Interviewing Liturgical Leaders: Teresa Berger

Pray Tell is starting a new series of interviews with liturgical leaders. It is loosely inspired by a series in Time Magazine. Each interviewee was asked to be witty, engaging and humorous in their responses. The views expressed in their responses are not necessarily those of Pray Tell.

Here is what we received…


Why are you in liturgy? What part of your job do you like the best?

I am “in liturgy” in at least two ways – and only the first one can even remotely be understood as a “job.” To begin with the “job,” I teach the field of liturgical studies at a major research university. I came to that calling through very complicated routes (involving two doctorates and a five-year struggle with the Vatican). Yet at the very root of my passion for liturgical studies lie three persons: my mother, the Holy Spirit, and a scholar who simply fascinated me with his profound knowledge of liturgical history and the intense spirituality woven into that knowledge. Secondly, I am also “in liturgy” as someone who worships in and belongs to a Roman Catholic community. This keeps me grounded in liturgy as a practice of faith rather than primarily as the subject-matter of my scholarly inquisitiveness.


Three things to be fixed in the liturgy – what would they be?

First, I would love to be able to fix myself and the myriad ways in which I become distracted in worship. Second, I would fix the text for the penitential act at the beginning of Mass (Option A). I have long disliked this text – it does not say the one thing needed as we enter God’s presence, namely to ask for forgiveness, and that expressis verbis. Third, I would love to see a growing awareness in those gathering for worship that our carbon footprint matters – and should not be increased on Sundays. Such awareness would, I hope, lead to members of the congregation carpooling to come to church, using public transport, and walking or cycling if able.


Is the Vatican II liturgical program secure or endangered?

I sincerely hope that the Vatican II liturgical program will never be “secure.” It could then all too easily become an ideology, rather than being appreciated as the quite time-specific vision it is. As much as I celebrate Vatican II’s liturgical program, I want to be able to think beyond it and, indeed, to reconfigure and broaden its vision, not least in relation to popular devotions, women’s liturgical lives, and the contemporary migration of liturgical practices into cyberspace.


Pope Francis: good for liturgical renewal or not?

I think Pope Francis is good for liturgical renewal—not because he considers liturgical renewal the center of the universe but precisely because he does not. Pope Francis seems intent on enfolding the liturgy in a larger vision of what constitutes fidelity to the Gospel. I resonate with that. The meaning of liturgy is best pondered within the larger vision of a God-sustained church and world, rather than by liturgical navel-gazing.


Is academic liturgical study relevant to the real world? And would you advise a young person to go into it?

I reject the suggested division between the ivory-tower academic study of liturgy on the one side and the real world on the other side. The academic study of liturgy is a real world, enabled (and constrained) by material realities, social structures, larger cultural trends, and yes, human frailty as well as passion. Why think of this world and its scholarly practices as non-real? Granted, there are many distinctly different worlds, but are any of these worlds more real than the others?

To a young person considering the academic study of liturgy, I would suggest that the one real world to live into is the world God calls you to inhabit and shape, and if that is the academic study of liturgy, then embrace this calling. It will be up to you to make the seeming ivory tower porous for everybody else’s world. And when, for example, you have to bring your infant son to a seminar with you because the baby-sitter bailed, or when one of your students suffers a psychotic breakdown in class, it will be quite obvious that the supposed ivory tower has cardboard walls at best.


How does liturgical scholarship need to change in the next 10 years?

Two areas in particular come to mind for necessary changes in the field of liturgical scholarship over the next decade or so. First, liturgical scholarship needs to continue to diversify in terms of its practitioners, not only with regard to the increasing number of women who are scholars of liturgy, but critically also with regard to markers of difference such as race and ethnicity as well as geographic and ecclesial spread. (Last year, for the first time, I had a student who was Mormon in one class, and a student who was transgender in another. It made a difference to how I taught the materials.) Second and not unrelated to the first, the field needs to welcome new ways of asking questions about liturgy, beyond the old mantras (even if they are the hallowed mantras of Vatican II). Thus, for example, what actuosa participatio means for liturgical practices in cyberspace cannot be answered by simply invoking what Sacrosanctum Concilium (or more broadly, the twentieth-century liturgical movement) said about active participation.


Organized religion isn’t exactly flourishing just now – are you hopeful about the future?

Sadly, I am not hopeful about the future of organized religion, but that is largely owing to the fact that I am not very hopeful about the future of this earth, period. We are clearly living in profoundly non-sustainable ways now, and unless we make decisive changes toward sustainability (which I do not see on the horizon), no strategies for strengthening “organized religion” will profit us very much.


How come so many young people don’t go to church? What should we be doing differently?

See my answer to the previous question.


Favorite place in the world you’d like to worship?

I can think of at least two places where I would truly love to worship. The first is the Basilica Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Vézelay,France. I would want to worship there on July 22, the feast day of Mary of Magdala. The second place is the Carolingian basilica of Saints Marcellinus and Peter in Seligenstadt, Germany. I would love to worship there any day in the late ninth or tenth century.


What’s the liturgical advice you’ve never been asked for and would really like to share?

Advice/Question: What are the top three, must-have Catholic online/digital resources related to liturgy and prayer for you? (My answer will take for granted that people already know about the Pray Tell Blog).

“The PopeApp,” available through the Vatican website. I love this App, at least since Papa Bergolio became Pope. The PopeApp features live streaming of papal liturgies, the latest news, videos, and views from Vatican webcams.

