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What makes for a "good" liturgy?

 Michael Garvey’s thread below, about parish-shopping, has prompted an intelligent discussion which I wish many priests would read and take to heart. I was particularly struck by Claire’s first post, and these two paragraphs:

These days I spend at least half of my Sundays exploring, going to parishes where I have never been before. I feel like a little bishop, witnessing the incredible diversity of Catholic Mass liturgy, yet learning to recognize what constitutes the common core. They have in common that if I prepare the readings in depth, get there early, watch everything, listen to every word of the liturgy and try to pray them, then at some point during Mass I will be filled by a sense of profound peace, of being refreshed, of having a new start for the week; and that's independent of the specifics of that particular celebration. So my impression is that this peace is the core experience of going to Mass. The other potential perks - uplifting architecture, moving music, arresting homilies, smiling pew neighbors, etc. - are just bonus, occasional unexpected gifts.

...Then there are some Sundays when I don't do my homework, and when everything about the Mass is banal, I essentially sleep through it with nothing to wake me from my slumber, and afterwards I find myself exactly as though I had not gone. What's the point? And did anything really happen?  I fear that that's the normal Sunday experience of many, and that is not nourishing. If one needs something special in order to participate, say, a particular style of music for example, then why shouldn't they go where they can find it? 

What I liked about Claire's comments was, first, her recognition of the importance of her own participation in determining whether a liturgy has “worked” for her, and, second, her listing of some of the elements that go into an actual event of a liturgy. And this second point prompts the following questions: If someone asked you why you go to Mass, what would you reply? What is it that you want from a liturgy? What counts as a “good” liturgy? What do you take away from a “good” liturgy?  What elements make for a “good” liturgy? How would you rank them in importance? An encounter with God? Receiving communion? The biblical readings? The music? A sense of community? The homily? The priest’s performance of the gestures and prayers? One’s own personal participation and effort? Reverence? Quiet? Other things?


Commenting Guidelines

Can good liturgy be deduced from one single experience? I would hope that as the years pass, people grow and develop in faith through a consistently good experience of welcoming, preaching, and music--the tripod that seems to concern most Catholics, if not most Christians.

If I had my druthers, I'd probably worship in a Benedictine monastery all the time. But as a parish liturgist still far from retirement, that's not a practical thing. I hope I communicate a small collection of things to clergy, ministers, and people: details are important and errors are not, personal expressions are sometimes useful but narcissism is not, liturgy is as much good art as it is accurate ritual.

I realize and appreciate that people parish-shop. I hope the same souls realize that good liturgy takes time and that one-stop might not be enough to discern a good resting place.

 I have a pretty low bar:

  • the sermon should speak to the Gospel reading
  • people would actually shake my hand during the Kiss of Peace, not just give a reluctant little wave
  • the cantor- or whatever the songleader is called- sings in a way that I can actually sing along,too, not some high-pitched singing that I can't follow.  I don't care at all what the songs are (I have no problem with the St Louis Jesuits) as long as I can sing them.
  • Women are on the altar in some capacity.I would love to have women give the homily sometimes, I don't see what the big deal is about that.

I don't know what the rules allow, but it would be great in smaller Masses, if after the priest's homily, there would be time for people in the congregation to off their own reflections on the reading, if they wanted to.

I was at a weekday Mass in the South Bronx when a number of older  ladies started saying the Eucharistic prayers out loud when the priest was saying them. I was startled, but thought it was kind of cool. 

For me, it's the Gospels; that's the most important part of the Mass for me personally, hearing Jesus' teaching. I want to come away inspired to face another week a little better prepared to try and live  more like a Christian. I also think it is important to take some time to say "hello" and "thank you" to God, which I know we can do everywhere, but it seems important to make the effort to go to Church to do it.  I also appreciate having a little time to get some peace from all the clanging and clamor (I used to go to movies by myself to accomplish this).

All of these things I could do without a Church and outside of Mass. I also am looking for a community so I can be a Christian together with other people.

A welcoming environment is important for me, priest and deaon greeting people outside after Mass and members of the parish holding the door open and greeting people a they enter the Church.

Last week my husband thinking that we were a bit late asked the greeter if we were.  He said, "Not at all we're holding the Mass just for you." 

