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Parish Liturgical Renewal
(Homiletic & Pastoral Review) November 1999

Ian Rutherford

Frequently parishioners can be heard commenting that Mass is "boring", "too long", "uninspiring" and "irreverent". Why? The Mass is the most important part of the Christian life. How can something so important be deemed boring? The problem lies first of all in a general lack of education among the faithful and even sometimes among the clergy about what the Mass is and how it should be properly celebrated. Second, those who volunteer or are appointed to liturgical committees are frequently at a loss about what they should do. This column is meant to be a brief overview of the considerations those on a liturgical committee, including the parish clergy, should make as they carry out their ministry.

General truths with which to begin the liturgy planning process.

"The liturgy is the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows." [1]

Anyone involved in the planning of liturgy must, before ever suggesting a single song for use at Mass, fully understand the awesome responsibility he is taking on. By "awsome" is meant "awe-inspiring" and "deserving of the greatest respect." The Mass is the most important part of the Catholic life. It is not to be taken lightly, celebrated carelessly or subject to the whims of particular individuals. [2] The Mass, while celebrated in the present, must display a timeless quality. Catholics of today are part of 2000 years of liturgical history and the common worship of the parish should embody and boast this rich heritage.

It should further be remembered at all times that the earthly liturgy is part of the heavenly liturgy and that the parishioners attending Mass in the pews are in the minority of those attending Mass. The entire heavenly host is present at each Mass. [3] Keeping this in mind will help a parish see beyond its own community and realize that through its participation in the Mass, it is part of the heavenly liturgy attended by all the angels and saints. This universality of worship demands that the earthly liturgy in each parish show in a clear way that the parish is part of the universal Church and not a unit separate from all others.

Based on these principles, I recommend the following for all those who will be planning the parish liturgy:

  1. Because the task of planning the liturgy is so important, all members of the liturgy committee should be installed publicly during Mass. There are rites in the Book of Blessings for this purpose. This can happen at the same time lectors and other ministers are installed. It would be ideal if during the installation the members were asked to publicly swear their fidelity to the Church and to carrying out liturgical planning in full conformity with the liturgical guidelines issued by Rome and the national bishops' conferences. While many may protest that this is too much to ask, consider that these people are going to be planning the most important "events" in the parish's life. It is imperative that those involved are loyal to the Magisterium and do not object to following official liturgical guidelines.
  2. The committee members should each read the following parts of the Catholic Catechism to fully understand what the liturgy is: Part Two, Section 1 - The Celebration of the Christian Mystery; Section 2, Article 3 - The Sacrament of the Eucharist; Part 3, Section 2, Articles 1-3.
  3. All committee members should regularly participate in the sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion. These sacraments will give the members the graces to do their task well.
  4. The committee members should each be given copies of the following documents: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), The General Instruction of the Roman Missal - Fourth Edition, Appendix 1 and 2 to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, Inaestimabile donum (Instruction on Certain Norms Concerning the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery), Musicam Sacram (Instruction on Sacred Music in the Liturgy), Voluntati obsequens (Letter to Bishops on the Minimum Repertoire of Plain Chant) and On Certain Questions Concerning the Laity in the Ministry of the Priest. These documents should answer almost all questions concerning the liturgy.
  5. 5. As a final recommendation on the formation of the committee, I suggest that the committee dedicate its efforts to a saint who is famous for his or her efforts in the liturgy. Such saints include St. Gregory the Great (considered the father of "modern" chant), St. Cecilia (attributed with the invention of the organ), St. Pius V (promulgated the Tridentine Missal and fought liturgical abuses)and St. Thomas Aquinas (wrote many liturgical songs and prayers and a comprehensive study of the Catholic faith).

Understanding the liturgy

1) Celebrating the Divine.

We have a liturgy because Jesus Christ instituted the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper and then sacrificed Himself on the Cross for us. According to the Catechism, the liturgy has two purposes: "the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful." [4] Therefore, a parish's first consideration when planning liturgy should be how to celebrate the Divine. Worship of God requires that we avoid superficial sentimentality. There should be nothing cheap or poorly done at Mass. Avoiding mediocrity shows respect not only for God but also for the parish community. Consider how much care is taken in choosing or preparing a gift for a favorite relative. The Mass is both a gift of salvation from God and gift of worship to God. The gift of the Mass deserves infinitely more care than anything given to another person.

