Liturgy and the Renewal of Civilization

by Timothy P. O’Malley

I had the opportunity recently to give a talk for the Pontifical Mission Societies in the Archdiocese of New York on Liturgy and Mission. In preparing to write a paper for the lecture, I immersed myself in the writings of the 20th century liturgical movement including Lambert Beauduin, Abbot Emmanuelle Caronti, Romano Guardini, Josef Jungmann, and Johannes Hofinger. Throughout the various texts, I encountered the firm conviction that liturgical prayer, if properly understood by the assembly, would result in the renewal of civilization. Individualism would be defeated through the corporate nature of liturgical prayer. Political totalitarianism would dissipate through the politics of love at the heart of the Eucharistic action. The devastation of technological developments, already recognized in the early twentieth century, would be militated against through the Church’s lex orandi. The rise of secularization would be controlled if better participation in the liturgy was fostered.

Perhaps, it is the Augustinian nature of my academic formation, a tendency to perceive the darkness in the midst of such optimism, but the hopes of the liturgical movement remain unmet on these points. Individualism, violence, the abuse of technology, and secularization still affect social life in the United States, Europe, and the Global South (although in very different ways). Some might note that even more persistent liturgical reforms are necessary to bring about the hope of social renewal through the liturgy. Others would blame the liturgical reforms themselves on the failure of liturgy to renew social life, desiring a return to older rites that might at least function as a vanguard against modernity.

The more likely option, as least as I have begun to think about it, is that the liturgical movement of the twentieth century placed far too much hope in the way that the liturgy itself could bear the weight of a desired cultural and social renewal. Indeed, it is Romano Guardini himself, who writes:

Religion needs civilization. By civilization we mean the essence of the most valuable product of [humanity’s] creative, constructive, and organizing powers—works of art, science, social orders, and the like. In the liturgy it is civilization’s task to give desirable form and expression to the treasure of truths, aims, and supernatural activity, which God has delivered to [humanity] by Revelation, to distill its quintessence, and to relate this to life in all its multiplicity. Civilization is incapable of creating a religion, but it can supply the latter with a modus operandi, so that it can freely engage in its beneficent activity (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 33).

An integral aspect of the liturgical movement, perhaps untreated by those in liturgical theology, is cultivating the kind of civilization in which divine worship can flourish. Such a civilization, when fostered, may perhaps facilitate even better participation in the liturgical rites of the Church, opening up parish life to the kind of renewal hoped for by the liturgical movement itself.

In this regular feature at Pray Tell, I hope to muse together with those involved in liturgical scholarship and practice on what such a civilization would consist of. Future pieces will treat our relationship to technology, the kind of education that takes place within Catholic schools in particular, the role of art in social life, our approach to politics, and more. But, at least at the beginning, it would be good to start with a common question for us to consider. That is, where do you see the need to “recreate a civilization” for the purpose of liturgical worship?

Timothy P. O’Malley is director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and a Concurrent Associate Professional Specialist, Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love.


  1. Guardini’s footnote points out that, while “neither nature nor the work of man is necessary in order that a soul may be sanctified,” God “wishes that everything which belongs to man in the way of good, lofty, natural and cultural possessions shall be placed at the disposal of religion and so serve the Kingdom of God.” The first step to “recreating civilization” is liturgical formation. Let us remember that at least as important as liturgical reform to the Liturgical Movement was the formation of the faithful in the liturgy, that deepened understanding that continues demand our attention.

  2. “The more likely option … is that the liturgical movement of the twentieth century placed far too much hope in the way that the liturgy itself could bear the weight of a desired cultural and social renewal.”

    Perhaps more likely it was the didactic nature of too much of liturgical reform. The institution had clamped down on creativity for so long, all we had left were lecturers, catechists, and people telling others what to do.

    Top that off with the souring on conciliar reform from about 1970 in the liturgical sphere, and later endorsed by two papacies. Today we remain partly focused on liturgical “appropriateness” but have failed in many ways to recognize a simple fact: one cannot legislate in favor of quality. But legislation, designed to limit abuse, can easily quash creativity, inspiration, and other artistic and needful qualities.

    When we recover a deeper sense of apprenticeship (mainly in the arts), as in contrast to being only students, I think momentum will build again. The preconciliar Liturgical Movement was chapter one, and Vatican II was chapter two. Thanks to reform2 and other modern post-conciliar movements the next pages are stuck together, as is the impulse forward. For us, the book has been on hold for some years.

