Liturgy: First on the Agenda

American priests are forming a new national organization, NCR reported on 9/15. Reasons cited by the leaders of the group include: priests’ senates and councils not providing an adequate forum, isolation, and the pressures of increasing work load because of the priest shortage.

These priests have taken a constructive step. They have decided to support one another. They also hope to exercise leadership. They want to “have a voice” on the national level.

Their most highly-favored objective was named in this way:

Full implementation of the vision and teachings of the Second Vatican Council with special emphasis on the primacy of the individual conscience, the status and participation of all the baptized, and the task of establishing a church where all believers will be treated as equals.

They have announced a plan which sounds promising—to spend the next four years celebrating the Second Vatican Council. They also plan to host a “major convocation” to be held next June at St. Leo University in Tampa, Florida, in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium.

The subject of the convocation will be—you guessed it—the liturgy.

No one has asked me for advice. But if they did, I’d suggest that they consider using the seven “essential themes” of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which I developed in my book, Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press, 2007), as a framework. They are:

  1. Paschal Mystery
  2. Liturgy as “Summit and Source” of the Church’s Life
  3. Full, Active, Conscious Participation
  4. Ecclesiology
  5. Inculturation
  6. Renewal of the Books, Music, Art, and Artifacts of the Liturgy
  7. Education and Formation for Liturgy

In my experience, #3 and 5 are generally the source of the liveliest discussion today, with 6 being the focus of the most practical work and painful disagreements. The presence of Christ in the liturgy is key to #2. The theological items on this list, #1 and 4, are very interesting in my view, but #4 is frequently ignored in favor of other sources of commentary on the nature of the Church, specifically Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes. #1 is an oft-affirmed theme which nonetheless could benefit from deeper exploration. In a way, the move toward mystagogy in the area of catechesis on liturgy (or from liturgy) — part of #7 — nods to #1. But I think the centrality of the paschal mystery to liturgy is a great topic. Education and formation issues are very important, and an area of considerable interest today I think.

What I really hope they won’t do is to focus the whole gathering around contentious issues. These focus attention, but they can also drain energy and prove discouraging. Some time spent focussing on problems and controversies is necessary and important, but the liturgy is more than the sum of its controversies.

If you could have input into the agenda, what would you suggest?

I wish them well… And I’d love to be a fly on the wall for that meeting!



  1. Praise God. Some priests still have that fire burning within them. Hopefully no bishops will deny their priests the right to join this group. But I got a feeling there will be a few who will impose this restriction on their clergy. Hopefully the Holy Spirt will lead and guide them wherever she wants them!!!!! Peace Carl

  2. “What I really hope they won’t do is to focus the whole gathering around contentious issues. These focus attention, but they can also drain energy and prove discouraging.”

    I agree wholeheartedly, and not just for this reason. The history of the liturgy and sacramental theology shows repeatedly that polemical circumstances distort the discourse, moving peripheral questions to the center (and central ideas to the periphery!). Much better to be grounded in what’s important.

  3. The “highly-favored” objective:

    Full implementation of the vision and teachings of the Second Vatican Council with special emphasis on the primacy of the individual conscience, the status and participation of all the baptized, and the task of establishing a church where all believers will be treated as equals.

    Wow, it feels like 1979 in here.

    If they want to start implementing “the vision and teachings” of the Second Vatican Council they might start with Sacrosanctum Concilium 36 or 116.

    They better hope to recruit some younger priests, if indeed “the median age of our group is about 71!”

    Good luck with that. I can tell you with some confidence that priests under the age of 45 will stay away from this organization, and its convocation, in droves.

    I doubt that any bishops will “deny their priests the right to join this group.” They will see it (if they do) as it is: irrelevant in its very inception.

    1. Agreed, Rob. The last gasp of their long-faded youth.

      I know David Cooper. He’s a befuddled old man, pining desperately for the five or so years he thought the church was on the right path, whatever that means.

