We continue to feature the first article from each issue of Worship, the “Amen Corner,” along with a response to it (forthcoming). This article is from the March, 2018 issue. Gracious thanks to editor Bernadette Gasslein and Worship for reprint permission. Subscribe to Worship here.
by Anthony Ruff, OSB
I would not necessarily expect to find significant overlap between the sixth-century Rule of Benedict directing the life of monasteries and the “Rebuilt” movement, which seeks to revitalize Catholic parishes along the lines of successful nondenominational megachurches. But when it comes to their attitude toward mediocrity in singers and readers, it seems that these sources so far removed in time express very similar concerns.
In the Rule of Benedict, Saint Benedict decrees as follows: “Nor should the reader be anyone who happens to take up the book,” and “The brothers are not to read or chant in order, but only those who edify their hearers.”  In the 2013 book Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter, Michael White and Tom Corcoran write this: “Make sure you have the best musicians you can find (paid or volunteer) and use them; do the difficult thing and ask people who are holding your program down or even making it worse to step aside. Face the hard facts and lean into the conflict in order to advance your program.” 
Competence in liturgical ministries: we’re taking up a delicate topic that elicits a wide variety of feelings. Everyone wants worshipers to have a positive experience of being engaged by talented readers and singers. But no one wants to hurt the feelings of well-intentioned liturgical volunteers by turning them away. And elitism runs deeply against the grain of the egalitarianism that is so strong in contemporary Western cultures.
But there is a way forward. It is a deepened understanding that, in things liturgical, the community comes before the individual. Liturgical ministry is for the sake of the community, not the minister. That the liturgical minister derives spiritual and other benefit from ministry is all to the good, but it is not the conceptual starting point for thinking about such ministry.
The time is right for getting this straight. I suppose the time always was right, but at this particular time we are all aware of heightened stakes because of declining church attendance and massive disengagement from organized religion, especially among the young. We cannot afford any longer to put on offer a liturgical experience that is unappealing and off-putting because of the incompetence of readers and singers and other liturgical ministers.
To be sure, worship, at least in liturgically minded churches, is for the faithful before it is for seekers and questioners. The Eucharist, as the culminating sacrament of initiation, is for those who are already washed and anointed, fully initiated into the church, and committed to the church’s worship and way of life. Liturgy is not a marketing tool or the centerpiece of a public relations plan.
But the boundaries are not always so clear. Plenty of baptized Christians who were raised as church-goers now attend infrequently or not at all, and when they do attend they come with serious doubts about whether worship is a waste of their time. The seekers and questioners are not just “out there”—they are in our pews. And, let us be honest, some of us who work full-time in liturgical ministry and theological education are also, in our own way, sometimes seekers and questioners. All of this is just the way it is in Western cultures where Christendom is slowly unraveling, its structures and cultural artifacts have real but declining viability, and the churches are striving to develop new patterns of worship and witness suitable to their increasingly minority status. It’s on us to get it right, for ourselves and for our people.
One problem, which arose quickly in the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council and is still with us in many places, is an unhelpful understanding of liturgical ministry as the privileged means of participation in the liturgy. The old problem was clericalism, where the ordained did all the important things and the ideal in the documents was that the acolytes and choir members be in minor orders or at least male. The reaction to that was to involve as many lay people as possible as guitar players, lectors, commentators, planners, and so forth. Unspoken but assumed was that participation “merely” as a baptized member of the assembly was second-rate and didn’t really count. And the liturgy isn’t a “performance,” you know, so anyone can do liturgical ministry.
All of this was well-intentioned, but it led in many places to an unbearable mediocrity that ill serves the assembly. And it’s killing us. The response to that problem, of course, is not to declare the liturgical reform a failure and go back to the 1962 missal, but to emphasize more strongly than ever the fundamental insight of Sacrosanctum Concilium that liturgy is the work of the entire people of God. And to understand all lay ministry in the liturgy as at the service of that noble goal. (And all ordained ministry too, but that is a topic for another column.)
