The future of the liturgist??

A PrayTell reader sends in this query and asks for your collective wisdom. – Ed.

In a conversation I recently had with a prominent liturgical theologian, I was told that Offices of Divine Worship, particularly on the diocesan level, are on their way out. Financial hardship and a changing of the guard were cited as the main reasons. This theologian’s pastoral and academic career is a testament to the hard won efforts of a generation of liturgist who inherited the Liturgical Movement after the likes of Robert Hovda and Aidan Kavanaugh, OSB. I trust that his predictions are made on some sound evidence, a life of experience. And yet I am wondering if his prognosis is prematurely bleak. The Reform of the Reform is certainly underway; some of its loudest complainants offer reasonable concerns. But will there be an end of the “pastoral liturgist,” the woman or man whose work it is to (1) teach everyday Catholics how to perform liturgical ministry well, (2) orchestrate special liturgical celebrations that are both deeply traditional and in some ways pastorally tailored to the needs of a particular local body of Catholic believers, (3) continue to develop the “liturgical” theology that has in many ways transformed the “sacramental” theology of the Church’s longstanding intellectual development? Will the Reformers of the Reform send us “back” to a day where such professionals and scholars could never make a living as full time liturgists?

I would love to know what other liturgists and liturgiologists believe about the future of their field and profession. I hope they can help me.



  1. I want to believe that liturgists will have a great future, because of the changes in all the liturgical books necessitated by the new Roman Missal and the new Psalter. Every cathedral will need a liturgist, every large parish, every university and college, and similar institutions. And these liturgists will not be only ordained liturgists. The need for lay liturgists will increase.

    I pray that I will live to see another ecumenical council, with the Orthodox having voice and vote, with the churches of the Reform having at least a voice, where lay women and men will speak. Such a council is bound to produce liturgical changes.

    Let us pray.

  2. I’m not entirely convinced that lay ecclesial ministers, as staff members, have a long-term future. Strangely enough, I think the rollback of Vatican II might actually prolong their presence in parishes. But I don’t have room to elaborate on that.

    The Church will have need of liturgical expertise, certainly. But unusually enough, I don’t see much of it in the Roman bureaucracy. Dioceses cutting loose liturgy people and shutting down commissions (not very Vatican II, that) … clearly some bishops don’t think much of it either.

    My cynical side thinks we’re rolling back to a century ago: oases of good liturgy in the occasional parish and some monasteries. Less improvement in parishes without liturgically-minded clergy. Maybe going backward.

    On the other hand, widespread scandal in the hierarchy could continue and we could see significant upheaval in our lifetimes. How many church councils were inspired by moral misbehavior on the part of bishops?

  3. The professional liturgist will not disappear. Reform of the Reform/Extraordinary Form [ROTR/EF] rubricism will not disappear either. Liturgists will continue to prosper where rubrics are interpreted through an academic and theoretical lens. Liturgists will not be welcome in parishes that emphasize absolute adherence to the rubrics.

    ROTR/EF Catholics have often suffered at the hands of liturgists. Some liturgists have openly derided the ROTR/EF emphasis on rubrical fidelity and love of the extraordinary form. Some of us in the ROTR and EF exhibit a thinly veiled schadenfreude when bishops curtail or close liturgical programs. The mistrust and recriminations are bidirectional.

    The ROTR and EF are still minority movements in Roman Catholicism. I do not agree that the ROTR will overtake liturgists. Nevertheless, I hope that the liturgical establishment (especially diocesan liturgical offices) will cease to impose their ideology on ROTR/EF adherents. Set us free to worship according to our consciences and principles. Perhaps then both “sides” might live in harmony.

  4. “The ROTR and EF are still minority movements in Roman Catholicism.”

    Yes, but they seem to be the loudest voices at the moment.

    – Will there be a new type of ‘liturgist’? – Hostile to the texts and music of Farrell & Haugen – promoting the EF Mass etc?

