Starting From Experience
My task is to revisit this question a final time: What makes good liturgy? In seeking an answer, surely experience is the best place to begin. So let me start with two extraordinary examplesone recent, the other from a few years back.
This year on the Second Sunday of Lent, I had the pleasure of joining the parish community of St. Mark’s, in Independence, Mo., as it celebrated the dedication of a new church. Located in a rapidly growing suburb of Kansas City, the parish had literally outgrown its worship space. Thanks to lively collaboration between pastor and parishioners, a sound planning program had been put in place, artists and architects hired and ground broken. Today a once muddy field has become the site of a magnificent, Romanesque-style, cruciform structure that, in spite of its traditional form, allows the assembly to gather in a semicircle around the altar. Sightlines are unobstructed, all lighting is indirect (no hanging jungle of cords and lamp fixtures), the floor slopes gently toward altar and ambo, and worshipers with disabilities are fully accommodated.
The dedication liturgy was celebrated on a sunny Sunday as a late Midwestern winter was struggling into spring, breeding hope out of thawing soil. Nearly a thousand worshipers packed the church for a rarely performed rite that consists chiefly in the solemn baptism of the building, with water flung in every direction and crosses traced with chrism on its walls. As the long liturgy unfolded, it was clear that the parishioners and Bishop Raymond Boland of Kansas City-St. Joseph loved what they were doing together. People sang robustly in several languages, supported by adult and children’s choirs and accompanied by handbells, organ, piano, guitars and percussion. As the bishop doffed his chasuble, rolled up the sleeves of his alb and began slathering consecrated oil over the surface of the red-oak altar, the assembly’s interest quickened. Then, from each direction, small groups of parishioners advanced toward the altar dancing a solemn saraband. Their arms were outstretched, holding censers, lights and freshly laundered linens for wiping and drying the wood of the altar/cross/body of Christ.
Slowly the space became suffused with smoke, a prelude to the fires the bishop would soon set on the altar as part of the dedication ritual. One could not help imagining the spice-bearing women approaching Jesus’ tomb on the first day of the weekor even the recent photos from the Hubble telescope that show swirling galaxies, star nurseries and spirals of incandescent gas glowing in the first moments of creation. The liturgy lasted for hours, but time flew. I overheard one parishioner say as she left church, That was the shortest three hours I ever spent!
Led by their bishop, the baptized body of Christ that meets at St. Mark’s had baptized their new worship space. Was it good liturgy? You bet. Careful planning, loving attention to ritual detail, enthusiastic singing and participation by everyone made the celebration memorable. It was a superb example of what happens when parishes take to heart the principles of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Nos. 14, 22-40, 48), and when they let the speech, song, silence and symbols of a renewed rite speak with fullness and authority. (It helped that the pastor, Father Jim Healy, and his staff had provided good liturgical catechesis for the parish prior to the celebration.)
My second example comes from a few summers back, when I was a guest at St. Augustine’s parish in Louisville, Ky., an inner-city community, historically African-American, whose roots stretch back to the 19th century. The people, presider, ministers and musicians had undoubtedly planned the liturgy for this Sunday in Ordinary Time, but what impressed me was that all the worshipers knew in their bones how to do the liturgical acthow to do it from memory, with dignity and grace, naturally, unhurriedly, welcoming the stranger in their midst. Though everyone participated vigorously, no one (except me) found it necessary to refer to hymnals, missalettes or other worship aids. It amazed me that almost the entire Mass, from entrance rite to dismissal, was sung. The homily was punctuated by acclamation and chanted exchanges between presider and people. Three different choirs (children, teenagers, adults) supported the congregation’s singing, much of it rhythmically and melodically complex, yet quite singable.
There was literally standing room only in the cramped upstairs room where the people of St. Augustine’s celebrate the Eucharist (the frame church’s lower level is used for the dinners that typically follow Sunday liturgy). Yet hospitable accommodations were made. In one area toward the rear of the room sat some people to whom everyone seemed to defer as community elders, most of them women advanced in age. I was reminded of a similar group at a parish in the diocese of Oakland, Calif., where each lady elder was invariably addressed by the respectful title Mama. One of them, Mama Camille, had quite a reputation for wit. Stopping to chat with her one Sunday morning, a parishioner asked, How’re you doin’ today, Mama Camille? Mama pondered a moment before replying, I’m somewhere between Thank you, Jesus’ and Lord, have mercy!’
