Pedagogy of the Liturgy

Human Rites

The one occasion in the week when you might expect a Catholic Christian to go to Church is on a Sunday for Mass.   Even if they don’t actually make it, all but the most determined post-Catholic will have a little bit of the Sunday-ought-to-go-to-Mass buried somewhere in their neurons.  This is therefore, for many of those who go, the defining religious moment of their week.  However, what is going on in that hour per week and what ought to be going on have become the focus of an intense debate that has emerged in the last fifteen years.

I was only made aware of this comparatively recently when I briefly took up a university chaplaincy posting, after twenty years spent working in secondary schools and informal youth ministry.  In the context I had been familiar with, the energy went into making sure that the text and action of the Mass engaged engaged as far as possible with the group, that they had something to do in the course of the liturgy, that any music was tailored to their ears and tongues, and that the homily was of a length, content and delivery that opened the Gospel to its hearers.   Failure to do this could mean a painful fifty minutes holding a lid on the simmering discontent of 50 – 1200 bored kinesthetic learners.  Positively, what I believed I had observed over the two decades was that if you got these things right, most people of any age would participate energetically or reverently as required, quite enjoy being there, occasionally leave with a word of thanks at the end – and come back next week for more.

So it came as a shock to move to my new post and be told by a small, but vociferous group of zealous young men that I was doing it all wrong.  In order to understand what they were talking about, I found myself having to toil through desolate wastelands of Vatican text that denounced liturgical abuses and laid the blame for the collapse in Church attendance over the last forty years on the liturgical misdeeds of dodgy priests who indeed seemed to bear an uncanny resemblance to me.

Wronging Rites

One issue for my critics was literal obedience to the rubrics of the modern Mass, but a further issue for many of them was their rediscovery of the power and beauty of the Tridentine Mass, which some of them believed was better and more authentic than the modern version of Paul VI.  In both cases one of the underlying issues came down to a religious aesthetic: the liturgy had to have a certain look.  For some, if it wasn’t actually a solemn Tridentine Mass, it had to look as much like one as possible, to be faithful to the spirit of the liturgy.   For others, if Mass wasn’t reverently conducted exactly according to the rubrics and the written text, the faithful were being deprived of their rights to an authentic liturgy.

It took me some while to recognize that they were, to an extent, having the reverse experience, as they came to University, to my own.  I had moved from a very traditional, rubric-intensive parish liturgy, regularly serving at sung Latin Mass, to a brave new Catholicism in light, spare, modern buildings with dynamic and entertaining preaching, open to the modern world, in a liturgy which seemed to treat me like a grown up.  Their experience had been almost exactly the opposite, growing up in parishes of often limited liturgical resources, they had come to a city where the rich, beautiful and strange in Catholicism were available in abundance.  They had undergone a reverse conversion experience and discovered God and sacredness in solemn liturgy.   Whereas I had once been seized by the new immediacy of communication in a liturgy that allows the personality of the presider to make a difference, they were being seized by the sense of numinousness and transcendence often enabled in slow-moving, depersonalized ritual.

I must therefore put my hand up and acknowledge a modern, liturgical porcupine here.  During the first sixty years of the twentieth century there was a slow, evolution towards a text that everyone could understand, an action that everyone could witness and a ritual in which more could play a part.  This evolution was supported and driven by clergy and laity, who found themselves working in cultural contexts increasingly remote from the pre-revolutionary Europe that gave birth to the Latin Mass.  We supposed that by making everything plain, it would, ipso facto, be easier for all to find God here and would be in every relevant respect better than what was left behind.  This is, to return to the language of The Master and his Emissary, somewhat left-brain reasoning that misses out on the power and strength of deeply rooted rituals.   These embedded cultural activities can sometimes speak intuitively at levels deeper than surface communication allows.   Such power is captured in the evocative words of those great theologians, Pink Floyd:

Home, home again, I like to be here when I can,
when I come home, cold and tired,
it’s good to warm my bones beside the fire.
Far away across the field,
tolling of the iron bell calls the faithful to their knees
to hear the softly spoken magic spell.’

I must emphasise that the porcupine error here is not that of changing the liturgy to its modern, vernacular form.  The lines of evolution of the attempt to make liturgy accessible to the unlatined masses go back to the Middle Ages, and for the great majority of Catholic worshippers the changes have been enormously helpful[1].  The error was to suppose that everyone ought to find this sort of liturgy better, because clearly not everyone did and not everyone does.

