Interviewing Liturgical Leaders: M. Francis Mannion

Pray Tell is starting a new series of interviews with liturgical leaders. It is loosely inspired by a series in Time Magazine. Each interviewee was asked to be witty, engaging and humorous in their responses. The views expressed in their responses are not necessarily those of Pray Tell.

Here is what we received…


Of everything you’ve done and written, what are you most proud of?

Looking back I can say that the thing I have published of which I am most “proud” is an August 2003 essay in Pro Ecclesia entitled, “Rejoice Heavenly Powers! The Renewal of Liturgical Doxology.” This gave me a chance to pull together in a systematic way my long-time interests in liturgical eschatology, cosmology, and doxology. The piece was published later in a badly edited collection of some of my essays entitled Masterworks of God: Essays in Liturgical Theory and Practice–to my relief now out of print!

Apart from teaching summer graduate courses at The Catholic University of America, St. John’s University, Collegeville, and St. Mary’s College, Moraga, Ca., my life has been spent mostly in parish work. My principal parish appointment was as rector of The Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City from 1984-2000.

Two things stand out during that time as highlights. The first was the $12 million renovation of our diocesan Cathedral–a wonderful exercise in the intersection of theology and practice. If I did nothing else in my life, I would regard that project as the highlight.

The renovation eschewed a “modernist” architecture agenda, as well as an historic renovation agenda. It produced, in my view, a model liturgical space for the celebration of all the Church’s liturgies, not just the Mass.

The second thing was the foundation of The Madeleine Choir School, the only full-time co-educational Choir School in North America. The guiding angel of this project was Gregory Glenn, Cathedral director of liturgy and music. While I was initially skeptical about the feasibility of that project, I came around slowly, and am now immensely proud of the School and the national–even international–reputation it has achieved.

I am also very pleased with the process by which the Snowbird Statement on Catholic Liturgical Music was produced. About 20 musicians for the U.S., Canada, England, Ireland, and Australia met in Snowbird, Utah, in 1993 and 1994 and after many drafts the Statement was published in 1995. Anthony Ruff, O.S.B, and I were co-editors. It had its limitations, and were we to revise it today it would probably have somewhat different emphases and concerns.

I am also proud of my efforts in founding in 2000 the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein outside Chicago. While I was there only two years, I think the Institute’s academic, publishing, and conference ventures were set on a firm basis. I do have concerns about the Institute’s academic standards, but that’s not my problem now.


Three things to fix the liturgy–what would they be?

I would fit them all under the heading of the ars celebrandi of the liturgy. I mean this in two senses: The first is the art required in the actual celebration of the liturgy. Priestly presidency is still in a rather sad state–atrocious homilies, poor presence, undignified style, etc. The same complaint I would make about liturgical ministers–untrained, clutsy movement, poor dress. (I am all for liturgical ministers wearing albs–for one thing it covers a multitude of sartorial sins!)

The second sense concerns liturgical art. I have very strong–and often unpopular–opinions here. I regard modern architecture as inadequate to the celebration of the liturgy. Most of the time it works well functionally, but not artistically. I have little sympathy, however, with the trend in some quarters toward restorationism–bringing back into liturgical architecture rather wooden historical reproduction.

In my view, the one thing that would make a major difference for the good in church architecture would be to draw upon Eastern tradition, and bring a rich iconographic program into the liturgical space. That would go a long way to keeping people like me happy! I would like to have seen develop the kind of architecture associated with Antoni Gaudi in Spain and Otto Wagner in Austria and the art nouveau movement in general, but they went quickly out of fashion in favor of the stripped-down modernist style.

Another aspect of the ars celebrandi has to do with music. I think that most of the liturgical music composed since Vatican II is of very poor quality. There are very few distinguished musicians composing for the liturgy. Unlike art and architecture, however, liturgical music of an inadequate kind can be quickly dispensed with in favor of something better.


Is the Vatican II liturgical program secure or endangered?

