Liturgical Reform: What Next?

Author: Notre Dame Magazine

Perhaps the most noticeable change in the Church within the past 10 years has been in the way we pray. Rites for all of the sacraments have been totally reworked and new ways of expressing the old truths have been formulated. To put the changes under the scrutiny of a 10-year perspective, Director of Information Services Dick Conklin questioned the head of Notre Dame’s liturgical studies program, Prof. William Storey, and several people involved in liturgical work who are studying at Notre Dame for advanced degrees in liturgical studies or theology.

Besides Conklin and Storey, those taking part in the discussion were Father Gregory Smith, a Carmelite priest who serves as a liturgical “troubleshooter,” helping parish clergy and lay ministers improve their understanding and presentation of worship; Father James Tobin, a Marionist priest involved in high school campus ministry work; Sister Patricia Ann Mulkey, a Hospital Sister of the Third Order of St. Francis who is coordinator of liturgy for her community; and Sister Maureen McGarrigle, a mathematics teacher active in liturgical affairs at her school and in her Sisters of Mercy community.

Q. Just where do you think we are in terms of liturgy? Where is the pendulum? We had the pre-Vatican II Latin liturgy, then we had the triumph of liturgical reforms, but am I wrong in sensing a certain return to some of the elements of the past? The use of incense, as a minor example, seems to be coming back.

Mulkey: It seems like we’re between the reformers and the revisionists. I like your example of the pendulum, because anything historical, like liturgy, goes back and forth. A lot of the hopes that we placed on external reform haven’t been productive and a lot of people are asking why, and it leads us to some deeper questions. I don’t know that we’re swinging back just for the sake of swinging back because we don’t like where we’ve come from. I think we’re swinging back with some deeper questions and at a different angle because we’re trying to say, “O.K., what’s underneath this? What did we do wrong? What did we do right? Where should we go from here?” Liturgy is, first and foremost, communal prayer and whatever contributes to that is what we need to investigate.

Storey: This is the first time in the history of the Church that we have produced in a logical and historical fashion an entire revision of our way of worshiping. We’ve redone everything—every sacrament, all forms of daily worship. By and large the new liturgical books are the best that have ever been done. There just is no comparison in quality. So we’re light-years ahead of where we were 10 years ago.

On the other hand, we’ve got wonderful new books, but we have understandings of worship that are primitive in the bad sense of the word. If you travel around and see what goes on in some places, it’s liturgically appalling. It’s the new liturgy with the new books with all the bad principles still going full blast. There is no real change because a profound adjustment of theology, psychology and pastoral responsibility is required, and in many cases it’s not coming. We’ve still got a lot of work to do. As a matter of fact, I think we’ve wasted a lot of time by being idiosyncratic, by doing all kinds of things we thought were very brilliant instead of examining the basic problems and asking hard questions about people’s behavior and fears and all the rest. This is supposed to be a religion of joy, but too often people are just terrorized by religion.

Just to get very practical for a moment, the vast majority of babies in this country are still baptized with a thimbleful of water, so the sacramental symbolism of Baptism is practically unavailable to Christian people.

Most Catholics in this country still receive hosts at Communion that are more like plastic than bread. Communion under both species is practically unknown to most people, although it’s been legislated for. And the Mass still doesn’t look like a banquet. To call it a meal to most people would be a joke. Theologically, it can be defined as a meal, but they don’t see it as a meal.

Tobin: A lot of work has been done since Vatican II, and I’m really hopeful because of it. But much more must be done and there still is a great deal of confusion among priests as well as the laity I think. It’s very simple for the priests to get a book, read the rubrics and go through the new liturgy without really understanding the spirit behind the reform or revision. For the people I think there is a lot of confusion if this is all they get and there is no catechesis or ongoing understanding or gradual making the worship of God more a part of their lives.


Q. Some people say that we tossed the baby out with the bathwater in terms of liturgical reform because we eliminated some of the gestalt, the atmosphere of the old rituals, and by doing so we eliminated some of the sense of mystery that went with the Latin liturgy. Do you think that’s true?

Smith: Yes, people are always saying exactly what you said. It’s not something new. I think that what they miss is a tender loving care for that which they had been told is holy and sacred. Many people resent the changes because they don’t know what to expect. Take for example the Eucharistic Prayer. Its form was fixed in the 16th century. It was absolutely changeless, and all of a sudden it becomes the whim of everybody who goes to the altar. The people don’t know where this celebrant or this prayer leader is going, and I think this is what they resent. I really feel strongly that, as Bill Storey said, even in the time of the Latin liturgy you could worship intelligibly, you could do it meaningfully because of the rite. Rite is the expression in action of your faith. You could worship in such a way that your faith and faith of the Church came through. And this is what people have a right to expect, and sometimes they don’t get it, and I think this is what they miss. They don’t mind changes as much as a thirst for the novel.


