The North American Academy of Liturgy, 2023

The North American Academy of Liturgy (NAAL) met last week (January 2-5, 2023) in Toronto for a hybrid meeting (in-person and online). After the “interruptions” of the COVID pandemic, the gathering was a joyful reunion for the majority who met together to give papers, socialize, catch up with news personal and academic, and sit together as an academic community to sort out changes in the field of liturgy as well as in the life of the academy.

For those who are not familiar in a firsthand way with the academy, NAAL first gathered in 1973 as an ecumenical association, was shaped as an organization in 1975, and had its first official meeting in January 1976. From those beginnings the academy has added Jewish members, becoming not only ecumenical but also interfaith, and broadened its conversations to include a growing breadth of liturgical and related conversations. The academy’s description of its work remains: “to promote liturgical scholarship among its members through opportunities for exchange of ideas, and to extend the benefits of this scholarship to the worshiping communities to which its members belong.”

As is the case with all professional organizations, NAAL is still getting back on its feet after COVID restrictions, but the in-person gathering of approximately 180, along with the 40-60 people online at any given time was a wonderful start. NAAL’s annual meetings are primarily shaped by the seminar groups which number approximately 20, and in which the “scholarly exchange” of members leads to a focused and informed conversation within and between liturgical studies specialties and allied disciplines. These intense and focused gatherings are punctuated by a few plenary sessions, as well as meals and time to catch up with people who, for many of us, have become dear friends.

Now, I suspect if you ask individual members their experiences of the meeting each will have a different emphasis – bear in mind this is the perspective of only one member.

My favourite part of an annual NAAL meeting very much remains the ongoing conversations and exchanges in my seminar group (aptly named “Problems in the History of Early Liturgy”) For others it may be the plenaries, the publishing houses present, individual conversations, specific ecclesial gatherings, or morning prayer. This year, however, I came away with a more profound sense of how the field of liturgical studies is changing – whether we are ready or not.

First, there is the reality of hybrid meetings, and the divided ‘house’ on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. The past president, Todd Johnson, worked extremely hard during this time of transition to make sure this meeting would work – and it did – thanks to him and his elected and enlisted committee. But the reality is that while seminars which are smaller in size (ours had 19 people in the room and 2 online) can work fine with a hybrid model, common prayer, meals, social gatherings, and other important elements of the meeting do not. The extensive equipment necessary to really make things work simultaneously for those in the room and those at home, along with the need for well-trained tech experts is a lot – a lot of money and a lot of time and a lot of people. NAAL pulled off quite the test of this in the plenary business meeting with electronic voting, conversations, feedback, and pauses to help individuals get on the right “page”. But even with all this assistance, the digital divide was evident in the room, ‘digital natives’ and those who are not were in very different places.

The second point is far more important. Younger scholars said in person, “I need to be here because a big part of this is getting to know people – it’s good, old-fashioned schmoozing.” Other younger scholars said, “I cannot be there – it’s too expensive and I can only come through Zoom…” (which was not free, they also paid a registration fee). These differing opinions about in-person meetings versus online meetings seem to be the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Why can’t scholars of all ages afford to come to the meeting? Because they get little or no financial support from the institutions for whom they work. Why is that? Because many institutions are scrambling, especially faculties of theology, with shrinking enrolments (mirrored in the larger shrinking of humanities), and because of smaller teaching faculties (and the recurring pattern of liturgical scholars not being replaced by liturgical scholars when they leave). Those who work in parishes, especially musicians, face a parallel situation with regard to financial support and sabbaticals. There are fewer doctoral programs in liturgy, fewer graduates (because of fewer jobs?) and fewer tenured positions across the board. Many conversations were had (or overheard) about the growing indifference to the field of liturgical studies in ecclesial communities (or other religious gatherings) where liturgy has historically been central, while other scholars work in schools and Christian traditions where no one is actually sure what liturgy is (or can’t even spell ‘liturgy’ as heard on one elevator ride!)

