This is a response to the essay by Nicholas Denysenko, “Liturgical Theology in Crisis – Twenty-First Century Version.”

Some of what follows will also apply in the context of university theological faculties offering liturgical components of various kinds, but I would like to focus on seminary and monastic formation in particular.

The Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium no. 16 stated: “The study of the sacred liturgy is to be ranked among the compulsory and major courses in seminaries and religious houses of study; in theological faculties it is to rank among principal subjects. It is to be taught under its theological, historical, spiritual, pastoral, and juridical aspects.” Periodically the Church has reminded us of this (for example, in the Congregation for Catholic Education’s 1979 Instruction on Liturgical Formation in Seminaries).

The liturgy is to be given equal status with other major disciplines in seminary formation, and yet this has not been observed in any seminary with which I am familiar. Liturgy is an also-ran, a poor relation in the curriculum of studies. All the focus is on philosophy, the various branches of theology, church history, biblical studies, and these days human formation has come along to add to the list. Liturgy is squeezed in because it has to appear, not because deans of studies really care whether it is taught or not.

There seems to be an unspoken assumption among both seminary faculty and students that, because the students have experienced Mass in their home parishes and schools, they therefore have a pretty good understanding of liturgy and its principles. In many institutions, accordingly, there may be one class a week in the first year, and then nothing else until an additional class for a single semester, often a practicum, given immediately prior to ordination to the priesthood. This is scarcely adequate. Even when provision is greater, we are still nowhere near providing the same quantity of input as in other disciplines.

Additionally, because the students think they have a pretty good liturgical knowledge from their parish or other experience, they are much less open, and even actively resistant, to receiving new knowledge or corrections to misconceptions that they have acquired along the way. This is often manifested as a sort of arrogance, fueled by opinions that may have been discovered online. The ground has already been tilled, and ploughing it over for replanting can be an uphill task. This implies that we therefore need to be spending more time on liturgy than other disciplines because what is required is to a large extent remedial.

In the practical area, during their formation seminarians mostly absorb liturgical style by a process of osmosis, watching their seminary professors presiding and preaching day in and day out. It has to be said that often enough these priests give far from ideal examples because they, too, absorbed their own style through the same process of osmosis when they themselves were seminarians. These days, there is the additional possibility of watching presiding and preaching on the internet, often with the same drawbacks. What you get is a progressively more distorted version of the original. A good example of this would be the fact that almost all priests fail to use the true orans position for prayer, and don’t realize that they do so. Another would be the use (or lack of use!) of voice.

This observation about acquiring presiding style via osmosis of course applies not only in seminaries but is also true of monastic formation.

For me, failing to give a proper liturgical education to future priests is exactly like training medical doctors with only the sketchiest notions of basic anatomy. It’s as if the focus were instead on more specialized areas such as anaesthesiology, or orthopaedics, or cardiology, or “obs and gyne”. No one would allow that to happen in the medical field. No one would release doctors into the world without a proper anatomical foundation for all their other medical practice, and we should not be allowing its equivalent in our priestly formation either.

There is another aspect to this. We often fail to differentiate between skills, education, and formation.

Skills are the practical application of how certain tasks are carried out. For some seminarians, this is all they are really interested in. They don’t want to know anything about context, or the whys and wherefores of what we do.

Education covers the principles of form, history, juridical principles, spiritual and pastoral principles, and of course liturgical theology. A proportion of students will accept new knowledge of history or juridical principles, but the rest may be a closed book. In my experience, the majority of seminarians have no theological understanding of the celebration of the liturgy of which they will eventually be an integral part, and this major lacuna persists in their priestly lives thereafter.

Formation is the living-out of the skills and the education in such a way that in the course of time the liturgy is in your bones. You are moulded by the liturgy. It literally becomes your second nature. This is something that does not happen overnight. It requires time, a conscious liturgical spirituality, and a good pastoral understanding. Many priests never really acquire it, instead spending their lives as grace-dispensing machines, straitjacketed by rules and rubrics (“saying the black, doing the red”), working at the behest of their bishops on the one hand and the faithful on the other. We often talk about formation when we really mean education or the acquiring of practical skills. I believe we need to differentiate between the three areas.

This differentiation is essential not only for the ordained but for the lay faithful. When Guardini wondered if humanity had lost the capacity for worship, I believe he was observing that true liturgical formation of the People of God was largely missing. It could scarcely be otherwise when that same formation is missing in the lives of the shepherds who pastor them.


  1. This is a good conversation. Could it be that some of the youngsters so attracted to the 1962 Missal with the specificity in every little action as described by preconciliar Missal commentators are expressing an unrecognized desire for true liturgical formation in cult and in life?

    Sometimes we cannot identify what it is we need; we only recognize we need. Then we go looking without a grounding on where to search.

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