How the Liturgy Guys Speak the First and Last Word in Podcasts on All Things Liturgical
Did you hear? Next Sunday, you ought to get drunk at Mass.
But in a sober way, of course.
That’s what the Liturgy Guys were saying during one of their recent podcasts. But what do they know?
Well, they know quite a bit about liturgy, as it turns out—if the number of listeners they’ve attracted is any indication.
As the latest offering from the Liturgical Institute (LI), this multimedia apostolate is reaching out on a weekly basis to anyone who wants to learn more about the how and why of the Catholic liturgy—including especially how and why it can transform lives. The Liturgy Guys hope that the lighthearted yet substantial content of their podcasts can help listeners past the complexity and abstraction that speaking about the liturgy can sometimes entail
The men behind the microphones for each podcast are host Jesse Weiler (who serves as LI’s assistant director of marketing), Denis McNamara (LI associate director and associate professor), and Christopher Carstens (LI instructor, director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, and editor of Adoremus Bulletin).
This past April, the Liturgy Guys were recording one of their podcasts before a live audience at the monthly Theology on Tap hosted by Cathedral Parish in Madison, WI. The podcast took place on a stage in a private back room of The Brink, a humming hipster pub in downtown Madison. Pitchers of beer, chips and salsa, and platters of vegetables, cheese, and crackers crowded a table at the back of the room. After sipping on beers and noshing on food for the body, the crowd drifted to their seats as the Liturgy Guys prepared to quench their audience’s spiritual thirst with a spirited conversation about the Catholic liturgy.
Characterized by a snappy and clever interplay of voices, the chemistry created by Weiler (“The Everyman Guy”), McNamara (“The Big Picture Guy”), and Carstens (“The Detail Guy”) serves as the perfect formula for distilling academic concepts about liturgy into a fluid ongoing conversation about the Church’s highest forms of prayer. The night at The Brink, that conversation turned to drinking beer, praying the Mass, and what the two have to do with one another.
Weiler was finishing his sound tests between sips from a pint of IPA while McNamara peered out into the semi-darkness of the room to see if he could scrounge up another glass of amber. At the same time, Chris was busy adjusting his own glass to avoid spilling it on the expensive sound equipment. Once Jesse, Denis, and Chris settled into their chairs, though, the busyness ceased and they became the Liturgy Guys—ready to indulge their audience in a bit of liturgical drunk talk:
Jesse: We’re talking Drunken Speech today.
Denis: A provocative name, “Drunken Speech,” a perfect subject for Theology on Tap. But if you told your average parishioner that we’re going to have some drunken Mass today, a drunken speech to God, it would be a little scandalous.
Chris: If your Mother spoke drunkenly today, would that be bad?
Denis: It probably would be, but St. Cyprian said it was also a sober inebriation.
Jesse: It sounds like an oxymoron.
Denis: It certainly does.
Chris: We took this term “drunken speech” from this fellow [20th century German liturgist] Romano Guardini who has this line, “Let us joyfully taste the sober drunkenness of the spirit.” He is one of many who invoke this idea in the liturgy. To get to the bottom of this, another formulation of “drunken speech” is “sober inebriation.” What they’re trying to express by this is the way the Church worships. One of the persons of the Trinity is the Logos—
Denis: —the Son—
Chris: —So Logos is the root of our word logic,
Jesse: —and leads to sobriety?
Denis: Or order.
Chris: —and another part [of the Trinity] is spiritedness. The Holy Spirit denotes this drunkenness, not that the Holy Spirit wants us to be drunk, but it’s more of a spirited part. When you put the Son and the Spirit together in the way that the Church prays the liturgy, that is characterized as “sober inebriation.”
And that same sense of sober inebriation is exactly what the Liturgy Guys hope to bring to their listeners’ understanding of the liturgy. The same sort of “spiritedness” that accompanies any good conversation. The Liturgy Guys see their broadcasts as a lively barroom chat and a sober living room discussion taking place all at once, focusing on the vital principles and purposes of good old fashioned Catholic liturgy—with microphones thrown in, while they’re at it, to share their chats with the rest of the world.
