Interviewing Liturgical Leaders: Fr. Michael Joncas

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…


Nathan Chase, in asking me to answer these ten questions, directed that I try to emulate those responding to the “Ten Questions” at the end of each issue of Time magazine, with wit and incisiveness. Unfortunately I show little wit here and I’m probably too spendthrift with my words. Nonetheless I hope some of Pray Tell’s readers will find this interesting. I confess to being somewhat apprehensive after readers’ responses to Fr. Taft’s sojourn into the realm of “Ten Questions.”


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

I think that my experience of the pre-Vatican II Roman Rite liturgy as a pre-school child with my Polish grandmother introduced me to a world of enchantment, beauty and belonging. In grade school I became captain of the altar boys and delighted in the chance to be close to something mysterious and powerful. When I entered the seminary in the ninth grade (yes, I’m one of the last of the “lifers”: you can tell so because of my social ineptitude 🙂 ), the Second Vatican Council was in full swing and my teachers encouraged us to read and discuss the documents; my teachers also started me on the path of historical study of the liturgy that has intrigued me ever since, partially as a way to encounter God and partially to understand a very complex artifact whose changes over time gave insight into the development of culture(s) in relation to God.

As a priest, I don’t consider my celebration of the liturgy with and for the People of God as a “job,” but as a vocation (still less a “career”). I probably enjoy preaching the best (although it is also the most frustrating aspect), but chanting the texts of our worship, alone as presiding celebrant and in concert with the rest of the worshipers, is also a delight.


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

Rather than the notion of “fixing” aspects of the liturgy, I would prefer to use two terms from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: aptatio and accomodatio. Fr. Anscar Chupungco, the rector magnificus of the Ateneo S. Anselmo while I studied there in the Pontifical Liturgical Institute, in his study of these terms showed that they were originally used almost as synonyms, but that they came to mean the “large-scale” and “small-scale” transformations of the Roman Rite as it encountered various cultures. So as the celebrational forms of the Roman Rite encounter United States’ culture(s) with which I am most familiar, I’d point to these three issues: liturgical language, liturgical arts, and liturgical preaching. While I can understand the processes that led to the present English-language translation of the third edition of the post-Vatican II Roman Missal under the guidance of Liturgiam Authenticam, I believe what has been produced is an English translation that is not a vernacular translation. While I personally lead worship scrupulously adhering to the presently promulgated text, I long for the day in which we will develop a genuinely vernacular translation. I look for on-going development of liturgical music, art and architecture, respectful of the artistic achievements of the past but working in the distinctive forms of our own era to foster the full, conscious and active participation of the faithful in the liturgical act. I fear that after a period immediately after the Council in which biblical preaching was held up as an ideal in liturgical celebration, we have retreated from the challenges of engaging the scriptures in the light of our present situation through homilies and are settling for (at best) doctrinal exposes and (at worst) “Father’s thoughts while shaving” sermons.


3) Is the Vatican II liturgical program secure or endangered?

Based on the first four articles of Sacrosanctum Concilium, I believe that Council Fathers intended a reform of our liturgical texts and ceremonies oriented to a renewal of our life as a Church for the sake of the Church’s mission in the world. I believe that at least one portion of the liturgical reform is secure: the liturgical library of the Roman Rite (as well as the Ambrosian and the Mozarabic rites as well as various Eastern rites) has been re-written in its editiones typicae and that these models have begun the process of being received by the various languages and cultures of the world. I am not so sure that a genuine liturgical spirituality has taken root in the clergy and the faithful, but I am hopeful that the experience of the reformed rites is renewing and will renew our life as a Church.

The historian in me thinks that we are witnessing the usual historical pendulum after ecumenical Councils: an initial explosion of energy with great creativity that may sometimes take imprudent forms (e.g., the much-maligned “clown Masses”); a retrograde reaction, fearful that the new forms may mislead the Church to abandon essential elements of her constitution (e.g., certain elements defending the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite); and the “reception” of the Council’s teaching in useful and workable institutional forms (the increase in sacramental Eucharistic communion for those who attend Mass in comparison with the period before the Council).

I believe we are presently in a period of retrograde reaction, with some signs of movement toward reception of the Council’s impact. My greatest sadness is that the periods of explosive creativity and retrograde reaction have concentrated so much of our energies ad intra that we have perhaps neglected our mission ad extra (and I tend to view Pope Francis’ allocutions as challenging us to regain our sense of direction outward in mission).