      This organization will die a quick and quiet death.

      1. It might die, but don’t be too confident that the much-touted “biological solution” will in any way diminish the power of some of the aspirations involved. Let me just add that I find it interesting to contrast the confidence in the biological solution in the one hand in some quarters with the prevalence of fear in the same quarters that the Great Modernist Conspiracy yet has tremendous sway. (Cue a miasma of music: Mwah-hah-hah-hah-hah.)

      2. I would think that if you were going to call someone a “befuddled old man” you’d at least have the cajones to post under your own name (unless you really do have the same name as a character from The Producers, in which case I suspend judgment on your cajones).

      3. When Paul VI pulled the issue of priestly celibacy from the Council and went on the issue Humanae Vitae, he strangled the baby in the crib. Even as reforms were put in to place, the counter-reform was shaping up in Rome.

        When the model of priesthood is increasingly locked into some sort of authoritarian, hierarchal 1950’s ( 1650’s?) ideal, it is no wonder that young American men who believe in the principles of Vatican II have no interest in becoming priests. It is no wonder that the young men now entering the priesthood in America tend to be of the so-called “traditionalist” mode. ( I have no information about what’s happening elsewhere, but the world-wide drop in new priests seems to speak for itself.)
        It’s not only those with priestly vocations who are being driven away. More and more Catholics are looking around in askance as their home is turned into some version of the Creative Anachronism society. Those who gloat over the aging of the Vatican II generation of priests should be careful what they wish for: I fear that as these priests vanish from the scene, so will most Catholics. Those who applaud a smaller, purer Church should recall that the Master says the flock will not follow a stranger. Recall also, His harsh words for those who would scatter the flock.

      4. Brigid

        The real shift is that American Catholics are learning to speak Roman (and by Roman, I don’t mean Latin). That is, increasingly, American Catholics are becoming less and less Northern European, and more like the way Italian Catholics have been for generations: understanding that there is often a chasm between concepts and reality, and muddling through, paying attention to the announcements on the PA system when it seems to make the most sense to do so. (This is a more subtle development than growing secularism.) I would call this more understanding of the realities of human nature and human social organisms than cynical (though there is a cynical path that parallels it). There are certainly younger priests being ordained today who are not ready to engage this growing reality. The louder the shouting on that PA system, the more this development will tend to become deeply rooted and fixed.

    2. I think we have a new logical fallacy to name, alonside “ad hominem”: “ad generationem,” or “ad annum.” You dismiss an argument by saying it is false because it comes from a certain (old) generation, or from a certain (discredited ) age or year.

      This is, I note, a logical fallacy.


      1. His argument is similar in its implicit form to this one. Verbal rhetoric merely replacing the non-verbal rhetoric of ceremonial.

        A couple decades ago, talk about “establishing a church where all believers will be treated as equals” symbolized a rejuventated Church freed from abuses of the past. Now it symbolizes for many, including Catholics, the marginalization and irrelevance of the Church when she loses track of the authority properly given to her by Christ.

    3. Father Johansen, the mind boggles trying to figure out how a group of people could not attend something in droves. Must be a peculiar Americanism.

      The cold water and dismissive attitude reeks of arrogance.Sounds as if the writer is an accomplice of the larger than life Fr Hugh Jarse, well known for his penchant for fine wines and expensive cigars.

    4. First, there aren’t any droves of priests under 45. Second, to criticize men who have spent their lives in the service of Christ and his church is the height of destructive cynicism. I look forward to exploring this further in hopes of a source of mutual support amidst those whose fondness for unreformed liturgy is a source of great pain. I am all for living and let live but there are many out there who wish to crush my unswerving commitment to the renewal that began long before SC. That renewal is not all about rubrically correct, precisely read prayers, but the call to holiness. It is also about driving a stake into the rotting corpse of clericalism.

      1. Second, to criticize men who have spent their lives in the service of Christ and his church is the height of destructive cynicism. … It is also about driving a stake into the rotting corpse of clericalism.