While many of us look with envy on our European colleagues with regard to institutional support (yes, the NAAL is international!) I keep returning to the inner circles of my own experience, and ask “how in the world can a Roman Catholic school not hire a trained liturgist?” How can an Anglican seminary not care about hiring in the field of liturgy?” How have we become so irrelevant, superfluous, or invisible? At the same time as I rejoiced in seeing friends and colleagues, and listening to wonderful and thought-provoking papers, I keep returning to these questions. I suspect part of the answer is that we need to find new ways to name the essential nature of the field of liturgical studies, we need to start at the beginning (in theology and liturgy) to help people understand what they do on Sunday mornings is shaped by the ongoing action of God, scripture, tradition, reason, experience, and trained human hands! On Sunday I had a conversation with an eight-year old about chalking their doorway at home (prompted by blessing and distributing chalk and prayers for Epiphany). He was fascinated, declaring it “totally cool” that they get to do “church stuff” at home. In 10 years he’ll be at university – now is the acceptable time to remind everyone in the parish (and beyond) that they too are liturgists-in-training!


  1. 0.23 metric tons: Economy class direct return flight from MSP to YTO Carbon footprint
    1.67 metric tons: Economy class direct return flight from LHR to YTO Carbon footprint

    thats for two people, one coming from Minnesota and another from London to Toronto and back

    Not to mention plastics and paper alone x 180 people
    and heating and cooling x 180 people
    food and preparation carbon foot print and food waste x180
    1 person at home carbon footprint for electricity and natural gas heat
    0.00 metric tons: 1 kWh of electricity at 0.3929 kgCO2e/kWh
    0.00 metric tons: 1 kWh of natural gas

    There really isn’t a soft way to raise the Laudato Si factor.
    What would happen if planners channeled people coming from a distance into zoom format? And the on campus people were the onsite participants?
    What would it take to factor environmental impact into our planning for the reality it is?
    What price is too much to pay for “smooze”?

    1. It’s very easy to throw out statistics, but the reality is often different.

      As far as flights and carbon footprint are concerned, we need to be aware that many flights would run even if we were not on them. The legacy carriers take freight and mail on many of their flights. Carrying passengers in addition is a bonus for the airlines but adds very little to the ecological impact.

      It is the low-cost carriers (LCCs) that have dramatically increased the carbon footprint associated with air travel in recent times. Now, Mr and Mrs Everyone and their children are able to afford air travel to places that they would never have dreamed of as little as 50 years ago, and the number of flights and their frequency has proliferated massively. Stag and hen parties in Mexico or Bratislava are now common. People’s expectations of cheap flights and vacations have morphed into a sense of entitlement. What was once special and infrequent is now routine. The LCCs do not often carry freight and mail, and discourage passengers from bringing hold baggage with them.

      If we want to do something about carbon footprint in air travel, a start would be to boycott the LCCs.

      As far as catering for numbers of people is concerned, scale is everything. It is far less expensive per capita to prepare food for 25 people than for 2. For 180, even more so. The same, mutatis mutandis, for heating, lighting, etc. That’s why it’s better for the environment to have a school full of children on a freezing winter’s day than close the school and have everyone at home instead. One bus is better than 40 or 50 private cars. And so on and on.

      To return to NAAL and similar gatherings, the fact is that most of the real work gets done during the coffee breaks, in the bar during the evening, etc. That’s where the transformative exchanges and conversations take place. We humans need physical presence. Far more difficult if not impossible to achieve the same on Zoom, Skype or Teams.

  2. I am one of the founders of NAAL, a part of that group that met in Scottsdale, AZ in 1973 gathered by the late John Gallen, SJ., my mentor and friend at the time. The gatherings were so full of promise. The Catholic Church was poised to be a fresh new global community energized by principles grounded in true “tradition.” John Gallen used to say “tradition is not wearing your grandfather’s hat; it is having a baby.” I did my PhD research in the newly emerging pastoral practice of the RCIA, and published a monograph on a possible more communal reform of the Rite of Penance that included a 360 view of “prophetic alienation.” I became deeply discouraged by the backlash. The church favored old hats [in more ways than one]. I am no longer a Jesuit, but Ignatian Spirituality informs my current practice and teaching as a “secular” mental health clinician and supervisor of young therapists. I still admire the Society of Jesus. The Spiritual Exercises deeply inform my work, and Pope Francis gives me some hope. I am on the sidelines now. My spiritual center was guided by the need to “have a baby,” not in the literal sense. My husband and I are not parents. But my ongoing spiritual quest is still rooted in that very traditional notion as I have carried the gifts given to me over thirty years later into new realms that the Church does not reach. I am grateful for my long ago comrades at NAAL and in the Society of Jesus as my “baby” continues to grow

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