There is currently an impulse to allow parishioners to perform any ministry they want no matter how unskilled they may be. This is a misguided impulse that cannot yield good fruit. In the Bible we often are told that we should give our best to God. Unfortunately, this is often misunderstood to mean do whatever one wants to do for God even if one is not good at it. This attitude creates mediocrity in the liturgy. The prime example is found in the average parish choir. Many members will very enthusiastically sing poorly, dragging down the quality and the appropriateness of the music. The same applies to lectors. If a parishioner is unintelligible while reading, the ability for the community to understand the reading is hindered and the active participation called for by Vatican II is not realized. For a parish to give its best to God, the parishioners must be taught that it is up to them to give themselves. Those involved in the liturgy in a special way should be the best a parish can possibly offer. God demands it and the liturgical celebrations will be more worthy of God and unifying for the community. Perhaps after properly catechizing his congregation, the priest can call individuals to certain tasks (for example, if there is a good singer in the congregation, the priest or deacon or choir director could invite him to cantor, or if there are worthy young men, they should be individually asked to serve at the altar.)

A second aspect of celebrating the Divine that is often lacking today is the sense of the transcendent, the something beyond the physical. How often is incense used at Mass? How often are bells rung at the Consecration? Does the priest ever chant parts of the Mass? These are all experiences that will not be found in the world outside the church. The liturgy, like a Gothic church, should draw our spirits towards heaven. When the community leaves Mass its first impression should be that they, for the span of an hour or so, have been closer to heaven. [5] Under ideal circumstances, the spiritual movement towards heaven should be almost physical.

In the Novus Ordo Mass, the freedom to use incense and bells has been granted for any Mass. [6] In the Tridentine Rite, bells and incense may only be used at high Masses. There was probably one high Mass a week in a normal parish. Now it is possible to make use of these incidentals at any time. Unfortunately, this freedom has often been neglected and needs to be revived.

2)Celebrating the Community.

The Mass is the pinnacle of the parish's life. It is the common bond that brings the people together. The parish comes to Mass as a community of believing Catholics joined by the death and resurrection of Christ and the teachings of the Church. According to the Catechism the second purpose of Mass is to sanctify the faithful. Sanctify means to "set apart to a sacred purpose or to religious use." [7] The community attends Mass not as a social club but as a family of believers who are being set aside for God's use. [8]

As Catholics we are to be missionaries to the world. This does not require that we all go to the remote corners of the Earth to convert native tribes. There are some who are called to such tasks but the majority are called to be examples of Christ in their everyday lives at the office or at school or wherever they find themselves. The Mass should provide the members of the community with the energy to be the image of Christ to others. This primarily happens through receiving Holy Communion.

Holy Communion should be seen as the high point of the Mass. More than that, it should be seen as the high point of each parishioner's Christian life. [9] When the communicant receives Holy Communion he truly and physically receives the Body of Christ. The Mass should make the faithful aware of the magnitude of such a gift. If the celebration is sloppy, careless or irreverent, the faithful will adopt a similar attitude towards Mass. It is the job of the liturgical committee to plan Masses that make the community aware of the importance of the Holy Eucharist.

The liturgy should also be a topic of pride for a community. How often do parishioners speak about the liturgy at their church with pride? Often they will say that they have a wonderful priest or the organ sounds very good but rarely will a parishioner mention that the Mass is extraordinary. While the Mass is an act of the whole Church, each parish should have individual pride in how well it plays its part. People will often get much more excited about "their" football team and identify more with it than with the Mass. This is a common problem today that is only magnified by mediocre liturgy. Very often, the Mass is treated as a boring routine that everyone is obliged to attend each week. Why? The Mass is the greatest mystery on earth, the key to salvation and the high point of life. Why is this event treated with so much less concern than Monday Night Football?

The community must be encouraged to give its best to the liturgy. For some in the community this may mean coming to Mass and saying all the responses. For others this may mean joining the choir or planning processions. This is their celebration, their participation in sanctification, their gift to God of the best they have to offer.

3)Celebrating the Timeless.

The liturgy has been celebrated without a break for almost 2000 years. It is and will be celebrated in heaven for all eternity. Each Mass should naturally make the participants aware that they are part of something that is eternal. Very often an attempt is made to make the liturgy relevant to modern man. The problem with this approach is that modern man has lost a sense of the Divine and of the timeless.