A typical Liturgy Guys podcast lasts about 35-45 minutes, begins with a discussion of a liturgical topic, and ends with a Question of the Week from listeners (“Why is incense used in Mass?” “Can you remove holy water from the fonts during Lent?” “Can the Creed ever be omitted during Sunday Mass?”). In past podcasts, the Liturgy Guys have examined such topics as signs and symbols of the liturgy (“A Sign from God,” July 4, 2016), active participation (“Active Duty,” September 13, 2016), and art’s relationship to the liturgy (“How Great Thou Art,” May 3, 2017). They’ve also invited special guests to join their podcasts, including well-known Catholic multimedia evangelist, Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.
Weiler, McNamara, and Carstens cooked up the idea for the Liturgy Guys after a particular conversation two years ago in the dining hall at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL, which the Liturgical Institute calls home.
“The light bulb moment for the Liturgy Guys came when Denis, Chris, and I were sitting together at lunch with a seminarian,” Weiler tells Adoremus. “The seminarian asked a question about the liturgy. I heard Denis and Chris going back and forth, and I felt like I was listening to a podcast about liturgy.”
The topic of conversation that day in the dining hall was “noble simplicity,” which is how the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, describes the ideal yet eminently achievable liturgy: “The rites should radiate a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation” (34).
From the start, according to Weiler, the Liturgy Guys have been striving for something of the same noble simplicity in reaching out to their audience.
“I told Denis and Chris we need to do this,” he says. “This needs to be a podcast sounding just like what happened at lunch that day: very conversational but not heavily academic and certainly not above the average listeners’ comprehension.”
To this end, the Liturgy Guys say that their conversation should above all be about the takeaways—the practical and possible things the faithful can do to enrich their experience of the Church’s liturgy.
Chris: In one of his letters, [Guardini] says something about how as long as liturgy is seen as something to “get through,” then that’s all it is. But it’s supposed to animate your entire existence with the spirit that pushes you out into the world to sanctify and divinize all of your life.
Denis: If you’ve ever been to a party—a Christmas party at work that you hate going to—it’s not actually a lively or happy thing to do, but the word the priest uses every time he begins Mass is “celebration.” I don’t know if we always think of it that way, but what we’re actually doing is rejoicing in the fact that heaven and earth, which were disunited to some degree after the fall, are now back together in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. So [to express the joy at that reunion] you want to have a slightly drunken speech—not an embarrassingly drunken speech.
Jesse: Yeah, but you want to be inebriated.
Denis: You’ll never get out on the dance floor otherwise.
Chris: So this is what the Mass and the liturgy is, characterized by this drunken speech or sober inebriation. How is it that you can tap into that tap at Mass?
Jesse: It’s like, well, a theology on tap.
Chris: That’s right. How can you drink deeply from these wellsprings of drunken soberness and sober inebriation when you go to the Mass, so you can be filled with the same sort of Logos and Spirit that can transform you? We [the Liturgy Guys] want to suggest ways during this podcast that the Mass offers us to tap into this stream of grace that comes from the side of Christ, made accessible to us in the liturgy so it can transform us. We want to offer some practical things that you can do this next Sunday when you go to Mass to see if they don’t help your liturgical experience. Does that sound good?
It sounded very good, to judge the response of the audience at the live podcast that night—almost exclusively young adults from in and around University of Wisconsin-Madison, most of whom were members of Cathedral Parish and the St. Paul University Catholic Center, Madison.
Director of Catechesis and Evangelization for Cathedral Parish, Madison, and the Theology on Tap program organizer, Marc Laudonio says that since Cathedral and St. Paul’s consist of many young Catholics, Theology on Tap is a perfect venue for fellowship and growth in faith through prayer and learning.
“Young adult evangelization, especially in downtown Madison, is always tricky,” Laudonio says, “because the population can be so transient—grad students, people taking first jobs and moving on, starting a family, that sort of thing. But there is a consistent crowd of 60-100 people at Theology on Tap, many of whom get more connected with a local parish via an initial experience at Theology on Tap…. And there have been more than a few priestly, religious, and marriage vocations that Theology on Tap has played an integral role in.”
