Apr 15, 2003

When "Strangers and Silent Spectators" Plan the Liturgy

Online Edition – Vol. IX, No. 2: April 2003

When "Strangers and Silent Spectators" Plan the Liturgy

Catholic rituals should be "transformative" to meet peoples’ needs, liturgy expert says

 by Susan J. Benofy

Susan Benofy attended the Gateway Liturgical Conference held January 31-February 1 in Saint Louis. About 450 people attended the annual conference, sponsored by the Archdiocese of Saint Louis office for worship, and the Saint Louis chapter of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. Among the speakers were Father Frank Quinn, OP, and Sister Catherine Vincie, of the Aquinas Institute in Saint Louis, musician Christopher Walker, and Father J. Glenn Murray. The sessions were audio taped. Dr. Benofy reports here on one of these presentations, "Art & Environment: Celebrating the Mysteries of Lent, the Three Days of Easter and the Easter Season". – Editor


An image of the earth in space taken by an astronaut projected on a large screen set the scene for the presentation on liturgical planning by Marchita Mauck, former advisor to the Bishops Committee on the Liturgy and a "liturgical consultant" for church renovations, who teaches art history and is associate dean at Louisiana State University.

She began with basic planning questions: "What are the goals of each of the liturgies of this season? What are we trying to do? What do we want to have happen? In other words, what is the experience that we are anticipating for our people when we work on the whole picture of how that liturgy should work?"

The photograph of the earth from space, she said, illustrates the point of view planners should take in order to answer these questions. The photograph, Mauck said, shows something no one had ever seen before: the earth from outside itself. It shows us earth in a new way.

So that’s what I hope that we’ll be able to do this morning – to stand outside of what we have always done for the Easter Vigil or what we’ve always done for Ash Wednesday, or for Good Friday, and think about it as if we had never seen before what happens in our parish, and what other things might come to mind.

Thus, according to Mauck, the liturgical planner should approach the liturgy as a total stranger, like an extraterrestrial approaching the earth, viewing the Church’s rites as a spectator. Yet such a perspective of estrangement seems opposite to that called for by the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium:

The Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ’s faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators. On the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action, conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration…. Through Christ, the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and with each other, so that finally God may be all in all. (§48)

It is difficult to see how the estranged perspective that Mauck supports could lead Catholics to a deeper understanding of the rites. Most people find new ways of "doing" Mass bewildering and distressing. They feel like strangers, forced to be silent spectators at ever-changing, unfamiliar ceremonies – and at the mercy of those who devised them.

Transformative memory

For Mauck, liturgy is "about story first of all", about "our larger Christian story", but also our own personal stories. Liturgy is about "touching somehow our memories". Since Mauck believes memory is "transformative", making the liturgy "memorable" requires novel approaches to the rites — a startling new way to perform the Church’s rites makes them memorable.

Viewing the liturgy from outside itself liberates those who plan liturgies from the restricting influence of the rubrics or liturgical documents, such as the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani (or General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM]). The GIRM does recommend planning the liturgy as a matter of selecting from among options given in the liturgical books. (It also assumes that the "liturgical planner" is the priest):

352 The pastoral effectiveness of a celebration will be heightened if the texts of readings, prayers, and songs correspond as closely as possible to the needs, religious preparation, and aptitude of the participants. This will be achieved by an appropriate use of the broad options described in this chapter.

In planning the celebration, then, the priest should consider the common spiritual good of the people of God, rather than be concerned about his own inclinations. He should also remember that choices are to be made in consultation with those who have any role in the celebration, including the faithful in regard to the parts that more directly belong to them.

In Mauck’s method, however, the liturgical books and rubrics are largely ignored in the quest for a "new way" of looking at the rites that conforms to her perception of the people’s needs or desires. Mauck’s preoccupation with new ways of doing things and outside views may mean inventing ceremonies completely outside the tradition of the Roman Rite. This is revealed in her proposals for innovative rituals for Ash Wednesday.

People want ashes, not Masses

On Ash Wednesday people want ashes, not the Mass, Mauck claims. She suggests only one Mass on Ash Wednesday, but having several other services that include the distribution of ashes. (She calls them "Penance Services", but did not mention any opportunity for sacramental confessions.) What would the new Ash Wednesday service include?

The Ash Wednesday service Mauck proposes begins with a Liturgy of the Word and a Prayer of the Faithful.

The preparation for this prayer, she said, began a few weeks before the beginning of Lent. A box would be placed in the church into which people would place lists of things they wanted prayed for on Ash Wednesday. The parish musicians would then take all of the lists, summarize them and make a litany of the prayer intentions in Taizé-type verses with a simple response for the people. As a result of combining requests that overlapped somewhat, every concept was mentioned so all "heard" their own prayer.

