Viewpoint: How Successful is the Post-Vatican II Liturgy?

by M. Francis Mannion

Overall, I am happy with the renewed liturgical rites the Church has put in place since Vatican II. The new liturgical books which began to appear in the late 1960s are far from perfect, though, and will always be in need of improvement and development. The kind of ongoing reform I espouse would slowly and carefully build on the rites we have been given.

However, the success of modern liturgical reform has been evident more in print than in practice. By print I mean the texts given to us on paper; by practice I mean the way in which the rites are celebrated.

I would identify six areas in which the practice of the liturgy can be improved.

The first is helping the clergy achieve a more dignified and reverent celebration of the liturgy. Recent church documents on divine worship have spoken of the importance of the ars celebrandi, the art of celebration. A lot of work needs to be done on priestly leadership of the liturgy. Too often, the rites as celebrated lack a prayerful, reverent, and dignified style. There is still too much spontaneous talking and ad-libbing by priests. The priestly performance of rites is often sloppy, and many priests adapt the rites to personal theology.

The second area is the practice of preaching. A recent survey sponsored by the Bishop of Trenton, N.J., found that bad preaching is one of the reasons why Catholics leave the Church. Too often, preaching is uninspiring, lacking in spiritual depth, shows not much poetic quality, and fails to move the hearers. Sermons are often disorganized, involve many disconnected themes, ramble all over the place, and are too lengthy. An improvement in preaching would dramatically help the quality of liturgical celebration.

A third area concerns the performance of liturgical ministers. Readers are often inadequately trained in the art of public proclamation; they read without conviction and enthusiasm for the scriptural texts; and do not seem to understand the meaning of the assigned scriptures.

Extraordinary ministers of communion are also often badly trained. They move around the sanctuary without any clear plan being in place; and their dress is often unbecoming (I recently helped out on Sunday in a parish where three out of six ministers of communion wore blue jeans and sneakers). I am a firm believer that all liturgical ministers should wear albs, not least to cover up casual dress.

A fourth area concerns liturgical music. Thomas Day, the author of Why Catholics Can’t Sing (available now in an updated version) argues correctly that much (most?) liturgical music composed since Vatican II is poorly crafted, theologically thin, and unsingable. A number of bishops in the U.S. are opening training centers for liturgical music in their dioceses. This is a very encouraging sign; I hope it will be duplicated in other dioceses.

The fifth area is liturgical art and architecture. In my opinion, modern Catholic church architecture has been very unsuccessful. Many Catholics in the pews find the post-Vatican II churches lacking in dignity, beauty, and majesty. Modern places of worship do not help to give expression to the truth that the liturgy is celebrated in communion with the glorious liturgy of heaven. They do not express visually the communion between the worshipping assembly and the angels and saints,

Last, but not least, there is a pressing need for further formation of the people in liturgical spirituality through a more adequate understanding of active participation, the fundamental meaning of which is that all interiorize and make their own the great mysteries being celebrated.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.



  1. It seems to me that Monsignor Mannion has highlighted precisely the items that have been highlighted for a century and more by the Liturgical Movement. If one reads preconciliar publications such as “Liturgical Arts” or “Orate Fratres/Worship” or the proceedings of the National Liturgical Weeks, one will find very similar complaints about presidency, preaching, sloppy servers, contemporary music compositions, and art and architecture. The great cry, repeated throughout these years, was for appropriate formation of lay people. He concedes overall happiness with the reformed rites and the need for deliberate, continuing reform. His article serves as a reminder that the basics of liturgical renewal, however, are not to be found in the books but in a deeper understanding and more deliberate practice of the liturgy as source and summit. Given the busy lives of priests these days, the lack of opportunities to help with the liturgical formation of people because of their own busy schedules, the distrust of the Church because of the sex abuse scandal and other reasons, the road to the “summit” sometimes seems more uphill than ever before.