I think it is quite secure. Pope Francis has stated on a number of occasions that he would like to see a shift in emphasis from a “hot house” approach (my words) to liturgy that has prevailed in recent years toward a liturgy that is more evangelical and outward looking. Personally, I am tired of liturgical controversies.

I do not think that Pope Francis will take too many liturgical initiatives. I do, hope, though, that he will live long enough to modify the unsatisfactory translation processes that we have seen in recent decades, and trust local churches to be responsible for their own translations of liturgical books.


How does liturgical scholarship need to change over the next ten years?

Simply put, we need to develop a new sacramental theology. Before Vatican II, sacramental theology had the upper hand in liturgical scholarship and conversation in the church. However, apart from the great work of Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx, much of it was too closely allied with neo-scholasticism. The fundamental problem with pre-conciliar sacramental theology was that it was inadequately founded in and informed by the actual liturgy.

With the modern liturgical movement and its expression the Vatican II, the shift was toward liturgical theology–something rather new in the Church. It found wonderful expression in people like Odo Casel, Louis Bouyer and Cyprian Vagaggini. Today liturgical theology is practiced notably by Kevin Irwin and David Fagerberg, among others. Sometimes this newer approach lacks an overall systematic structure. (Incidentally, my poor brain cannot make heads or tails of Louis-Marie Chauvet’s work!).


Would you encourage young people to go into the field of liturgy today?

Of course. To adapt Cardinal Newman, the Church would look very foolish without liturgists.

However, I would strongly urge that those who study liturgy and sacramental theology should first become very well versed in systematic theology and theological method. Without a strong systematic basis, liturgical studies are in danger of flying off into space. A solid grounding in the theological tradition is essential to a good grasp of the liturgy.


Who are the authors that have most influenced your work?

During my graduate studies at The Catholic University of America, I was introduced to all the greats of the liturgical movement. It is hard to say who had the most influence on my thinking. I remember the excitement of reading Louis Bouyer’s Liturgical Piety. I was mesmerized by the sheer depth of scholarship of Joseph Jungmann’s Mass of the Roman Rite. I was particularly influenced by the work of symbolic anthropologists like Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner, and Mary Douglas (who moved my thinking in a more “conservative” direction).

My teachers David Power O.M.I., and Mary Collins O.S.B (my dissertation director) had enormous influence. The basic lesson I received from them was the realization of the complexity of the liturgy and that matters are rarely as simple as they seem. I heard of the passing of David Power with some sadness. There are few, if any, liturgical scholars of his caliber today.

Apart from liturgical thinkers, I have been immensely influenced by Avery (later Cardinal) Dulles, S.J. who taught me a certain style of theological thinking, a methodology of models (which shows up in many things I have written), and a clear and accessible writing style.

Early on I took the “cultural-linguistic” turn with George Linbeck, who had and has a great deal still to teach liturgical thinkers. Though Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine is 30 years old this year, it still has to be absorbed into Catholic theology. It is, I think, especially relevant to the liturgical and sacramental thinking of the Church.

My favorite book in the whole world is Hugo Rahner’s Man at Play. Despite its apparently lightweight title, the book is profound and most insightful. (It has been out of print for a number of years, and I have tried in vain to get publishers to re-print it. Any takers out there?)


What is your attitude toward the restoration of the Tridentine Mass?

Not overly sympathetic! However, I do agree with Pope Francis (who can’t understand why young people would be attracted to the Tridentine rite), that we must be gentle, respectful, and pastorally responsive to the needs of those attached to the Tridentine Mass

I must say that having attended a number of Tridentine celebrations in recent years, I have been left with the impression that it is the ritual–rather than God–who is being worshipped. There can be a kind of idolatry here.


Favorite places in the world you’d like to worship?

This may seem a little self-congratulatory, but my favorite place to worship is The Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. There is marvelous architecture, a beautifully renovated sanctuary, a great organ, very dignified ceremonial, good priestly presidency, world-class music (which carefully balances the participation of the people and the use of the choir).