I should note here that at a gathering of young theologians a couple weeks at Boston College (the Catholic Conversation Project) this exact topic of local parish versus shopping constituted a major, all-evening conversation. For myself, I practice a Catholic "both/and": I go to my geographical parish, and also sing in a wonderful choir at a young adult mass in Washington DC on Sunday evenings. As a lay theologian, quite frankly it is valuable for me professionally to avoid restricting my view of the Church to one sort of parish experience or community. As a cantor and choir member, it is easy for that participation to be experienced as active and as a ministry. And in my past experience, I know exactly which parish I would point to in my past as dazzingly exemplary of what mass should be: St. Cecilia's in St. Paul, Minnesota. What distinguished St C's especially were three things: 1. good, skilled preaching, 2. high-quality music that elicited strong participation from the congregation (as appropriate for the parish's patroness!), and 3. a very close-knit community that actually knew one another. St C's liturgy was largely by-the-book - that is, the rites were followed and done well. But my experience was that it overcame the all-too-common "vertical/horizontal" debate over focus on God vs. focus on community. It was clearly and constantly both. Setting aside the issue of music, I would expect the vast majority of people to say similar things: good preaching/presiding (and this I think means a presidential style that strikes the right balance between reverence and warmth - I was at a parish one time where one associate got the nickname "Coach" because his entire liturgical style was like a pep rally leader; on the other hand, stiff, distant, fussy formality is off-putting) and good, genuine community. But I would also emphasize that these subjective goods make sense (to me) in part because of what the Mass is - and how it is a different thing than other kinds of prayer experiences. If I want contemplative peace or meditation on scripture, I might go to an empty church or light a candle at home or go hike in the mountains. When I go to mass, I want the celebration of Christ's sacrificial victory and an anticipatory taste of the heavenly banquet of the saints. In some sense, thankfully, I feel like I always get that, anywhere - that is the blessing of the fixed rite and the recognition that the banquet welcomes lots and lots of people, not just people I know. So occasionally I end up at the local 5pm Spanish mass - I know no Spanish - and it's still the mass, because I know the victory is celebrated and I am thrilled that I am in such a diverse heavenly banquet - even though I don't understand the homily or know personally those in the pews with me. But of course, everything that accentuates the celebration of the victory and the anticipation of the banquet helps.  

For me, the ideal of "full and active participation" ideal is a major factor --  like Claire said, the more I prepare and focus and participate, the more I benefit from being there, and so I value a liturgy that helps me to do that; it's also important for me to be surrounded by people who are also participating fully and actively (as much as circumstances allow). One of the commenters on the OSV column that Garvey links to says "Mass should be about God, not who is sitting next to you in the pew." Nope. Private prayer is about me and God. Sunday Mass is about sharing prayer with the parish community.

Our old parish was always packed on Sunday, but packed with people who arrived late, left early, and spent most of the time in between reading the bulletin. (A surprising number of childless adults never ventured beyond the vestibule/cry room, as though they were trying to stay as far as possible from the altar and still have it "count.") The effect was weirdly alienating. Even in my new parish, which has much more of a "community" feeling, there are times I feel like I'm the only one (besides my husband) within earshot who's bothering to say the prayers or sing the songs, or even listen to the readings. It's frustrating. I came to pray with them -- what did they come for?

I wonder sometimes whether it would help if the pastor made an effort to remind the assembly of our role. Not scolding -- "Quit showing up late, it's rude to Jesus!" -- but a positive approach, encouraging everyone to see Sunday Mass as a single prayer, start to finish, with our part as vital as his. Something we come to do, not something we come to watch. Couldn't hurt, right?

I've only ever been to one church since becoming a Catholic - the one within walking distance of my house and where I went through RCIA.  What I liked the most about the services ...

  •  the music and the chance to sing along  :)
  •  the homily relating the gospel reading to the present
  •  the priest coming down to shake the hands of the people in the front rows during the kiss of peace

I did try to make the service about an encounter between me and Jesus/God but it was too hard to concentrate on that with all that was going on, though sometimes during the singing I felt pretty euphoric.  I must admit that the eucharist wasn't especially moving or important for me - it felt solemn and I knew it was supposed to be important, but I didn't really know what I was doing and it didn't seem to affect me in the way it seemed to others.

Now that I don't go to church anymore I miss the music and the priest's homilies, but I can listen to music online, read very good homilies online, and my prayer life is unaffected by missing church.



A priest in our parish gave a sermon on the Mass and Eucharist. He made a comment about leaving Mass before the end.  I did not take it as a scold, because I never saw anyone leave early. It was more a joke.

He said: "You know, at the very first Mass, the only one who left early was Judas."


The thing that blows my mind are the people who talk during Mass.  In my former parish  in Jacksonville FL during Sundy Mass two elderly men were standing at the back of the side chapel, which opens to the main Church and where I was sitting. They were talking a wild streak (in whispers) almost from the very beginning of Mass. 

I said to myself: "If they talk during the Consecration, that will be the last straw for me."  They did and, as luck would have it, I had to pass in front of them on the way to Communion.

I said, "I teach high school students who are better behaved at Mass than you two."  Dead silence for the rest of Mass.