Among the topics that Madison’s Theology on Tap crowd seem most hungry to learn more about, Laudonio says, liturgy ranks high on the list.
“The vast majority of young people I encounter who regularly attend Mass,” he says, “do so because they recognize there is a deep desire for life, fullness, and happiness within them that only God can satiate. And while they might not be able to articulate all the theology behind the ‘what’ of the liturgy they recognize that in the liturgy they are encountering and receiving the fullness of the ‘Who’ they desire.”
It’s this demographic, the young Catholic adult, say the Liturgy Guys, which they hope their podcasts are especially reaching. In January the Liturgy Guys won the Fisher’s Net Award for Best Catholic Podcast of 2017. A website started in Alberta, Canada, devoted to promoting Catholic evangelization through multimedia, The Fisher’s Net seeks to spread the truth of Christ and his Church through effective social media. As Weiler points out, the award helped confirm that the Liturgy Guys were making a net gain among young Catholics because “the folks at Fisher’s Net who run the contest and serve as the judges are themselves young adults.”
Young Catholics are tuning in, McNamara says, because they have “a deep need for knowing the meaning of things,” and are finding an authenticity to Catholic tradition expressed in the liturgy.
“Young people find out there’s a certain beauty that the liturgy should have,” he says. “They see, for instance, that the liturgy has to be theologically rich, not to be old fashioned, but so they can encounter the heavenly realities and become like those heavenly realities.”
The challenge, the Liturgy Guys acknowledge, is being able to communicate those “heavenly realities” in terms that their audience can understand. In the Liturgy Guys’ April live podcast at The Brink, they sought to communicate these realities by explaining the Mass in terms of its earthly realities, using concrete stories and images of scripture—and some help from a toddler’s taste in books.
Denis: How do you know what the Eucharist is? Because God taught the world how to look for it. How do you know what the Eucharist is? Because Christ said, “This is my body.” The road to Emmaus is one of the stories in particular where the two disciples hear the story again of what Christ means and they recognize him in the breaking of the bread. In terms of listening to scripture during Mass, the Liturgy of the Word isn’t a Bible study but a way to understand the whole mission of salvation. When I receive communion, that is the apex of that story. So paying attention in Mass to the story of Melchizedek, Noah’s ark, the flood, or creation is relevant to the Eucharist you’ll receive 30 minutes later.
Jesse: What do I do if my daughter is running around playing during Mass with the other kids? Do I pretty much miss out on that [benefit of learning about the Eucharist through scripture]?
Denis: Well, I think God understands that having kids in Mass means that you might be checked out every so often.
Chris: That makes me think of the prophet Ezekiel and St. John in the book of Revelation. There’s this image of the angel taking the scroll and rolling it up and giving it to Ezekiel and again to St. John. And you remember what each does with it?
Denis: He eats it.
Chris: Yes, he actually eats it—and this is why the Church speaks of the nourishment we receive from the Word.
Jesse: That’s pretty weird though.
Chris: Yes, in a literal way.
Jesse: What if you did that in Mass?
Chris: Well, I do—but in a sacramental way. This is the principle [behind the Liturgy of the Word], just like my two-year old. In Mass, she does chew on the missalette.
A two-year old hungry for a little newsprint pulp is one of the more unexpected examples the Liturgy Guys provide to help their audience see heavenly realities. Apparently this approach has been working. According to Weiler, the program now typically registers downloads in the thousands.
“Toward the beginning, we had about 1,100 downloads in a month,” he says. “As of now, we are looking at 17,000 downloads a month. Through word of mouth and some marketing plans we started to grow and grow and have a devoted listening base.”
The Liturgy Guys’ heavenly success also has some other earthly realities to thank for their success. Mark Balasa is a Catholic businessman and financial manager who helped co-found Balasa Dinverno Folz LLC, a wealth management firm located about 25 miles south of Mundelein in Itasca, IL. He and his wife Laurel Balasa provided the financial donation which made the Liturgy Guys podcasts possible.