  2. I forget which theologian posited that, having been made in the divine image, we subsequently have the same impulse: to make everything in ours.
    In matters more quantifiable, such as the training and exercise of particular liturgical ministries, there’s much to be agreed with here. A lot of it stems from a mechanistic view of the liturgy, and a subsequent perception that lay liturgical ministers are there to “help Father do his job” – so everything gets said and done correctly by the right persons. More difficult to immerse everyone in the reality of being the Body of Christ present through the Spirit to celebrate and offer the sacrifice of praise.
    [Will bishops be setting up institutes for the improvement of preaching as well?]
    In matters of taste, things get a little murkier, don’t they? Even in its revised version, Thomas Day’s book sets up his straw songs, finds an example to fulfill his viewpoint, and posits it all as conclusive evidence. I’m all for bishops setting up centers for the improvement of liturgical music, but the ones I’ve learned of so far have been brought into being to advance a largely restorationist practice.
    Can we find ANY era of ritual and art that does not have its weak manifestations? Since the best tends to endure, we make the mistake of believing that what we know of a particular era represents the ENTIRE era.
    In my own looking back at the practice of the rite since Vatican II, I think of the innumerable sorrows lifted, the spirits raised, the joy instilled, the sins forgiven, the souls nourished by Word and Body and Blood, the prayers offered fervently, the thanks and praise offered to the Lord, our God – because it is right and just.
    I’d call that a success.

  3. …active participation, the fundamental meaning of which is that all interiorize and make their own the great mysteries being celebrated.

    I’m afraid something has been confused here. Interiorizing the mysteries and making them our own is a fruit of active participation, but it isn’t the primary meaning of it. Active participation means, yes, participating actively, in action, gesture, word, song, prayer. I can’t see any other way to make sense of Mediator Dei 106:

    These methods of participation in the Mass are to be approved and recommended when they are in complete agreement with the precepts of the Church and the rubrics of the liturgy. Their chief aim is to foster and promote the people’s piety and intimate union with Christ and His visible minister and to arouse those internal sentiments and dispositions which should make our hearts become like to that of the High Priest of the New Testament.

    You can’t interiorize the mysteries “in accordance with the rubrics”; that is meaningless. And if the aim of active participation is to “arouse internal sentiments”, it can’t consist in the first place of experiencing those same sentiments.

  4. This is an earnest and well-meaning, but fussy essay.

    I would have six highlights to offer:
    1. Music composed since Vatican II has been a huge improvement over Catholic hymnody composed in the post-Reformation period. Particular strengths are psalmody, ritual music for the sacraments, and a more inventive use of blending and yoking various Scriptural images together.
    2. Christian initiation rites
    3. The OCF
    4. The Pastoral Care rites
    5. Better use of Scripture, and not only in the Liturgy of the Word
    6. Formation of professionals in liturgy

    The weaknesses would be:
    1. The post-1998 translation misadventures
    2. Rite of Penance
    3. The Liturgy of the Hours
    4. Yes, preaching. Post-conciliar preaching really hasn’t risen above the post-Reformation era. And it was p***-poor then. We need a wider pool of good preachers. If the clergy can’t do it, we should let the laity give homilies. It’s that simple. Raise the bar for everyone.
    5. The lack of attention given to welcoming seekers, non-believers, and people inclined to return to belief.
    6. A lack of attention from bishops and some clergy over the past generation to a widespread liturgical formation.

    I think Msgr Mannion’s diagnosis in #5 is wack. The problem is post-WWII churches, not post-V2. It involves a certain pragmatism in building parishes: throw up a school building, worship in a gym or cardboard box and people (and money) will come. It’s a tragically cynical and misguided approach to preaching the Gospel. And our bishops are among those promoting such c***.

    1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #5:

      Weakness in the Rite of Penance and LotHs – how do you mean that?

      I would certainly agree that the implementation of the LotH has been dismal, but the liturgy itself sound.

      1. @Sean Whelan – comment #14:
        Do you have a few hours?

        Yes, implementation of both has been abysmal in most places. But the attempt to impose a monastic tradition of daily prayer in parishes and homes is doomed from the start.

        And Penance? Clearly the clamp on form III hasn’t brought people back to form I, which is still conducted in most places not as a liturgy, or even as spiritual direction, but as a juridical process in a mini-courtroom. We probably need multiple forms to address the many ways in which people need reconciliation today. What we have is a lack of verve, initiative, and even faith on the part of the hierarchy from Pope John Paul II on out.

  5. Done correctly, the celebration of liturgy takes hard and sustained work by everyone involved. Unfortunately, many people are averse to hard work at least as it regards church.