“Divine Office” App – A very helpful App for the Liturgy of the Hours, for iPhone, iPad, and Android phones; automatically downloads the appropriate psalms, prayers, and hymns for each hour of each day (that alone is worth having the App); lets you join in the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours wherever you find oneself. You can even view (on a turning globe) all the locations where others around the world are simultaneously praying with you.

Pray-as-you-go” – Pray-as-you-go provides short daily prayers in MP3 format, which can be downloaded.  The daily prayer is succinct (typically around ten minutes), offering a meditative song, a scripture reading, and invitation to personal reflection and prayer. You can listen to it wherever you are.


Teresa Berger is Professor of Liturgical Studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School. She has written extensively on liturgy and women’s lives; and her 2005 book “Fragments of Real Presence: Liturgical Traditions in Women’s Hands” was translated into Japanese. In 2008, Teresa Berger produced (with MysticWaters Media) an interactive CD-ROM called Ocean Psalms, featuring meditations, prayers, songs, and blessings, all focused on the sea. Her most recent book, “Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History” was published by Ashgate in 2011. She also just edited the papers of the 2011 ISM Liturgy Conference under the title “Liturgy in Migration: From the Upper Room to Cyberspace.”



  1. Having lived in Salt Lake City for three years, I am curious how a Mormon approached liturgical studies. The few encounters I had with Mormons at BYU always led to interesting conversations, but it was obvious our worldviews and were so different. I should reflect on this experience a bit more.

    Thanks, Teresa for sharing your many gifts with the church.

    1. @Timothy Johnston – comment #1:
      Having taught at BYU for thirty two years, and attended many sacrament meetings and funerals and a few non-temple marriage services, I’d also be interested in how the student responded to a Catholic perspective on liturgy. At my parish, we host about 100 BYU students each year who are taking a world religions course. Students must attend a worship service in a faith tradition other than their own and a great number choice Catholicism. That the Mass contrasts on many levels with their sacrament meeting can be both disconcerting and enlightening.

      1. @Julie Boerio-Goates – comment #4:
        Julie, since I teach liturgical studies at an ecumenical Divinity School, my emphasis is not so much on “Catholic” liturgical studies but on what liturgical studies is and does in different communities of faith. A such, the student was able to take much nd mold it for his own community. And we too ask students to visit communities at worship that differ significantly from the ones a student knows. As part of that exercise, several students and I visited a Mormon Sunday morning service. It was a remarkable experience.

    2. @Timothy Johnston – comment #1:
      Timothy, my task actually was not that hard, since the Mormon student in question had chosen to enroll in our liturgical studies program in the first place. He came with a keen interest in how to do liturgical studies for and in the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. Many of our conversations revolved around different methodologies that serve different communities.

  2. “I would love to see a growing awareness in those gathering for worship that our carbon footprint matters – and should not be increased on Sundays. Such awareness would, I hope, lead to members of the congregation carpooling to come to church, using public transport, and walking or cycling if able.”

    A suggestion for reducing the footprint: discontinue the disposable newsprint missalettes and hymnals (e.g., Breaking Bread) and investing in durable hardcover pew missals like the Saint Isaac Jogues Illuminated Missal or the Lumen Christi Missal.

  3. I just downloaded the Divine Office app – something for which I’ve had a need in the past, as when I’ve been stranded in an airport or train station without my book. Many thanks for the recommendation.

  4. Dr. Berger, regarding the Penitential Rite, do your refer to what the Missal deems as #4, with the Confiteor (which in OCP’s pulp versions are dubbed #1,2,3?
    If so, “it does not say the one thing needed as we enter God’s presence, namely to ask for forgiveness, and that expressis verbis.” seems at odds with the express purpose of the Confession. Or am I reading you incorrectly? Thanks.

    1. @Charles Culbreth – comment #3:
      What I had in mind in my criticism was the (English version of the) “Confiteor.” Your question pushed me to think deeper about what constitutes a “penitential act.” As important as I think a confession of one’s own sinfulness and unworthiness is, the bewailing of one’s sins without asking God to forgive seems to me to miss the most important reason for confession, namely to ask for and be granted forgiveness.

  5. Teresa, I never use the “confiteor” option for the penitential act precisely because it sounds like an alternative to auricular confession. I choose the form with the triple invocations which I introduce with the following or similar words: God has called us into his presence to bestow on us his mercy and love. Let us bow our heads in prayer to renew our sorrow for our sins and to seek from God his forgiveness and the grace to turn away from them.

  6. Dr. Berger, I wonder if you’ve isolated the “Confession” from a number of contexts. Each baptized and confirmed believer present is predisposed and presumed to understand that: A. the Confiteor is not some sort of triage for those unsure of the state of their individual soul admidst the last sacramental confession and reconciliation in which they’ve individuallly engaged, and; B. it is an expression of the affect of sins remissed in general that alone begs the intercession of saints, angels and earthly living souls that might or might not be party to that sinfulness. However, in your scenario I believe you selectively omit the reality that Form A is undoubtedly followed by the theocentric litany of “Kyrie eleison….Criste…” etc. Some dots left unconnected simply to bolster your judgment of insufficiency fall short of the reality of practice wherein God’s mercy is indeed pettitioned.
    If you and Fr. Jack have doubts about local availability and participation in individual reconciliation, I invite you both to sunny CenCA, I’ll put you up, and we’ll stand in quite long lines on weekday afternoons together.

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