Interviewing Liturgical Leaders: Msgr. Kevin W. Irwin

Pray Tell continues its series of interviews with liturgical leaders, loosely inspired by a series in Time Magazine. Interviewees are invited to be witty, engaging, and humorous in their responses. The views expressed are not necessarily those of Pray Tell.


Kevin IrwinWhy are you in liturgy? What part of your job do you like the best?

At the wedding feast at Cana the mother of Jesus tells the servants “do whatever he tells you” (Jn. 2:4). I did what I was told. The seminary faculty at Dunwoodie, Yonkers, N.Y. sent one seminarian a year for four years to study for a M.A. in Liturgy at Notre Dame in addition to the usual seminary year round curriculum. My own theological interest was systematics, with Bernard Lonergan on my “horizon.” But I did what I was told, not unhappily. I was the second of the four to be sent. The third was Dominic Serra. We now teach together on the Liturgy faculty at The Catholic University of America.


Three things to fix the liturgy – what would they be?

Aidan Kavanagh OSB always taught us not to “tinker with ceremonies.” But since you asked here goes.

1. A  more “user friendly” Liturgy of the Hours for the all the baptized. The success of adaptations in publications like Give Us This Day shows that many lay folks are looking for it. The four volumes, even as we look to a retranslation, is not a revision. A revision based on the “cathedral/parochial” tradition of the Hours would be very welcome.

2. Revise some of the English translations in the current Roman Missal. This is admittedly a very dicey subject for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the Italian proverb that “every translator is a traitor.” But some of the presidential prayers are difficult to proclaim, especially when compared with the (admittedly flawed)  Sacramentary for Mass. Among other things the repeated use of “merit” in those prayers is disconcerting since Christene Mohrmann, among others, have persuasively argued that the Latin verb mereor is a helping verb and need not be translated. Think about it the next time “merit” appears in a text and imagine the translation without it.

3.  Change the mindset that we need to “fix” everything in the liturgy! I suspect that is not what you wanted. But if the revised liturgy is to gel and become repetitive patterns of familiar and known behavior then we should not look for more and more changes to the rites. Liturgy is like putting your hand into a glove, it is not reinventing the wheel. To keep changing rites fosters disequilibrium and (dare I say it) placing too much emphasis on the externals of the liturgy. Less is more.


Is the Vatican II liturgical program secure or endangered?

I judge that it is secure, at least theoretically. What does concern me is the number of self taught liturgical authors or “experts” and the number of publications which assert things that are simply untrue – whether it is the history of the liturgy, its theology or the shape of the revised rites. That we changed all the liturgical rites of the Roman church at one time after Vatican II is astounding. What is equally astounding is that they were not met with adequate catechesis that preceded the changes or ongoing catechesis since. We need to use the communication tools of our day. I have often thought that the Catholic university or college that puts undergraduate theological education in “TED Talks” format would not only make an enormous contribution to study, they would also make millions of dollars. What about the “TED Talks” of liturgical catechesis?


Pope Francis: good for liturgical renewal or not?

Good choice of words…”renewal.” I have always distinguished between liturgical “reform” and “renewal.” “Reform” has to do with rites and ceremonies and can be done by edict and with dispatch.“Renewal” is about  ongoing deepening conversion to the gospel, to living the paschal mystery and to witnessing in the world to what we celebrate. I judge that this is what Pope Francis is about. That his first celebration of the Eucharist outside of Rome was at Lampedusa, whose artifacts were nautical, to the point of placing the altar over a boat, tells me that this man leads us to the heart of the matter, not a cult of liturgical forms. From what I have seen there is a genuineness and transparency to the way he presides at the liturgy. No fuss, no frills. And that when he preaches he always leaves us with a message about deeper conversion and living the Christian life more fully. I expect less about the shape of liturgical rites or the size of liturgical artifacts and more about the sweat of the brow and the callouses on the hands of those who work for unjust wages and live in poverty.


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

We need more trained liturgists on every level of church life, from laity in the parishes, to Catholic educators, to pastoral ministers, to clergy, to the episcopacy. The very nature of the reformed liturgy with options in both structure and content means that we need people who are trained to interpret what is best pastorally on the basis of revised rites and our whole liturgical tradition. That the liturgy is a source of catechesis is left untouched in almost all of our religious education, faith formation and seminary programs. The desires of The Liturgy Constitution in this regard (nn. 15-16) have been ignored, to our collective peril because the emphasis on the rubrical and the externals of the liturgy have not ceded to curricula thoroughly imbued with the theology of the liturgy and theology that can come from the liturgy. Among others seminary formators and bishops need to be willing to recast seminary and other higher education curricula as well as emphasize the celebration of the liturgy as the heart of all Christian spirituality. (A decided contribution here is Jeremy Driscoll’s Theology at the Eucharistic Table). For that to happen we need scores and scores of people trained in the liturgy.


