catholics of connecting the flourishing of religious affections with a robust faith. Only the subject who “feels” has religion. Only the one who “feels” should attend the Eucharist. This culture of authentic subjectivity shapes the Eucharistic worshipper, who seeks to attend the liturgy when he/she authentically wants to. The individual is at the center of such worship.

It is obvious that this concern with authentic subjectivity is not conducive to the Church’s liturgical rites. Liturgical prayer is not oriented to confirming the authenticity of personal experience. The Church’s rites are occasions in which doing what is prescribed, participating in a social order beyond one’s particular desires, is the way of salvation. The couple participating in the nuptial liturgy does not create unique vows reflective of the authenticity of their love. Rather, they take up patterns of speech that have been handed to them. They say the words that have been given to them in the same way that the assembly chants or sings the Sanctus after the Eucharistic Preface rather than composing their own more authentic hymn expressing Eucharistic desire. Of course, subjective incorporation is to be encouraged and fostered. But the rite works unto itself as rite.

If the practice of liturgical prayer is to flourish anew in the age of authenticity, we need social and ecclesial ways of counteracting an exclusive concern with authenticity. Relative to confirmation, if one is not going to restore the proper order of the sacraments of initiation (and it should be noted that 7 year olds are less concerned about authentic subjectivity than 14 year olds), then the emphasis should be on the kind of authenticity that comes about when one gives oneself over to a religious tradition. Saints, for example, are authentic “subjects,” who happen to share in common a body of practices that enable them to flourish as human beings. A curriculum for confirmation that focused more on membership in the communion of saints might counteract the idolatry of authenticity pervasive in youth ministry as a whole.

Further, Christians necessarily look for ways to express their faith personally. Exclusive attention to the liturgy is not the way to do this, and perhaps, the de-emphasis upon the devotional life in the years after the Council, has placed too great a burden on the liturgy. A more healthy vision of the relationship between liturgy and subject is evidence in the liturgical spirituality of Hildegaard of Bingen or Gertrude of Helfta. Such spirituality is always personal, always an act of encounter, always moving of the affections, yet simultaneously grounded in the Eucharistic vision of the Church herself.

Perhaps from the side of civilization, it is cultivating the virtue of solidarity that may enable a more robust form of Eucharistic worship. The present political atmosphere in the United States is evidence of a culture devoid of solidarity. The “other” is always the enemy, and the enemy is always the “other.” Rather than see the particular humanity of the neighbor as gift, everything that makes the neighbor “not me” must be expelled from the body politic.

In such a cultural milieu, the Eucharistic life of the Church makes no sense; or it must be performed in a society of the like-minded, a kind of contemporary Donatism that one finds endemic in both conservatives and liberals. If we work to re-build a sense of neighborliness, of care of the local body politic, our Eucharistic worship will contribute to a form of human flourishing that is not simply about authentic subjectivity. But, rather, a liturgical humanism in which the very practice of giving part of ourselves over to the parish, to the Church, to the Christ hidden in the life of the poor, will restore the cosmos to its original sacramental state.

In other words, the search is no longer to be an authentic worshipper. Rather, it is to worship and to discover all along an authenticity that was impossible to perceive before: that I was created in the image and likeness of God to be in communion with the triune God and the created order. Not to subsist unto myself.

Timothy P. O’Malley is director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and a Concurrent Associate Professional Specialist, Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love.


  1. The struggle over “authentic” worship harks back to (or continues) the argument in 1950s theology over which is the superior form of prayer: liturgy or contemplation. Because Thomas Aquinas cast liturgy as a duty (actually as the response of a serf’s fealty oath to the master), writers like Jacques Marechal claimed superiority for contemplation, understood to be a free act of submission to a gift from God. The argument was resolved (sort of) when theologians decided that the free act of contemplation occurring within the dutiful act of liturgy was the superior form, that is, when contemplation was submitted to and subsumed by liturgy.

    1. @Gordon E. Truitt:
      I know this argument and agree with what you said. This is not the source of the original argument though for me. It’s more related to senses of authentic as connected to the affections alone.

  2. Tim, well said!
    This affirms for me that far too many, with sincere intention, are working hard at the wrong thing. The reason for this, in my experience, is a misunderstanding of WHAT the rites of the Church mean – authentically. Clergy, Lay Ecclesial Ministers, volunteer ministers, etc. all need to be appropriately educated to make lex orandi, lex credendi valid. Intellectual and spiritual understanding is indispensable. As Goffredo Boselli writes, “Mystagogy is a method and a tool that the ancient church offers us to help the faithful live what they celebrate. What lectio divina is for Scripture, mystagogy is for liturgy” (The Spiritual Meaning of the Liturgy, xv).

  3. Is “authentic” being defined as a “purely subjective individualistic experience?” If it is then I agree with the claims made against current versions of confirmation catechesis and youth ministry. As a millennial, I do try to find informed ways of appropriating the Tradition to my life. I would say in light of this wonderful article, that the authentic understanding of liturgy and sacraments have been lost to subjective experience – like Donna said. I am concerned that maybe American Religion has lost the meaning of “authentic” because I would not define it as “purely subjective individual experience.”

    1. @Zach Mocek:
      I think there are excellent understandings of authenticity, which would be “authentic.” Authentic within “ritual” often means that one “really and sincerely” believes what one is doing. Purely subjective experience is probably too far on my part. But, I was at an event last night where I heard the phrase “mere ritual” vs. “authentic belief.” That’s the rough and ready distinction, which I hear often enough. I’m also a Millennial. Barely.

  4. I agree that individualism can be the result of much of current catechesis on the liturgy for youth. What is needed is a more authentic way of teaching young people (and adults) that full, conscious and active participation is not only external but internal. Most current catechetical materials do not even mention internal participation – and most catechetical leaders and catechists are likewise ignorant of the deeper dynamic of the liturgy that takes place when the individual surrenders ego to becoming a part of the Body of Christ and offers him- or herself to be changed along with the Eucharistic sacrifice and sent on mission. For young people, all of this needs to start long before Confirmation instruction, and to include deeper liturgical catechesis for parents that helps them to assist their children to enter into the Mass so that by the time they are teens, they are equipped to go beyond what Dr. James Pauley labels “liturgical boredom.”

    1. @Joyce Donahue:
      It may be that the preferences of our culture present a fundamental problem in grasping with theosis. (We’d not be the first such culture, and are not likely the last.)

      American culture tends to think of transformation as a relatively sudden thing, and one that is heavily sprinkled with joy. It does not know how to engage (and in fact prefers to elide) the dimensions of transformation that involve (i) slogging pain (theosis is not generally know to be something for which the experience of pain is a mere incidental), and (ii) dryness & dark nights of the soul/senses (and how solidarity is interwoven with these). If these are not elided, they are very readily turned into a therapeutic and/or problem-solving program of some sort and instrumentalized in that way. Because that’s a very rationalized modern way of doing everything.

      What are we expecting the this all to be like? What assumptions are ruddering those expectations? How plausible are those assumptions and expectations?

    2. @Joyce Donahue:
      I think this is well-said. But, I have to admit that liturgical participation is sometimes just showing up. Internal participation is desired end goal. But the rite “works” insofar as it transforms the cosmos in being celebrated.

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