    As long as there are clergy content to rattle through as quickly as possible, preachers content to wait until 5 minutes before Mass to think about a homily, musicians content to sing their tired old favorites that suit their own voice, liturgical ministers content to carry out their tasks with boredom on their face, and a congregation content to just “get it over with,” there will be bad liturgy. This is true of any place or period of history.

    There’s often a strong tendency among Catholics to get it over with as quickly as possible. A friend of mine once quipped, “I wonder if that’s also how they approach making love.”

  6. Parishes, beginning with the pastor, must decide if worship is THE priority for resources, budgeting, etc. Those parishes who invest time, and yes, money, into finding and hiring a FT liturgist and FT music director will see the fruits of this decision.
    My experience has been that in most parishes, liturgical ministers have good intent but poor leadership. Sorry, but the pastor may or may not be the “expert” in liturgical studies and may or may not have the time to recruit, develope and train ministers. I was a FT liturgy director with a PT music director for a large parish consisting of 8 weekend liturgies, 2 in spanish, all SRO. It was only because I had dedicated volunteers who had the desire to learn about liturgy that I was able to do my ministry effectively. in addition, I had a pastor and assistants who were “not threatened” when I offered my professional opinions and suggestions to improve our understanding of the liturgy.
    i was blessed but i do know this is often not the case in many places.
    Any parish can do liturgy well…it just takes studying both Scripture and the Sacramentary and working together to celebrate Christ’s presence in the midst of the assembly.

  7. Whether architectural deficiencies date from post-WW II or post-Vat II, the act and experience of liturgy is changing because of acoustical environments that don’t reflect, diffuse, and enhance the vocal prayer (sung or spoken) of the People of God. In many places, the Church can seems unable to worship God without a three-pronged plug in an electrical socket. We are increasingly desensitized in such environments (and in our every day lives) to natural sensory experience, in which the exterior senses are integrated. Instead, we go into churches that don’t sound like they look, where the voices of those holding microphones are many times more powerful than a throng of 500, where images on a screen are more appealing than than natural elements of bread, wine, water and oils. If the exterior senses are linked to the interior, and if the natural order opens to the supernatural, what can we expect from “virtual” realities in which our natural senses are increasingly disintegrated. It seems to me, these things not only challenge but undermined the our sacramental system.

  8. I am a firm believer that all liturgical ministers should wear albs, not least to cover up casual dress.

    The alb is the garment of all the baptized, and yet we don’t insist that congregations all wear it (only the Mormons do that, and their rationale is completely different from ours). Does “all liturgical ministers” include ministers of hospitality, the ushers? Or the ministers of music? Such blanket statements lead to confusion instead of clarity.

    While my personal choice might be that they dress differently, I’m fairly sure that Papa Bergoglio would have no problem with young people wearing jeans and sneakers when they minister. He would rejoice that they were in the church at all. While agreeing that many ministers are not well trained in the art of movement (though the prize in that department surely goes to deacons, many of whom move around the sanctuary like elephants), I think to describe their dress as “often unbecoming” is really O.T.T.

    1. @Paul Inwood – comment #10:
      When priests and deacons distribute holy communion they’re required to at wear choir dress, why shouldn’t the people who take their place wear a liturgical garment such as an alb? In certain countries this is already required of EMCHs.

      As for papa Bergoglio, the word is that in Buenos Aires he encouraged priests to wear proper vestments and clerical garb.

    2. @Paul Inwood – comment #10:

      I agree with you, Paul. I suspect our pope would be much more concerned about someone’s interior disposition than how her or his choice of attire meets with the expectations of those who would take it upon themselves to judge.

  9. I would think that the question of what liturgical ministers should wear would begin with asking why priests and deacons wear special garb, rather than arguing that tee shirts are fine but no to tank tops. Special vesture is an important ritual component, and we are quite comfortable with the notion of special clergy and choir vesture. But why the discomfort in suggesting that other ministers might appropriately wear albs? Ushers and greeters are not directly involved in the liturgical rites, and so their wearing albs would not be quite as significant. Albs add a certain reverence to the rite, a visual statement that something extraordinary is happening. An alb also covers a multitude of unfortunate and distracting clothing choices.

  10. in the Anglican tradition, servers and lectors wear cassock & surplices as well as the choir members. I do not think lectors and CM’s need to wear liturgical garb BUT they should wear clothing worthy of “the feast of the Lamb”. Every culture is different but here in the U.S. i would think that “business casual” should be the minimum requirement. i would never allow anyone to read or distribute Communion in jeans, T shirts or sneakers.

