Getting Anything Out Of Liturgy?

Another liturgy thread at dotCommonweal. It’s a more thoughtful topic than Kenneth Wolfe’s knee-jerk shot this past Sunday, so it probably won’t garner anywhere near the 130-plus comments Mr Wolfe inspired. Quoting the Jesuit Robert Taft, an important question (during a US Catholic interview) is offered:

How do you respond to the complaint that people don’t get anything out of the liturgy?

Which Fr Taft dismisses, I think, too easily. Here’s his whole answer:

What you get out of the liturgy is the privilege of glorifying almighty God. If you think it’s about you, stay at home. It’s not about you. It is for you, but it’s not about you.

One of the great problems today, especially among some of the younger generations, is that they think that salvation history is their own autobiography. They think they’re the center of the universe. In John 3, when John the Baptist is asked whether Jesus is the Messiah, John says quite clearly that Jesus is the important one: “He must increase, I must decrease.”

He must increase, I must decrease. Everybody needs to hear that. It’s not about me, it’s not about you. It’s about something infinitely more important than us.

I wanted to include the context of his entire answer–it’s only fair. It also strikes me as a little lacking in discernment. Discernment on that complaint is key. If a pastor, liturgist, music director, or someone else is hearing this input consistently, that leader should take it as a sign. Signs should be attended to. Shoulder a fault rather than attribute it to someone else: the people, the Church, or to God.

Sometimes, it’s an obvious item to fix. The cantor sings too loudly. We can’t hear the priest. The hymns are too slow. The organ is too loud. When I hear these things once or only very occasionally, I look at the problem. Sometimes a hard-of-hearing person needs to change their favorite pew because a $50K refit of the sound system just isn’t in the budget. Sometimes it’s indeed one person’s problem, in which case, I listen, and I respond honestly.

When a few more or several people echo the same complaint, I pay deeper attention. And I realize it’s time to get other people to pay attention. Sometimes the hardware is inadequate. Sometimes a particular lector or singer or priest is indeed not using her or his full skill set to serve the liturgy. If people aren’t getting anything out of the homilies because the sound system is flawed, that can be fixed. Weaker speakers and singers can be coached. I’m sure Fr Taft isn’t suggesting the “offer it up” approach of years past. People who can do better at Mass, should be urged and encouraged to do better.

We also have to admit there are occasional systemic problems. A parish church might have awful acoustics, for example. And no amount of expenditure on speakers, microphones, carpets, sound boards, and whatnot have helped. When lots of people fuss about not hearing, then it’s time for a community to discern where to put material resources. You start a capital campaign . .. because good liturgy is worth it.

And sometimes, people fuss because they are being challenged. I would suggest this happens less frequently than pastors might think. If it does occur, it might be the cause for rejoicing. At least people are hearing the message.

So, yes, I would agree with Fr Taft about his base principles: liturgy is for people, not about them, Christ is at the center of Christian worship. I think when that is taken care of, the other things fall into place.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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6 Responses to Getting Anything Out Of Liturgy?

  1. Tony says:

    How do you respond to the complaint that people don’t get anything out of the liturgy?

    I respond: “It’s not about you. It’s about God and your obligation to worship Him”.

  2. Joyce S Donahue says:

    I usually respond – “And what did you put INTO the liturgy?” Too often, as a cantor, I look out there and see the totally disengaged – the people with the glazed, passive expressions who don’t sing, don’t open the hymnal, don’t say the spoken responses, and are just there – probably either out of habit or out of fear they will be sent to hell if they don’t show up.

    It all boils down to better catechesis on the role the people of the Assembly have at Mass. Too many come expecting to be entertained – when they are not, they blame everyone else but themselves for refusing to engage.

  3. Chris from Maryland says:

    Todd and Joyce:

    There is nothing in this photo which communicates that this is a Catholic church, or a Mass.

    The setting for worship is visually impoverished, sanitized of the wealth of liturgical art which serves to orient us toward Our Father. The minimalist design offers as little as possible to the people who make the effort to be there.

    A very dull setting robs the human faculties of people who come to a place to worship.

    To be Catholic is to be traditional. The Church is an ancient live oak, always green, always growing new, with all new growth springing from the massive wooden frame handed down over the ages from those who have gone before us.

    This resonates with Joyce’s point about catechesis. Regarding her point on people “who don’t sing, [and] don’t open the hymnal”, once again, the hymnals are musically impoverished. This impoverishment only helps to dull the senses of the worshippers.

    For instance – consider the Gather Hymnal – it is marketed by its distributors as made up of 2/3 “contemporary” music, and 1/3 “traditional” music. Now – think of the analogy of the Church as the ancient live oak. What would a gardener tell you if he saw a tree with 2/3 new growth, and only 1/3 of the previous form? He would tell you that someone who didn’t know how to prune trees over-pruned the tree, and it is in danger of dying.

    If the hymnals were better balanced, they would have 2/3 or more of traditional music. People at Mass always sing “traditional” hymns better than most of the new. “Traditional” hymns are easier for the faithful to sing. They have been tested by time as better quality hymns. One of the main qualities of better hymns for worship is that they are easier to sing.

    Ironically, much of the new music has complicated rythms and challenging ranges that only a trained cantor can produce.

    Tragically, much of the lyrics are impoverished. Way too much “me and we”.

    I have my children singing “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” every night at the opening of the advent prayer around the wreath. They range in age from 4 to 15. They all really like singing this hymn – because it is thoroughly beautiful – and very easy to sing.

    Restore more of the good traditional visual and musical art, and this will naturally enable worship.

    Your Friend In Christ,

  4. Gavin says:

    I agree 100% with Joyce! “And what did you put INTO the liturgy?” indeed! I don’t care whether someone is saying they’re “not getting anything” out of Gather or Graduale, if they’re not making an effort at participating (externally OR internally!) the burden is not on us as musicians/liturgists to make participation “easier”. My Greek Orthodox friend always says to me: “Letourgia means work of the people. It should be hard work!”

    Or there’s the time I offended an old lady who came to me complaining that she “can’t pray the Latin hymns.” I said, “try harder.”

  5. Pingback: Should Liturgy Be Easy or Hard? « Catholic Sensibility

  6. Jim McK says:

    Mt response would be to ponder, which means asking a followup question:

    What do you get out of eating?

    Someone who says they do not get anything out of liturgy is probably looking in the wrong place. They need to find the hunger to be with God, to have meaning in their life, to understand something of the people around them, and to love them. Off the cuff responses; others may have deeper hungers that are met, unnoticed, in the liturgy.

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