"It’s about body language"

The primary focus of the Ash Wednesday service is the procession to the cross, which takes place during the singing of this litany of prayer intentions.

"A profound aspect of ritual is movement", said Mauck. "It’s about body language. It’s about moving in a significant way. It means coming to a place where something might happen".

To illustrate the plan, Mauck shows pictures of a very large, free-standing cross placed in the sanctuary. She said that such a procession can’t happen in the same way if the cross is hanging on the wall. A hanging cross is merely "pious decor", but a free-standing cross can become part of the "ritual action". (She advises that a very large cross be put on wheels so that it can be moved easily.) Bringing your body to the cross is different from looking at it, she says.

Mauck believes that the service she devised meets needs that people could not imagine on their own.

They would not have walked up to the cross with their own prayer. Because we don’t do that. But that’s what we need to do. That’s what we want to do. And there is such a huge yearning for this kind of opportunity, if people are given the opportunity they do it. They know it’s the right thing to do.

Mauck described the effect of this new Ash Wednesday ritual on a parish where for several years this service was offered in addition to a single Mass. After the first year, she said, attendance at the Mass decreased, while attendance at the new ritual increased. This happened, said Mauck, because her new ritual was "a different kind of experience that really focused on what they had come for". She sees the decreased focus on Mass as a positive effect.

The Triduum liturgies of Holy Week, as Mauck envisions them, in effect, also brings people to a ceremony that is not the prescribed liturgy of the day. While she stops short of proposing entirely new services for Holy Week, she interprets the purpose and significance of these rites in her own way, and "adapts" the liturgy to suit her interpretation.

Holy Thursday: wash everyone’s feet

What is most memorable about Holy Thursday? Mauck asked. "Foot-washing", was the answer. She said that the ritual washing of feet is "sometimes controversial but always significant".

Although she mentioned the commemoration of the institution of the Eucharist, it was only as one of the other aspects that might be somebody else’s perspective.

"So depending on what your story is you may have different perspectives of that day and what is the focus", she said. "So how can we highlight an experience that is going to focus on one of several things that are part of the event?"

Foot-washing was Mauck’s only focus on Holy Thursday rites. She believes that "one of the most powerful things is for everybody to get their feet washed". Unsurprisingly, she omitted a key element of the ritual as prescribed by the liturgical books: that only the feet of viri selecti, "chosen men", are washed. She did not even argue that washing everyone’s feet is permitted. She simply asserted that a way should be found to wash everyone’s feet.

Having the priest wash the feet of selected individuals is only one way of doing the rite, according to Mauck. She believes foot washing is best when done throughout the assembly because this is an invitation to participation.

"It’s going to take more time", she averred. "But you know what? Things happen during that time — real big things. That’s a different encounter with the holy. To allow someone to wash your feet and to have the courage and the humility to wash someone else’s, even those of a stranger.

"So when you talk about it, again, look at what are the possibilities for the quality of the experience of the assembly. And to move it from the symbolic to the real in terms of engagement of the assembly. Otherwise they’re just sitting there watching, and twelve special people — Father’s friends, the important people in the church — got chosen to be up there", Mauck told her audience.

Hand-washing? No. All-day foot-washing? Yes.

Participants seemed receptive to Mauck’s ideas, and a few offered their own variations.

One woman described a "catechesis" by her parish priest who explained that washing hands is the equivalent in our time of washing feet in Jesus’ time. So in this parish the people wash each others hands on Holy Thursday, she said, and this variation makes it possible for many more to participate in the ritual.

Mauck responded that although this alternative might increase participation, symbolic content was lost if feet were not washed. This did not convince the advocate of hand-washing, who continued to argue for its superior meaningfulness and relevance to our time.

Mauck’s sensitivity to the "symbolic content" of foot-washing seems in direct conflict with her view that "meeting people’s needs" trumps traditional symbols and rituals in liturgical planning. Indeed, her "new ways of seeing" the Church’s rites often ignores their symbolic content. It would not be surprising that those who adopt her advice on planning liturgies will decide that washing hands is simply a "memorable new way" of doing the foot washing ceremony.

The only problem Mauck acknowledges in washing the feet of the whole congregation is the length of time it takes. So she suggests a creative solution to the time problem. The foot washing could begin in the afternoon, and people could come any time. This might also "begin a new way of experiencing that mandate in that symbolic way", she avers.

She does not seem aware, however, that her "new way" departs so radically from the Church’s authorized ritual that the "memorable event" that people experience has essentially ceased to be the liturgy of the Church.

More "new ways" for Holy Week: readings outdoors; dancing breaks

For other Holy Week rites Mauck recommends alternate locations, rather than alternate times.