A liturgy that is made relevant, that is, fully comprehensible to modern man, will only succeed in being lost in the many other "relevant" things that are much more likely to draw the modern man's attention. The liturgy is not flashy, not loud, and it is free from the violence, sex and action that draws modern man's attention. The only way for the liturgy to compete in the cacophony of the modern world is to be like nothing else around it.

For most of the last 2000 years the uniqueness of the liturgy was unquestionable. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance the average parishioner was not very well educated and frequently was concerned about whether the next harvest would cover the landowner's taxes. At Mass the parishioner could step beyond the cares and normalcy of everyday life and get a glimpse of heaven: the way the church rose above him and the saints and angels looked down on him; the quiet of the Mass broken by the priest's chant and the ringing of bells; the majesty of the organ that could not be found anywhere else. The Mass was a sanctuary from the world but also a command: the lessons learned and the experience of the Mass must be taken outside the church into the world.

Today, many churches try to divorce themselves from the past and pretend that there was nothing Catholic before 1963. The problem with this approach is that it is completely artificial. No person grows up without a past. A religion without a past is not a religion; it is a conference. The Catholic Church has 2000 years of heritage to offer its faithful today. What nationality has such a long tradition to offer? And yet, notice how much more emphasis is placed on cultural heritage than on religious heritage.

The only Catholic "history" that often gets talked about is a biased explanation of the Inquisition and mean nuns with rulers. Catholics seem ashamed of their past. This is mostly a result of a suppression of the good in the past by people within the Church and the amplification of the Church's problems from without. It is essential that Catholics have knowledge of and pride in their past. The past is one of the strongest arguments for being Catholic.

This does not require a return to the Tridentine Mass. It does require an honest appraisal and embracing of the gifts bestowed on the present by the great Catholics through the centuries. It has been said that one can see farther when he stands on the shoulders of those who came before. When planning the liturgy it must be understood that the liturgy will only continue to look forward if it builds on the past.

One very obvious sign of the timelessness of the Church is the resurgent popularity of Gregorian chant. This music was devised more than 1000 years ago and has become some of the most popular music in the world today. It is odd that this awakening of the past has been almost entirely ignored by the Church and even suppressed in many parishes. How often is chant sung in the average parish? Probably never. And yet it is popular in the secular world; so popular that it has been adopted by the New Age movement. Unless the Church reclaims its heritage, the music will be lost to the neo-pagans of our time.

Practical Applications

Based on the previous discourse it is possible to provide some concrete guidelines that will assist in a parish liturgical renewal.