Q. Many churches have specialized liturgies catering to different age groups. Are they divisive?

Storey: This is an extremely important problem with two facets. One is that we are talking about Catholic worship, and if we are going to preserve any sense of universality and of unity it’s just got to be recognizably the same. I don’t mean the same language. I watched the pope celebrate Mass on television in Italian, and it was a recognizable mass I was immediately at home with. It was a recognizable Catholic structure. There was a very clear word liturgy and a very clear sermon, sanction, Eucharist, Communion and so on. You’ve got to be able to see that and be able to affiliate emotionally and psychologically or your faith wavers.

On the other hand, obviously, if you have an enormous cross section of people, races, languages and cultures, and if you don’t creatively do something about that you are going to exclude a lot of people from this Catholicity. There are going to be fewer and fewer Catholics because there are fewer and fewer people who can identify with what it is. We’ve got a very strange tension that we’ve really got to work with to keep a nuclear sense of who we are and what we’re doing together, and at the same time I think you have to adapt.

I don’t think we respect enough the Catholicity in a profound sense and on another stand, I am just appalled by what people think of as great liturgical innovation. I don’t think it’s innovative at all. I don’t think we even ask the right questions. Take Penance. We are still piddling around whether we should give general absolution or not. I think these are nutty questions. They are kind of childlike thing we should have gone through five years ago and forgotten about now. Now we should be asking what is sin, what is repentance, what is the sense of communal repentance? How do we identify social sins—really hard questions—how do we deal with neurotic guilt as opposed to ordinary guilt when we have done something nasty? I don’t hear those questions being asked much at all.


Q. In your experience, what do some people think liturgy is that it isn’t?

Smith: Oh, that would cover a multitude of sins. A liturgy is not doing your own thing. Liturgy is doing praise of God in the context of the Christian community. If we do it well, it may be a tremendously exhilarating experience. But we don’t do it for that purpose—to be turned on. We do it for the praise of God that we might become who we are as Church and as His people set apart for singing the praises of God.


Q. Yet the element of celebration somehow has to be part of it . . .

Smith: Yes, and, of course, that has to do with what celebration is. The whole problem I guess is we’ve lost the sense of celebration. The whole idea of festivity has to be renewed. We can’t really celebrate. I think that when we deprived the Church of the fasts that went before the feasts, it made it difficult to celebrate. You can’t feast if you’re always feasting because a feast is somehow different, something very special, lifted up out of the ordinary run of days.

The fundamental shaping for any liturgy is: Does it help these people in this place pray? That is the heart of the matter.


Q. But that could be used to justify the “do your own thing” routine, too.

Smith: True enough, yes, but then it’s a matter of prayer in common, communion in prayer, isn’t it? It’s not a matter of me enjoying myself at the expense of everybody else. It’s especially important for the leader to have in mind that his task his to help these people come together as a praying, worshiping, praising, petitioning community in the midst of the Church and the world. That doesn’t allow one really just to be himself. He has to be the man for this community and it seems to be to be quite the contrary of saying “this is the way it ought to be done.”

The first time I celebrated the Eucharist at Notre Dame—I was a concelebrant—I remembered I was angered because the man who was the chief celebrant, the man leading the celebration, wasn’t expressing my faith at all. I didn’t know whether I could say “amen” to his prayer—and that’s not fair.


Q. What about the role of women in liturgy?

Storey: We have a very clear principle in the liturgical studies program. It is out of respect for tradition and present Church laws. We don’t allow women to preside at the Eucharist, but they may preside at anything else. And they can take all roles both ordained and unordained. We encourage them to do it because first of all most of the people who are here are going to go back and have to lead things and preside at things. And if they don’t have that experience they are just talking out of classroom theory. The others reason is that—I can’t speak for anyone else—but I think by and large the sense of everybody who is here is that if there is going to be any kind of coming of age in the Church it has to seriously reckon with this whole problem of diversity of roles, real respect for diversity of roles, and real involvement of everybody in worship. To do that means we simply cannot exclude women from ministerial roles. It is unjust and has no basis in Scripture as far as I can see. Today to continue to exclude people from the priesthood is incredible. I think we have a serious alienation problem with intelligent women because of this problem.

