Liturgy: The Work of the People?

posted by Michael Raia

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Of the many misunderstood and/or mis-translated phrases used in contemporary liturgical dialogue, the meaning of the word 'liturgy' is perhaps among the most influential in understanding the liturgy. Oft-quoted by Catholics to lend credence to many post-conciliar shifts in liturgical practices and paradigms that downplay the sacramental action of God (particularly through the priest) and augment the role of the laity, the phrase "work of the people" is used as a popular translation of the original Greek word leitourgia that gives us the word 'liturgy' that we use today. With the typically resulting understanding that liturgy is something done, in a sense, "by us and for us, albeit to God," something important is missed. Knowing the etymology and possessing an accurate translation of these words is paramount to understanding what liturgy is, and what it is not.  

In the article linked below, Fr. Nick Schneider, Director of the Office of Divine Worship in Bismarck, ND, explains the intended meaning of the word liturgy ultimately as "the work of God done on behalf of the people" and why the difference matters. His explanation might just transform what you think you know. Read the article here:

Liturgy: Work of God or Work of the People? by Fr. Nick Schneider, SLL, SLD

Personally, the reason I find the distinction that Fr. Nick explains so fascinating is that the Church is in the middle of a course correction in a number of areas. As we grow in knowledge of the faith through improved catechetics and lay ministries, we are seeing that sacramental action poses no threat to a properly ordered role as a lay person in the Body of Christ. The mystery of God's action through the liturgy and the sacraments does not diminish an individual's participation in it. Liturgy is how we participate in the Body of Christ.

Beyond having a profound impact on the role of the laity, understanding liturgy as God's work in which we participate has monumental ramifications for music, art, and architecture. God is always the focus, yet that does nothing to jeopardize the importance of our disposition, attitudes, and reverence in participating, and even less to undermine what we do to translate our faith into action. 

It is no surprise, then, that we are seeing a resurgence of chant, the growing intermittent use of Latin in the liturgy, and a return of the popularity of traditional art and architecture, all developing parallel to a greater appreciation for the liturgy and sacramental life of the Church among the laity – not to mention booming vocations to the priesthood and religious life in many parts of the country.

It is not purely a nostalgia for the things that largely vanished after the Second Vatican Council that has given rise to these trends. While there are certainly groups and individuals motivated by the idea that older is better, it is the pendulum beginning to find balance that is allowing the Church today to see the dangerous excesses of both extremes. Especially as we see a modern period of martyrdom unfold in the Middle East and other parts of the world, it is my sincere hope that the Church can continue to more fully embrace the complexity of our faith – something I believe Pope Francis is endeavoring to challenge all Christians to do.

A love for the rich celebration of liturgy goes part and parcel with thorough catechesis and spiritual formation, which in turn go hand in hand with lay evangelization, missionary action, and social justice. The unity for which Christ urges us to strive requires an embrace of all of these aspects of Christian living. No longer can we hide in the camps with which we most closely identify if we hope to realize the vision that Christ himself has for the Church. I believe that the surest, fastest, and truest way to reconciling all members of the Body is by properly understanding the action through which we most closely mirror it: the liturgy.