“I often hear people say that young people leave the Catholic Church not because of what it stands for, but because they don’t know what it stands for,” Balasa says, explaining that he was attracted to the project through his acquaintance with the late Cardinal Francis George, who founded LI, and Father Douglas Martis, who served as its director during much of Cardinal George’s tenure as Archbishop of Chicago. “It was part of Cardinal George’s initial mission for the institute. How do we re-evangelize and reeducate young Catholics in particular in the beauty of the faith, the liturgy, and the sacraments? Anything that can be done to broaden and support that mission, my wife and I believe, is time and money well spent. The Liturgy Guys fits that bill perfectly.”
Thanks to the Balasas’ generosity and the Liturgical Institute’s cooperation, when it came to drawing in a young listenership, the Liturgy Guys hit their mark—and hit it hard.
“Catholic college students are serious listeners,” McNamara says. “For instance, a group of college students from Vanderbilt [in Nashville, TN] came up to a conference here at the Liturgical Institute one summer, and after the conference they asked if they could get their picture taken with the Liturgy Guys. We had no idea we were that popular.”
But there’s more than the momentary frisson of fame that drives the Liturgy Guys to drive their liturgical points home. The program has also been a transformative experience for their listeners.
“This next generation of 20-year olds are learning about liturgy,” McNamara says, “and are really into it and that’s important because they’re going to have kids to pass this love for the liturgy on to the next generation.”
According to Balasa, the success also has some help from the heavenly realities which the Liturgy Guys have made their bailiwick.
“Why are these podcasts so successful?” he asks. “Because the Holy Spirit is helping us to find ways to reach those people not in the pews and helping those same people to get into pews.”
The young people attending the Liturgy Guys’ live broadcast in April, saw—and heard—why the Liturgy Guys are so effective. UW-Madison junior Aaron Siehr never heard the Liturgy Guys before that night, but through an invitation from a friend attended the evening’s broadcast, which helped him see why the liturgy is central to the Catholic experience.
“I’ll steal Bishop Barron’s idea—he says that beauty is the arrowhead of evangelization,” Siehr says. “The liturgy is an opportunity for people to encounter the Church in a beautiful way, and if they’re drawn to that beauty at first, it makes them easier to be intellectually and spiritually stimulated to go deeper into the Church’s teachings.”
Assistant Faculty Associate Tracey Reitz teaches chemistry at UW-Madison, but it was The Liturgy Guys’ chemistry that brought her to The Brink.
“I like how they spoke about lectio divina as a conversation between God and me,” she says. “At the end of the conversation, if you’re talking with a friend, you usually make a resolution—when are we going to talk next? It’s the same thing with God. The liturgy helps us see that. I like how the Liturgy Guys put it in realistic terms.”
Taking God’s Call
As such talk is true of God so it is for the Liturgy Guys—and for those with ears to hear, the Liturgy Guys’ podcast chatter brings to mind another sort of three-way conversation….
Chris: Think of the dynamics of what happens at the Liturgy of the Word at Sunday Mass. God is speaking to us through the Old Covenant, but it’s a little unclear and shadowy. Then we turn around in the Psalm and speak back to God, although it’s not in our own words, but in the words of the Psalm. And then God speaks back to us in the epistle, the gospel, and homily. We next speak back to God when we recite the Creed, and offer our petitions. The dynamic that’s happening is this back and forth conversation…
Denis: The words of the liturgy are from God, to God, and about God.
Chris: This is what’s so beautiful about what God has done. When two people are having a conversation…
Jesse: Or three!
He’s the speaker, the receiver and the Word that goes between them. This is an easy and substantial conversation especially for ears that know how to hear….
Joseph O’Brien lives on a homestead with his wife Cecilia and their nine children in rural southwestern Wisconsin. He is Managing Editor of Adoremus Bulletin, a correspondent for the Catholic Business journal, and poetry editor and cocktail reviewer for The San Diego Reader. He has a BA (1995) and MA (2004) in English from University of Dallas, Irving, TX.