Needed: Qualified Professors of Liturgy

by Fergus Ryan

The recent move to discontinue individual celebration at Saint Peter’s Basilica on weekdays especially, and to schedule a series of “animated” concelebrations, has attracted some controversy as well as some praise. The various commentaries have not been without ideological colouring, among those who supported and those who lamented the note affixed to the basilica’s sacristy door.

The sensitive question is but a hint at the bigger picture of the liturgy in the Roman Church and the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The liturgical question was experienced initially as the biggest coming from the Council, we know from those we lived through it, and that question has courted more controversy in the last twenty years or so with greater access to what we now call the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Mass.

The Council fathers rightly tried to recall the centrality of the liturgy in the life of the Church, and liturgical celebrations which took the, dare we say “original”, community forms, with symbolic language more evident, the texts more readily understood by the lay faithful, a certain simplification, and so on. The changes introduced on paper at least, changes which should not be protected against serious examination and criticism, came about following decades of renewed biblical, patristic, liturgical, historical and archaeological study in parallel with pastoral initiatives in some parts of the world at least trying to respond to increasing alienation of the lay faithful from liturgical practice.

After all the efforts in the liturgical changes through the 1960s, 1970s and beyond, the level of ignorance of the liturgy of very many clerics and religious is shockingly high. As I write this within hours of entering the Easter Triduum, many who celebrate it with enthusiasm are oblivious to the change in the liturgical calendar in 1970 which invented the Paschal Triduum, and they seek to celebrate the (suppressed) offices of Tenebrae, even beginning on Spy Wednesday (discontinued in 1956) outside cathedral churches, while overlooking the articulated liturgies of the third day – Sunday – and its presentation of the gradual initiation of the apostles into the truth that Christ has truly risen from the dead, more relevant to our own day, perhaps, than any before.

The fathers of the Council asked that liturgy be a major subject in the study of theology especially in the preparation of men for priestly ordination (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium n.16). The regulations for ecclesiastical faculties, Veritatis Gaudium and its predecessor Sapientia Christiana, consider the chair of liturgy to be a fulltime one, as do the documents published shortly before last Christmas for affiliating, aggregating and incorporating faculties.

Am I correct in saying most ecclesiastical faculties of theology do not have even a part time lecturer or professor with the specialised Doctorate in Sacred Liturgy? Would I be correct in saying most also lack a full time, perhaps not even part time, Doctor in Patristic Sciences from the Patristicum or Orientalium, or Doctor of Biblical Sciences from the Pontifical Biblical Commission?

The teaching of specialised topics by lecturers unqualified to do so, has, without any doubt, led to ideological controversies and is continuing to feed them. My own observations suggest theological studies done in an environment lacking what the Apostolic See considers to be qualified university lecturers who engage on a full time basis in scientific research and publishing in their area has brought about in some cases the rejection of what they label “spirit of Vatican II” ideologies and slogan theology, and rejection of progressives’ contempt for the traditional Western artistic heritage, but also an unfortunate growth in individualistic and blinkered views of the liturgy especially. Conversely, those, perhaps few, places where the more specialised topics are treated as intended by the Apostolic See seem, in my direct experience, places of relative ecclesiastical peace, much less ideology and greater theological culture.

The hiring of suitably qualified lecturers where they are lacking, while making chairs of liturgy, patristics, scripture, etc. closer to the typical university model which the Apostolic See has rightly requested, would be an important step away from ideology and division.

Fr. Fergus Ryan, OP is a Dominican friar from Ireland. He is a Doctor in Sacred Liturgy.



  1. Thank you for voicing an increasing frustration which I share. There is a sense that if someone “really likes” liturgy that qualifies them, or has “good ideas” and presides, or… they are qualified. The bottom line is an assumption in so many places that ‘liturgy’ is not actually a real field of theology (let alone history and ritual studies)…sigh (no insights, just empathy at the moment)

    1. Well said! So many priests, not having a sufficient grounding in Vatican 11, have resorted to being book-bound rubricists. Perhaps some of the fault belongs to their teachers, many of whom are not really qualified and have little understanding of cultural sensitivity, language, or liturgical history.