        This is clericalism.

    5. While younger clergy will most likely “stay away from this organization . . . in droves,” statistical research among young adult Catholics in general (especially those born since 1979) indicates that they are more likely to support its objectives. Catholic University sociologist Dean Hoge summarized what is becoming an increasing problem in the American church in 2007:

      . . . the trends among the [young adult] laity are towards greater individualism, greater feeling that authority lies with the laity as well as with the hierarchy, and a greater wish for greater involvement in the Church at all levels. That’s the trend. But among the priests, the trend is different.
      My point is a very simple. The young people are moving in one direction; the priesthood, at least the diocesan priesthood, in another. We have to keep communications open to avoid tensions.

      My experience as a high-school and university chaplain confirms anecdotally what the research of Hoge and others is showing. And given that research also shows that young people are far less attached to institutions of all kinds, the result of the “biological solution” seems more likely to be a “purified remnant” than a church purified of aging Boomer clergy.

      1. Yes, what historians might call the “rump” phenomenon (regarding those who are attracted to the priesthood under the current climate), which amplifies a cognitive blindspot or two or three….

      2. There’s plenty of ire directed at old clergy from the left as well. Comments like “Who cares what a bunch of old men in robes have to say about such-and-such?” are frequent on sites like NCRep. There are numerous derogatory comments about “old men” here as well…

  4. I wouldn’t worry too much about age. How old is the pope?

    Besides, retirement and near-retirement are wonderfully conducive to candor.

  5. Their effort is cute. Utterly pointless, but cute.

    When will these boomer priests realize the world is different? They will never recapture whatever was in the air during the 1940’s-1960’s. Imposing democratic principles on a monarchy is silly.

    I can hear it now – “the Spirit continues to work…it must not be ignored.” Maybe the Spirit changed its mind, or we weren’t as clear about what it was saying as we thought.

    1. Actually, as a historical note, democratic principles HAVE been imposed on nearly every monarchy in the world! Most monarchies have fallen and been replaced by democracy. The few monarchies that remain have generally been transformed so that the state is largely democratic.

      I’m not sure that the Spirit is done with the Catholic Church yet.

      1. Yes, the UK monarchy…deeply influential. A monarch who is neutered from having any public opinion and any meaningful part in public discourse.

        Institutions aren’t transformed…they just fade away, to be replaced by a new one. The RC Church just hasn’t completely faded yet.

      2. It’s most likely going to happen because the idea that Rome can assert total control when it wants to (like getting rid of Bps Gaillot and Morris) and disclaim total control when it wants to pretend it can’t (too many bishops to count readily) leaves the Church in an unsustainable place vis-a-vis civil and perhaps even criminal liability in the long run. I don’t expect to see the fruits of this in my lifetime (right now, we’re merely setting the foundation of an expensive hard lesson) but the pattern is being set for it down the road in a few generation’s time. Todays young fogies will be, after all, tomorrow’s old fogies.

  6. To Roger re: #6. What a lovely show of Christian charity and mercy. I don’t care where you fall on the issues, but was that really necessary?

  7. I appreciate the idea of forming such a group, however I suspect that many priests who would like to join would be afraid of doing so because of possible reprisals. Thus I don’t think the group will attain the critical mass to make much of a difference. For that matter, even if it did, I doubt that many bishops would take such a group seriously. Not many bishops are content to be buried in the place they are currently serving, thus their careerism precludes them from supporting most of the issues this group is targeting.

    With regard to the issue that is central to this blog, I am amazed at the degree of passivity with which the majority of the presbyterate seems to be rolling over for the Roman Missal. That dynamic does not bode well for the likelihood of this group gaining much traction.

    1. Father Blue, All good points which explain why you won’t see anything here even approaching the type of priest’s movement we’re seeing in Austria and seems to be brewing in Germany too. Leading to what I thought it was a significant papal statement upon Benedict’s departure from Germany. In effect, don’t expect any changes.

