Teaching Liturgy: Where Do I Begin? (part II)

Teaching liturgy today is both a wonderful opportunity and a challenge. We asked a number of excellent educators to give us a snapshot of where they begin, and why. Here are some more of their responses:

I teach undergraduates who primarily self-identify as Roman Catholic, though this identity masks a very wide range of practices, from being a daily Mass goer (rare) to having been baptized and received first Eucharist, but that’s about it (alas, all too common). Most of them take my classes because they fulfill requirements in my university’s core curriculum – so they are a somewhat “captive” audience. I generally don’t teach courses on liturgy per se, but rather on the sacraments.

I find that most of them have a fairly impoverished experience and understanding of ritual in general, and I find it helpful to introduce them to ritual activity by means of something unfamiliar to them. So I often begin by having them read Mary Douglas’s Natural Symbols, which gives them a number of helpful conceptual distinctions (e.g. “grid” and “group”) that are not overtly theological but which, presuming the principle that grace perfects and does not destroy nature, I can use throughout the course to help them see how the sacraments “work.” Thus they can see how Baptism fits within rituals of liminality and the Eucharist serves to construct both the boundaries and the internal hierarchy of the Church.

I should add that they all find Douglas ferociously difficult, and many hate reading the book, but by the end of the course most will admit that she is useful.

Frederick Bauerschmidt teaches at Loyola University Maryland.

unterseherI completed my B.A. while also working part-time in parish liturgy. The school from which I graduated offered a number of courses in liturgy taught by various professors, one of which was entitled “Liturgical Celebration.”  As it happened, I finished my coursework in December, about the time when the “Liturgical Celebration” professor was diagnosed with serious (but operable) cancer.  They needed a teacher, and my parish experience along with my familiarity to the faculty in the theology department stood in my favor.  It was short notice, and somewhat by the seat of my pants…

Where I began — where I would still begin (with both undergraduates and graduate students) — was with Josef Pieper’s In Tune With the World. Pieper’s philosophical examination of fest and festivity gave a framework from within which to consider the various principles and dynamics of liturgical celebration. With the undergrads, I simply lectured and developed Pieper’s points without having them read the text, then we looked for those points in the movie Babette’s Feast.

From there, I laid out the principles of symbol, myth and ritual, and then turned to the notion of doxology. From there we looked at such things as notions of offering, sacrifice and timekeeping: very much a crash-course in liturgical anthropology. Only in the last week of the first section did I turn to tying all of this in with liturgy: sacraments and signification, eucharist as meal and sacrifice, liturgical year.

Time and experience would alter my approach; different texts suggest themselves for an introductory-level course today. . . but I’d still begin with Pieper and Babette’s Feast.

Cody Unterseher is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Notre Dame.

Among other things, I teach liturgy to upper class students at Saint Louis University. I begin gently, as you might imagine: present the syllabus, ask why they are taking the course, and so on. Sooner or later I might stir things up by making this statement: “God’s greatest mistake was to become both divine and human at the same time.” Of course I explain that I am just kidding, and they are relieved, but then I go on to show the difference between the Eucharist as mainly worship of the transcendent God, on the one hand, and the Eucharist as a gathered community of people under God on the other. [This echoes Harold Turner’s distinction between church as a house of God or as a house of the people of God (in From Temple to Meeting House), but I don’t necessarily tell them that.] We tend to make it one or the other, but it has to be both, just as Jesus was both.

I and my associate at the Center for Liturgy, Paul Hasser, then send the students out to various parish Masses that illustrate different paradigms. In class we discuss the differences and use these as a further entry into Kevin Irwin’s Models of the Eucharist and John Baldovin’s Bread of Life, Cup of Salvation. I always bring in the Trinity. The result is a good experience and much interest. It is a university course, not a parish instruction, so there comes the inevitable research paper and final exam. I have had good overall results thus far. Three students have gone on to graduate studies in liturgy.

John Foley teaches at Saint Louis University and is director of the Stroble Center for Liturgy there.


