Beauty in the Sunday Liturgy

by Pierre Hegy

Recently the Societas Liturgica met at Notre Dame University for a convention on prayer and the arts. There were many excellent theological papers, and the final liturgy was absolutely beautiful. My contribution was on beauty in the Sunday liturgies. The following paper is a reduced summary of a PowerPoint presentation which included much visual material, presented on July 20, 2021 via Zoom at the Notre  Dame conference. Some of my examples are taken from television broadcasts, others from recorded parish liturgies. In a sociological perspective, for people in the pews the liturgy is what they hear, see and do. They will only remember what strikes them as better than ordinary.

Sacrosanctum Concilium makes it clear that the purpose of the liturgy is to manifest “the mystery of Christ and the true nature of the church.” SC 2). Of course, the liturgy is mystagogical (“manifesting the mystery of Christ) but the challenge is to make every aspect of the Sunday liturgy mystagogical in what people hear, see and do. No parish is using the same hymns, 52 times a year, for the entrance, the offering of gifts, and the exit, but many priests perform in the same way, 52 Sundays per year, the entrance, the offering of gifts, the exit, and the rest.

For most people in the pews, finding God in the liturgy is not a question of theology but a response to what they see, hear, and do. Here is an example. In an Italian American parish, the Sunday liturgies are pious, reverential, but perfunctory. There are only a few devotional groups meeting during the week after the morning Mass and their influence is marginal. The Sunday attendance rate is about 15 percent. After confirmation, many children are dropping out. In that same parish, the Latino Eucharist is lively and engaging. Most of its 100 members also attend a charismatic or Encuentro meeting during the week. Their children are actively engaged and are not likely to drop out. In both cases the liturgical script is the same, but the execution is different.

There are quite a few truly mystagogical Sunday celebrations which pastors could imitate. In the above parish, the Anglos (including the four Anglo priests and four Anglo deacons) ignore the Latinos. Yet there is within a driving distance a dynamic evangelical church. The director of religious education is considering joining such a church after her children left the parish.

What are mystagogical Sunday celebrations? In simple terms, just something more inspiring than functional performances, even if pious. Of this type, we have the 29-minutes daily Masses of CatholicTV of Boston, the Catholic Faith Network (CFN) of Rockville Centre, NY, and in a different style, the Masses at EWTN. This is what people can see and hear on television every day. I will take examples of exceptional liturgies from various places, especially from the Church of St. Paul which is special in more than one way. This parish has no web page, no email, no telephone, and no resident priest. Its structure is that of A-shaped roof sitting on four walls like an American Levitt-house. The inside warm and impressive, with a wall-to-wall mural of St. Paul on the Road to Damascus, and the liturgy is engaging.

The Boston channel of CatholicTV started on January 1, 1955, when the archbishop of Boston celebrated a low Mass in a Boston studio. For the last 65 years since then, the Boston channel has continued the tradition of low Masses with no attendance, which are aired three times every day or about 25 each week. All Masses take less than 30 minutes, allowing for only three to four minutes for the homily. The Catholic Faith Network (CFN) also broadcast three 30 minutes Masses daily, but they take place at the St. Agnes Cathedral (or more recently at St. Patrick in Manhattan). There, the camera only shows the priest and the sanctuary, but at communion one can count the number people in attendance, mainly seniors; then one realizes that this church is 70 to 90 percent empty.

Even before the beginning of the Mass, there are significant differences. In perfunctory Masses, people have nothing to do but wait. Some people arrive late, some intentionally. After entering the church, they sit down, maybe checking their cell phone; there is an unpleasant silence—as in the Anglo Mass mentioned above. In the Latino Eucharist by contrast, people greet one another and often embrace warmly; there is no stuffy silence. As soon as the Eucharist begins there is energizing Latino music and singing.

When the entrance of the priest is triumphalist, it may imply a Tridentine theology, but at the Boston low Masses, there is not even such an entrance: coming from behind the camera, the priest is at the altar in only a few steps and immediately begins, “In the name of the Father, the Son…” Time management within 29-minute limitation is a major concern. At the St. Paul church (and elsewhere), instead of a triumphalist entrance of the priest, it is the gospel that is carried triumphally to the altar while the assembly sing and claps enthusiastically.