    2. Where some see passivity, others see grateful acceptance by priests of the new, corrected translation, so that they will no longer have to pray the soon to be retired 1973 … prayers.

    3. Jim,

      Our fear of being prophetic as priests is pretty pathetic, don’t you think. Where the hierarchy has us over a barrel is that we are completely dependent upon them for our livelihood including whatever retirement we might have after 75. Do you suppose there is anything that would prompt us to risk putting it on the line for our people. They, of course, are passive and compliant like most of us. What a mess.

      In the meantime, the folks who think of the Church as an it or a she rather than a we, just know that everything will be fine if we just realize that the Pope has all our best interests in mind. And we get labeled as malcontents, dissidents, or worse (how about Judases).

      1. It’s rather ironic. Those who defend mandatory celibacy claim that a celibate priest is free to speak his mind because he doesn’t have to consider the effect of his words on wife or child(ren). Yet here we have the reality of priests who are silenced because they have no financial or moral support should they speak against the bishop’s rule.
        I suspect priests and people will be passive only until a viable way out presents itself.

  8. Thank you, Rita, for posting this. It can be a hope that many younger presbyters, who have no memory of the Council, might join in and be edified.

    1. When did the teachings of Vatican II become the domain of a select few that must pass it on to the poor uneducated masses who couldn’t possibly know the enlightened mind of the past generation who boldly stood up and said they know better? The documents are widely available and studied by the current generation of priests. They simply choose to interpret and implement them differently than priests of an earlier generational context.

      The emotions and hopes that exited in the hearts and minds at the time of the council are past emotions. The council has passed into history along with the dozens of others. It does not hold primacy of place amongst the lot of them and now must be interpreted in context with the other moments in history that produced a somewhat harmonious proclamation of bishops regarding this or that. Vatican II did not begin the church nor did it end it. It was simply a moment that reflected the values of the time. Values in the modern world change quickly. An individual may not like it, but it is reality.

      Unless the Holy Spirit has taught that the 1960’s were a privileged moment in the course of human history while I was on my coffee break…then I retract my comments.

      “I’d like to propose a toast…to the clergy who lunch…”

  9. What Vatican II did was to look back and over the historical development of the Church (both East and West) and then try to ‘reorganize the priorities’ of the Tradition in order to be better in line with their original place and meaning in that history. It is only ‘radical’ insofar as it looks ‘at the roots’ of the Church’s self-knowledge and practices, making them more clearly evident. At best, this is a ‘radical conservatism’ — look at the writings of Yves Congar, op. It certainly provokes those who either have no historical sense, or choose to ignore it.

  10. Rita,

    Thank you for your post. I personally am encouraged that our priests want to gather as it is about time. They need to come together and find their voice, especially now when so much that is going on directly affects them. If I were going to propose anything for the agenda it would be to explore the depth of the spirituality of our liturgy — to break open the wealth of symbol and ritual that are ours. I think with a new Roman Missal that is top heavy and wordy, our focus needs to shift. Creative imagination is crucial. Symbol, ritual and music have to be stunning. We need to use these lavishly, and unleash the transformative power inherent within.
    Last year, the St. Louis Jesuits were here in Kansas City for a benefit concert. It was amazing. Afterwards I realized that THIS is the church we fell in love with. It deserves every chance to live. There are plenty of us who remember that church and we have the responsibility and ability to fan the embers that are left into flame. We can do it. Fear serves no purpose here.
    I, for one, join you in support of the priests’ efforts and would also love to be a “fly on the wall” at that gathering. I would love to be part of a liturgy committee that would help shape the prayer at that event . . .perhaps we could work together?!

    1. Barbara, you are welcome.

      I think this initiative, if handled competently, will be very important as the roll-out of the new translation takes place. The bishops lost a lot of credibility with the way they handled the sex abuse crisis. They do not know it yet, but they stand to lose additional credibility if the new translation appears as an unpopular, difficult, and unnecessary imposition from the bishops.

