Brief Book Review: The Rites and Wrongs of Liturgy

The Rites and Wrongs of Liturgy: Why Good Liturgy Matters by Thomas O’Loughlin

Who should read this? Presiders (and presiders-in-training), liturgical ministers (and liturgical ministers-in-training), liturgy committees, pastoral ministers (and pastoral ministers-in-training), catechists, Christians (and Christians-in-training, that is, Christians), anyone seeking deeper understanding of the purpose and meaning of liturgical celebrations

What’s the main point? Offers ten principles of good liturgy: it is honest, it is joyful, it facilitates engagement, it is inclusive, it is based in Creation, it prioritizes the marginalized, it avoids clutter, it follows the pattern of the Incarnation, and it is open.

What intrigued me the most? Reflects on theologically and ritually subtle – but important and often overlooked – distinctions, in highly accessible language. For example, from the fifth principle, “Good liturgy is inclusive”: “Once we are in a society where commitment to God is viewed as an option, the work of the faithful has to take on a missionary dimension… Similarly, if we conceive of liturgy as a joyful response to God’s loving invitation, rather than the fulfillment of an imposed duty, then we have to reformulate how we think of any act of exclusion. Exclusion or discrimination is now tantamount to saying God’s invitation is not to all.” (p. 69)

What bugged me the most? “Don’t judge a book…”: My first impression viewing the book’s cover was of a ’70’s mini-banner made by a second-grader (albeit a talented one) preparing for First Communion.  On reflection, and after reading the book’s rich contents, I believe this cover-art may be brilliantly designed, in that it could well be inviting to some who should read The Rites and Wrongs of Liturgy but would have resisted if the cover cried anything like “Academy!” (or far worse, “Museum!”).

What will get you thinking? Among many other things, how a book about liturgical principles was modeled after architectural and design principles of the German designer, Deiter Rams. (O’Loughlin discusses this in his brief online interview.) 

What will most inspire you? A well-educated, pastorally mature, and refreshingly non-polemical vision that both honors ritual needs and witnesses to the underlying mystery of Christian liturgy 

Kudos O’Loughlin manages to capture the spirit of some well-known books in a similar vein, like Aidan Kavanagh’s Elements of Rite,  Gabe Huck’s Liturgy with Style and Grace, and Dennis Smolarski’s How Not To Say MassThe Rites and Wrongs of Liturgy differs from these others in that it does not get as far into the weeds of any specific rite, but it names as well as these the “big-picture” principles upon which one might assess “good” liturgy. It does so for a Church that since these classics’ initial appearance has seen more ebb than flow in both the promise and the reality of full, conscious, and active liturgical participation, and is thus fully cognizant that for contemporary worshipers, “faith is an option.” Unlike the Christian societies of the past, “believing and belonging [for us] are invitations, not assumptions… If liturgy turns us off, or gives us a confused idea of the conversion called for…, then worship has become self-destructive” (p.9). In this our age of fake news, O’Loughlin reminds us that we operate out of “two models of truth [that] rarely overlap”: “poetry and relationships” on the one hand, and “physics and facts” on the other. “But where they do overlap is ritual; our liturgy is fully part of the factual world, but it is simultaneously open to mystery” (p.105).

O’Loughlin, Thomas. The Rites and Wrongs of Liturgy: Why Good Liturgy Matters. Liturgical Press 2018, 109 + x pages.

REVIEWER: David Stosur

David Stosur serves as Professor of Religious Studies at Cardinal Stritch University and specializes in liturgical and sacramental history and theology.

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