Apart from that, I was impressed with the liturgy at the Basilica in Minneapolis (at least when I was there quite some time ago). I wouldn’t mind spending the rest of my years at Westminster Cathedral in London. (On Sunday afternoons I would take the bus up to King’s College Cambridge for Evensong!)


What were your greatest disappointments in your liturgical work?

Watching the direction The Society for Catholic Liturgy has taken in recent years has been a source of great disappointment.

The Society was founded in Salt Lake City in 1993 with a meeting of 25 liturgical scholar, sacramental theologians, musicians, architects, social scientists, and pastors notable for the excellence of their parish liturgies.

The consensus was that there existed a need for a centrist organization for Catholic liturgical scholars and pastors. We came up with a very brief statement of philosophy (developed further in subsequent years). In the first years, we had an annual convention which attracted about 75 members. The conventions had a slate of speakers who were truly outstanding in their fields: Avery Dulles, S.J., Robert Taft, S.J., Eamon Duffy, Aidan Nichols, O.P.

The philosophy of the Society was the advancement of an intensive rather than extensive renewal of the liturgy. Extensive renewal focuses on how the rites might change, following, on the one hand, Tridentine restorationism or the so-called “reform of the reform,” and, on the other hand, “progressive” models of inculturation.

By intensive renewal I mean an agenda which seeks to take the liturgy as it is (for better or worse) and to advance the means of celebrating to celebrate it with greater dignity, style, and a more adequate spiritual character. So, we asked ourselves questions like: how can the music, art, and architecture, priestly presidency, active participation, liturgical education be improved. We had the conviction that without changing a single word or rubric, the actual practice of the liturgy could be improved 1000%. We had a very good relationship with the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (as it was known at the time), and we always took our cue from them.

Sadly, the Society is now hardly recognizable from what it was at its inception. The agenda of the “reform of the reform” has taken over; some elements of Tridentine restorationism have crept in. The Society’s conventions have become a continuing education exercise rather than a meeting of scholars and professionals. Speakers–even keynoters–are not known for their liturgical expertise—and saddest of all, the Society has lost most of its scholarly and influential members. Now trained liturgists and sacramental theologians are few and far between in the Society. To use the language of scripture scholar Raymond Brown, S.S., the Society can now be characterized as manifesting a “non-scholarly conservatism” as distinct from a “scholarly conservatism.”

A second disappointment flows from what I have just said. In 1996, the Society decided to sponsor a thrice-yearly journal, Antiphon. Most of the contents were provided by the papers of the annual conferences.

In recent years, Antiphon has become a great disappointment, with essays that are often very amateurish–reading more like bad term papers–and not of a very high quality. The lack of an adequate liturgical or sacramental-theological basis in much of the writing is evident. Indeed, there is very little substantive theology at all in Antiphon these days. (One essay published in the past couple of years argued that women should be excluded from all liturgical ministries: the author began his analysis by looking at the structure of the relationship between Adam and Eve: Very esoteric and very sad!)


Are you hopeful about the future of the liturgy?

There is always hope. Despite the growing pains of the post-conciliar liturgy, a great deal has been achieved and I would never want to go backwards. In my view, the two most important changes in the Mass were the turn to the vernacular and the restoration of the chalice to the people.

However, a problem Romano Guardini identified in the early 1960s continues to bother me today: Is the modern person capable of the liturgical act? I don’t know. But I hope so. However, the challenges posed by a consumer, narcissistic, and subjectivist culture are very serious.

When it comes down to it, the problems to be faced are not so much liturgical rites, but the ability of the people to participate actively in the liturgy. Liturgical education is a far greater challenge than making ritual and verbal changes in the liturgy.


Monsignor M. Francis Mannion, a priest of the Diocese of Salt Lake City, was pastor of St. Vincent de Paul parish in Salt Lake City, Utah from 2004-2013. He was given medical retirement in 2013, and assumed the title of pastor emeritus.

He holds a Diploma in Theology (B.D.) from the Pontifical University of Maynooth, Ireland; an M.A. in Liturgical Studies and a Ph.D. in Sacramental Theology, both from The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.

