I am not a liturgist. Hence this critique comes more from instinct, and frustrations with many of the liturgies I attend, than it comes from theological principle. Be that as it may, let me propose, for the consideration of all liturgical planners, celebrants, and musicians, a few, corrective, suggestions:
More is not necessarily better:
Length does not necessarily good liturgy make! Because a liturgy is long and has excellent singing does not necessarily mean that it is good. Liturgy is like food. It’s good, though never to excess. Anything which is over-done, be it ever so good and aesthetic in itself, is, at a point, counter-productive. For example: I was just recently at a liturgy which was being celebrated to conclude a rather major event in my home diocese. It was carefully planned and every part of it, taken individually, was a model of liturgical aesthetics. The choir was superlative, the homily was excellent, the processions were beautiful but, in the end, the final result was somewhat draining. Why? Because when everything was put together, good as it was, it was simply too long and nobody, other than those leading it, could sustain their energy and enthusiasm.
It reminded of a meal I once cooked for some European friends of mine. I went to their house on a Saturday evening, having promised that I would cook for them a gourmet American meal. I prepared all of my favourite dishes, including a very rich and heavy dessert, not taking into account that, together, they constituted too much of a challenge for a single digestive tract on one night. After we had finished the dessert, fishing for a compliment from my hosts, I asked them what they thought of my meal. The hostess put it to me gently: “You know, I liked very much every dish you prepared, but, together, it was all a bit rich. Perhaps when you have shrimp served in garlic butter as an appetizer you might want to serve a fruit salad rather than a rich chocolate for dessert. It gives a better balance.”
There is liturgical wisdom in that. Even the good, in excess, is problematic … “Perhaps when you have an entrance rite that is 10 minutes long you might not want to have an extra 10 minutes of singing after communion. It gives a better balance.”
New piety is just as bad, liturgically, as is the old:
When I was child we were blessed with a parish priest who had a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. He was a dear man, transparent in his sincerity, a person of prayer. But he was a bad liturgist. His problem was that he could not preside at any mass without somehow working Mary into it, whether it was her feast day or not. His devotion to her was so great that it was simply impossible for him to contain himself. He had to bring Mary into every celebration.
I know a number of priests today whose commitment to social justice is so great that they cannot ever preside at a Eucharist, give a homily, lead a prayer service, or indeed lead a single prayer without bringing in the issue of justice. Like the parish priest of my childhood, they too are transparent in their sincerity – and bad liturgists!
New imbalance is no better than old imbalance.
One person’s creativity is another’s idiosyncrisity:
The task of a celebrant of liturgy is to not to change the ritual so as to make it more creative, but to pray the ritual in such a way that it becomes truly prayer. That’s no easy task and the best way to do it is not to change the ritual prayers but to truly pray them. However, if you are tempted to make up your own prayers (“to improve the ritual”), you might want to keep these things in mind:
Very very few persons can write better prayers than are already contained in the ritual itself. Don’t too quickly put yourself in that category. There is already too much bad poetry around. Moreover, the ritual is meant to protect the congregation from the idiosyncratic whims of the celebrant. There’s wisdom a plenty in that. One man’s creativity is another’s bad poetry! Respect your congregation. And finally, never never begin a creed with: “I believe in butterflies!” The words “I believe in God” were put immediately after the homily so that you, the celebrant, after preaching badly, might have something to immediately redeem yourself with!