Ok, it was not my kindest moment, but, let me tell you, I could have said worse.

I would love to have women give the homily sometimes, I don't see what the big deal is about that.

Years ago, the Paulist Center in Boston tried pairing a woman lector and the priest for the reading of the Gospel. If the Gospel reading was five verses long, the woman would start reading about five verses before that and the priest would pick up the reading (without a break) at the point where the official Gospel began. It didn't last very long before the archdiocese shut it down - unfortunately. 


What counts as a “good” liturgy?
What counts as a “good” liturgy?

What counts as a “good” liturgy?

One that doesn't begin with "Good morning" nor end with "Have a nice day."    Everything else is gravy.

Years ago I teased my mother because one of our priests used to say at the end of Mass: "Have a nice day" and the congregation would respond: "Thank you, Father." I told her '"Why don't they respond: 'Have a nice day, Father.'"

So when I would leave for school: I would say to her: "Have a nice day" and she would respond "Thank you, Father."

A fond memory.

Good liturgy is when the celebrants, acolytes, EMs, cantors, lectors, etc. are "invisible"; that is, the Mass comes through them without their interrupting it with their own little flourishes or sense of being "on stage." I recently attended a funeral Mass in a small chapel to the side of the Church proper. The cantor used his Metropolitan Opera voice. With amplification. It was hideous.

I also prefer that priests begin their homilies with "In today's reading ..." or some such prelude that moves directly to the homily without an intervening joke or topical references to sporting events to be seen on TV later that day.

I do not want EMs to use my name at communion a la, "The body of Christ, Jean." I think it would be good if the altar servers did not wear flip-flops that go thwack thwack thwack up the aisle.

Finally, I think more parishes should think about dropping the hand-holding at the Our Father unless they can do it gracefully and in a welcoming way. Most people at the local parish stick out their hands right and left and grope around without making eye contact as if they were shutting their eyes, gritting their teeth, and thinking of England.. 

Many of these sins against decorum can, of course, be overlooked if those in charge of the liturgy convey a sense of sincerity and encouragement.

Jean:   I share everyone of your wishes. About your second one:  In our homiletics course, fifty years ago, the teacher urged us to tell a story at the beginning of our homilies/sermons.  "Long after they've forgotten what you had to say," he said, "they'll remember the story." I remember thinking two things: 1) I don't wnat them to forget what my point was, and 2) the Gospels are themselves stories either about Jesus or relating one of his stories, so why do we need yet another story? 

If the priest, the servers, the cantors, etc. do their job well, they will disappear into what they are doing. On the other hand, thinking of the celebrant, it bothers me a great deal when he rattles off the prayers with all the attention and feeling of the recorded voice that announces the stations at which the next train from Grand Central Station will stop.  Thus: "ThisistheLambofGodwhotakesawaythesinsoftheworldhappyarethosewhoarecalledtothesupperoftheLamb."

Just as bad are the ditties composed for the acclamation after the consecration, some of which might be considered too frivolous for bubble-gum commercials. Did their composers even think about the words these airy tunes would accompany: "Dying you destroyed our death..."  ?


I have always judged the liturgy to have been "successful" if I am conscious of being part of  the "we" (local, global, historical) that prays the Our Father in union with Jesus.  Not sure how that fits with the recently mandated translation of the creed (Nicene, Apostles) as "I believe"--for me this channels the liturgical flow in another direction.

Among other functions and meanings, for me the Eucharistic litugy is an “aesthetic apprehension of the group’s origin and story” (Lonergan, Topics in Education CWL 10:230) especially with regard to the Church as Boldy of Christ.


For me, I like the organizational flow of the liturgy; when each part moves seamlessly to the next. I don't like abrupt or awkward transitions. So the priests, lectors and servers move smoothly, deliberately and mindfully. I like it smooth.

I like when the congregation is similarly involved in the process and responds reverently.

Attentiveness, serenity, and yes joyfullness.

Friendliness but no gladhandling. Reflective homilies, adequate spaces for silence.

aesthetic apprehension of the group’s origin and story


Good phrase - exactly. Of course the aesthete will vary but it should be accessible to the community.

I like to experience something new at Mass. Could be almost anything: a new addition to a family in the parish, a fresh phrase in a hymn (or one I experience freshly), a fresh insight in a homily, something I hadn't noticed before about a Scripture reading. Something that lifts me beyond my previous perspective. Maybe that's not the same as a "successful" attendance at Mass, but it's what I like.

Good liturgy is when the celebrants, acolytes, EMs, cantors, lectors, etc. are "invisible"; that is, the Mass comes through them without their interrupting it with their own little flourishes or sense of being "on stage." -This comment from Jean says it for me too.