Some will say that I’m being unduly negative when I speak of liturgical incompetence as “killing us.” I’m aware that much excellent work is done by many people, and that great progress has been made in many places since the Council.
But consider the dreary report from Rebuilt’s Fr. Michael White of his experience at a weekend gathering at the beach of some 25-30 extended family and friends, all cradle Catholics. He went to Mass on Sunday morning, but they did not. His account is worth quoting at length.
“There was no opening hymn, because the organist hadn’t shown up on time. The organ was in the sanctuary, so you could see she wasn’t there, and you could also see when our luck ran out and she did show up (during the homily). . . .
Nobody sang or even pretended to try, except the organist herself who also served as a kind of Wagnerian cantor (she definitely didn’t need that mike). And she seemed fine with the ‘no one else is singing but me’ part; really, she did. “The lector read the readings in a way that convinced me that he’d never laid eyes on them before. . . .
“We powered through the . . . Mass as if the building was on fire. When I returned to my seat from Communion, almost the entire section I was seated in was gone. . . .
“At the dismissal, instead of some charge to go in peace and serve the Lord or announce the Gospel, the celebrant says, ‘Don’t forget, at the beach, it’s always Happy Hour.’ Really? Did he just give them permission to start drinking?” 
White’s devastating appraisal is this: “Why would I want any of my dechurched family members to have set aside their various weekend activities to witness this gathering of the Body of Christ? The last place I would want to reintroduce them to worship was this half empty church for . . . a full miss when it comes to what the Christian community is supposed to be about when it assembles.”
And Saint Benedict? We can only wonder what unpleasant and irritating experiences he must have had which led him to decree as he did in chapter 38 of the Rule. He must have sat through one too many Office with an untrained or incompetent lector, or a cantor who tore down rather than built up (the literal meaning of “edify”) the community of praying monks. He had had enough of it, and he put his foot down. “Nor should the reader be anyone who happens to take up the book . . . only those who edify their hearers . . .”
I wish I could assert that White’s parish experience is exceptional, but I’m not sure I can. I don’t claim to have an extensive experiential overview of the entire United States, nor do I have access to broad-based statistical data. But when my work and travels take me to various parts of the country, or when the National Catholic Youth Choir sings in various parishes on tour, I attend worship with eyes wide open for what I can learn about the state of postconciliar Catholic liturgical renewal. I have my own sad tales to recount which would rival White’s.
So much of the diagnosis of our problems coming from “Reform of the Reform” quarters—and this includes the writings of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI—seems off the mark to me. What I observe is not so much irreverence, loss of the sacred, and unrestrained creativity by people cooking up rituals that celebrate themselves rather than God. What I see is unbearable boredom, lifeless going through the motions, unconvincing rendering of texts by readers and singers. Why indeed would I want to invite the dechurched to come back to this?
The “Rebuilt” movement caused something of a splash when it arrived on the scene a few years ago. When liturgical music graduates of our School of Theology interview for parish jobs, they report being asked what they think about “Rebuilt” and whether they are on board with this movement. Some classically trained musicians’ first reaction is skepticism.
There is a danger that the appearance of the “Rebuilt” movement, influenced by evangelical megachurch models and utilizing Christian contemporary music, would reopen old wounds in the Catholic liturgy wars between classical and contemporary musicians, between organists and guitarists (or now, Electric guitarists). Some of us had hoped that we had moved beyond these useless divisions from the 1980s and 1990s.
This bifurcation is not a helpful way to view the matter. It is not a helpful way to draw the lines marking off schools of thought about liturgy and music. The distinction that matters is not between classical and contemporary, between polyphony and percussion, or between conservatory and commercialism. It is between competence and incompetence, between energy and laziness, between intentionality and inertia, and yes, between life and death. These options hold for liturgists and musicians of all approaches.