      The leadership of priests and pastors in parishes, however, can really help, as we learned in the sex abuse crisis. I see this priests’ association as a tool for strengthening its members, so that they can do their best for their people and strengthen the church we love.

  11. Karl Liam Saur –
    “The real shift is that American Catholics are learning to speak Roman (and by Roman, I don’t mean Latin). That is, increasingly, American Catholics are becoming less and less Northern European, and more like the way Italian Catholics have been for generations: understanding that there is often a chasm between concepts and reality, and muddling through, paying attention to the announcements on the PA system when it seems to make the most sense to do so.”

    So – if I may paraphrase – Catholics are learning to deal with the abandonment of Vatican II by learning to ignore what goes on on the altar? I suspect you are quite correct. Sadly, it sounds like the weakest argument for the new translation (“it doesn’t matter because no one is paying attention anyways”). It is also a return to the era when people gathered at Mass to engage in private prayer while the priest talked to himself on the altar. I suspect we will see a continuing drop on numbers as families and individuals reach their personal breaking points. The flock is scattering. Too many who love the Catholic Church are finding they can’t abide the Roman Catholic Church any longer.

    On second thought – the difference between the “Italian way” and the “American way” is this: In the old days, the pastor was a fixture, and everything went along year after year with little or no change. The pastor may have had full control, but he didn’t disturb people. What we see all too often in America today is a new pastor sweeping in, spending parish funds to re-decorate the church to his taste, dismissing staff to bring in his people, tossing customs he doesn’t like or is uninterested in, whether it’s the annual pot luck or female altar servers. In other cases, it’s the bishop who has been in the diocese only a few years who stirs things up by closing and combining parishes. It’s hard to ignore the destruction of your home.

  12. Well, the only bright spot is the next conclave. If past conclaves are any indication when the CEO is gone the company men can and do speak their mind.
    The last conclave took 4 or 5 votes to get B16, this after almost 26 years of stocking the college of cardinals with conservatives. Actually, on the first vote the liberal Martini had the most votes of the various groups. Oftentimes an opposite is chosen for the job. Conclaves are where the Holy Spirit works!

      1. Agreed and I wonder if that assurance about a pope is not so assured either? You can never tell.
        But the Holy Spirit does work there but will they listen?

  13. “They have announced a plan which sounds promising—to spend the next four years celebrating the Second Vatican Council.”

    Now, if they announced another plan to spend four years celebrating the Council of Trent as well, that really would be promising!

  14. Brigid, your comments about new priests, bishops and the Vatican sweeping in and changing things sound very much like my parents’ comments about the updating of their parish in the 70s. It seems like similar comments were made in the 60s when the altar was turned around and the first English translation came out.

    Are the current changes any more shattering to the sensibilities of our generation than they were for my parent’s generation in the 70s or my grandparent’s generation in the 60s? When the number of statues was reduced, when the altar rails were removed, and external expressions of reverence changed, my parents thought, very strongly, that their home was being destroyed.

  15. Rick – your parents’ experience is noted but as most studies & data indicate, your parent’s reaction was in the very small minority.

    The changes in the 60’s/70’s were overwhelmingly welcomed and created (not negativity) but hopefulness and a spirit of enthusiasm.

    These changes now did not come from an overwhelmingly positive vote of a council – it was a very small, curial group that forced this through; the translation method used is not supported by most experts; and the resulting product (from all sides) sees this new translation as mediocre or worse. It is perceived by many as going backward unlike the 60’s/70’s.

    1. I’ve met a lot of people who ultimately liked the liturgical renewal (by which I mean Mass in English and a few other things), but who hated what was done to their churches- almost never with any consultation. Just a couple weeks ago I talked with a woman who’s parents were still kind of bitter about the priest who, in the 1970s, had all the statues removed and destroyed during the week without announcing it or consulting anyone. The “pay, pray,and obey” attitude isn’t the sole reserve of conservatives or traditionalists. I’ve yet to encounter anyone who actually liked it when their church’s old altars and statues were ripped out – regardless of whether or not they liked the old Mass better.