The Spirit of the Liturgy

But there is a contrary porcupine.  One version of it arises out of the endemic tendency in the Catholic Church to claim universal truths on the basis of self-selecting anecdotal evidence.  The argument runs something like this: before the change lots of people went to Mass, now far fewer people go to Mass; in some churches where the Old Rite liturgy is performed we find a lot of young people.  Therefore if we all did the Old Rite liturgy, lots of young people would start coming to Mass and everything would become better again.  There are one or two logical gaps in this line of thought, but more importantly, it completely ignores the experience of dodgy priests like myself, who have repeatedly noted after youth Masses at the opposite end of the spectrum a response (often from people who would not ordinarily darken the doors of a Church) ‘that was the best Mass I’ve ever been to’.

These debates crystallize around a book written by Pope Benedict when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger called ‘The Spirit of the Liturgy’.  This is a thoughtful and quite personal exploration of liturgy through the eyes of someone who prizes beauty, reverence and contemplation in communal worship.  He is, as you would expect from a scholar versed in the ancient writings of the Church, deeply sensitive to the theology (or theologies) embedded in the text and actions of the Roman liturgy and the space of transcendence into which this text and action should lead the worshippers.  There are criticisms of the performance aspect of modern priesthood, criticisms of a form of ritual in which the community ‘celebrates itself’ rather than turning to God, with the implication that our liturgy would be ‘better’ if the priest faced away from the congregation.   Perhaps too there is an implicit desire to bridge the gap between modern Catholic liturgy (which currently looks West, to Protestant models of worship) and look east to Orthodox liturgy.

I can’t do justice to Cardinal Ratzinger’s work here, but I want to take issue with one phrase that he uses which has become very influential in the criticisms over ‘liturgical abuse’ and ‘authenticity’.  That phrase is ‘the pedagogy of the liturgy’.  In the wake of the Vatican council, three official pillars of the post-modern Catholicism were identified in the 80s and 90s.  These were the new Canon Law, the new Catechism of the Catholic Church and a newly ‘authentic’ Liturgy.  Of these the latter is the one that has most universal impact. The Sunday liturgy, the one place where every Catholic churchgoer actually does go, implicitly teaches the congregation through its texts and actions.  Thus any adulteration of that text and those actions diminishes the quality of the pedagogy and, by implication, falsifies the message.

Education, education, education

There is truth here.  And a porcupine.   One truth is that you do not have to be an intellectual to find the Old Rite Mass powerful and consoling, or to be moved by solemn high Mass with a first rate choir singing Byrd and Palestrina.  And it is also true that the text of the liturgy contains important fragments of the theological heritage of the Western Church.  The texts that we have, even in the pruned modern version, are highly allusive.  Individual prayers are shaped by particular theological concerns and much of the text has layers of reference, above all to scripture.  This allusive, many-layered, referential style of writing is shared with the Jewish Hellenism out of which Christianity emerges.  Secular modern equivalents might be the poetry of T S Eliot or the prose of James Joyce.  In this style of writing a single word can lead us to a whole paragraph of the bigger story.  The text (and the action, which is also part of the text) opens worlds for us as we study it more closely.  In this sense, it is true to say that the liturgy is pedagogical.

However, it is worth asking ourselves which of the billion Catholics (allegedly) on the planet actually do benefit or actually do experience privation with regard to the weekly liturgy.  Aside from fellow clergy, the people that I have met who worry most about falsifying or diminishing liturgy through the ‘wrong’ words, actions and music in any rite, are a comparative few of those with sophisticated (classical) musical sensibilities and with at least a grammar school level education.  For it is this that gives them the capacity (at least in principle) to access the complexity of the text and what lies behind it, and often also gives them a hatred of the kind of cheesy tunes that a lot of people (including me) actually enjoy singing.   As said, you don’t have to be an intellectual or well-educated to prefer an old style Mass to the new one, but your preference will be based on other things (behaviours, reverence, atmosphere, sense of familiarity, silence, music) which are not actually dependent on any specific text.

Teaching and Learning

This, then, is where the porcupine lies, to suggest that simply by presenting people with a text week on week, they will understand and interiorise it.  But what, exactly do people learn?  You can learn reverence, stillness, contemplation, celebration, praise.  Most of the readings (especially the Gospels) lend themselves to understanding and can be further explained in the homily.  But this tends to be what people are most grateful for and the limit of what they remember.  In contrast people can say the creed all their lives without getting any deeper into the theological tradition behind it.  The Eucharistic prayer, even in the more accessible form we recently abandoned in the English-speaking world, washes over many people without leaving a theological tidemark.

