While baseball is called “America’s Game,” it appears these days that football has won America’s attention. As September comes around, baseball gives way to football for many viewers. After all, by now most baseball teams—and their respective fan-bases—are out of contention for post-season play, while most football teams (even the Cleveland Browns have 20-1 odds!)—and their fan bases—are all in the running.
“Running,” I think, is an apt word at this time. Since last year’s Super Bowl, most off-season talk has been principally about team trades and the annual draft. Running backs, of course, are key, but there is an equally well-known and widely-important position that I’ve heard much of lately—and one that brings liturgy to mind—the wide receiver.
In every specialty—medicine, tax preparation, writing, highway repair, parenting—a degree of expertise and precision develops in the way these professions speak and write about their terminology. What is music to the ears of one profession sounds like so much “blah-blah-blah” (think Charlie Brown’s teacher) to other ears. Football is no exception. I myself have been fascinated by the talk about evaluating this year’s class of wide receivers. In particular, how they run their respective routes.
One football website claims that “[t]here is an art to route running, [so] great receivers are intentional with their technique throughout the entirety of the route.” Thus, fantasy football players are picked according to their ability to run routes, and new receivers are ranked according to their route-running skill.
Who—except for players, coaches, and TV’s newest football expert, color commentator, and ex-Cowboys quarterback, Tony Romo—would have ever guessed that running a simple “out” pattern was not so simple?
Now, the analogies between games and liturgy have been made for decades. Romano Guardini’s 1918 book, The Spirit of the Liturgy devotes an entire chapter to the comparison, “The Playfulness of the Liturgy,” while Joseph Ratzinger’s 2000 text of the same name leads off with the comparison. The topic of route-running has brought the likeness between football and liturgy to my mind.
Many factors go into a wide receiver’s route-running success on the field: his initial stance, the position of his arms, the start speed, the telegraphing of the eyes, the stutter of his steps, the move (single or double?), the time of contact with the defender—and the list goes on and on. If all these factors are deemed essential, then how much more important the various moves, gestures, postures, and elements of the liturgy’s ministers—those receiving the grace of the liturgy in order to pass them along to the “rest of the team”?
True, like all analogies, that between sports and liturgy, between route-running and liturgical action, limps. Despite similarities, liturgy isn’t merely a game (although it does involve an element of playfulness), and liturgical ministers are not simple athletes (although liturgy does involve the body). Still, both physical contests and prayer are human activities requiring practice, attention to detail, repetition, and mental engagement.
I’ve thought of this “art of celebrating” (what the Church calls ars celebrandi) doubly over the past year as Adoremus has published Monsignor Marc Caron’s essays on “Liturgical Traditions,” mostly in our monthly e-newsletter, ABInsight. His essays examine ministers’ gestures and postures in the Novus Ordo according to our received heritage, so that we can celebrate and understand today’s liturgy in its necessary “hermeneutic of reform,” as Pope Benedict says. A minister’s liturgical actions are based upon the General Instruction of the Roman Missal’s directive that “attention should be paid to what is determined by this General Instruction and the traditional practice of the Roman Rite and to what serves the common spiritual good of the People of God, rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice” (42). How to position our hands and where to direct our prayer, how to sit, when to bow, where to focus one’s eyes: these are not random or irrelevant actions, but the details given by thousands of years of tradition to help us worship God the way he wishes to be worshiped. Any NFL wide-receiver would agree that such detail is essential to achieving success.
But apart from the new NFL season upon us, and in addition to Msgr. Caron’s essays, I’m further confirmed in these necessary details by another year of clerical formation. Each year, as director of liturgy for my diocese (La Crosse, WI.), I guide the liturgical formation of candidates for ordination as deacons. As a class of men approaches its ordination date—including this upcoming year—candidates study the various ritual texts they will use as deacons and undergo liturgical practica relative to each of the rites.
Let me just say that my own experience in facilitating liturgical practica shows that today’s deacons truly want to know what to do—and to do it correctly. These men are not fastidious aesthetes interested in abstruse liturgical minutiae for its own sake. They are veterinarians, firefighters, farmers, and pipefitters who wish to step beyond themselves and into an image of Christ the deacon and servant of all. Even if I think that a day’s worth of walking through the Mass is sufficient, their own detailed questions (e.g., “Where exactly do I kiss the page of the Gospel Book after proclaiming the text?”) demands much more time. In other words, all of these ritual details may seem insignificant—until you are the one who has to do them!
A Sunday in the fall is a beautiful thing for many reasons. But beauty is often in the small parts that make up the whole. Here’s to hoping that both our liturgy’s ministers and football team’s wide receivers perform well for the good of the whole. For as football is a game of inches (as Vince Lombardi said), so God is in the details.
Christopher Carstens is director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin; a visiting faculty member at the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois; editor of the Adoremus Bulletin; and one of the voices on The Liturgy Guys podcast. He is author of A Devotional Journey into the Mass and A Devotional Journey into the Easter Mystery (Sophia), as well as Principles of Sacred Liturgy: Forming a Sacramental Vision (Hillenbrand Books). He lives in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, with his wife and eight children.