The Liturgist’s Future

PrayTell posts the question on the Future of the Liturgist. I offered a spot of doubt on the long term future of lay ecclesial ministry, including liturgy. Except for music directors of old, there is very little historical precedent for liturgists, youth ministers, religious educators, and even school teachers, principals, and business managers. All are relatively recent additions to the parish staff, and all are mostly limited to select communities in the First World. In the US, there’s a certain ingrained professionalist approach to parish ministry, especially large parish ministry. Many of our Catholics are used to “service,” and will gladly hire experts to provide it.

I think it’s valid to ask if lay professionals are a transient phenomenon. Let’s remember that the proper lay sphere is in the world. It is in the world that we should be carrying the banner of the Gospel, guiding public policy, holding elective office, giving witness, evangelizing, reinforcing Catholic culture. Lay people, like the CHA. Not bishops. Not clergy.

For the administration of the Church, we have the challenge of large parishes, not to mention large dioceses. In the past century, we had multiple members of the clergy for each phenomenon. The hierarchy has decided, directly or by historical drift, to maintain these large collections of professionals. So a certain staff size is expected, by both parishioners and leaders. When there aren’t enough priests, lay people take over. We clap ourselves on the back for being so progressive and forward-looking, but are we really?

So I think as long as bishops permit large parishes there will be professional liturgists of some sort. Musical lay people, certainly.

In the PrayTell thread, Rita Ferrone details the difference between two sorts of liturgists. Some parishes employ a coordinator, volunteer or paid, to organize the details of liturgical life: recruiting and training volunteers, plus managing them. Depending on the liturgical inclination of the priest(s) these “super-sacristans” might share duties with clergy. Or duties could be delegated to lay people, either staff members (in large and medium-sized parishes) or parishioners (in small parishes, but also some larger ones).

I think liturgists of this sort we will always have with us.

Then you have lay people with professional degrees and/or experience who assist in deeper matters: advising the pastor on parish policy, performing in-depth formation for volunteers and the parish, advancing initiatives in music, theology, or the arts. Most often, I’ve been placed in the position of both sorts, and also a third: being a manager of the largest cadre of parish volunteers.

I’ve spoken of this before, but not often: I believe the ideal parish is large enough to fill a fair-sized church for Sunday Mass, but only one such liturgy per weekend. To realize the full potential of Sacrosanctum Concilium, I’d think three liturgies a day are perfect: Lauds, Mass, and Vespers. Would such a parish need a professional liturgist in addition to a liturgically-minded pastor? Probably not. But our parishes don’t look like that yet, do they? That would be real progress: smaller intentional communities, and a lot more of them than we have parishes today.

The uncertainty about the continuing liturgical reform, and its direction places many parishes in a spot. Clergy formation in liturgy is still spotty. Many guys realize they lack the initiative and knowledge to actively serve the parish as a liturgist, so they hire someone or get a volunteer to organize the ministries, and possibly work toward initiatives like implementing new rites and translations.

My sense is that if we continue in any kind of reform mode, that someone will need to make connections. And with American pragmatism sailing the pastoral boat in many locales, the ordained clergy will do what they alone can do–the sacraments. What can’t get fit on the plate goes to lay people. Getting competent people is a priority, and usually these folks will get paid for it if the time commitment is large and the expertise on a high level.

As an aside, I don’t think this model is the healthiest for clergy. They weren’t ordained to be a sacramental supplier. Obviously, a deeper collaboration between clergy and laity would be healthy for everyone involved. But I don’t see our present pope, brilliant mind that he has, thinking in deep terms like this.

Back in my ideal parish, I could foresee a handful of well-formed parishioners taking on both liturgist roles in concert with the pastor. Frankly, that has a certain appeal. In another thirty years when I retire, let me know if such a parish exists. I’d want to worship and live there. Meanwhile, I think Americans will continue to see a professional class of lay ministers, and liturgists will be counted among them. The more upheaval in the Church, the longer they will be with us. It’s a curious thing: people who want to turn back the clock will keep the pendulum going, and will continue to produce work for lots of us. If, that is, we’re willing to keep laboring under these conditions.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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7 Responses to The Liturgist’s Future

  1. Hey, Todd – great reflection on the reality. What you left out is that the bad economy has, over the past two years, eroded the ability of parishes to retain professional ministers.