People indeed ‘understand’ the consecration and communion, though they would not necessarily be able to articulate the theology behind them.  I have been present in many discussion groups with lifelong churchgoers from ordinary parishes, who have such an intuitive appreciation of the liturgy (in its modern form) and who yet have acquired no structure for thinking about its messages.   This chimes in with my own experience, when I went from pre-reflective liturgical participation at my local parish, to a context, at university, where others started challenging me on what I believed and what I thought I was doing when I went to Mass.  I discovered that I knew nothing, beyond what I remembered from primary school or what my father had told me. Though I did have the (valuable) intuition that this was important to me and worth arguing for.

This puzzle highlights for me the temptation to a certain laziness in our notion of pedagogy.  For those of us who have been at the more successful end of a grammar school style education, ideas, concepts, long words, long sentences are easy to grasp.  If we are talking to people and they do not get it, the temptation is then to suppose that it is their fault, rather than because we have failed to communicate well.  But the story of education in England over the last forty years suggests that this comforting thought may let us off the hook too easily.

One of the most striking changes in education is the movement away from that prejudice which blames the learner for everything to a more fruitful (and much harder) approach, which structures learning around the needs and capacities of the students.  The results are, I believe, a spectacular success pace the convenient disinformation of politicians.  Far more people get far further with a wide range of subjects in English schools than ever before.   All teachers now take a huge (and at times wearying) responsibility for finding new and inventive ways of helping their students learn better, whatever their background or ability.

For this reason, I suggest we might look differently at current movements to turn our backs on the congregation or to put up a barrage of ‘proper text’ or candles between us and them, and to reduce the celebrant’s interaction with the congregation, for the sake of ‘authentic pedagogy’.  Perhaps it is a symptom of our collective weariness.  We priests are too few, too old and too tired to provide the kind of liturgy and the kind of communication that most people seem to need and which most people (at least the few thousands that I have encountered) seem to respond to.  So let’s do what we can, with less effort and more consolation for ourselves. It is always going to be easier (and it will occasionally be true) to blame other people for not getting it.

Who is this for?

According to one report, Ignatius of Loyola, author of the famous ‘Spiritual Exercises’, would get angry with spiritual directors who told their retreatants off for not praying right.  His rejected the implication that there were only limited ‘right’ ways of praying or finding God.  In contrast, when he gives his instructions on posture before prayer, he suggests that the retreatant should decide for themselves whether to stand, sit, kneel, prostrate themselves, according to whatever most helped them in their devotion.   These remarks remind us that what we are doing in the course of a spiritual exercise is shaping and entering a space in which we, as we are, can best find and commune with our maker.

Perhaps that is also something of what lies behind a much earlier exchange between Gregory the Great and Augustine of Canterbury.  Augustine is anxious because there are non-Roman elements in the liturgies of the Anglo-Saxons, and wants to know if he should correct them with proper Roman ones.  Gregory suggests wisely that he should accept anything local that is of value.  It is good things that make places worthy of respect not respected places that make things good.

Perhaps the key idea, lost in a focus on text and rubric, is communication.  The ultimate law of liturgy, should be to do together what helps us, as people of God within this tradition, to find God together and to discover what God has to say to us.  If that is true, then liturgy, while rooted in tradition, needs to remain open to new modulations.  Only thus will its pedagogy be something that everybody can experience, rather than a consoling idea lost in the minds of an antiquarian few.

Communication, communication, communication

The modern liturgy has opened up great possibilities for the kind of dynamic communication that most Christian learners of my acquaintance (young and old) both need and welcome.  These should not be closed down through anxiety about doing things ‘properly’ (a very ancient, pre-Christian, Roman preoccupation).   Perhaps some of them, like those I met recently, will go on to discover the power and beauty of more ancient forms of liturgy, and that will help them.   But that is not a reason for avoiding the challenge and the effort of a liturgical pedagogy that actively communicates with people as they are and explicitly helps them in their Christian learning.  The congregation has, after all, offered this hour of their week to the Lord, and (since translation is important) liturgy, in its origin, does mean a public service provided by the wealthy for the benefit of ordinary citizens.


[1]   Acknowledged in Benedict the XVI’s Motu Proprio on the old rite Mass.  We did a survey of our two hundred and thirty worshippers at the University chaplaincy.  We had about 120 replies.  One question was about Latin in the liturgy.  Roughly 36 people wanted more, about 18 people wanted less and the rest did thought it was fine as it was.