An Interview with Monsignor Gerard O’Connor on the Archdiocese of Portland’s Newly Published Liturgical Handbook
With the publication of the Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook, the Archdiocese of Portland has made a landmark contribution to the liturgical life of the Church of the United States. The almost 400-page document was penned by Monsignor Gerard O’Connor, the Director of the Archdiocesan Office of Divine Worship. Jeremy Priest of the Adoremus Bulletin had the opportunity to sit down with Monsignor O’Connor to discuss the Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook
Adoremus Bulletin (AB): I’m told you have an interesting background. Where do you come from and how did you get to where you are today?
Monsignor Gerald O’Connor (MO): I was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Fall River (MA) in 2000, after having a career in the high-tech industry as a marketeer. I have a degree in applied physics and an MBA. My first priestly assignment was to work at the Vatican in the Congregation for Clergy for seven years. During that time in Rome I completed my license and doctorate in sacred liturgy at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute at San Anselmo. After Rome I was a pastor for ten years and then last year my bishop asked me if I would like to go and work for Archbishop Alexander Sample (of the Archdiocese of Portland) for a period of 3-5 years. I said I would be happy to, knowing Archbishop Sample to be a bishop with a real zeal for the sacred liturgy.
AB: The Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (ALH) was something you had on your mind to do for quite some time. Where did that desire come from?
MO: Really it came from a brief discussion with Archbishop Sample. When I first arrived we met to discuss his vision for the sacred liturgy in the Archdiocese. As part of that discussion we toyed with the idea of putting together some sort of document which brought together the fundamental norms for the celebration of Holy Mass and the Sacraments. At first we were going to call it the “Archdiocesan Norms,” but we really thought that title suggested that something was new or perhaps different from the universal norms of the sacred liturgy. So we changed the title since this document was meant to contain the universal norms of the church with a few of the preferences and legitimate option that exist in the Archdiocese. We also wanted to put everything in one place as far as possible and make it a reference book for those involved in the liturgical field. Moreover we wanted to make it a document that was founded on good solid Catholic theology, which I think we achieved.
AB: Many would say that liturgical law is itself passé; that we should have a general sense of the norms, but to have an entire handbook with hundreds of pages is to move in the direction of rubricism & legalism. How would you respond to that claim?
MO: In response I would quote from Archbishop Sample’s letter in which he quotes St. John Paul II: “The Eucharist is too great a gift to tolerate ambiguity and depreciation” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 10). John Paul II summarizes the reason why we have liturgical law and I think why we strive to achieve excellence in the Ars Celebrandi. Simply put, the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life and that all the other sacraments find their own source in the Eucharist—this can be seen plainly in the preamble of the handbook. For those who say that liturgical law is passé, I say liturgical law is there to guide and protect us all, and provide the faithful with a liturgy which the Church has handed down to us with her authority from Apostolic Times. Laxity with regard to the liturgy exhibits a lack of faith in the things that the Church holds dearest.
AB: While for some the existence of the ALH itself is controversial, is there anything controversial or anything that will strike some as controversial in the ALH?
MO: I don’t think there is anything controversial in the ALH. The ALH just brings the current law, teaching and expectation of the Catholic Church to one place, and explains the whys and the wherefores of liturgical praxis—nothing surprising here and that is why it is a document that can be used more or less anywhere. There are few preferences which are explained for the Archdiocese of Portland. For example, “In the Archdiocese of Portland, it is preferred that readers not process with the ministers of the altar…to distinguish their role from that of instituted lectors.” Another example would be: “It is preferred in the Archdiocese of Portland that the bread and wine to be consecrated are done so in the vessels from which they will be distributed. This avoids the awkward division of the consecrated species into other vessels before the Communion Rite. This also avoids unduly prolonging the preparation of the altar.” Another would be: “In the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, it has been the custom and is preferred that seminarians wear the cassock and surplice in liturgical services, since they aspire to the clerical state.” Apart from these few things everything else contained therein is universal law.
AB: The introduction to the ALH cites several sources used from other dioceses. Can you describe the process that went into putting this together?
MO: Before we started this project we surveyed the situation in the United States to see which dioceses had similar projects. I also consulted many of my colleagues in the liturgical field. Father Mark Knestout of the Archdiocese of Washington was extremely generous in providing me access to a lot of the work he had done in this field, and Sister Esther Mary Nickel, RSM, who at that time was teaching in the Archdiocese of Denver was equally helpful. It was interesting to conduct this simple research, and there is a great spread of liturgical interest in the US. Some dioceses have virtually nothing, while others are well equipped. At the end of the day this project was an attempt to help our priests and parishes to strive for a more reverent, more beautiful, and more prayerful experience of the sacred liturgy, not just put together a list of rubrics, even if rubrics are necessary if we are going to achieve the goal.