  1. John Foley (especially with such a good Irish name!) might enjoy noting that, in Gaelic, the formal word for ‘church’ (in the institutional sense) is ‘eaglais’ (from the Latin ‘ecclesia’) but the building is variously known as ‘taigh Dhe’ (meaning ‘the house of God’) in largely Presbyterian Scotland and ‘teach an phobail’ (meaning ‘the house of the people’) in largely Catholic Ireland.

  2. Fr. Cody, I have not read Josef Pieper (though I will when there’s a lull in the term). I’m glad you’ve chosen Babette’s Feast as part of your curriculum. This film is a wonderful introduction not only to the dynamics of ritual but also the growth that all of us inevitably face when moving beyond our ritual “comfort zones” towards a greater appreciation of the liturgical aspirations of others.

    The rigid pietism of the two widow sisters admitted little variation: personal devotion and public liturgy provided a very narrow path of self expression. Babette’s self-sacrifice opened the community to the radical possibility that ritual openess can yield the great rewards of new experiences (in this case, alcohol and fine food) and the expansion of interaction between different social groups.

    Even though I haven’t learned the lessons of Babette’s Feast, I often review the film to at least direct myself towards the possibility of openness to others’ aspirations.

  3. Rita, I wonder if you might consider a Part III to this topic of “teaching liturgy.” I think it would be fascinating to hear from teachers of high school and grade school students on how they approach liturgy. After all, most of the sacramental experiences in ones life happen between the ages of 8-28 these days. It might be interesting to see how these teachers try to weave together their students’ sacramental experience and the reality of the liturgy.

    1. Clarey, I quite agree with you. In fact, I asked a number of such teachers — but no one took me up on it! (Or at least not so far.)

      So, following gospel precedent, allow me now to invite ANY of our readers who teach children and / or youth to send us your responses — When teaching liturgy, where do YOU begin — and why?

      (Also, please tell us your name and where you teach.)

      You can send in your story by clicking on the blue “contact us” bar at the top of the page, and sending me an e-mail.

      Thanks, Clarey.

  4. Rita,
    The texts these teachers recommended sent me on a merry Amazon chase reading reviews and checking out books Amazon linked to the one above. Thanks a lot.

    Please also consider a Part Four — Teaching Presiding.

    I would be particularly interested in which texts teachers have found to be most enlightening for either new or experienced presiders.

  5. Missing in approaches to liturgy so far is the element of human capital in my model of Religion (e.g. liturgy) = cultural capital + social capital + human capital + spiritual capital.

    Cultural capital is the asset of shared beliefs and values; it makes communication and common action easier. Some of a cultural capital called “accounting” allowed me to understand balance sheets, etc. and to discuss them with fellow managers. None of us had the human capital (skills) to construct a balance sheet or recognize a faulty one.

    Much thought about liturgy and religious education assumes that cultural capital transmitted will result in human capital (skills) that people will use in their lives, as if a basic accounting course will make us accountants when it only allows us to communicate and work together around accounting issues.

    Research on church attendance makes clear that benefits of church attendance (health, life satisfaction, etc) do not come from mere attendance; one also has or develops a religious network of personal relationships. Both together are necessary; nonreligious networks are not as effective.

    Mere exposure to beliefs and values (without a support network) means they will have only modest or no effect upon our lives.

    Some research suggests that religious identity is important in this equation. I suspect religious identity taps the human capital dimension, i.e. identity is about skills inhering in a person rather than existing between people as shared beliefs and values, or as personal relationships.

    Perhaps religious identity consists of more effective forms of human capital because they are exercised in a religious context just as religious social capital is a more effective form of social capital because it is exercised in a religious context.

    While religious cultural capital is necessary it may be relatively ineffectual unless it becomes incarnated in religious social networks or personal skills (as religious identity).

  6. Fathers, you are an inspiration for ‘starters’, like me, in the ministry of teaching liturgy.

    Thanks, Ms. Rita, for such a wonderful effort to share this article!

    -Dave from the Philippines

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