Respect for each person’s gift and ministry, generous hospitality, honoring the community’s eldersall were palpable as St. Augustine’s parishioners celebrated their liturgy. It was definitely their liturgy; yet at the same time, it was unmistakably the Roman rite, shaped, as Vatican II recommends, to embrace the distinctive culture of that community (S.C., No. 37-38). Our Mass had begun at 10 a.m. By midafternoon, people were still chatting over dinner in the church basement, and a small army of volunteers had gathered in the rectory to make soup and sandwiches. (St. Augustine’s kitchen is well known to the poor and homeless of the neighborhood.)
Was this good liturgy? You bet. I have often thought that if Blessed Pope John XXIII could somehow be present, incognito, to celebrate with communities like St. Mark’s and St. Augustine’s, Sunday after Sunday, he would come away glowing, happy with his legacy, his heart singing a song of the brightness of water (the title of one of Pope John Paul II’s poems). He would, I think, recognize the Roman rite, adapted, as the liturgy constitution insists, to the qualities and talents of diverse peoples (No. 37). He would acknowledge their differences and welcome them. He would embrace their music with enthusiasm. He would grasp how much the liturgy means to these people, how precious a gift it is, how deeply it supports their common life. He would see what a legacy of worthy celebration they hope to leave their children. He would see the body of Christ stretching out its hands to those who have been shut up and shut out. And he would be reminded that in the midst of that meal the night before he died, Jesus was the one kneeling, with a bowl of dirty water in his hands.
What Makes Liturgy Good’?
Comparing these experiences to the series of essays in America, I find a set of common characteristics. I suggest, therefore, that good liturgy results when:
Vigorous popular participation is encouraged and enhanced by presiders whose style is strong, loving and wise, rather than tentative, domineering or disengaged.
Worshipers can see, hear and join in the liturgical action, since at Mass the people not only offer the sacrifice through the priest’s hands; they offer it together with him, and include themselves in the offering;
A rich diversity of ministers do all and only those tasks that belong to them (this applies to presiders as well).
Both the vertical and horizontal axes of Christian worship are respectedthat is, the assembly’s focus deepens its prayer while heightening its reverence for everyone in the assembly, especially the least and littlest.
Reverence means not simply a way of behaving at Mass, but an attitude toward other people; the opposite of reverence is arrogance and a refusal to greet with awe those persons and things that are higher than oneself.
Ritual spaces provide sufficient breathing room for participants. For Christian liturgy, despite its occasional wordiness, shares something vital in common with silence: both are open spaces where God can address us in the first person.
Preachers are poets, not exegetes, pundits or comedians. For the preacher’s task is to let the word speak through the mercy of the body, to find the memorable image that enables the assembly to name the grace that suffuses both world and worship.
The ritual readiness of participants is made possible by rites that are so sturdy, stable and familiar that, far from inspiring complacency, they challenge a community to embrace the tough work of conversion.
The sacramental celebration comforts the uncomfortable and discomfits the comfortable.
The community eschews self-righteous rubricism, yet avoids the temptation to make the rite up as it goes along, a strategy that inevitably impedes participation, because people do not know what will happen next.
The community’s diversity (cultural, racial, linguistic, generational, etc.) is joyfully acknowledged rather than painfully sidestepped or ignored.
Ritual spaces are so situated in neighborhoods that their symbolic presence as the house of God’s holy people is obvious, that they can accommodate the movement of people during the liturgy (e.g., at Communion), and that the essential relation between liturgy and justice, ethics and Eucharist is clear.
Christians remember that the Eucharist commits us to the poor, and that we cannot truly receive Christ’s body and blood unless we come to recognize Christ in the poorest among us.
Always in Paradise
My list is not complete, nor will its content surprise anyone who has been working in the field of pastoral liturgy in the past 40 years. It concludes with a reminder that what Pope John Paul II has called the option for the poor is actually a eucharistic obligation for Christians. As St. John Chrysostom once warned us, it does us no good to adorn and adore Christ’s body in church if we fail to recognize Christ’s body when it stands outside, hungry and neglected. Liturgy is the language the Catholic community speaks when it is at home, and it is most at home when it is worshiping God and serving the poor.
When asked one time whether the poet William Blake was at home, his wife Catherine replied, I see very little of Mr. Blake; you see, he is always in paradise. At home, we Catholics speak paradise while holding a bowl of dirty water in our hands. We come to the liturgy not to see our own desires made lucid, but to see a reflection of ecstasy at its most difficultin the cross that speaks, always calling us to service, faith and repentance.