For the penitential rite, there are three options: the recitation of the I confess, the chanting of the Kyrie, and the English “Lord have mercy/Christ have mercy.” The latter takes only a few seconds, hence it is the only option at the time-conscious Boston low Masses. In the mystagogical parishes I have visited, the singing of the Kyrie continues the active participation begun at the entrance and continued throughout the Eucharist.

The choir may fulfill two different functions: as ornamental addition in concert-like singing, or as heart and soul of community singing. At the EWTN Masses, the choir gives a meditative concert (often in Latin) because there is no participating audience; at CFN the singing is done by a soloist; and at CatholicTV there is only some off-screen singing by an unidentified female.

The consecration is a special moment. At St. Paul, the acolytes form a circle behind the altar, and when the priest bows after elevating the host, they all bow deeply. Similarly, after elevating the chalice, they bow again reverently. There is nothing special at the low Masses.

The recitation of Our Father is often a climax of assembly participation. In some churches the whole assembly forms a chain encircling the whole church, raising the hands at “Yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory.”  There is nothing special at the TV Masses.

The kiss of peace is another high point. In some churches people are encouraged to leave their seats and have a special meeting of peace. In one exceptional parish, the assembly learned to give the sign of peace in sign language at the beginning of the pandemic; even children have learned to do so. Again, nothing worth remembering at the low Masses.

Vestments and instruments can have a symbolic dimension. In some of the dynamic churches I visited, the acolytes wear a stylish tunic with a pectoral cross like bishops. At CatholicTV and CFN, the altar servers, more men than women, more senior than young, wear ordinary undistinguished clothes. In many dynamic parishes, the singing is highlighted by drums, trumpets, flutes, and guitars. At CatholicTV there is the country-music of a traditional harmonium.

These examples should suffice to show that every aspect of the liturgy must be beautiful; this it is feasible and even easy. I believe it would help if a team of liturgists would collect five to ten examples of inspiring entrances, penitential rites, singing, offertories, etc. A music director can easily find five to ten different hymns for the entrance, the penitential rites, offertory, etc. It would be helpful if celebrants could have a list of choices for the performance of these rites and every Sunday vary their performance. The choice of three or more Eucharistic Prayers means little to the people in the pews.

Beauty in the liturgy can also be discussed as anamnesis, as telling the things worth remembering. At the theoretical level, according to Danièle Hervieu-Léger, all societies, traditional and modern, are “societies of memory” which transmit their traditions through the elders or history classes taught in schools. Religions are special societies of memory that celebrate their memories in rituals, not just religious education. But she also documents that today, amnesia is a major reality and a threat in both secular and religious life.

One can also study anamnesis empirically by investigating the “collective memory” of a given parish. In an important study of people’s “sacred stories,” Nancy Ammerman asked a national sample to take pictures of important places in their lives. She thus documented visually both the anamnesis and the religious amnesia in people’s lives. Similarly, in an interview of Catholic parishioners I asked, “What are the important rituals in your life?” I was given many answers, like meeting friends, gardening, and even wine-tasting. “What about religious rituals?” I probed. “O those! I can do without!”  Most answers were dismissive of religious rituals. Looking for anamnesis, I found amnesia. We can also ask how anamnesis is transmitting faith in everyday life. For black Americans, the African-American spirituals played a major role. For most people, it is through images and sounds, especially the art-worthy ones and the musically enchanting ones, not sermons and catechism. In this perspective, the Masses at three major Catholic television channels are doing the church a disservice in the long run, because of not providing sounds and images worth remembering.

For people in the pews, the liturgy is what they see, hear, and do, that is, the art-worthy and musically enchanting memories.  When there is little beauty to remember, amnesia fills the void. Beauty in the liturgy is not an accessory; it must represent the eschatological beauty of eternity. The liturgy of the Sunday and of eternity must be something worth waiting for.

Pierre Hegy is a professor at Adelphi University, with a research focus in the sociology of Catholicism. His PhD is from the University of Paris.

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