Mulkey: I think we’re going to see women in the future in all of these roles. It might be tomorrow; it might not happen the day after; it might not happen in 10, 15 or 20 years. When it does happen, there are going to be some new problems and I think we have to figure out what they are going to be and try to deal with them ahead of time.

Last summer I served Mass for the first time in my life. I was 31 years old and scared to death. I asked several men a lot of procedural questions so I wouldn’t make a fool of myself. It occurred to me after I had received five nonchalant, offhand answers that they had been running around the altar since they were six, seven or eight.

I think one of the things that we (the other woman server and I) really did well was to set the altar table as the meal table. It occurred to me that that’s what we have been doing since we were seven years old—setting tables. And it throws a little light on the fact that many areas of service require what culture calls masculine traits and feminine traits. And I think if we’re thinking in terms of prayer ministry, we have an overload of people with the masculine task-oriented mentality and need people with a gentler, more receptive mentality. What we are missing is half of the traits that could be called forth from people if we would have a full complement of ministers in orders.

I’m not an ardent feminist; I’m kind of a rank amateur. As a matter of fact, I still have a lot of prejudices and hang-ups about seeing women in different roles and I think this is largely due to cultural conditioning. But I think we are going to see many changes in this regard.

The other thing I wanted to mention is that I hope these changes don’t happen too soon. It seems to me that what women in the Church need to do is develop the many other ministries that are open to them at the present time and forge ahead on these. We need to raise consciousness with regard to equality in baptismal ministry and find out what more Catholic women can do well. We need to ask what some of the unidentified needs are and address ourselves to these with an attitude of service, not power.

McGarrigle: I was an observer at our past provincial chapter and one of the proposals that was put on the floor was that the Sisters of Mercy of the Detroit Province come out in favor of the ordination of women to the priesthood. The reaction was strong. You had every opinion from one end of the spectrum to the other. And then people began to talk! Why? What was the rationale they wanted to know?

The ordination was advanced most strongly by our sisters who work in hospitals. They are hospital chaplains or work as nurses. They establish rapport with the patient; they may bring him to the point where he is ready to come back to the Church, and then they have to call in a complete stranger.

As the people presented this you could see the whole picture of the provincial chapter. Everyone could see that the spirit and the reasoning behind the proposal made sense, and they were less threatened no matter what end of the spectrum they were at. The final form of the proposal was that the province should support the role of women in ministry because it was felt ordination to the priesthood was too limited a term. But when the proposal was published and read by those who weren’t at the meeting their reaction was “so what’s that?” And I really that think was one of the problems with the Vatican Council. We weren’t there with the bishops to understand the spirit and rationale of what they did. If somehow they could have conveyed that understanding to the priests and people better and faster the transition would have been easier.


Q. If we were to do liturgical reform over again, what do you think we should do differently?

Mulkey: I think two things, and both of them have to do with the people we serve in our prayer ministries. One is let them know more of what is going on basically in terms of liturgical catechesis. Another thing is to listen to them and listen to the questions under their questions. More of a dialogue in liturgical reform would have been helpful.

Tobin: My first response to your question w as to make every bishop get an M.A. in liturgy from Notre Dame. What Vatican II called for in the doctrine on liturgy is excellent, but I think it just presumed too much. It’s not enough for a man to go through seminary, get ordained and just live off that, you might say, for the rest of his life.

Another problem is what do you do in the face of resistance to change? This has been a big pastoral problem and continues to be a problem. Just the other day I was talking to a lady and she said “I think that handshake of peace is kind of stupid.” My gut reaction to her was to say “be quiet and just do it.” But this would have been a response of an uninformed clergyman coming out of a pre-Vatican II tradition or formation. One solution to this problem—something I would like to see—would be to set up some kind of system or structure locally for ongoing sharing, formation and encouragement among the clergy and laity, too. You can get the sisters and lay people together to work on this from the beginning and see this as a community invitation and challenge to work for liturgical renewal and not just something that comes from Rome and the priest says, “do it.”

Smith: Bill Storey correctly observed that we have all the tools but the fundamental principles in understanding what worship is all about are still lacking. And I’ve been wondering why it has happened this way. Someone once said that the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which in fact is a magnificent document, might have been quite different had it come not as the first fruit of the Council but the final fruit.

We were heir to many romantic ideas about liturgy and had very little input from the new behavioral sciences or the great thrust toward the Third World. All of this it seems to me should have made quite a different document and therefore quite a different approach.