One of the mistakes made by clergy and pastoral ministers is thinking that all the keys to “good” liturgy are to be found within the liturgy itself. We think that if we improve liturgical presiding and homilizing, upgrade the music, have better-trained liturgical ministers, the liturgy really will be effective.
As a sacramental theologian, I would be the last person to downplay the importance of good priestly leadership and homilizing, better quality music and singing, and well-trained ministers. However, these alone will not create effective liturgy.
The fact is, the liturgy is not the Church. The warning of the Second Vatican Council is very much to the point when in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy it says: “The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church. Before men can come to the liturgy, they must be called to faith and to conversion” (no. 9).
The Council went on the point out that a dynamic relationship exists between the liturgy and pastoral ministry: “The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows” (no. 10). Liturgy and the Christian life exist in a mutually productive and enriching relationship.
There are three important implications to what I am saying here. The first is that liturgy alone will not build community – a much-prized value today. In fact, the liturgy has limited community-building ability. Community is built, rather, by the sustained interaction of parishioners in a whole variety of educational, ministerial, spiritual, social and charitable activities. When parishes facilitate these activities in a constant and well-directed manner, then – and only then – will the liturgy have a strong communitarian character.
The second implication is that the liturgy cannot be the forum in which the whole of the parish’s life is transacted. Often, the announcements period at Mass represents the only arena for parish business (and a fairly passive one at that). The special collection is the only mode of engagement with the great issues that face the Church at diocesan, national and international levels.
The third implication is that the liturgy cannot be the only place within which Christian education takes place. In many parishes there is no adult education apart from the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, which reaches only a very small percentage of people. Formation in the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church often does not take place apart from the homily, but the homily is not able to proclaim by itself the whole of Christian faith.
The fundamental problem here is that too much is being asked of the liturgy. The Church is expected to yield up all its riches on Sunday morning, and disappointment occurs when this does not occur and then the liturgy collapses under the weight.
The problem I am identifying exists not only with Sunday Mass, of course. It exists in relation to the whole range of the Church’s life.
The full effects of baptism are not realized without effective ministry to parents. Confirmation programs need the context of sustained youth ministry. Sacramental Confession will suffer when Christian communities and parish ministers do not embody qualities of understanding, wisdom, and compassion. The Sacrament of the Sick loses its full power when the day-to-day needs of the old and home-bound are ignored.
The means to “good” liturgy are not a big secret. They are to be found precisely within the ordinary round of solid, sustainable ministry at every level of parish life.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Parish.