For much of my adult life there were many Catholics who were interested in the generic subject of “liturgy” or church worship. Liturgy was a popular concentration in grad school. Priests spent a fair amount of their time conceptualizing and planning the rites and environment of worship. Parishes frequently established “liturgy committees” of lay persons, or in larger circumstances, developed professional staffs. There was much talk of integrating theological principles with rites and architecture: the emergence of church designs, generally semi-circular, that provided for greater visibility and a sense of personal connectedness; the construction of baptismal pools at the entrance of churches; the development of reservation chapels to distinguish the multiple meanings of the Eucharist (times for the Eucharistic meal, times for private adoration.)
When I started writing today’s entry—a few days ago, actually—I started to wonder: if I were interested in liturgical ministry today, what exactly is there for me to do? As a corollary, when I sit down on Liturgy Monday and start pecking away, exactly who am I writing for, and what kinds of encouragement can I offer? Actually, discussion of liturgy is boxed in by several very concrete factors where resolution will not be achieved very easily or in the near future. Let’s take a look at some of the major ones:
Lack of national direction: When the documents of Vatican II and their attendant directives were released over forty years ago, a large number of decisions, including catechetical and liturgical decisions, were deferred to national conferences of bishops. However, in the past three decades, at least, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been divided, much like the country at large. Bishops tend to be “red state” or “red-purple state.” I am not aware of any “blue state” bishops, to tell the truth. It has been nearly impossible for the body to reach consensus on about anything, and in very recent years the Conference has avoided controversial but critical matters. In its last meeting in November, the Conference discussed new prayer rites for the dedication of churches, and exorcisms. One issue of pressing catechetical concern, for example--national standards for certification of catechists—is buried in committee and expected to be there for a long time, I am told.
Lack of national policy has encouraged individual bishops to go ahead with some rather significant changes in their own dioceses: I heard anecdotally that 29 U.S. dioceses permit a return to the early Church’s sequence of celebrating Confirmation before First Communion. Clearly this kind of helter-skelter experimentation has significant impact in the religious education ministry across the country.
Existing Churches: one of the major obstacles in the catechesis of sacramental worship is the very design of many churches themselves. After Vatican II there was a movement to the semi-circular design, which brings even the pews furthest from the altar into much closer proximity and gives children at least a fighting chance to see the rites. (Even the Baltimore Catechism of the 1880’s defines sacraments as “outward signs;” visibility is of the essence of the Mass.) For a multitude of reasons this principle has dissolved in the minds of planners, and I have seen magnificent churches in the $5-$10 million dollar range constructed in this century with floor plans from 1920. One guess: pastors are combining the liturgical assembly site with the reservation site; another, churches, like airlines, are trying to squeeze as many people as possible into minimum space. You can see this in some churches where communicants crash into each other when attempting to reach the ministers with the cup. Given the fiscal crunch (see below) if you have a poorly conceived church now, you will probably have it for a long time.
Money: those of you who are salaried church workers know that in general parishes and dioceses are under great financial pressure. Why? Decreasing membership, bad financial decisions (as in taking out large mortgages in 2008), abuse court settlements, generally poor stewardship patterns, and member dissatisfaction are some factors that come to mind. Whatever the reason, tightening financial screws have a domino effect: parish (and diocesan) staffs are shrinking, ministers are wearing more hats, there is less professional training and supervision of volunteers and other staff, there is no funding for continuing education. To go one step further, some pastors are making the cheapest hires available, and competent prospective lay ministers are no longer seeking degrees and entering church work as a career option. Again, I do not see this problem going away anytime soon.
Present liturgical practice: there are a number of present day liturgical practices that actually work against what catechists are attempting to undertake. I single out one, the state of affairs in liturgical music. The instructions of the Roman Missal are not fully understood and implemented. The Missal assumes that our primary hymnal is the Psalter and in fact prescribes which Psalms are chanted during the procession, response to the Word, offering of the gifts and reception of the Eucharist. (Look in your missalette this weekend.) Moreover, on major feasts such as Holy Thursday and Good Friday, there are musical texts from antiquity, such as Ubi Caritas and the Good Friday Reproaches. (Again, see missal.)
Liturgists for years have decried the American practice of the “four hymn sandwich” which substitutes non-biblical texts. There may have been some wiggle room here forty years ago when a body of common hymns did unite Catholic worshippers. However, many parishes are using very new songs and texts usually promoted by the musical-missalette industrial complex, if I may paraphrase President Eisenhower. I noted that during our own Triduum the copyrights of our music, as a rule, dated roughly between 2007 and 2014. Thus, children in many of our churches are liturgically catechized to neither (1) the Psalms, (2) a tradition they can fall back on, nor for that matter, (3) the importance of quality art in worship.
These are significant structural disadvantages against which you work. I have others, but these in particular pertain to catechetical formation for Eucharist, “the source and summit” of the Church’s life. You may not be able to change them, but there is no rule against discussing them.