  11. A discussion on another thread has prompted me to venture an opinion about what I see as a seventh problem with the new liturgy. Picture a man from Mars wandering into a Catholic Mass today. He’s totally deaf. The Mass to him is just some sort of pantomime. So what do the postures and motions of the people in the sanctuary and in the pews tell him about what is going on? What could he guess about it?

    Theatre is an ancient and expressive art, and ISTM the new liturgy should excel as theatre, the way the old Mass often did. I do prefer the new liturgy because of the English and the added Scriptural texts, but I and many others who welcome the new also know that something is missing that the old liturgy had.

    There’s lots of discussion here about the words of the liturgy, the poetry, if you will. Lots about the music. Something about the costumes and the props. But never any discussion of the distinctively theatrical aspects of the liturgy — I mean postures and gestures and larger motions. There’s an occasional mention of the possibility of dance, but I’m not thinking about dance. I’m thinking about expressive motions integral to the whole proceeding: motions with specific meanings, such as beating the breast, shaking hands, not to mention putting money in the plate:-) I’m thinking about sequences of motions, and about very distinctive actions (e.g., bowing, genuflecting), all of which when related to each other and to the other aesthetic elements of the Mass somehow reveal the awesome Event that can’t possibly be seen.

    Let’s hear from the dramatists and the movie makers.

  12. I well appreciate Fr. Mannion’s (call no man Monsignor) desire for a more perfect celebration of the NO. But perfection is not to be had in a church staffed by flawed human beings. This should not deter us from pursuing improvements in the ars celebrandi, but alas coming to an agreement about what that would look like involves contending with differing experiences and points of view. In that vein I take great exception to the criticism of the rich and diverse musical compositions of the last 50 years. We survived the worst of Ray Repp, Joe Wise, and Carey Landry but those men provided tunes and lyrics which seemed to be a good idea at the time. But then came the St. Louis Jesuits whose music allowed us to pass from guitar Masses with compositions calling for flute, keyboard, and other instruments. One Bread, One Body remains a classic. Patience People still an exquisite Advent melody. Time for Rory Cooney, Marty Haugen, and David Haas to enrich the liturgy with truly singable songs, psalms, and Mass settings. Laurie True’s Magnificat invites all to treasure the Virgin’s humility in Latin and English. I should certainly mention Proulx and Peloquin. My list is much abbreviated and I do not contend that all of these composers’ music is of soaring and enduring value. But it has helped shape my faith and that of countless Catholics who, despite their scant knowledge of lturgics, seek the face of God. I speak for those who prefer “Change My Heart This Time” to “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus”. The latter was the tune I chose as the Gathering Song for my ordination Mass, it’s a beautiful hymn but ought to be used sparingly IMHO. I know, I know, it’s more complex, but I’m tired of liturgical experts impugning contemporary music. The assembly I serve can sing Greek, Latin, Spanish, and a little Vietnamese, but we really belt out the praise of God with the uplifting music provided us by contemporary musicians. I tip my hat to them all! Thanks!

    1. @Jack Feehily – comment #18:
      Thanks, Fr. Jack – beautifully stated. And also, agree with Linda Reid.

      My thoughts went in another direction from Mannion. He makes no mention:
      – increased scripture; increased involvement, use, and study of scripture inspired by VII (and that the people of God can proclaim the scripture – it is ours; not via clerics)
      – the impact of the RCIA process – in parishes where this has been ingrained and adapted across ministries, it has elevated both the parish liturgy, the sacramental understanding or the people of God; and created small base communities
      – Connected to RCIA, it a rediscovery and implementation of Lent/Holy Week and RCIA causing better scriptural images, symbols, and preaching during Lent and leading up to Holy Week
      – may be too simplistic, but no mention of vernacular which has certainly increased awareness and understanding
      – the practice of celebrating other sacraments during the Sunday eucharist

      – think we all can obsess on preaching, music, environment but, in the process, completely skip over other areas that might benefit from on-going, organic development – examples, stop using the tabernacle; re-focus on the eucharistic prayer as one single prayer with responses rather than breaking up and hangin on to older patterns highlighting the narrative, bells, elevations that take away from the unity of the prayer; better focus real bread/ increase communion under both kinds; increase community song/response during the entrance/communion processions (do we know that they are communal processions?); increase that eucharist calls us to mission (vs. filling station mentality).