  1. Prepare spiritually.
    The liturgy should not be approached without preparation. All those involved in liturgical planning should have a healthy sacramental life (frequent visits to the confessional and frequent reception of Holy Communion).
  2. Prepare knowledgeably.
    Those who plan the liturgy should be fully aware of what the Church requires for the celebration. The liturgy is an act of union with the whole Church (past, present and future) and should not be governed by personal whim.
  3. Plan well.
    The liturgy deserves the best planning and preparation possible. Nothing should be left in question or unprepared. For solemn occasions this will probably require rehearsal.
  4. Celebrate the Divine.
    Make sure that the liturgy can raise people towards heaven. Is there a sense of the mysterious and the transcendent in the liturgy? The easiest and most effective ways to achieve this are by using incense and bells. These may seem trivial, but they set the Mass apart from the everyday and require little preparation and expense to use. It is also very effective for the priest to chant parts of the Mass on solemn occasions. God is present. Do not forget this. Casual behavior should not be encouraged. Encourage people to dress up for Mass. The church is God's house and we are His invited children. If the faithful dress better for dinner parties than they do for Mass, the understanding of the importance of the liturgy has been lost. In Europe and Mexico one is not allowed to enter a church when not properly dressed. Surely we in America can do as much.
  5. Celebrate the Community.
    Plan the liturgy as an event to be proud of. This is the most important part of the Christian life. Find the most talented people in the community to sing and be lectors. Give the faithful music to be proud of. The faithful do not have to sing everything. Educate the faithful about their proper role in the liturgy. The faithful should be able to say and sing the responses at Mass and know the proper times to bow, kneel, genuflect, stand & sit. [10]
  6. Celebrate the Timeless.
    The Church is 2000 years old. Draw from the tradition. Gregorian chant is still supposed to have a primary place in the liturgy. [11] It is easy to sing. It is timeless and if done well adds a solemnity to the Mass that nothing else can. Find out about Catholic customs. Processions and litanies are often neglected as relics from the past but can become a matter of pride for a community. Such special events highlight the importance of certain feasts such as the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. Renew the Easter Vigil Mass and the Requiem Mass for All Soul's Day. These Masses should be especially memorable. The blessing of the liturgical fire at the Easter Vigil in a dark church and the memory of the priest wearing black on All Soul's Day while a requiem is sung are memories long treasured.
  7. Show off the musical tradition.
    The Catholic Church has one of the greatest libraries of liturgical music in the world. The faithful should be familiar with music from all parts of the Church's tradition. Chant is to be given pride of place in the liturgy followed by polyphony. [12] Do not forget the organ. The organ is the only instrument that was designed for liturgical use. As such it should be used frequently. [13] Latin is not evil. Latin is still the official language of the Catholic Church and if Latin is lost, much of the Church's tradition and most of its music is lost as well. Pope John Paul II has said that "the Roman Church has special obligations towards Latin, the splendid language of ancient Rome, and she must manifest them whenever the occasion presents itself." [14] The occasion presents itself at every Mass. This is another way to celebrate the timeless nature of the Mass.
  8. Encourage young men to serve at the altar.
    This is a wonderful recruiting tool for the priesthood. Young men will be willing to serve but only if there is a reason to. Being a backdrop is not an incentive to anyone. There are many things that servers are supposed to do at Mass. [15] Make full use of their services. This not only adds solemnity to the liturgy, it gets young men who might otherwise be skipping church or not paying attention to participate in the liturgy.
  9. The Mass is the best catechism.
    Through the scriptures, prayers and songs at Mass, one can learn a great deal about the theology and tradition of the Church. The homily should be a compact discourse on the readings and the application of their lessons to the lives of the parishioners. The homily can also be the perfect opportunity to teach the faithful about the Mass and their Catholic heritage.

The Mass is the sacrifice of Christ and the heavenly banquet that saves and renews the Church. Those who undertake the task of preparing the Mass must be fully prepared for the ministry they perform. Such preparation is not easy and shouldn't be treated as participation in a social club. The work of those carrying out the ministry of preparing the liturgy will bear many fruits on earth; their reward will be greater in heaven.

Reference Material and Resources for a Parish Liturgy Committee

  • Vatican Council II: the Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents (vols. 1&2), ed. Austin Flannery, O.P., The Liturgical Press.
  • The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (1978), TAN Books.
  • The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), United States Catholic Conference.
  • Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite (1994), Msgr. Peter Elliot, Ignatius Press.
  • Jubilate Deo, Daughters of St. Paul.
  • Ordo Missae Cum Populo-A Latin-English Text For Congregational Use (1978), The Leaflet Missal Company.
  • Code of Canon Law Annotated (1993), Wilson & Lafleeur Itee.
  • The Saint Gregory Hymnal and Catholic Choir Book (1979), G.I.A. Publications.
  • Mass Confusion (1998), Jeff Akins, Catholic Answers.
  • The Mass, A Study of the Roman Liturgy (1930), Fr. Adrian Fortesque, Longmans, Green and Co. (Out of print)
  • Sacramentary, Catholic Book Publishing Company.
  • Lectionary, Catholic Book Publishing Company.


  1. Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), 10.
  2. Inaestimabile donum (1980).
  3. Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), 1138 p. 295.
  4. Ibid., 1157 p. 299.
  5. Ibid., 1090 p. 283.
  6. General Instruction (1975), 235.
  7. Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (1980).
  8. Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), 1140 p. 295.
  9. Ibid., 1324 p. 334.
  10. Clarifications and Interpretations of the GIRM, Query 234b (1978).
  11. Voluntati obsequens (1974).
  12. Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), 114-117.
  13. Ibid., 120.
  14. Dominicae Cenae (1980), 10.
  15. General Instruction of the Roman Missal (1975), 142-147.

Note: The article that appeared in H&PR was a draft version. Unfortunately, the finished copy was not included. We include the finished copy here.

Ian Rutherford graduated from the University of Dallas with a B.A. degree in Political Philosophy. He served on the University of Dallas liturgical committee and is currently the webmaster of The Catholic Liturgical Library and

Reprinted with permission of the author. For reprint permission, contact the webmaster.

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