The future belongs to those who are ready to build and to rebuild along the lines of ministerial competence that values the assembly above all else. Happily, new alliances are possible between those with the requisite intentionality and missionary zeal who might have thought themselves on opposite sides of past discussions. The director of a Latin chant schola can fruitfully compare notes with the director of singers in a contemporary ensemble: how do you motivate soloists to practice on their own? How do you select who the soloists are without hurting feelings? How do you handle auditions and encourage those who are not suited for a small ensemble to move on to another ministry? How do you find ensemble practice time amidst increasingly busy schedules? How do you maintain a positive, affirming atmosphere during rehearsals while striving for excellence? And so forth.
Because of my background, training, and monastic disposition, I am nourished spiritually by Latin chant, pipe organ, the treasury of sacred choral music, and classical hymnody. But if I were forced to choose between well-done Christian contemporary and butchered Bach, between energetic “pop” and a lifeless Chorale tune, there is really no question where I would come down and which of the two would engage me. I’ve heard enough lifeless, out of tune, unconvincing Latin chant in the liturgy to persuade me that there is little “sacred” or “Catholic” about that.
To put it more positively: I increasingly rejoice in the commonalities I perceive between the dance rhythm of a hymn tune from the Baroque era and the rhythmic drive of a Christian contemporary piece, or between the lyrical quality of tender Romantic choral music and its counterpart in well-rendered gentle contemporary music (as long as the latter is not too overtly sentimental). Surely I’m not the only one who has noticed the similarities between the complex extended tertian harmonies of Messiaen and Poulenc and the same in jazz literature.
As organized religion continues to contract and decline, as parishes continue to close and merge, it seems likely that we will see a process of sorting and sifting in coming years. Communities marked by bland incompetence will wither away, while communities marked by appealing energy will attract and retain members. We may expect, numerically, more of the former than the latter for the foreseeable future. Much will die, but green shoots will spring up here and there. All those in ministry hoping to belong to the latter group and be a part of the emerging new life need to join hands and work together.
Some readers might be looking for practical advice at this point. Should a parish have only three truly qualified lectors who cover all weekend Masses, and fire the rest? Or is it advisable to have as many as ten or twelve or twenty and expect them to come in for a half-hour rehearsal each time before they’re up? Should choir section leaders be paid? Should all choir members come from the parish community, or is it advisable to hire the whole thing out and bring in pros who can sing, whether they’re believers or not? Paid brass quartet?
There are no universal principles for such questions. The only principle is this: put the assembly first. Everything else follows from that. In some situations, it would divide the community to be overly stringent about qualifications for liturgical ministry, in other communities it would be welcomed. Some communities will not be comfortable hiring outside professional musicians; others will welcome it.
Putting the assembly first means asking what’s working for them and what isn’t. Or to put it bluntly—as White and Corcoran do throughout their book—when is it so bad that it’s painful? When does it need fixing because people can’t stand it anymore?
A final word is in order about the problem of perfectionism, lest my proposal be misunderstood. Aidan Kavanagh said it well many years ago in Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style: “To be consumed with worry over making a liturgical mistake is the greatest mistake of all. Reverence is a virtue, not a neurosis, and God can take care of himself.” 
It sucks all the joy out of music-making to be obsessed about perfection. To be negativistic about mistakes is unhelpful living in the past. It is to be expected, also within an ecology of competent ministry which serves the assembly well, that things will not always goes right. This should be accepted gracefully and lovingly. A milieu in which that sort of light touch dominates is one that best serves the assembly.
So then: St. Benedict admonishes that readers and singers edify. Corcoran and White tell us to rebuild. Let’s go do it.
 Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 38. Trans. Leonard J. Doyle (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2001).
 Michael White and Tom Corcoran, Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2013, 104). 101
 Ibid., 88–89.
 Ibid., 90.
 Aidan Kavanagh, Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1982), 31.