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

I am a “liturgical theology” guy. My mantra is lex orandi, lex credendi. That will likely be etched on my tombstone — perhaps along with  lex vivendi. (If they don’t cremate me!) My own sense is that not enough emphasis has been placed on what actually happens in and through the liturgy — regarding the church, the paschal mystery, the Trinity etc. If everything we use, say and do in the liturgy has a theological meaning then more emphasis on the meaning of actual celebrations needs to be placed alongside the study of texts (as vitally important as they are). I also think that Gordon Lathrop is doing seminal work on relating a study of the scriptures to liturgical method. I think a theology of preaching needs to be the foundation for courses in homiletics that have the students “practice preach.” I also think that a liturgical hermeneutic to understanding the scriptures can help get us beyond the hyper anti “historical critical method” for scripture study that is being replaced with less than rigorous “substitutes.”


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

Allow me to sound like a graduate school professor. On the one hand that is true for the liturgical churches. Among other things we have not gotten across the message that the principle of sacramentality and mediation matter, that is that we use things from the world and the work of human hands as the means through which we experience and take part in the living God in the communion of the church. The cultural forces emphasizing the “self” and “my” spirituality lead to less emphasis on the (by its nature) structured liturgy and lead to more emotive expressions of faith. The sense of “belonging” in the church together is not seen to be a value in a globalized word where, as Vincent Miller said in Consuming Religion, “we wear clothes made by no one and eat food from nowhere.” Experience reflects what the studies show — “spiritual, not religious.” But we must not be overly romantic in our notion of belonging and community simply because many of the mediating structures of society (clubs, associations and societies) are themselves sparsely populated. Two-parent families mean two-job families, child care and take out dinners. It is hard to join a society when ice is like that. And when millennials look to keep jobs for two to three years it is hard to presume that they want to or can “belong” to a liturgical church.

But on the other hand mega “churches” are growing. After I celebrate my usual two Sunday Masses at the Catholic parish where I regularly assist I drive past the “Community of Hope” Church and it is there that the police direct traffic every Sunday, not outside the Catholic Church. The mega church attraction is in styles of worship, with emotive music and media. I attended the wedding of a cousin’s daughter at a mega church. The theology was from a Hallmark card and the music was a cut below Barry Manilow — tune and text! It broke my heart because the tradition in which she was raised has become very foreign to her and many like her. And yet when her uncle died and was buried from a Catholic Church last May she was delighted to attend and wanted to read the petitions to the general intercessions.

Her behavior reflects the data in Young Adult Catholics which indicate that what is important to the twenty-to-thirty-somethings is a sense of welcome,  good music and effective preaching. There is a lot we need to do around the liturgy and in church belonging to turn this around.


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

Probably the single most important factor that keeps me from being totally in the “grumpy old men” category is that I teach young people, some younger than others. When I taught our CUA undergrads in Rome in the spring, 2013 (the year Pope Benedict resigned and Pope Francis was elected — good timing) what surprised me was that when we went on trips on a bus (to Siena) or a train  (to Venice) the program director and I were the only ones reading. All the students were watching videos. My experience of undergrads and some grads today is that they do not read. And when they do so it is a quick text, an IM or CNN headline (if they think the news is worth it) and summaries of stories, not the style and composition of stories themselves, not to mention whole books! My sense is that we who value the Word and words in the liturgy need to be attentive to the fact that young people live in a visual, social media culture. As a preacher the note to self is preach shorter homilies with images. Be careful not to presume too much catechetical knowledge or that attention spans will grow because of a charismatic preacher. Real life examples in homilies about gospel conversion, dying and rising always seem to resonate (avoid theological jargon like “paschal mystery” or “eschatological”). Avoid overly autobiographical stories that refer to the self in a way that makes them (and us!) a curiosity. Instead offer a paradigmatic reference that the hearers can apply to themselves.

I think we can all admit that there was a “form follows function,” “bare ruined choirs” aspect to the document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, especially when compared to some of the finest examples of Catholic art and architecture in our cultural tradition. One day when I was teaching it in class I emphasized what the text emphasized — ambo, altar and chair. I then referred to the value of building churches that would make these preeminent and that other works of art ought to be few. A Capuchin friar raised his hand and said “that’s all well and good, but when the preaching is bad I want to look at good art!”


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

Any Benedictine monastery.


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

Ask not what you can do to the liturgy, ask what the liturgy does for you.


Monsignor Kevin W. Irwin is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and served as the Dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America. He holds the Walter J. Schmitz, Chair of Liturgical Studies there. Msgr. Irwin is the author of sixteen books on liturgy and sacraments. He is a member of the North American Academy of Liturgy, the Catholic Academy of Liturgy, the Society for Catholic Liturgy, and the Catholic Theological Society of America.



  1. “A more “user friendly” Liturgy of the Hours for the all the baptized. The success of adaptations in publications like Give
    Us This Day shows that many lay folks are looking for it. The four volumes, even as we look to a retranslation, is not a revision. A revision based on the “cathedral/parochial” tradition of the Hours would be very welcome.”

    Yes please! As a lay person, who wants to pray the Hours regularly, I just can’t find the time with two teaching job and two young children. Give Us this Day is a great help. I also find using the tradition Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary to be a nice addition as well.

  2. Msgr. Irwin is owed a great debt by many students of liturgy and sacramental theology at Catholic University of America, as well as by many pastoral ministers around the country who have learned from him at various conferences and convocations. He taught a few courses I took at CUA, and he was my STL thesis director. His teaching was consistently insightful, engaging, and challenging, and his company always pleasant and encouraging.

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