After doctoral studies completed at Catholic University in 1984, he became vice-rector and then rector of The Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, a position he held for fourteen years from 1986-2000.

During his tenure as Cathedral rector, Monsignor Mannion served as founding pastor of The Madeleine Choir School, the only full-time Catholic Cathedral choir school in the U.S. He founded the Good Samaritan Program of the Cathedral, one of the largest parish-based charitable outreach programs in the U.S. He established the Madeleine Festival of the Arts and Humanities and the Eccles International Organ Festival, annual events now recognized as major arts events in the State of Utah.

In 1992, he was appointed a Prelate of Honor (Monsignor) by Pope John Paul II.

In August 2000, Monsignor Mannion was appointed by Cardinal Francis George as founding director of The Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, Illinois, a position in which he established the foundations of the Institute’s academic, publishing, and conference programs.

He was the founding president of The Society for Catholic Liturgy and editor of the Society’s publication, Antiphon: journal for Liturgical Renewal from l995-2013.

Monsignor Mannion has served in advisory capacities to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He was an advisor to the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, the Forum on Translation Issues, and the Office for the Catechism. He also served as a member of the consultants’ committee of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.

He was co-editor (along with Anthony Ruff, O.S.B) of The Snowbird Statement on Catholic Liturgical Music issued in 1995, and translated since then into a number of languages. He has also served in an advisory capacity to the Catholic Common Ground Initiative.

He has taught in the graduate programs at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.; St. Mary’s College, Moraga, California; and St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota; The Liturgical Institute, Mundelein, Illinois, and Mundelein Seminary.




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12 responses to “Interviewing Liturgical Leaders: M. Francis Mannion”

  1. Todd Flowerday Avatar

    Fascinating. I think he gives up on modern architecture too easily. Most examples he would criticize I’m not sure I would characterize as real architecture. Construction-on-a-budget, perhaps. I think he misses the politics and the economics driving the modern building project.

    I had always associated Msgr Mannion with the SCL and the Snowbird Statement, a sort-of counterpoint to its immediate predecessor, the Milwaukee document. Snowbird is not without its problems. I confess a bit of surprise that he distanced himself so strongly from Antiphon. I’d agree with his assessment though. I guess I’ll need to build a mental wall between Msgr Mannion and that periodical now.

    And there’s his worship-of-ritual statement too. I’ll definitely have to reassess what I read of the man. I admit my past associations don’t seem to jive with what I read here.

    I loved his comment about liturgical training. I’ve never regretted studying systematic theology rather than liturgy as a specialty. I’m not sure I would necessarily suggest liturgy as a Master’s-level specialty to a potential student. I think liturgy can be effectively apprenticed. And probably should be. The theological grounding is essential.

    About his reference to “education.” I don’t think liturgy can be treated solely as a matter of reason. People need formation in good liturgy. Our modern culture, for all its faults, does indeed have a sense of ritual. People today are formed in all sorts of rituals. They crave it. The key is to have good leadership in faith communities that can apprentice, not necessarily teach good liturgy.

  2. John Kohanski Avatar
    John Kohanski

    I found this most interesting: “(On Sunday afternoons I would take the bus up to King’s College Cambridge for Evensong!)” Especially considering Westminster Cathedral has Sunday Vespers (beautifully done).

    Of course people crave rituals, which is precisely why America as a Protestant-founded nation developed flag worship, and Masonic associations abounded, since there was no ritual in the vast majority of America’s church buildings. In these days of reduced or disgarded ritual in the Church, something has to fill the void. Unfortunately many people look for it outside ecclesial structures.

  3. Bill Kish Avatar
    Bill Kish

    I consider Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia to be eclectic. The interior especially struck me as quite modern looking, perhaps modern gothic?

  4. Tom Piatak Avatar
    Tom Piatak

    Msgr. Mannion is exactly right about the poor quality of most modern church architecture and of most post Vatican II religious music. Catholic churches and Catholic music used to be widely regarded, even by non-Catholics, as beautiful. That is no longer the case.