4) Pope Francis: good for liturgical renewal or not?

I think Pope Francis is a blessing for the Church, but I tend to believe that about all the Popes the Holy Spirit has given us in the years I’ve been alive. This may be too harsh a judgment, but I don’t think he is particularly interested in liturgical renewal (certainly not as his predecessor was). My guess is that he would want to see the principle of subsidiarity applied to the official liturgical renewal, i.e., that territorial bishops conferences take greater responsibility for liturgical renewal in their areas with the Congregation for Divine Worship assisting rather than “approving” their work. I think his concentration on the homily, both in the articles he devotes to it in Evangelii Gaudium and his own example of daily preaching at Mass, is a great good for on-going liturgical renewal.


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

Would you expect an academic like myself (having completed 25 years in the classroom at my own home University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and now serving as an artist-in-residence and research fellow in Catholic Studies) to answer with anything but a ringing endorsement of academic study as relevant to the real world 🙂 ? I do think that academic liturgical study is especially difficult because of its interdisciplinary character — theological, historical and pastoral – but that also guarantees that each of us must develop a network of other liturgical scholars (beyond denominational lines) with whom to supplement the gaps in our own knowledge and understanding.

I would advise young people to go into liturgical study depending on how they feel God is calling them. If one feels called to serve the Church and world by educating worshipers, coordinating liturgical ministries and possibly serving as a liturgical minister oneself (as an organist, for example) at parish, religious community, or diocesan levels, then getting a license or master’s degree in liturgical studies would certainly be desirable. If one feels called to serve the Church and world by front rank research in liturgical topics and disseminating new knowledge to pastoral practitioners then a doctoral program would be appropriate. I think young people would be well advised to make a sober assessment of their chances for getting hired at either level, but the interdisciplinary character of the field means that one can be an attractive hire in multiple areas (i.e., not just a medievalist, but one with a profound understanding of the ritual behavior and the meanings attached to it by a given group at a given time).


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

I think the front rank institutions should continue to do what they have been doing, whether in training historians to work with primary sources in the reconstruction of the worship of early eras and its possible meanings, in training theologians to grapple with worship as a fundamental locus for God’s self-revelation, or in training pastoral workers to engage the social sciences and the arts for insight into ritual communication.

What I would like to see is a massive effort made to offer liturgical education at diocesan and parish levels, probably through internet initiatives. This would not involve on-line courses for academic credit (although it could) but podcasts and/or PowerPoints that help provide fundamental liturgical knowledge and equip catechists and leaders of mystagogy in their local work.


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

I think you mean certain forms of Christianity aren’t flourishing in Europe, North America, and Australia, but its pretty clear that organized religion (including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc) continues to flourish globally (and as some critics would say: “for good or ill”). Even in the United States, while “mainline” Protestant churches seem to be losing members, “evangelical” and/or “charismatic” churches seem to be flourishing.

But my hope doesn’t lie in statistics about church membership. My hope is in the saving gospel of Christ Jesus through the power of his Spirit, a gospel that I believe continues to change the world toward its destiny in the kingdom/reign of God, a mission whose institutional supports have changed in the past and will change in the future. I suppose in the end it comes down to a belief that self-sacrificing Love is the strongest power in the universe, stronger than death and sin.


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

The most honest answer is: “I don’t know.” My work with young people suggests that they fall somewhere on a wide spectrum of spirituality, religious affiliation, and practices. I believe that in US culture, most schooling does not help young people to develop critical thought. They tend to buy into a theory of knowledge that holds that the only “facts” are found in mathematics and the natural sciences, that all other knowledge is merely at best supported opinion, that they should be tolerant of all sorts of opinions but that these beliefs should be kept in the private realm. Religion, with its mythical and mystical worldviews, is something to be “overcome” as one becomes an independent thinker OR may be embraced without any attempt to integrate it with the world of the natural sciences. They rarely think about their own thinking, question their assumptions or attempt any integration of knowledge and experience. Unfortunately, I don’t think Catholic Christianity (with which I am most familiar) is particularly skillful at encouraging young people to do the hard work of appropriating their own thinking and valuing processes, providing models to emulate, and offering the kinds of friendship where these explorations can take place, especially when the culture as a whole presents almost constant sensate stimulation, accumulation of wealth and material possession, and distraction from such development of one’s interior life as “obvious” goods and goals.