She suggests, for example, that the entire Liturgy of the Word for Palm Sunday (including the reading of the Passion) be held outdoors.

Similarly she suggests a novel arrangement of the Easter Vigil based on her idea that it is the parish, rather than any one individual or a "trapped congregation" that keeps vigil.

The Liturgy of the Word should be held somewhere other than inside the church (such as the school gym), according to Mauck; and there should be a twenty-minute break between readings. This intermission allows people to come and go, and, of course, she claims they hear the readings in a new way.

The arrangement also lends itself to other novelties. For example, after the Easter Vigil reading about the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, which includes an account of Miriam’s song, Mauck suggests that everyone should get up and sing and dance.

This could not be done, said Mauck, if everyone were in pews. It could not be done at any Easter Vigil that was performed according to the rubrics of the Roman Rite.

Obviously, devising such innovations for liturgical celebrations is not what the GIRM means by planning a liturgy, but through liturgical conferences like this one many parish liturgy planners will be encouraged to seek "new ways" rather than to study and deepen their understanding of the liturgical books.

"It’s memorable stuff"

Sometimes Mauck recommends exaggerated gestures as a way of reinterpreting the meaning of the rites. For example, the rubrics specify that during the blessing of the Easter water, the Easter candle is to be lowered into the water. Mauck seems to regard the symbolic drama of immersing the candle as more significant than the actual blessing of the water.

She insists that the candle must be "plunged" into the water, with the celebrant standing in the middle of a pool because "it’s memorable stuff", and thus transformative. But in her view it is the people that are transformed, not the water. Describing a later part of the Easter Vigil, she speaks of the water "which has just been made extraordinarily holy by the baptisms that have taken place in it".

The attempt to make certain actions in the liturgy more "memorable", or to highlight one aspect of the ritual to the exclusion of others seriously limits the deep symbolic dimension that the Church has given to her liturgy.

Too many liturgists justify their novelties on the grounds that they increase participation. However, they actually make it more difficult for people to attain that "good understanding of the rites and prayers" that the Council sees as necessary to enable them to "take part in the sacred action, conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration".

"Ways that are all brand new"

Mauck summarized her approach to planning liturgies in her concluding remarks:

"Think about some other ways of doing things, and you will be thrilled", she said. "And your people will encounter all the things that they already know in ways that are all brand new. And isn’t that what we’d like to have happen?"

The Second Vatican Council had a quite different idea of what the people should encounter and what should happen at the liturgy:

Through Christ, the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and with each other, so that finally God may be all in all. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, §48)

In Mauck’s view of liturgy planning, Christ the Mediator seems sidelined, and worshippers are not drawn gradually into more perfect union with God and each other, but "transformed" (from what into what we don’t know) by "memorable" events and by "entering into the stories".

Such an approach to liturgy planning not unique to Marchita Mauck. It is unfortunately quite common. It is disturbing that such views are promoted at conferences with official diocesan sponsorship, for this gives proposals for liturgical deviance the appearance of official endorsement.

Most people who plan liturgies in parishes rely on secondary sources — conferences and planning guides and sourcebooks published by "progressive" liturgists — rather than on official liturgical books. Many are apparently unfamiliar with the actual provisions of the GIRM or the rubrics.

Liturgical conferences, especially those sponsored by a diocese, should be concerned primarily with giving people a complete and balanced account of the official rules of the liturgy. Presentations at conferences such as this by liturgical "experts" with idiosyncratic views of the Church’s liturgy foster the dissemination of liturgical innovations in parishes, sometimes with seriously harmful results.

These ideas are often put into practice in parishes quite rapidly. For example, Mauck suggested a litany composed from peoples’ petitions be set to music and sung on Ash Wednesday. A month after her presentation, the diocesan paper had a list of Lenten activities that said that at one parish people had been asked to write down something they would like to "work on during Lent", and that the parish "is crafting a litany from the contributions". There is no way of knowing how many bizarre variations of Triduum rituals are being planned according to Mauck’s methods.

Most liturgy planners firmly believe that their efforts are helping to implement the liturgical reforms of the Council. But here is how the Second Vatican Council envisioned the liturgy:

In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, Minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, §8)

Liturgy planners who follow Mauck’s advice to view the liturgy from outside itself in order to find "ways that are all brand new" risk withdrawing from this pilgrimage journey and losing sight of its goal. These "new ways", rather than leading to the "holy of holies", are actually detours, leading away from the Holy City and depriving Catholics of that foretaste of the heavenly liturgy that the Council promised.


Susan Benofy is research editor of the Adoremus Bulletin



Susan Benofy

Susan Benofy received her doctorate in physics from Saint Louis University. She was formerly Research Editor of Adoremus Bulletin.