Interviewing Liturgical Leaders: Bruce T. Morrill, S.J.

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).


  1. It’s a shame that none of these liturgists really comment on the kind of celebrant that Pope Francis is, nor on liturgical practices that he has imported into the papal liturgy. I don’t see why he makes a big deal out of the pope’s daily mass occasionally having unvested servers. I thought that this was normal in certain places before the council. Either way he hasn’t changed the practice of having seminarians serve the public Masses in cassock and surplice.
    (If I’m not mistaken Pope Francis’ daily mass usually has no servers and this was also the case for John Paul II and Benedict.)

  2. Genuine, rigorous, theological, practical reform of the ordained ministry

    What is the content of such a reform (outside of the application of Presbyterorum Ordinis, Christus Dominus, and a missing Vatican II document on the diaconate)?

  3. Sorry Jeffrey but Prebyterorum Ordinis and Christus Dominus are not enough. The key word is “ordained ministry”-neither Vatican II nor any subsequent magisterial document has ever fully come to grips with the relationship between “baptismal priesthood” and the sacrament of orders. Christus Dominus answered in the positive that Bishops are “ordained” in contrast with previous theology that talked of “episcopal consecration”, but failed to offer substantial theological reflection on the relationship of the episcopate to the presbyterate and the diaconate. Bruce Morrill SJ offers some challenging reflections on this topic in Chap 4 of his “Encountering Christ in the Eucharist” (Paulist Press, 2012). The whole book is a rich and multi-layered reflection on the topic that warrants close reading, indeed re-reading of some key sections.

  4. Fr Brendan is right. CD and PO were exceedingly tame documents. Imagine if lay people today stung by sex abuse cover-up and rampant clericalism had a go at reforming Holy Orders. Interesting …

  5. I said “outside of PO and CD”, meaning I’m expecting they do not contain sufficient material for the reform Fr. Bruce has in mind; so, no apology is necessary to me (#4).

  6. JP – suggest that they aren’t apologizing but correcting your comment based upon their own knowledge and experience of Morrill, SJ. In fact, your comment #4 sounds rather *haughty*.

    Thanks for posting this interview – Morrill’s books are fascinating and really do build upon the VII discussions that were either partial or brought to an expedited closure so that VII could be closed.

    Rather than immediately *comment #1* get sidetracked on a minor point (that, IMO, was misconstrued), here are the high points that Morrill sounded, IMO:
    – comparing Francis liturgically to prior popes – reality is that he lives and celebrates a communal eucharist every day with homily with his community (folks who live and work with him). This underlines the focus on eucharist as a community faith action rather than prior popes and their private masses in a private apartment. It captures well the shift in Eucharistic understanding during VII. Moreover, the daily homilies because of technology are now shared around the world – this says something significant.
    – yes, Morrill does comment on the vesture that needs to be put in a museum and he might have given an example of this by stating that servers at this daily liturgy do not need to be vested – because that is a minor point compared to the community eucharist.

    Other things I noted:
    “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).” Picks up on the other post about minister training and comments by Yanke, Kosala, etc. that highlight exactly what Morrill is saying. RS, Arinze, Morlino come out of the ideology of priesthood that Morrill is focusing on.
    – “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…” (appreciate his statement as a corrective for the tired meme from folks such as MacDonald, etc. who constantly cite the clown masses, 1970’s, etc. Would suggest that attitudes and documents such as RS and Arinze/Ratzinger’s prescriptions have also led to folks walking away for liturgy.

    1. @Bill deHaas – comment #7:
      I have no knowledge of experience of Fr. Morrill, having not read any of his books or articles, so I was looking for more details. I’m an outsider in a lot of these interview posts, because for the most part I don’t know the people being interviewed.

      What was incorrect about my comment? Was it my assumption that reform of the ordained ministry would take roots in — although not be limited to, of course — the Vatican II documents I mentioned? I didn’t ask the question implying (as it might sound in retrospect) that the Vatican II documents are all that is necessary to implement a reform.

      So to simplify, my question at its core is: “What is the content of such a reform?”

      Fr. Brendan gave some direction, mentioning the relationship between the baptismal priesthood and the ordained priesthood, as well as a chapter from one of Fr. Bruce’s books.

    2. @Bill deHaas – comment #7:
      Benedict XVI also celebrated Mass with the people that he lived and worked with. I can send you a youtube link if you want.

      Francis has returned to the practice of John Paul II in that he invites special guests and groups to his daily Mass.

      1. @Stanislaus Kosala – comment #9:
        Actually, while sometimes special groups get invited, my understanding is that whoever is staying in Casa Marta is free to come to the daily Mass, so it’s not “invitation only” (of course, one does have to rate staying at Casa Marta).

        Re Jeffrey’s first comment: it’s sometimes hard to read tone on the internet. I took him to be asking, “presuming PO and CD, what is the program for further reform,” not making the covert statement that PO and CD are all you need.

      2. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #10:
        Sure, my point is simply that it is false to say that BXVI and JPII didn’t celebrate Mass with a community composed of people who lived and worked with them.

  7. Actually, this year parishes of Rome are invited to celebrate Mass with the pope on a rotation basis. I think each parish determines how those precious seats are awarded when it comes to their turn.

    No question, there’s a different tone with Pope Francis. Worth reflecting on what’s so different. And I don’t think the media is spinning it. They’re just spectators like everybody else.

  8. Genuine, rigorous, theological, practical reform of the ordained ministry.
    I agree 100%. Perhaps we begin with recalling how the order of presbyters originated. As the number of Christians grew it was no longer possible for all of them to gather in one place with the bishop/overseer. Individuals in each distinct community were designated to preside at the Eucharist in the place of the bishop and a rite of ordination for such ministers was devised. I think that some of the traditionalists are of the mind that Christ simply instituted Holy Orders made up of bishops, priests, (and deacons) so that every “local church” had to have a bishop and every “parish church” had to have a priest/presbyter. From there we can move to a careful reading of the letter to the Hebrews to be reminded that in the NT there is only one priest and one priesthood. Each community must discern and identify those suitably gifted to act in persona Christi as their shepherds who are called by the Spirit to lead the priestly people in praise and worship. The idea that a community of believers must cease being church at a particular location because the bishop has no priest to assign should be regarded as scandalous. Ought not such a bishop inform his fellow bishops that a crisis exists that necessitates the discernment of suitable candidates for the vacancy regardless of their marital state? The idea that all candidates for shepherding local communities must meet rigorous academic and ascetical requirements is a relatively new idea in the church and can surely be modified in view of the needs of the people and signs of the times.

  9. @Fr Jack Feehily (#13): The idea that all candidates for shepherding local communities must meet rigorous academic and ascetical requirements is a relatively new idea in the church…

    Looking at 1 Tim. 3:1-13 and Tit. 1:5-9, I’m not so sure that’s true. Sure, academic degrees didn’t exist, and the absolute (Western) requirement for celibacy was not in place, but Paul’s criteria for bishops and deacons are still pretty rigorous, both academically (cf. Tit. 1:9) and ascetically/spiritually.

    1. @Matthew Hazell – comment #14:
      I agree with Fr Jack..

      There is no absolute requirement for celibacy in the Western church, as the presence of many married priests attests. Neither can the two pseudonymous works you mention be used to suggest there should be.

      The relatively modern usage of the world ‘clerical’ to designate someone who was able to read and write, indicates that this is what set clergy apart. Hardly a determination of rigour!

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