AB: As you know, the Archdiocese of Portland exercises a significant liturgical influence over the dioceses of the United States because of the presence of the music publishing company Oregon Catholic Press. What do you consider to be the significance of this work for the life of the Church in Portland and the rest of the dioceses of the United States?
MO: We have said right from the beginning this work was meant for this Archdiocese but can be adapted for any of the diocese in the United States. We have already encouraged various dioceses to take and use this document in any way they would like. At the end of the day, we want to promote the sacred liturgy and excellent Ars Celebrandi. We want to promote the beauty of Catholic liturgy and as such are willing to share any of our efforts with others with similar objectives. This goes also for our monthly Newsletter and our quarterly magazine Source & Summit which are already being used by other dioceses and programs. There is nothing quite like the ALH in the rest of the United States, so I hope those interested in sacred liturgy will use it in their own dioceses.
AB: What kind of reception has the ALH had so far, in the Archdiocese and outside the Archdiocese?
MO: We have had a very positive response within the Archdiocese. It has soon become a reference book for most parishes. I can tell that by the number of questions my office receives regarding questions about the liturgy, they have decreased significantly since its publication. And now when we do get questions the first thing we do is search the electronic version of the ALH and find the answer, and then give the ALH reference to the inquirer. There are some that are not interested in the sacred liturgy and will never read it or consult it. These have erroneously made their mind up that liturgy is something which they “do their own way,” but this is not what the Church teaches or desires from them. Next year I have series of trainings about the ALH all over the Archdiocese, and so far the feedback seems to be positive. A few other dioceses in the United States have asked permission to use content of the ALH and a religious order in the Philippines has asked if they could adapt it for their congregation. Permissions have been gladly given all round!
AB: In his introduction, the Archbishop of Portland writes that he hopes the ALH will be a source of spiritual fruitfulness for all the faithful of the Archdiocese, including families. Can you expand upon that? I mean, this is a liturgical manual, and as the father of two small children, I can see some parents being puzzled by that comment.
MO: Liturgy for all! The Archbishop is a firm believer that the liturgy is the center of our lives as Catholics: it is not just the realm of the clergy. Everybody has a right to good liturgy and to know what is good liturgy and what the Church desires. The main religious experience of most families during their lives together is weekly Mass; therefore, it is important that they have a good understanding of the theology of the Mass, and that such an understanding comes from the celebration of the Eucharist. Lex orandi lex credendi! In other words, learn these things and teach them to your children (Cf. Deuteronomy 6:7).
AB: Given the current scandals in the Church, does the ALH seem unnecessary? Why does the Church need an ALH at a time like this?
MO: I think in times of crisis that we turn to the Lord in prayer, and that prayer is often guided by holy mother Church. Therefore, in this time of increased prayer, the beauty of the Church’s liturgy offers us great comfort knowing that we pray with the whole Church and according to the mind of the Church. The faithful come to the Church expecting to be nourished by her tried and tested millennia of liturgical praxis, and therefore the ALH is no less opportune today than at any other time.
AB: You note that the digital editions of the ALH will be updated when norms change in order keep pace with current liturgical law. Is this going to happen on a yearly basis or will it be more of an ad hoc kind of schedule?
MO: It will be mainly on an ad hoc basis, especially when major new rites or translations by the Vatican or USCCB are issued. In somewhat of a tribute to all those who proofread the drafts, there are hardly any typos in the first edition; thus, there is no need to get a second version out in the near future.
AB: What is the next stage for your office now that the ALH is published?
MO: As I mentioned earlier, we have training sessions of the ALH booked throughout the Archdiocese for next year. In addition, I am working with some pastors to implement the ALH in their parishes. Often, when parishes have not been in compliance with the liturgical norms of the Church for many years, some changes can be seen as necessary or can be misunderstood. I will be working with parishes and pastors to ease any of these necessary changes and to promote best practices for the sacred liturgy. Also, this year we will be focusing on sacred music and trying to set some objectives for the Archdiocese in our aim to elevate some of the music offerings and practices which we experience in the diocese. [See Archbishop Sample’s newly released pastoral letter on sacred music here.]
AB: What to you hope the fruits of the ALH will be in 3-5 years?
MO: Simply put, an increased interest in the liturgy and a faithful application of the Church’s expectations of liturgical praxis and the ars celebrandi.
The Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook is available in e-book format (Kindle – $9.99), in a PDF on the Archdiocesan website, or as a hard copy by mailing the Archdiocese of Portland’s Office of Divine Worship ($35, plus S&H).
Jeremy J. Priest is the Director of the Office of Worship for the Catholic Diocese of Lansing, MI, as well as Content Editor for Adoremus. He holds an STL from the Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL. He and his wife Genevieve have two children and live in Grand Ledge, MI.