Not that good liturgy, sincere singing, prepared preavching, a sense of warmth etc are not important. But lacking what is ideal, the essential is that no one gets in the way of this proclamation of hope, peace and life. 

Then there are the moments when spirits can be lifted when God permits slips of the tongue, as when, on a very hot and humid day in a church without air-conditioning, I brought my brief homily to an end with this fine rhetorical sentence, "And so the lesson of the readings today is that we all can use a lot more humidity."

Or when, today, as a friend reports, the celebrant addressed the congregation and said: "Brothers and sinners..."  immediately recognized his slip and, red-faced, apologized to them all.

Brothers and sinners works for me, but maybe that's because I'm from Philadelphia.

Women on the altar in some capacity.

At the Mass I went to today, around the altar there were five priests including one bishop, and half a dozen altar boys. The readers, cantor, and even the people gathering the collection were all men. But that fact didn't register with me until I heard the intercession: "For all men of good will [in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt]..." and started wondering about women of good will in the Middle East.

the sermon should speak to the Gospel reading

In his homily, the bishop tried to explain, I think, that the gospel didn't quite mean what it seemed to mean. My take: today was not a good day for an improvised homily.

Yet the assembly was numerous (today was their feast day), attentive, and prayerful, so...  yes, "the Mass is the Mass". I enjoyed being among people who were praying. I will be back - but not often.

Today I attended Mass in a vacation city in South Jersey. As a result of our discussion here, I was more attentive to the "little things" that are involved when a community prays together.

The priest had such a stern look on his face and said the celebrant's words with so little feeling that it appeared he was bored.

I thought what a loss of a golden opportunity.


I think Claire should write up her "visitations" in journal form, perhaps a more serious take on liturgy than the often hilarious but not-very-serious Mystery Worshipper from ShipofFools! Maybe she could trade off with other contributors who all write under the same psuedonym a la Fr. Nonomen (though I guess he's just one guy).

Today I skipped church. Outdoor Mass and parish picnic. It's almost as bad as the Christmas Eve Children's Mass (which always reminds me of the connection between "Bethlehem" and "bedlam"). Outdoor Mass w/ Picnic is always too hot, not enough shade, it's hard to hear, and people are distracted by the smell of the hog roasting.  

Any thoughts about liturgies al fresco?


I would love to go to a Mass with a Pig Roast.

people would actually shake my hand during the Kiss of Peace, not just give a reluctant little wave

Today two persons besides my party shook my hand, but I watched with interest the people in the pews in front of me. In an elegant, well-practiced style reminiscent of tai chi, they all used a kind of "air kissing": two persons lean towards one another as though they are about to hug, stop and pause briefly when the first person's right cheek is almost in contact with the other person's left cheek but not quite, and repeat on the other side. There is no physical contact. Is it a local form of inculturation? As mentioned earlier, the diversity of the Catholic Mass liturgy is seemingly inexhaustible.


Well, dang, Irene! If I'da known you wanted to come, I sure would of invited you up here! There's grilled sweet corn, cole slaw, home grown sliced tomatoes, and any number of chocolate cakes turning to goo in the heat that ends up all over the front of small children. There were supposed to be recreational activities after the picnic, this year: three-on-three basketball, kids catching frogs and turtles in the culvert, and a euchre or cribbage tournament, the preferred social activity of all Midwesterners because it precludes the need for actual conversation.

The Mass is the Mass always.  Some preperation and always wanting to be there are key.  What brings it to the next level?  1. Celebrant with humility, reverence and simplicity.  2. Homily related to readings.  I'm fine with a story that "brings it home" or brings a new' fresh perspective.  3. Connecting with the community even if it happens to be awkward for some reason.  4. Good music is a joy.

I am blest with a wonderful parish and a pastor who is a true shepherd. 

The gift of communion is a major reason for why I am there.

Mary E Nolan

Last Sunday: Mass in a parish on the South Fork of LI. Pastor is from India. Parish is full of the local folks (not the 1 percent). We usually go to the family Mass when out there, when half the sermon is Q and A with kids (very effective and usually funny), and half to the "adults" who actually seem to enjoy the kids sermon. All based on the Gospel reading. This time we went to the "young people's" Mass. We may have been the youngest people there!! I am impressed by the way these parishioners (mostly Irish and Italian 70 and 80 year olds) respond so positively and warmly to their Indian pastor with his sing-song English. Appeal from Archbishops Fund featuring a short video of all sorts of people who do ministry in the Diocese of Rockville Center. Pretty impressive. I contributed!