      1. I agree with the above statements that at the beginning of the changes, many priests did not understand the full implications or meanings behind the changes. Thus they approached a new emphasis (or return to an original emphasis!) on community by imposing from above. They were still in the “Father says” mode.

        One odd result was that as many priests sought to be ecumenical by tossing images of Mary and the saints, they were passed by Protestants moving in the opposite direction to increased interest and reverence!

        I can recall that our diocese was expanding and split our parish into mother and daughter. The church for the daughter parish was designed for the new liturgy, right in keeping with Vatican II. But the Parish was named St. X. No one had ever heard of St. X. Presumably the bishop had a favorite relative named X, so St. X is was. I asked my father about St. X. He looked at the image on the envelopes and commented ” I really don’t know, but he had a hell of a beard!”

        I’ve known priests who were great advocates of Vatican II until it became clear that now the laity expected the Parish Council to make the decisions for the parish. Sad to say, I think some of these priests really don’t care what words or language are used at Mass or which direction the altar faces as long as they have the last word on the local level. They insist that they must obey the bishop, and therefore the parishioners must obey them!

        We’ve been warned about pouring new wine into old wine skins. I guess we had to see the results for ourselves!

      2. I’ll bite here. People are trusting of the Church, including its pastors. During the reconfiguration of churches in the 60’s and 70’s, many people went along with it because they were told “this is what Vatican II told us to do”. Of course, we all know that was not the case, or at least not in so many words (i.e., the documents indicate that reconfiguring sanctuaries, et al., should be done with great sensitivity.) I was formerly organist at a 1000 or so family parish in West Virginia where this very thing happened. Although the sanctuary was before a typical period piece, you could still see everything going on at the altar from any point in the church, etc. The attempt to change it into a church in the round actually made it more difficult for people to see the altar due to sight lines, etc. Combine that with whitewashing the whole interior, and many people were frustrated. Luckily, the room has enough integrity that it still looks decent. It was a heavy-handed way of doing things that, while perhaps it did not drive people from the Church, didn’t really honor the contributions of the ancestors of the current parishioners.

  16. I believe these kinds of anecdotal reports lead to great exaggeration. There was a lot of truly horrid art in any number of churches. Priests can be jerks like anyone else, but I know a lot of priests and that words suits hardly any of them. Also, a lot of these reporters are acting like victims looking for someone to blame. It’s those awful changes they shriek. Let’s fix them by returning the mass to a sacred performance which all to watch in reverential silence. Just though I’d give an example of exaggeration.

    1. I think there is great exaggeration either way (the idea that even a majority of the art destroyed was “horrid” seems a major exaggeration).

      I find the rosy reports where virtually everyone warmly received every aspect of the liturgical reform (with those who did not being some unimportant backwards minority who should ultimately be shunned and ignored) unrealistic and contrary to what I’ve heard from pretty much anyone I have ever met in real life. I am not saying that most people disliked the reform – but I am saying their acceptance of it is more nuanced – there were aspects they loved and would never trade, and other things that seemed forced on them and nonsensical.

  17. The report of this new association of priests tells me that the Benedictine Reform of the Reform has arrived on our shores and is being taken seriously by not just its friends.

    I can hardly wait to hear the prayers offered up by legions of faithful for the association’s successful deliberations. (I bet there will be no rosary crusades or even novenas).

    Will this group oppose the hierarchy and the Pope as a de facto counter-magisterium? Will they try for a dissident Catholic Church a la the SSPX?

    Lets face it, if the powers be have been unsuccessful during the past 50+ years they just missed the boat completely. The next 50 years are going to be dominated by Catholics not know to be nostalgic about The Spirit of V2.

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