  5. For those who might like to get a clearere sense of the above-mentioned ROTRers and EFers, you might enjoy tuning in to EWTN from 2-3 this afternoon (Saturday) to watch a documentary on the Church Music Association’s annual Colloquium. It’s not a hostile group, actually. They’re too busy singing.

    Imagine a 250-voice choir singing polyphony.

  6. Criticism of current liturgical practices, in my opinion, lies more at the feet of priests, than it does with liturgists. There aren’t that many liturgists around in the parishes where I have attended Mass. And at our Cathedral the liturgist is a good priest.

    Some of the incredible errors that I have witnessed include:

    1. Extensive improvisation of the words of the Mass
    2. Priest as entertainer/performer rather than as celebrant of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass
    3. Priest not properly vested.
    4. Priests allowing communicants to self-intinct the Sacred Host in a chalice placed on a table off to the side.
    5. Priest receiving, like a good host at a party, Holy Communion after everybody else has received. He received it from one of the Extraordinary Ministers.
    6. Priest allowing a woman to elevate the chalice at the Consecration and say the words of consecration along with him.
    7. Priests not purifying the sacred vessels
    8. Priest dropping Sacred Host on the floor and doing nothing to clean up the area afterward.
    9. One Mass, a husband and wife were the lectors and one read an Earth Day poem before the other read the Gospel.

    I’ve attended Guitar Masses, Charismatic Masses, Polka Masses, Latin Masses, Folk Masses, Contemporary Music Masses, African Masses etc. I’m not crazy about some of them. The Church should have room for many types of liturgies; but they ALL should be holy and conducive to worship. Not entertainment..

    1. Obviously priests are not well supervised with regard to most things, e.g. their behavior with regard to children, or money or the liturgy by either their bishop, their fellow priests, or the laity.

      Does this comment mean we need more lay liturgists to supervise these errant priests, or that they would not be of any help? Or does a bishop need to empower a priest to supervise his errant colleagues?

      1. What we ultimately need are better candidates for the priesthood. And, from my admittedly limited perspective, i think the young men entering seminary today will prove to be reverent and faithful in how they celebrate Holy Mass. The so-called “biological solution” of the aging presbyterate will take care of many problems. Unfortunately, i am old enough that I won’t long enjoy the benefits of this new generation of priests.

  7. I actually have more problems with Music Directors than I do with Liturgists. I thank God every Sunday that we are required to sing all the verses of a hymn while the celebrant taps his toes waiting for the end that the Stabat Mater, with its 20 or more verses, is not considered a hymn appropriate for Masses.

  8. In the 80’s I worked for a large mental health center that kept track of its staff time. About 80% of the senior management time was spent managing change, originating from federal, state, and county governments.

    So as long as there continues to be liturgical change (originating from Rome, the bishops, and the local diocese) there will continue to be a need for ‘liturgists.’ Their titles, skills, duties, etc. may change with the changes, but there will still be a need for someone to manage the changes.

    Since there is major disagreement among ‘liturgists’ as to where we should go, there will continue to be change efforts at all levels, and in all directions. Since few if any ‘liturgists’ ever do any kind of market research to find out what the people might prefer, most changes will ‘fail’ in the eyes of the people i.e. don’t expect declining church attendance to reverse. “Liturgists’ will continue to point fingers at each other about fault, the church version of ‘inside the beltway’ politics.

    I am curious about Todd Flowerday’s thinking on the lack of a future for lay ecclesial ministers, and encourage him to expand on his comment here or on his website.

    1. Give me a day or two to organize my thoughts, and I’ll have something.

      Meanwhile, regarding:

      “Set us free to worship according to our consciences and principles.”

      This is frankly scary. Let’s make it up as we go along. One priest I knew, ordained about twenty years, insisted he was right to use the oil of catechumens for the post-baptismal anointing. Chrism, he said, is saved for confirmation. He wasn’t going to listen to his liturgist, so maybe in some places, the whole thing is moot.

      1. Good point, Todd. Yes, consciences often go awry. “Set us free” referred specifically to those that strictly adhere to the rubrics. A pastor and his assistants do not need a liturgist to tell them how to follow the rubrics. Well-educated and conscientious priests can read the red text and execute the instructions without a degree in liturgical theory.