This Sunday: Back home. Considered doing something spiritual rather than religious and staying home to read. Went though. Retired Fordham prof our celebrant, very popular...does the Gospel and always has a joke or witticism that fits perfectly. Congregation a bit sparse, but several people back from vacation which led to a long chattorama after Mass. Also: the choir on vacation, and to my ear that allowed the congregation to sound forth in a way that it doesn't when the very good choir sings and the very loud organ plays very loudly.

A bit off subject: In the days when parishes had five priests in residence, didn't people shop their celebrant within the parish as they now shop parishes, which usually has only one priest, the pastor?

I never heard of people shopping for the celebrant.  The time was more important.  At our parish in Kansas City, there were three priests.

Monsignor said the high mass at 11:00 with the "adult" choir, a highly trained choir led by a man who could sing and accompanied by the man's wife who could play the organ.  It was a German parish, and the tradition of great music survived.  The congregation did not sing, except for belting out Holy God We Praise Thy Name at the end.  

One of the assistants said the low mass at eight, and the newest assistant got the six.  In those days, no afternoon mass.

(No air conditioning, but men in coats and ties, women in "heels 'n' hose", hats, makeup, etc.)

(Going to confession on Sat. involved shopping for the confessor, of course.)

Here is my list of why I attend Mass each Sunday - and sometimes daily when time permits:  Receiving the body and blood of Jesus Christ (the most important for me), praying with a welcoming community and that includes discussing about my favorite sport teams with parisioners before Mass, great homilies by our parish priests who include humor - great jokes - at the begnining, great reflections (wouldn't dare say homily) once a month by our lay pastoral associate who is a woman and great music.  Sometimes I attend the 7:30 am Mass when I feel like listening to the traditional hymns. Otherwise, I normally attend the 5:00 p.m. Mass when our youth choir sings.  I love the modern, upbeat liturigal music.  Further, I love liturgies that are simple, right to the point - no fluff like liturgical dancers or lots of latin and boring chants. I look forward to quiet prayer in our side chapel after the Mass. And I have to add that I don't like the new Roman Missal translations.


In Paris the archbishop has instructed parishes to not publish the names of celebrants, so as to prevent people from choosing the Mass according to who is the homilist. Once I heard a riveting homily at Notre Dame, but there is no way for me to know when that same preacher will be on again (I asked). I went back a few times, hoping to be lucky, but never heard him again, so I gave up. So I know that somewhere nearby there is a homilist who touches my heart, but he is hidden. It is one of the small ways in which hierarchs make us feel their power and put obstacles in the way of our conversion.


In my childhood parish the kid's Sunday Mass was at 9. You had to go and your parents went with you. There were two priests who received sighs of delight when they appeared on the altar. Both were good, but one was really good. You could feel the kids sit up and take notice when the best one appeared; little head nods when the second best showed up. Anybody else (any of the other three priests) had to swim against the tide of irritation that was sent forth because they were the wrong celebrant. Yes, yes, we all knew about ex opere operato; but that goes only so far.

...and people are distracted by the smell of the hog roasting.

Jean, speaking as someone who is CBNR, I think that if you guys just pushed the hog roast to after the liturgy by incorporating the slaughter of said hog as part of the liturgy (i.e., as a blood sacrifice), then things would probably go better.

Thanks to all for this wonderful set of observations and reflections.  I love the call-and-response nature of the liturgy.  I'm grateful for any celebration of the Mass that brings that incarnates that aspect of it.

Speaking of priest-shopping, this just in from Eric Metaxas's book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer (all right, not "just" in; the book was published in 2010, but I was reading it just now):

(Bonhoeffer was working in Spain with/for Pastor Friedrich Olbricht.) "On Easter, with Olbricht away, Bonhoeffer preached again and the next week too. Each time he challenged his hearers and somehow won them over. It soon happened that whenever Bonhoeffer was scheduled to preach, the congregation grew noticeably. Olbricht noticed and promptly discontinued announcing the preaching schedule."

In Paris the archbishop has instructed parishes to not publish the names of celebrants, so as to prevent people from choosing the Mass according to who is the homilist. 

Announcjng the celebrant has never been the custom here. I usually go to the same Mass each Sunday. Last week it was the pastor; today it was a retired priest who helps out when needed - no advance notice. 

On the other hand, the Franciscan shrine in Boston lists on their website the names of the priests who are scheduled to hear confessions at different times throughout the day. 