  3. Let us not forget the basis of the liturgy, namely, entering into Christ’s eternal worship of the Father. That is why, before we can properly “reform,” “recreate,” or otherwise, we must “recover” that understanding.

    Todd’s idea of apprenticeship is informative here. To be an apprentice, we must have a master, and a sense of duty to keep the practice going with mastery, while moving forward and expanding the work that we do to encompass all that is worthy of right worship of God.

  4. The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. But it is not, nor should it be, the entirety of the Christian life. Plenty of people go to Mass for an hour on Sunday and live the other 167 hours of the week in a secular, agnostic mindset. That’s why it is imperative that preaching and music foster a living relationship with Jesus and each other, and effectively connect to our lived experience. Going to church can easily become an escape from the real world, and some styles of liturgy allow this to happen more easily.

  5. @Tim O’Malley:
    Well, from my own view, that many people cite the homilies as the reason they have left the Church is an indicator of how to pursue formation. They clearly aren’t actually understanding (by no fault of their own, necessarily) what occurs at Mass. If they knew how to engage the Mass as it is, if they understood its structure and fundamental prayers, they would not leave because of the quality of Father’s or Deacon’s homilies, though they certainly deserve the best that homiletics has to offer, no doubt. Then, when they understand the Mass (as if any of us actually can ;), they would better appreciate what we apprentices are trying to do.

  6. To be clear, we are all apprentices. Disciples, if you prefer an “in” parlance. As long as clergy and liturgy folk see themselves as a class separate, unequal, and better-informed, our efforts will falter.

    It’s not that people don’t understand. It’s more that they recognize the Church’s professional class isn’t walking with them. “Smelling like sheep” is more than a metaphor. It is a way of life.

    I’m convinced the next chapter is simply accompaniment. Walking with people and seeing the Lord moving in everyday life–in all things. And inviting others to notice as well.

    And regarding the impulse to didacticism, what about this corrective from the world of the writer: show, don’t tell.

  7. Mike McCallion, (not sure needed my email). Good issue to discuss. As I read many of the liturgical pioneers and those that followed, I often thought they overreached a bit – at least from a sociological perspective. What I think many wanted, sociologically, was a renewal of community. The fundamental liturgical principle of full, conscious, active participation of the assembly is all about community. Clearly, they wanted communal participation and they fought individualism in every way conceivable way to accentuate this point. Without elaborating, your question Tim about what kind of renewal of civilization is needed to foster the liturgy, it is a civilization that practices and believes in local community living. What is community? Much could be said, sociologists have spent over a hundred years talking about it, but I will just mention one point. In order to have community (and I know all kinds of objections can be made), people have to “stay put.” And “stay putness” is not a quality Americans value much. But upward social mobility destroys local community living. Maybe a homily could be about “we need you, please don’t move. If you get a new job (the biggest factor tied to mobility), do you have to move? If you need a bigger house, can’t you build on the one you have – just don’t move?” Renewal of civilization begins with social connectedness, but it must be a connectedness that has a least some staying power. It has to have some degree of thickness about it. The liturgy can then contribute to that connectedness like nothing else and perhaps move us to renew the earth.

    1. @Mike McCallion:
      It’s not only upward social mobility. People can’t stay put if it becomes too expensive for them to stay, if their own livings can’t keep up.

      This dynamic started playing out in with the Great Stagnation of the 1970s. People who in the 1940s and 1950s had left the great Catholic ghettoes of Brooklyn, for example, moved out of those suburbs to places that were cheaper t live in the 1970s. And some of their relatives who stayed in Brooklyn as the Catholic ghettoes declined now are finally leaving because those places are in demand again, with buyers paying cash…..

      Social mobility has decreased in the US, and mostly for reasons of economic stagnation.

      I do agree with your deeper substantive point that real community is a quicksilver thing when the culture doesn’t value stability.

      What we think of as some eternal Catholic reality – the territorial parish – is much more a reality of the Second Millennium than it was of the First. For many centuries in the First, outside cities, territorial parishes were not as normal as we think of them today. People moved around, got attached to monasteries at times, et cet. Flux was the norm. (And, while we might think of those as the “Dark Ages” – and it is true that it was not a “safe” age in the era of Saracen and Norse raiders (at ports and way up navigable rivers, and “migrants” from the Eurasian steppe – it was also a relatively free age after imperialism and before feudalism).