        Some liturgists follow the rubrics closely. Others inject opinion and personal tastes into the prescriptions of the Roman Rite. Liturgists can help, but are sometimes a hindrance. Many of us in the ROTR would like to be set free of the subjective opinion of liturgists and merely follow the rubrics.

  9. I’m not a liturgist, but in our diocesan structure the director of worship and the Catechumenate reports to me. I can say, as far as our small, rural diocese is concerned, I can’t imagine not having a diocesan liturgist. (We also have a part-time director of music, who serves as the cathedral’s liturgist, and a permanent diocesan Master of Ceremonies.)

    Our diocesan liturgist has more than enough work setting up workshops on Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest, preparing for the implementation of the Roman Missal, Third Edition, evaluating proposals for church renovations, and preparing major diocesan liturgies — which in this past year has included celebrations for our departing and new bishops — to say nothing of his work in shoring up the RCIA process in our parishes.

    If anything I’m looking for ways to find added assistance for our liturgist, not looking to get rid of him! (Of course, my sense is that our diocese, while hurting, has been less affected by the downturn in the economy than many others.)

  10. There has always been a difference between the liturgy coordinator (a sort of glorified sacristan or worship secretary) and a liturgy director with professional skills and education. The former will undoubtedly continue, as there will always be intercessions to print and ministers schedules to keep, vestments to order, the occasional speaker or bulletin insert to arrange, etc. The latter, however, has already begun to disappear because collegiality is not really welcomed in most Catholic parish settings. (I say this with regret, because I believe we could get better at this, but probably won’t.) Instead of being a “helper,” as the coordinator generally is, a director is a colleague. This is the piece that most priests find hard to digest. They don’t have a model for it. Their ideas about the exercise of leadership are very top-down, rather than collegial, for the most part.

    It’s different in diocesan work, where there is a larger pool of persons with particular expertise, and a structure that supports collegiality. There a liturgy director is easily worked into the system, to the benefit of all concerned. Would that this could happen in our parishes as well.

    1. Thanks Rita for this helpful distinction between a liturgy coordinator and a liturgy director.

      As we have fewer but larger parishes. liturgy coordinators will be fewer but they will certainly have more work (and perhaps more responsibility) in the larger parishes. They are more likely to be paid people in the larger parishes. Paid people seem to be far more likely to interact with a diocesan liturgy director and get some ideas and direction from that person than volunteers. So the skills of paid liturgy coordinators may become upgraded, and the role of diocesan liturgy directors as change agents could become more important.

      Right now pastors seem very biased toward recruiting assistants rather than colleagues. Will that continue to be the case as parishes grow larger and larger, and priests fewer and fewer, and their work loads heavier? Seems like things should change toward recruiting academically better qualified people into the parish to replace departing priests and religious, but I would not count on it..

      The situation with regard to liturgy is complicated because both music and religious education are also involved with the liturgy.

  11. Yes, the Liturgy Coordinator is needed. We may even still call him a sacristan. I don’t really see a need for a Professional Liturgist, however. The reason they seem to be disappearing is probably because they are redundant. Looking at tasks 1, 2, and 3 above-between priests, deacons, and catechists the job is covered. Why do we need a professional liturgist in a parish?

    1. I am the Director of Liturgy in a parish — not the music director, not the sacristan, not the coordinator — and I certainly don’t see my job as redundant. For one thing, there are a lot of things that the priests do that only they can do; my work helps free them up to take care of pastoral visits, pastoral counseling, preparing homilies, celebrating the sacraments. For another, because of my single focus on liturgy, I can shepherd through projects and changes (such as coordinating preparation for the new missal) — that is where my strengths and training are. My focus on liturgy makes sure that we know what is happening and why with liturgical “pronouncements” from the archdiocese or the USCCB.

      COULD the work I do be done by a priest or deacon or catechist? Sure. But it doesn’t HAVE to be. Without someone who is assigned to it, I think it won’t get done, at least not as thoroughly as it should if we are truly concerned about the full, active participation of the people.