I was away from my parish today and had the opportunity to celebrate Mass at my cousin's parish in a Boston suburb. Some family members were present including those who are likely not regular church goers. It was the "youth" mass and there was a very skilled contemporary ensemble. Though I didn't notice many youth, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that the people were singing with gusto. Though I was celebrating my 40th anniversary, the pastor told me I needed to share the preaching time with a woman speaking on behalf of the Propogation of the Faith. Her remarks were well prepared but when she began soliciting sign ups for those who wanted themselves and their deceased loved ones remembered in 40 Masses each day "forever", I found myself wondering how she distinguishes herself from Tetzel. The Mass connected me to God with all its different elements. That's what always counts for me. So what that I was required to go to the tabernacle to fetch the hosts consecrated at prior Masses. It's what they do there and I was a guest. People were glad to greet and congratulat me on the way out. All in all, a great encounter with The Lord of all kindness.

About five years ago, I undertook a pilgrimage of sorts.  Over the course of 18 months, I worshiped with a parish community other than my own about two out of every three Sundays.  Because I went some parishes more than once, the result was that I attended Sunday Mass at about 45 other places, most of them within the urban county where I live, which has 90 parishes for about 250,000 Catholics.

These experiences were extraordinarily diverse.  Many were wonderful surprises, and there I confess that there was the occasional surprising or even jarring disappointment.  Most were a mix of good and not-so-good elements.

Overall, I came to appreciate the diverse experiences that my fellow Catholics are attracted to, or sometimes subjected to.

  • Churches that were full and empty and somewhere in between.
  • Processions that were elaborate and simple, well-done and careless or perfunctory.
  • Readings that were proclaimed with conviction, and some that I could barely understand.
  • Homilies that mostly could have been better, but that also that tended to be better and evidence more preparation than what they are often reputed as.
  • General intercessions from the chair and from the congregation that were conventional, moving, trite, and inaudible.
  • Priests who prayed the Eucharistic Prayer (this was before RM3) with varying levels of quality: some in quiet monotone, but most with reverence and passion, including a few who seemed to make the prayer itself sing, even though they weren’t singing.
  • Music probably evidenced that greatest variation – in both presentation and participation; the best, regardless of style, were those where the people seemed to express the prayers in their hearts through their singing; the worst were places where the selections were musically or pastorally in conflict with one another or the liturgical moment. 
  • In some places, quiet and incense were used effectively.
  • People usually behaved as a community worshiping together, though sometimes this was not very evident. 

As I tried to take in all of this, I could see that in each of these parishes, there are people who belong and attend out of choice, and who even see their parish as a special place, regardless of how I may view their liturgy.  I also came to a greater appreciation for the benefits of being a member of a community, not just a visitor – even an occasional visitor to the same parish.  I believe that the people I worship with can help to deepen my experience of the immanence and the transcendence of God.


Jeff, what is your experience in term of liturgical details? I should have taken notes so I could speak with more confidence, but here are my impressions:

- Latin: I am surprised that Latin has almost disappeared from the liturgy. A large majority of Masses have not a single word of Latin! Even in monasteries, and even in Italy (unless I just got unlucky) or in the Holy Land.  I personally regret it, because having a sprinkle of Latin helps me connect to Christians of the past, because I find that music beautiful, because many old people, if you ask them about it, remember it with nostalgia and would be grateful for an occasional Latin song, and because a little bit would help me participate when I travel to countries whose language I do not speak. I am not sure why there is such a complete rejection of Latin. If I had my way, the Mass normally would have the Kyrie in Greek and the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei in Latin, and a few times a year the assembly would be exposed to the Gloria, the Credo, and to one or another favorite Marian hymn in Latin.

- Music: people sing more than they have a reputation to. The music, by and large, seems to be the principal effort of parishes towards liturgy. On the music itself, it seems that people do the best that they can given the taste and skill of the volunteers in each parish. (The music is usually better in the US than in France.) My main regret is the poverty of the lyrics. More often than not, the words are banal, generic. That was not the case in the 70s, when the lyrics were Scripture-based and I built much of my understanding of the faith by pondering the words I was singing. 

- Lectors: there is a surprisingly large and maybe growing minority of parishes with superb lectors. I think that there is a general widespread awareness of the importance of the readings.

- Women: currently it seems to me that the majority of parishes have altar boys only. It did not use to be like that. I believe that the hope is that, like in the past, having male altar servers will foster vocations to the priesthood. Personally, I think it's an illusion that smacks of desperation.

- Preaching:  the homily is always directly connected to the readings. The majority of the time, it is solely focused on the gospel. It is normally not particularly engaging, but there is usually something in it for the person who makes the effort to listen. But by and large, it is ineffective. The preaching style is typically better in the US than in France.