I think our greatest focus should be on making sure that the parents and guardians of baptized children regularly (i.e., weekly) take them to worship in their pre-school and early grade school years. They need to experience worship pre-conceptually and find their place there. I think our initiation practices also need to be re-thought. And while I think it may be useful to have adults and peer ministers journey with junior high through college students as they explore and appropriate their faith, I also think its important that the Church be experienced as something trans-generational, not (like the commercial culture of the United States) focusing its energy solely on young adults in order to make them good consumers.


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

This is hard to answer, since I love worshiping in nearly any setting where the gospel can be proclaimed and the sacramental actions achieved. But for a combination of aesthetic and spiritual reasons it would probably be the chapel of the Trappist monastery at New Melleray in Wisconsin.


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

I’ve been told that at Hopi religious ceremonies there are designated ritual actors (“clowns”?) who remind those engaged in the ceremonies that they cannot capture the numinous but can only point to and embody it in some way. I know that one of Bertold Brecht’s goals in his dramatic works is to remind the spectators that a play is a representation of reality and not reality itself.

I think it is important to remember that liturgical participation in the Church’s rituals cannot capture the kingdom/reign of God, but can point to it and in some ways embody it. I think it is important that just as Brecht wanted his spectators not to achieve a cathartic release by submerging their critical and reflective thinking in identifying with the characters, so I believe those who participate fully, consciously and actively in the liturgy do so not to escape from reality but to encounter reality as envisioned in the kingdom/reign of God and leave the liturgy empowered by the Spirit to assist in the transformation of the world.

So my advice is to give oneself over to liturgy, to its communal character, participating fully (as a unity of body/soul/spirit), consciously (open to receiving what God wishes to reveal of God’s self, God’s action in the Church and the world, and what God seeks from this community and me in furthering that action in the texts and ceremonies of the liturgy), and actively (transformed by the Spirit for the transformation of the world in the light of the gospel).


  1. You are absolutely correct. I don’t know why I placed it in Wisconsin. Perhaps I was unconsciously channeling the rivalry between MN and IA. (Typical joke: why does MN exist? to protect Canada from IA. :-).)

  2. Dear Fr. Michael,
    Thank you for your “Liturgical Leader” reflections, full of love for the liturgy and concern to link liturgy and mission. May I offer a friendly amendment to your three-part historical schema (Question 3)? What if the second step: “a retrograde reaction, fearful that the new forms may mislead the Church to abandon essential elements of her constitution,” were instead stated as: “a subsequent reaction, taking care that understandable initial focus on new developments not lead the Church to leave behind certain essential elements of her constitution”?

    Here, the first reaction after a major event like a council is forward-looking, “an initial explosion of energy with great creativity,” yielding new developments which sometimes prove sound and lasting but “sometimes take imprudent forms.” Then follows a reaction, this time backward-looking to see if anything left behind is upon further reflection worth retaining after all (with whatever “aptatio” or “accomodatio” would accrue in the new circumstances). Here too as in step one, some recoveries may be sound and healthy, but some “retrograde” and “fearful.” The trick is to distinguish the two, neither thinking the sound and healthy recoveries are retrograde and fearful because recoveries from a past now viewed (without distinction) as inadequate, nor accepting as still relevant what really is retrograde and best left behind. This allows the Church to move forward (third step) enriched with things “both new and old” (Mt 13:52).

    Fr. Aidan also outlined a three step process in his “How Rite Develops: Some Laws Intrinsic to Liturgical Evolution,” Worship 41 (1967): 334-47. Interestingly, he added this – that some elements of the “conservative reaction” (second stage) “may go on to fulfill real creative and prophetic functions in the community, calling it always to new and more adequate awareness of itself, and thus [with that more inclusive awareness of its enduring identity and mission] to greater vigor within its epoch.”

  3. It might not have been Time magazine style, but your final call, to give ourselves over to the liturgy, moved me deeply. It made me think of Abba Moses’ advice: “Sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” This space we clear to celebrate, at it’s best, should profoundly change us.

  4. Thank you, Michael! I found your answers most interesting, especially your final paragraph, which should be carved in stone somewhere. I know I shall use it as a discussion question for the sessions on liturgy with the RCIA.

  5. OK…these observations are sound, well thought out through experience. The observations on youth and education are very real and I plan on forwarding them to our high school theology dept. Thank you Fr. Joncas for this voice in an extremely engaging response. English translation but not vernacular…that will keep me thinking for a while.

    Thank you Nathan Chase as well.

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