      That said, I realize that, in our huge parish, we have the resources for my position, and that is not the usual case. I foresee that, as parish finances get tight, professional liturgy positions will be among the first to go, and it saddens me. If I were just now starting out in my career, I would probably choose a different path.

  12. I observe a need to link more strongly both the communal and personal experience of Christian worship with the communal and personal experiences of living as baptized women and men of faith. This is a task most suited to a properly-trained liturgist or liturgy coordinator, and if accomplished well, could partly ensure their long-term viability in the Roman Catholic tradition.

  13. It was A. Kavanaugh who viewed each of the baptized as liturgist. Such seems to coincide with then J Ratzinger’s sense that liturgical renewal was unfortunately limited to the realm of “professional liturgists” only.

    It would seem that it is the task of liturgiologists, directors of worship, catechists, priests, parents, etc, to assist the baptized to enter deeply into the beauty of the liturgy which is proper to them. I would hope that all professional liturgists (and priests as well) might approach the sacred liturgy as servants, good stewards, so that the Mrs. Smiths of the world might enter into that which is properly theirs.

  14. The Chant Café has an interesting article by a music director whose parish has recently been merged with others. It is about “DM’s who must wrestle with the yearly concerns of subscription missal/hymnal publications, and also who are charged with overseeing the programming responsibilities of subordinate musical personnel, such as organists, cantors, ensembles and choirs, to whom license is provided to make their own weekly decisions as to repertoire.”

    Parishes are increasing being clustered or merged. This article suggested to me hiring a cluster musical director who would make decisions about possible repertoire as suggested by this article, while hiring a cluster liturgy director who be involved in making music and other liturgy decisions on the basis of a solid background in liturgical, scripture, and other theological disciplines. (I doubt many people could do both well).

    Placed at the cluster level these professionals would be colleagues to pastors, and thus provide collegial supervision to pastors and professional supervision to parish ministers.

    Getting the best balance of professional and voluntary experience will be a great challenge for increasingly large parishes.

    Locating professionals at the cluster level, and volunteers at the parish level might be a good way to go.

  15. One doesn’t need any liturgical sensibility whatsoever to simply follow rubrics as written. Is that what the EF will become? A trained monkey will be able to do that as well.

  16. Even if parish finances get tight, what the money is spent on is a matter of prioritization. My small parish of 400 people (not families – people) has a liturgy budget (including salary and benefits of a FULL-TIME music director) of around $100K. A lot will go before we cut that. Priorities, folks: priorities.

  17. Is it as simple as Say The Black, Do The Red? If so, I wasted years of my life getting a degree in liturgy.

    1. “But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain. Pastors of souls must therefore realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration; it is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects.” (SC 11)

      Of course it’s not just “say the black, do the red.” It’s that and more. I think a lot of the issues which cause confusion in liturgical matters come from ignoring or negating “the laws governing valid and licit celebration”, not from supplementing them.

    2. I think Msgr. Moroney described the authentic perspective of a contemporary liturgist after receiving the “Spiritus Liturgiae Award” at Mundelien earlier this month:
      “…how blest we are to be witnesses to the second springtime of the vision of the Council Fathers lived out in our own day, as we prepare to utter, in some ways for the first time, the ancient collects which define who we are and who we are supposed to be as we seek to move from ideology to worship, and from novelty to mystery, as we seek to desire not so much to change the Liturgy, as to be utterly transformed by it, as we seek to move from the prestige of being liturgists, to a recognition of our role as the very model of unworthy servants of this holy and living sacrifice.”.

  18. Context is everything, but some of us would rightly complain about Msgr Moroney’s perspective in this quote. In some quarters, we are moving from worship to ideology, from professionalism to incompetence, from beauty to mediocrity, from transformation by liturgy to tinkering, and from selfless service to clutching clericalism.

    1. In some quarters? Certainly in far too many! It ain’t pretty! Nor is it nourishing to a real growing spiritual life…

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