- Welcome: people in France are more reserved than in the US. It used to be that one would not talk to strangers until a formal introduction had taken place. The idea of welcoming people by talking to them informally even though you don't know them is alien to traditional French culture. I imagine that the protocol is: first, anonymously come a few times. Then, once the pastor knows your face, shake his hand after Mass a few times (assuming you're lucky enough that it's always the same priest and that he likes to stand and greet people after Mass.) Then tell him your name and introduce yourself. Then he may introduce you to a couple of people. Make sure to remember their names and always say hello to them after that, and then the next time the parish has a social event, with luck they'll introduce you to a bunch of other people, who at that point may already be aware of your existence and ready to meet you.  In terms of behavior towards people on the margins: Don't Ask Don't Tell.

- Clericalism: clericalism is alive and well among lay people in France. You never contradict Father to his face (behind his back is another matter, of course). What Father says is what goes (unless it's impossible for lack of volunteers or passive resistance by inertia). Pastoral councils are a rarity. When I mention accountability and financial reports, people look at me as though I had landed from the moon. The modus operandi is: willing parishioners make themselves available, and Father decides how best to use them. People would not dream of taking initiatives. There is no sense of an equal partnership to jointly discuss needs. It  seems to me that, except for music, there is very little lay leadership, and that parishes are still not adequately prepared to deal with the decrease in the number of priests and the aging of remaining priests. 

- Prayer: I have the impression that the liturgy is more alive than, say, twenty years ago. In most places one gets the sense that many people are there not by mere habit but because they have chosen to be there. The number of Masses has diminished and the number of people attending may be small, but  they want to be there. We pray together. 


Re: Paris, I would imagine that this decision is quite possibly related to the many immigrant priests, whom people might seek to avoid when possible for reasons having to do with culture, accent, or plain old prejudice.

"My main regret is the poverty of the lyrics. More often than not, the words are banal, generic. That was not the case in the 70s, when the lyrics were Scripture-based and I built much of my understanding of the faith by pondering the words I was singing.  - See more at:"

This comment from Claire prompts a question that perhaps someone can answer: What happened to the music of Lucien Deiss? Very scriptural in content,It was used quite commonly in the 1970's but seems to have disappeared from the usual canon today. I wish that some of his pieces could be recovered.

a) Women giving the homily. I recall with great pleasure going to a small church in Europe, where a woman did just that, the priest seated behind the altar and smiling benignly. As far as I could make out from my less than fluent German, it was a pretty good homily too. I asked my local diocese under what conditions a woman preacher might be permitted, and in response I got a lot of words and citations from canon law which generally seem to have provided the answer, "Never." I would think it a very good idea if women, or even -- gasp -- members of the laity could preach. Quite apart from everything else, it might catch the attention of the congregation and cut down on the incidence of wool-gathering.

b) allowing the people to offer their own reflections on the readings. Wonderful idea. How many of us have been to children's masses, in which the priest invites the children to gather round the altar while he reads the gospel, and then in the homily, asks them for their views, and engages them in conversation?

I expect that it's all right to do this with children, because they can easily be put in their place if they raise awkward questions, but adults are too dangerous and too fearsome to be allowed to talk.

I remember Fr Deiss's music, have copies of both volumes of "Biblical Hymns and Psalms" -- I even attended a workshop he gave at a local parish (in the 70s, in NW Washington).  A few of his pieces (All the Earth, Keep in Mind) are still to be found in OCP's Breaking Bread for this year.  But most of it does seem to have disappeared, at least in the US.  I don't know why, and would be interested to know.  

Irene Baldwin August 24, 2013 - 12:43pm

When you are next in San Francisco, come here:

(1) happens all the time.  If it didn't the presider would hear about it ASAP.  We get lots of guest presiders and they all know that we expect good preaching; not a 7-10 minute lesson in pablum and boredom.

(2) hell, you can even count on a hug, unless you look like you'll faint if that happens.  Then a vigorous shake will be extended.

(3) we use professionals to do just that, i.e., they are paid musicians.  They know how to lead and we are all good at making a joyful noice unto the Lord.

(4) women abound around the altar, and women giving the homily happens periodically ... and God hath not smote us into many pieces yet.  (What Abp Cordileone doesn't know, doesn't hurt him.  If he does know, he shuts up.  We are an actively vibrant parish with no debt and money in the bank.  And we know what financial solvency means to a bishop.)

The downside?  There are so few parishes like ours.  And, if you come, you'll have to get used to seeing 'those people" in great profusion, loving God, each other and the visitors who regular come.  (There are no strangers in our parish.)

A picture is worth more than any words ... and here are a lot of pictures to give you an idea of how a great parish looks and celebrates:

Re: Lucien Deiss - a number of his works are in the one-volume Christian Prayer (which dates from the 1970s), and it is a pleasure to sing those scripture-infused lyrics, even when I am singing them alone.

His compositions tended to have irregular meter, which made them a bit less accessible for cantors.  And they were composed for the organ, which has fallen a bit out of favor the last couple of generations.