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      @Tom Piatak – comment #3:
      According to Thomas Day, much of the liturgical music in the US Catholic church before Vatican II – if there even was any – was abysmal.

      1. W. W. O'Bryan Avatar
        W. W. O’Bryan

        @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #4:
        True then. Truer today.

  5. Alan Johnson Avatar
    Alan Johnson

    Same in the UK. Terrible wobbly choirs singing the likes of Tozer. No sign of chant (apart from Credo 3 yelled like a football chant) or proper polyphony. The average parish had not a clue about music, and there was no attempt to even think about it on a diocesan level.

  6. Tom Piatak Avatar
    Tom Piatak

    Fr. Ruff,

    Yes, I read Thomas Day’s book and I remember his discussion of the hymns that were popular in the US before Vatican II. But, as I recall, he contrasted that music both with the vernacular hymns that had developed in the German-speaking world and with chant. In most places, we no longer have anything like those sturdy German hymns or chant, to say nothing of Palestrina, Byrd, Tallis, Mozart, Haydn, and the like.

    1. Anthony Ruff Avatar
      Anthony Ruff

      @Tom Piatak – comment #6:
      Yeah, but keep in mind that it was only a very few centers that did much Palestrina and Byrd and Mozart and the rest – throughout history that was never the music of most parishes or smaller communities.

  7. Tom Piatak Avatar
    Tom Piatak

    Fr. Ruff,

    Yes, I understand your point. But the fact remains that, for many centuries, Catholic musicians were writing music for the Church whose beauty awed the world. I would that that were still the case, but I don’t believe that it is. If there is a contemporary Palestrina, please point me in his direction.

  8. Alan Johnson Avatar
    Alan Johnson

    Who would be paying the salaries of these professional composers? They were full-time employees of the church in centuries past. Is there the money now, and if there is, what should the spending priorities be?
    James MacMillan composes music to catholic texts extensively, but very few places have the resources or the finely tuned congregational ears to perform/appreciate his output. In fact he has recently picked up his ball and walked, feeling unappreciated.There are others setting Latin texts who mainly compose for professional choirs – as did Palestrina, Byrd and Mozart. There are a handful of catholic cathedrals/parishes with the musical resources to perform contemporary “classical” church music. And much of it is in styles that the person in the pew would find challenging and inimical to contemplation.

  9. Bill Johnston Avatar
    Bill Johnston

    The essay he referred to, “Rejoice, heavenly powers! The renewal of liturgical doxology,” as printed in August 2003 can actually be found in Pro Ecclesia 13, no. 1 (Winter 2003): 37-60.

    The essay starts by proposing “three frameworks for the consideration and renewal of the current liturgical situation. The three frameworks are eschatology, cosmology, and doxology” (p.37). In developing the first, eschatology, he begins by quoting Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 8 (the heavenly liturgy paragraph), and Lumen Gentium, no. 50 – here’s that quotation:

    “‘It is especially in the sacred liturgy that our union with the heavenly church is best realized; in the liturgy, through the sacramental signs, the power of the Holy Spirit acts on us, and with community rejoicing we celebrate together the praise of the divine majesty, when all those of every tribe and tongue and people and nation (cf. Apoc. 5:9) who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ and gathered together into one church glorify, in one common song of praise, the one and triune God. When, then, we celebrate the eucharistic sacrifice we are most closely united to the worship of the heavenly church; when in the fellowship of communion we honor and remember the glorious Mary ever virgin, St. Joseph, the holy apostles and martyrs and all the saints.”

    Then he wrote: “The liturgically-minded Christian touched by such descriptions may well ask: Where does this conception of the liturgy find practical expression today? Is this the kind of vision that one actually experiences at the average Sunday celebration of the Eucharist, not to speak of the other liturgies of the churches? Few will be inclined to answer these questions in a positive manner” – and goes on from there.

    For some time I’ve thought SC 8 and “the heavenly liturgy” has been a neglected element of the liturgical renewal, and this is one essay that gives it some attention.

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