  8. Mike McCallion. yes, good points Karl Liam. The Accordian Family is a phenomena these days as well, where young adults are moving back home after college because they can’t find a good job or one that pays enough so they can live on their own. it is interesting though how some countries (Italy) welcome it (accordian family) while others not so much (America and Japan). But my point is that upward social mobility is such a fundamental American value of success (taken for granted) that most don’t give it a second thought and grow up wanting to move away – indeed – can’t wait to move away. It would take too long to explain here, but I argue for a modified extended family – the nuclear household stays intact but other family member nuclear households are not too far away. Anyway, the hypothesis that more physical contact between family and community members, the stronger the community will be and the more celebratory the liturgy will be is still an empirical question on various levels. Nevertheless, I think the renewal of civilization is connected to the renewal of more robust local communities to which local religious congregations/parishes have much to contribute.

  9. Scott Pluff : The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. .. Going to church can easily become an escape from the real world, and some styles of liturgy allow this to happen more easily.

    Scott, the dynamic fulcrum inherent in your axiom between commission and mission always informs our faith and theology. But ultimately as believers, we can never truly find happy harbor in this existence. To paraphrase S. Paul, “If Christ be not raised from the dead, our faith is vanity, and we are yet and still in our sin.” We cannot bring to fruition the Kingdom of Christ ourselves, we can express our hope, faith and love via liturgy in many “styles” without denigrating the intent of those whose love extends to the liturgy itself, IMO.

    1. @Charles Culbreth:
      Perhaps “styles” was the wrong word. Perspective? Framework? What do you call it when the preaching and intercessions reside on a high theoretical plain and make no connection to the lived experience of the people assembled for worship? Theology and philosophy should inform all preaching, but it should not require an M.Div. to understand what Father is talking about. This seems to happen more often in highly formal/ritualistic liturgical settings, but it is not exclusive to those settings.

  10. I for one am happy to have escaped the small community that my relatives inhabit. Moving out into new situations can foster growth and change.
    It’s true that my relatives value family above all else. This can be a tad stifling when you’re all living within earshot of each other.

  11. Mike McCallion: “A tad stifling,” yes, I hear that a lot when I bring up this topic and I am sure that is the case for many people. I wonder however if Americans tend to find any community life stifling after awhile and I wonder what a tad stifling actually means as well. I mean who knows what the proper balance is between individualism and communalism? Sociologists have argued for both sides of this continuum and usually argue for a middle ground (balance). As for me, I live in what I call a modified extended family situation (5 other siblings with their own nuclear families living nearby) and I hardly ever see them. They are as busy as I am with family and work. But when we want to get together it is easy to do so because we are geographically close. From my experience, I would probably gravitate more toward the individualism side of the scale if it were not for my extended family and my parish. In particular, parishes are reservoirs of social connectedness and can provide a communal life few other institutions in society can provide. Pope Francis is correct in my opinion in arguing the parish is not an outmoded institution. It can be a place of community building and a place where the renewal of civilization can happen and our liturgies can celebrate (and of course the Paschal Mystery).

  12. Other than for 4 years of college, and that being very odd*, I don’t think I’ve ever felt any of my parishes to be a genuine community, in over 50 years of memory of them. The term community is used as short-hand, but the substance is scarcer on the ground than I think people assume. I don’t expect a parish to be a genuine community. (Disclosure, I was the first of my family (#5 of 6 children) never to go to parochial school; by the time I started school in the mid=1960s, pastors were more generous in dispensing from the obligation, and our public schools were far better than the parochial schools at that time.)

    * College parishes are by their nature an amalgam of a transient sub-community of cohorts and a longer-term sub-community.

  13. The American community sensibility is indeed alive and well. At sporting events, even down to the elementary school level. It seems to me the same is true abroad. People genuinely enjoy being part of a larger community that embodies culture: celebration, loyalty, commitment, etc.. Somne schools exemplify this as well outside of sports, but athletics is pretty much king.

    I suspect that modern liturgy falls short possibly when leadership is weak. Maybe also that worship is led by a small number of people. (Sometimes only one.) And perhaps not with the same skill as accomplished athletes, vendors, cheerleaders, soccer moms, and such.