Perhaps another factor is that the St. Louis Jesuits, in the 1970s, were also composing works with scripture-infused lyrics, but generally with regular meter and scored for guitar, and easily arranged for piano and C instrument.   And situated more in a 'pop' vein.

Musically, I've thought that Deiss's compositions were in the original spirit of the liturgical renewal - their modes and the chant-like quality of their settings.  That the church largely hasn't kept his repertoire alive says something about church music today.  For one reason and another, conventional thinking about music programming, and conventional practice, would tend to preclude Deiss compositions from being chosen.

FWIW, people with an interest in some of the great contributors to the original liturgical renewal might be interested in this Liturgical Pioneeers site.  In addition to  Deiss, there are biographical sketches/remembrances of Joseph Gelineau, Jan Vermulst, and many, many others.


This is an interesting discussion for me because I finally admitted to myself a few years ago that liturgy was no longer supporting my spiritual life.The parish was way too big to be a  community (I grew up in a town that had a total population that was considerably smaller than my parish's population), the readings and homilies were so familiar after so many years that even when I tried to force myself to pay attention, I would drift off (there are only so many ways that priests come up with to talk about the same scripture passages). Like Crystal, the eucharist is not especially meaningful. Etc. It's my "fault" I suppose, but once I was honest with myself, I started to shed my guilt over finding Sunday mass to be an obligation rather than meaningful.

For years I attended mass with 500- 700 others at the same time, at one of 7 masses during the weekend for a parish of 3400 families (not individuals). Even though I was pretty much always active in one or two ministries, I did not know anywhere close to 7% of the congregation that Tom says that he does, but maybe a couple of dozen of those who were involved in the same ministries that I was.  I was around enough so that the pastors knew my name, but I wasn't a priest groupie.  Very often I did not recognize even a single person in the pews on Sunday.

I found that weekday masses in a small chapel of another parish were better - more contemplative, with no music at all, a simple liturgy, brief homily, no smells and bells to distract. I belong to a small centering prayer group and it feels much more like a real community than did Sunday mass with 700 strangers.  After 30 years in one parish, I did parish shop (other article). After hanging in through four pastors, a fifth arrived and changed the dynamics of the parish and its nature very dramatically. To use shorthand, it changed from being a  "Vatican II" parish to an EWTN parish. Many long-time parishoners left for green pastures after a while.   Although my new parish felt more "comfortable", it also made me face the reality that Sunday liturgy had been empty of real meaning for a long time.  My husband had come with me for 30+ years on Sunday although he is not Catholic. So I agreed to join my husband as often as I could at an Episcopal parish on Sundays.

The  exception to repetive homilies came when I started attending that  Episcopal church with my husband, a church with a woman priest as well as a male priest.  It took a minute for my brain to absorb what she was saying the first time I heard her speak,  a homily on Mary's visit with Elizabeth. I was stunned into sitting up and listening and didn't have to fight to pay attention because she was talking as a woman as well  as a priest. She was talking as a mother.  She brought feminine insights and understanding to that scripture that no male priest I have ever heard had ever done. I felt like standing up and shouting "YES, YES!" - you understand!  You really understand!   I still go to that church with my husband frequently, because she touches my mind and soul through her homilies in ways that no male priest ever has, and, I would suggest, cannot - because they are male celibates and they don't understand certain things in  their brains, or their hearts, or in their bodies. This priest had conceived and carried a child, she had given birth, she had nurtured the child, she had been a frightened new mother, and several years later, she was a somewhat frightened single mother. She understood Mary and Elizabeth in her own body memory as well as in her heart and her head.  So her homilies are not as often repetitive - not to me, anyway, because I spent almost 60 years listening to scriptures as filtered exclusively through the minds and experiences of celibate men. 

It is somewhat amusing in a way, because this Episcopal church's liturgy is very much what so many Catholics say they want - we attend Rite I, primarily because of the time it is offered. It is more traditional than Rite II, with thees and thous, classical music (Mozart missas etc), the Agnus Dei, Gloria, Sanctus are often sung in Latin (as well as other hymns), and the Kyrie in Greek. It is a small, historic church and we even kneel for communion (in the hand though).  Rite II is the less formal liturgy, popular with families.  It seems to me that the Catholic church could do the same on Sundays - offer liturgies with different styles of music -  and maybe cool down the endless liturgy wars (My preferences in music are better than your preferences in music, Latin is better than English, NO, English is better than Latin, etc, etc, nanny, nanny, boo,boo)

I'm not sure hymns should be "scriptural," in the sense of paraphrases. The more ancient way of hymns is to incorporate allusions to scripture.   F