    In our diocese last year, we saw a huge turnover in lay catechetical leadership (about 1/4 of our CL’s), as parishes rushed to cut costs. Professional, degreed people either retired or were let go, and were replaced with willing high-end catechists, who could work part-time, or who did not need benefits because their spouse had them. The other trend was to cut people back from full-time to 32 hours, so benefits remained, but salaries could be reduced.

    I also know of at least one parish that let an excellent degreed professional liturgist/musician go last year and after a year of “making do” with hired keyboard players, just hired a full-time music director (not necessarily a liturgist)

    What we have observed on the catchetical side of this is that the non-professional replacement leaders, willing to work for less cash, often have little or no formation in their ministry. I suspect this is also the case with musicians who are then asked to take on supervision of parish liturgy.

    Whether this erosion will continue, or we will recover remains to be seen, but I think we are losing ground fast.

  2. Todd says:

    I hear about this reality–that donations are trending downward. I suppose my parish must be fortunate as we’re not seeing this. We’ve been able to give employees cost-of-living raises the past two years.

    In my fundraising days, I was tutored to cultivate in others an attitude toward our university alma mater as like a family. When times are tough, people don’t bail on their families. Usually. But if parish is just another charity, well, it is going to be in trouble. And if financial scandals break as they did for sex abuse, we could all be hurting from the fallout.

    As parishes hire more business managers, I don’t get the sense they are all able to develop that sense of family. It’s often same old, same old, just with the priest not in charge of it.

    That said, having been downsized a few times in my life, I realize it is difficult. It is especially stressful to go through it with a family in tow. So I tend to agree with you that we will see less qualified people in some places. I have to ask myself serious questions about ministry whenever I arrive at a crossroads. It may be that lay ecclesial ministry has already peaked, like the experience of clergy in the 1950’s.

    On the other hand, the opportunities for service and education today far outstrip what was available twenty-five years ago when I made my own way in being formed as a lay minister.

    Too bad, really. Just when the postconciliar Church was getting its act together, we get an economic depression capping a turn-the-clock-back movement. We make it hard on the Holy Spirit in all that, don’t we?

  3. As to whether we have peaked in terms of lay ministry, I wonder. The downward trend may be a reality. I just saw a report on national trends in ministry formation (on all levels – seminary, diaconate, and college-based professional lay ecclesial ministry training)- and all are down significantly in the number of people in their programs over the last several years. I expected to see it in terms of priest formation, but the lower numbers in the laity were interesting. The economy and the poor job market probably are factors.

    I agree with you that in terms of liturgists, many pastors are not equipped to do it well themselves, and the laity they get to help are often untrained, but people of good will and some talent.

    • Liam says:

      I do think that one very American aspect to formation of lay professional ministries has been to credentialize it. It’s an inheritance, perhaps, from John Dewey. But, in the past generation, it’s also become part of a much larger higher education/credentialing bubble that is in the process of bursting.

  4. Jimmy Mac says:

    I can’t speak to liturgists, the B16 needs to get a new wardrobe mistress/master! That garb is flat out ugly!

  5. Jimmy Mac says:

    “the B16” s/b “but B16 ….)

  6. FrMichael says:

    Follow the money.

    I have a megaparish and would like to hire a liturgist, but who on staff would I fire to do so? The DRE? The Youth Minister? Cut back on maintenance of the parish plant? I as a parish priest can do a liturgist’s job– not as well, but sufficiently– but feel wholly unprepared to assume a DRE or Youth Minister position. I think I’m fairly representative of parish priests in this. So who am I going to hire: a DRE whose job I cannot do, or a liturgist whose job I can?

    One effect parish priests note quite often is that the changing deomgraphics of American Catholicism are the harbinger of a materially poorer Church. Rare is the multiethnic/cultural parish that will be able to support large parish staffs as we have known them the past three decades.

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