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 best?

In my 1970s-80s youth, I found I loved the practice of the rites but also the study of theology. So much was being made of biblical and moral theology, but it seemed people had less passion and commitment to the theology of the sacraments they were practicing. I guess it was a sense of calling for me, really. Best part of my job is teaching, whether in person with a class of students, in a parish setting, or in the solitude of my study, writing (which I consider teaching, too!).


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

Numero uno: Genuine, rigorous, theological, practical reform of the ordained ministry: The whole renewal of church and liturgy has been crippled—and is now mortally threatened—by the ideology of the priesthood as it currently is thought and executed (across the entire spectrum of Paul VI-to-Benedict XVI clergy). Actually, I can’t think of a number 2 or 3, as my number 1 determines the state of everything else.


Is the Vatican II liturgical program secure or endangered?

Insofar as the Gospel is fundamentally about humans/creatures in danger, I guess I’d have to say that liturgical reform and renewal—to the extent those thinking and practicing it are possessed by the Gospel—will always be in various, multiple dangerous conditions. The tough, at times even painful, thing about it all is that different contemporary factions see the trouble(s) so differently (thus comprising one of the dangers at present, now that I think of it).


Pope Francis: good for liturgical renewal or not?

Definitely good: in his immediate banishing of all the baroque trappings back to the attic (would that they’d go into a permanent collection in the Vatican Museum); in his celebrating Mass daily with the people, altar servers drawn from local schools (in school uniforms, no cassock and surplus) or even the Swiss guards for one occasion I’m aware of (rather than hand-picked seminarians). He is signaling loud and clear that an exaggerated distancing of clerics from people—whether in the liturgical action or out in the rest of the day’s activity—has too long been killing the life of the church. That he’s so alive among the people can’t but be why he became an instant world-phenomenon.


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

The real world always desperately needs academic study to be taking place, in every human art and science. The quality of that academic work—its method and content—determines, of course, whether it proves helpful or relevant. As for liturgical scholarship, well, its value is due not least to the fact that human ritualizing—especially religious ritual—is fundamentally about negotiating power (for us Christians, we believe that entails both divine and human power). But another fundamental characteristic of ritual is that we humans do it precisely because of the ambiguity in our situation(s). Put another way: If people could argue/explain a given situation, then they’d argue or explain accordingly. But when not able, they ritualize. Yet that means people are highly resistant to (even antagonistic toward) having scholars tell them what they are actually doing (or, with liturgists, telling them what they should be doing). Thus, I advise young people looking into liturgical study to prepare themselves for heartbreak at times and, in any event, not to be surprised by conflict or resistance in “the real world.”


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

I would say that no matter what angle people pursue methodologically they need to commit and recommit to studying all the history they have the stamina to absorb. Knowledge of history, in all its messiness and sublimity, is so freeing and challenging and reorienting. My other concern would be about narrow or, dare I say it, even marginal ideological agendas fragmenting liturgical scholarship, such that broader, synthetic conversations and even determinations fall away. I guess I’m thinking here of the “silos” in academia; they’re hurting theology, including the theory and practice of liturgy, too.


Organized religion isn’t exactly flourishing just now. Are you hopeful about the future?

Ah, yes, hope. Well, whenever that sort of question comes up I refer to Romans 8, wherein God’s word teaches us that hope does not exactly know its object. Otherwise, you’re not really hoping. I am hopeful for the future because the world belongs to God (as the opening verse of one of the Invitatory psalms so beautifully reminds us). Catholicism—Roman and otherwise—is definitely changing, quite drastically. But I believe a settled shape, if you will, won’t emerge until long after I’m pushing up the daisies.


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

Both Jesuits and lay people in college campus ministry have told me that around the early 1990s began a sudden plunge in Catholic students’ weekly participation in Sunday liturgy. Such an observation is the sort of thing behind my plea for historical and social-scientific scholarship. I could go on way too long here about the social and ecclesial factors contributing to all this, but I must confess I’ve done that at book-length. As for what we should be doing differently: I’d have to say we need somehow to find a way to make people hunger for the Gospel such that they couldn’t imagine life without assembling to partake of it together.


Bruce T. Morrill, S.J., is the Edward A. Malloy Professor of Catholic Studies at Vanderbilt University. In addition to dozens of scholarly and popular articles, his books include Encountering Christ in the Eucharist (2012), Divine Worship and Human Healing (2009), and Anamnesis as Dangerous Memory (2000).

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