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.