  14. “A tad stifling” means that interests, ambitions, thoughts and sensibilities that fall outside of what the family recognizes as their own are frowned upon. Families can prize a collective identity that’s, well, a tad stifling if you fall outside. For example, I read a lot of Catholic theologians. My fundamentalist relatives don’t relate. At the same time, I’m a Democrat. Ditto. I’m not unhappy for having moved away and attended college, where such perspectives and many others became available to me.

    Where did I read something about, ‘if anyone leaves their family for my sake…’? there are communities of monks and nuns that have followed this scripture.

    I’m not writing against community; far from it. But loyalty and commitment at the expense of growth and self discovery can be…stifling. I just wanted to add this perspective; it’s not the whole of things but it’s something to be considered along with the rest, I think.

    I’m hoping very much that I’m always moving towards a deeper commitment to my Church and faith. But such commitment may take surprising forms. I can’t abandon that if my extended family doesn’t approve.

  15. I believe community (nebulous concept for sure) is alive and well in many of our parishes, indeed, parishes and other types of religious congregations is where it is most alive and well. Sports is a close second perhaps. If you can mix some extended family into that all the better – at least from my perspective. Nevertheless, there is still a good deal of mobility that detracts from it. A good friend of mine is retiring early and is moving to Florida next month. Why? He has nothing in Florida. He likes the weather. It doesn’t happen all the time, but this guy has been a pillar as they say and just like that he will be gone. Every thing will be fine, but the community is going to be thinner without him. But it is the American way and the American value system supports mobility. Nothing intrinsically wrong with mobility, it just little by little sucks the life out of a community. So we keep starting new ones at great expense, especially the amount of energy (personal and social) it takes to do so. Liturgies, from my angle, are key rituals that create and maintain community life (weekly sporting events do something similar) for all age groups. It is just that parishes need to have another 100 or so activities going on during the rest of the week to assist the liturgy in renewing civilization. But name me another institution that has the potential to renew civilization like a parish and its liturgies – I don’t think sports matches up (too age specific perhaps)?

  16. Tim, yes, it certainly is one point among others that needs closer examination – and in e-reading some of the reformers it strikes me that it was one of their aims, Thanks, Mike

  17. A happy and holy Christmastide to you, Scott.
    What you describe I would “call” poor homiletics and liturgical formulation. In the former, well … I don’t think we can pervasively describe this symptom much less diagnosis its remedy. In the latter, it would be a mistake to presume verbose intercessions to any particular demographic or philosophy. Traddies apparently want to lose the Universal Prayer wholesale, period, from my experience. In California’s central valley since 87 I have yet to encounter one didactic, academically lofty homily, so I’d actually welcome one now and then. But I can also testify to a neighboring town’s pastor who celebrates a Missa Lecta on Thursday evenings; his homilies are neither regurgitated scripture nor pedantic wanderings, they do in fact meet the people where they are. I concede it may not always be that way in every EF situation as well. But I can well appreciate hearing such waxing at GTU Berkeley region parishes. Insofar as a required MDiv, I thought for a long time that was criterium for posting here, my MSacMusic being a piece of paper! Buon Natal!

  18. The late Fr. Cody Unterseher, of fond memory, reminded me once on PTB that my understanding of the Mass veered closely to a Calvinist interpretation. It is true that my cultural background is very undemonstrative, almost stoic, while “hearing Mass”. Even at the Ordinary Form often the first words from my lips is “good morning, Father” as I leave the church. So Fr. Cody was quite right to admonish me for understanding Mass as passive service to an all-majestic God in his throne-room.

    For many, many years I railed privately against demonstrative priests and greatly criticized versus populum as a vehicle for sacerdotal performance, liturgical theory nonwithstanding. I am now convinced that the more schmaltzy behavior of a number of priests derives more from the American tendency to exaggerate gestures of welcome. I must remind myself that demonstrative behavior is not a result of the Consilium, the Missal, the separation of a mensa from its reredos, or even the action of liturgical reformation broadly, but the acts of individuals.

    If one person at Mass is hurting grievously in mind or heart, and is comforted by liturgical behavior I find indecorous, then the “tackiness” was worth it. If I find that my neighbor at Mass is, in my estimation, overly demonstrative at the Pax, then I must avert my eyes. A hallmark of the liturgical reformation in western Christianity is the realization that human emotions are not to be shed in the vestibule as one would leave an umbrella behind.

    δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ! Gloria in excelsis Deo! “Glory to God in the highest!”

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