  13. Bill deH. —

    But bells and elevations are prayers. Again, you’re emphasizing the verbal to the exclusion of other media.

    1. @Ann Olivier – comment #22:

      But bells and elevations are prayers. Again, you’re emphasizing the verbal to the exclusion of other media.

      Without wanting to go too far in this debate, bells can be prayers at one level and merely something for altar servers to do to keep them happy at another.

      The elevations that we have been talking about are not in fact in the rite. There is only one elevation in the Eucharistic Prayer, and that is at the “Through him, with him…” doxology.

    2. @Ann Olivier – comment #22:
      Sorry, Ann, beg to differ. They are actions that need to underline, support, and enhance the eucharistic prayer; not compete; overshadow, or draw attention to themselves. Your statement gets to the very issue and is what happens when various presiders think they know what they are doing or misunderstand rubrics – rubrics don’t come first and aren’t the main points; or presiders who continue to operate out of an older eucharistic theology in the reformed mass.
      And I am not emphasizing verbal at all – emphasizing the unity of the eucharistic prayer in its various parts that culminates in the Doxology/Great Amen with the elevation. (and don’t think I would ever use the word, *media* to describe our prayer.)

      1. @Bill deHaas – comment #29:
        Re: “media”

        Ann was using media to refer to the several mediums (sic) through which we can pray: verbal (words spoken or sung), visual (gestures, postures), non-verbal aural (bells, clinks of chains on a thurible), etc.

  14. Todd Flowerday : Music composed since Vatican II has been a huge improvement over Catholic hymnody composed in the post-Reformation period. Particular strengths are psalmody, ritual music for the sacraments, and a more inventive use of blending and yoking various Scriptural images together.

    And with this comment we see the attitude that has caused so many problems. The principal music of the Mass is not hymnody. It’s propers.

    1. @Ben Yanke – comment #23:
      Ben, please, let’s not do the propers/hymns things yet again. I think your point has been made ad nauseam already, and those who disagree aren’t likely to be persuaded.

      1. @Ben Yanke – comment #31:
        On the contrary, as a person, you are quite welcome. That welcome doesn’t necessarily extend to your misperceptions. If or when you misrepresent my statements, I’ll happily correct them.

        In theory and practice in the Roman Catholic Church, you and your colleagues overstate the case for the propers. People outside your circle will continue to tell it to you.

    2. @Ben Yanke – comment #23:
      Um, Ben … I attributed hymnody to the post-Reformation, aka Tridentine period. If you follow my postings here and in places where your friends have not banished me, you’ll find me a critic of metrical hymns, but an advocate of Scripture-based responsorial music. I like the pattern of the propers. But the repertoire is at once too scattered on a week to week basis (not to mention unreformed) and too restrictive when it comes to the whole breadth of lyrical Scripture.

    3. @Ben Yanke – comment #23:

      The principal music of the Mass is not hymnody. It’s propers.

      No, it’s not. Given the number of options now available in GIRM, it is no longer possible to talk about propers. What were formerly “proper” are now only one option among several, and therefore can no longer legitimately be called proper.

      If you said that the principal music of the Mass is psalms and antiphons, litanies and acclamations, then I would agree with you.

  15. Ben: According to Musicam Sacram (1967), the principal music of the Mass is the Ordo, not the propers.

  16. I’ve heard many good homilies and sermons in Catholic churches. But I agree that lay ministers at Mass pose significant problems. If I were pastor of a parish, I’d phase out the use of lay ministers gradually.

    Out in the parishes the modern Mass often lacks reverence and fails to convey a Catholic identity. One of the worst displays I’ve seen was at Old St. Pat’s in Chicago, which appeared to be a communal yuppie gathering instead of a religious service. I haven’t met anyone who claims that the pre-Vat II days were utopian, but I have gathered that, back in the old days, mass-goers knew what to expect at church. The ad-libbing by priests goes right along with the lack of focus apparent most everywhere else in the contemporary Church.

    I have no argument with Mannion’s criticism of modern church architecture, although modern church architecture was not the result of Vatican II. My 1962 Official Catholic Directory has more than a few pages of dull modern church designs.

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