  2. I am struggling with this as we speak. I am lecturing in liturgy and sacraments in a Seminary but cannot put into practice what I teach. It has been decided that task belongs only to ordained priests without any specialist study.

  3. For years the Plan for Priestly Formation has requested that liturgy be placed on a level with the other academic subjects taught in seminaries. Except in rare cases, this has never been adopted, and liturgy is still the poor relation — perhaps an hour a week in the first year of formation, and a two-week practicum in the final year immediately preceding ordination. It’s simply not enough. No one would dream of allowing a doctor to practise without a proper grounding in basic anatomy, and yet our seminaries persist in an analogous practice.

  4. I was fortunate to study liturgy under Dr. Ralph Keifer at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore from 1973-1976. He directed my S.T.M. thesis in liturgical studies.

    I continue to read books and other works on liturgy by competent and qualified scholars of liturgy. Not too many of my brother priests seem to do so, or care to, as long as they simply “do the red, and say the black.”

  5. Our liturgical hearts should be burning within us. Now is the time, today is the day, to contact Development officers at Schools of Theology and Seminaries at which you are associated, affiliated, aware–and start the process for professorships and chairs in Liturgical Studies. It starts small, it grows faithfully. Encourage support: from your friends, colleagues, students, clergy who lead prayer well, anyone with opinions: put money where the talk is. In memory of Virgil Michel, OSB, Michael Marx, OSB, Aelred Tegels, OSB, Godfrey Diekmann, OSB, Kevin Seasoltz, OSB; in honor of Allan Bouley, OSB, Maxwell Johnson, Martin Connell, Kimberly Belcher, Kathleen Hughes, RSCJ, Mary Collins, OSB, Catherine Dooley, OP, Johan Van Parys, Anthony Ruff, OSB, Susan Wood, SCL, …..and myriads of others who ignited and nourished the flame in our hearts.

  6. Qualification is certainly needed, but equally it can become a scholarly echo chamber, simply dismissing contrary ideas instead of seriously engaging them, and resistant to any critique or view that dissents from the agreed upon consensus.

    We would also do well, I think, to ask why is it that certain things like Tenebrae seem to hold an enduring appeal (as evinced by the number of word-services and other forms that have appropriated the name). Could it be that the reform was too hasty in imposing a revised understanding, without providing adequate compensation for certain “dramatic” and historic elements that hold a lot of appeal for people?

    “Book bound rubricists”  and similar labels can all too easily be used to categorize those who simply disagree with a particular innovative idea. Certainly, simply sticking to rubrics is not going to help.  I would certainly agree that people need to have an appreciation of wider elements than simply what a rubric says. But sometimes the opposite has its own dangers. I believe it was Aidan Kavanaugh who remarked that most presiders aren’t as clever as they believe they are. My experience has been that various idiosyncrasies invoked as “liturgical”, “participatory”, etc. can equally destroy the meaning of rites (in my own subjective opinion, at least!). Sometimes being a rubric-follower (as opposed to simply being a stickler ) does more for retaining a certain ritual integrity and unity. 

  7. So when we talk about professors of liturgy, are we talking about scholars of the history of the liturgy (say, 4th-century baptismal anointings in Syria), experts in “ritual studies” (say, post-structuralist comparative study of the rituals of pre-conciliar convents and women’s basketball teams), or practitioners with deep knowledge of the tradition’s ritual books and how they relate to parish liturgy, or something else, maybe combining all of the above? Aidan Kavanagh was a great theologian of the liturgy, and a natural gadfly who could get people to rethink whatever box they happened to be trapped in, but I’m not sure he would have had much advice to help you figure out how to find your way through the rite of infant baptism. It seems to me that ideally a seminary would have all three sorts of scholars, but that seems unlikely, given financial constraints.

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