AMEN CORNER: Monks, Megachurches, and Mediocrity

We continue to feature the first article from each issue of Worship, the “Amen Corner,” along with a response to it (forthcoming). This article is from the March, 2018 issue. Gracious thanks to editor Bernadette Gasslein and Worship for reprint permission. Subscribe to Worship here.

by Anthony Ruff, OSB

I would not necessarily expect to find significant overlap between the sixth-century Rule of Benedict directing the life of monasteries and the “Rebuilt” movement, which seeks to revitalize Catholic parishes along the lines of successful nondenominational megachurches. But when it comes to their attitude toward mediocrity in singers and readers, it seems that these sources so far removed in time express very similar concerns.

In the Rule of Benedict, Saint Benedict decrees as follows: “Nor should the reader be anyone who happens to take up the book,” and “The brothers are not to read or chant in order, but only those who edify their hearers.” [1] In the 2013 book Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter, Michael White and Tom Corcoran write this: “Make sure you have the best musicians you can find (paid or volunteer) and use them; do the difficult thing and ask people who are holding your program down or even making it worse to step aside. Face the hard facts and lean into the conflict in order to advance your program.” [2]

Competence in liturgical ministries: we’re taking up a delicate topic that elicits a wide variety of feelings. Everyone wants worshipers to have a positive experience of being engaged by talented readers and singers. But no one wants to hurt the feelings of well-intentioned liturgical volunteers by turning them away. And elitism runs deeply against the grain of the egalitarianism that is so strong in contemporary Western cultures.

But there is a way forward. It is a deepened understanding that, in things liturgical, the community comes before the individual. Liturgical ministry is for the sake of the community, not the minister. That the liturgical minister derives spiritual and other benefit from ministry is all to the good, but it is not the conceptual starting point for thinking about such ministry.

The time is right for getting this straight. I suppose the time always was right, but at this particular time we are all aware of heightened stakes because of declining church attendance and massive disengagement from organized religion, especially among the young. We cannot afford any longer to put on offer a liturgical experience that is unappealing and off-putting because of the incompetence of readers and singers and other liturgical ministers.

To be sure, worship, at least in liturgically minded churches, is for the faithful before it is for seekers and questioners. The Eucharist, as the culminating sacrament of initiation, is for those who are already washed and anointed, fully initiated into the church, and committed to the church’s worship and way of life. Liturgy is not a marketing tool or the centerpiece of a public relations plan.

But the boundaries are not always so clear. Plenty of baptized Christians who were raised as church-goers now attend infrequently or not at all, and when they do attend they come with serious doubts about whether worship is a waste of their time. The seekers and questioners are not just “out there”—they are in our pews. And, let us be honest, some of us who work full-time in liturgical ministry and theological education are also, in our own way, sometimes seekers and questioners. All of this is just the way it is in Western cultures where Christendom is slowly unraveling, its structures and cultural artifacts have real but declining viability, and the churches are striving to develop new patterns of worship and witness suitable to their increasingly minority status. It’s on us to get it right, for ourselves and for our people.

One problem, which arose quickly in the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council and is still with us in many places, is an unhelpful understanding of liturgical ministry as the privileged means of participation in the liturgy. The old problem was clericalism, where the ordained did all the important things and the ideal in the documents was that the acolytes and choir members be in minor orders or at least male. The reaction to that was to involve as many lay people as possible as guitar players, lectors, commentators, planners, and so forth. Unspoken but assumed was that participation “merely” as a baptized member of the assembly was second-rate and didn’t really count. And the liturgy isn’t a “performance,” you know, so anyone can do liturgical ministry.

All of this was well-intentioned, but it led in many places to an unbearable mediocrity that ill serves the assembly. And it’s killing us. The response to that problem, of course, is not to declare the liturgical reform a failure and go back to the 1962 missal, but to emphasize more strongly than ever the fundamental insight of Sacrosanctum Concilium that liturgy is the work of the entire people of God. And to understand all lay ministry in the liturgy as at the service of that noble goal. (And all ordained ministry too, but that is a topic for another column.)

Some will say that I’m being unduly negative when I speak of liturgical incompetence as “killing us.” I’m aware that much excellent work is done by many people, and that great progress has been made in many places since the Council.

But consider the dreary report from Rebuilt’s Fr. Michael White of his experience at a weekend gathering at the beach of some 25-30 extended family and friends, all cradle Catholics. He went to Mass on Sunday morning, but they did not. His account is worth quoting at length.

“There was no opening hymn, because the organist hadn’t shown up on time. The organ was in the sanctuary, so you could see she wasn’t there, and you could also see when our luck ran out and she did show up (during the homily). . . .

Nobody sang or even pretended to try, except the organist herself who also served as a kind of Wagnerian cantor (she definitely didn’t need that mike). And she seemed fine with the ‘no one else is singing but me’ part; really, she did. “The lector read the readings in a way that convinced me that he’d never laid eyes on them before. . . .

“We powered through the . . . Mass as if the building was on fire. When I returned to my seat from Communion, almost the entire section I was seated in was gone. . . .

“At the dismissal, instead of some charge to go in peace and serve the Lord or announce the Gospel, the celebrant says, ‘Don’t forget, at the beach, it’s always Happy Hour.’ Really? Did he just give them permission to start drinking?” [3]

White’s devastating appraisal is this: “Why would I want any of my dechurched family members to have set aside their various weekend activities to witness this gathering of the Body of Christ? The last place I would want to reintroduce them to worship was this half empty church for . . . a full miss when it comes to what the Christian community is supposed to be about when it assembles.”[4]

And Saint Benedict? We can only wonder what unpleasant and irritating experiences he must have had which led him to decree as he did in chapter 38 of the Rule. He must have sat through one too many Office with an untrained or incompetent lector, or a cantor who tore down rather than built up (the literal meaning of “edify”) the community of praying monks. He had had enough of it, and he put his foot down. “Nor should the reader be anyone who happens to take up the book . . . only those who edify their hearers . . .”

I wish I could assert that White’s parish experience is exceptional, but I’m not sure I can. I don’t claim to have an extensive experiential overview of the entire United States, nor do I have access to broad-based statistical data. But when my work and travels take me to various parts of the country, or when the National Catholic Youth Choir sings in various parishes on tour, I attend worship with eyes wide open for what I can learn about the state of postconciliar Catholic liturgical renewal. I have my own sad tales to recount which would rival White’s.

So much of the diagnosis of our problems coming from “Reform of the Reform” quarters—and this includes the writings of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI—seems off the mark to me. What I observe is not so much irreverence, loss of the sacred, and unrestrained creativity by people cooking up rituals that celebrate themselves rather than God. What I see is unbearable boredom, lifeless going through the motions, unconvincing rendering of texts by readers and singers. Why indeed would I want to invite the dechurched to come back to this?

The “Rebuilt” movement caused something of a splash when it arrived on the scene a few years ago. When liturgical music graduates of our School of Theology interview for parish jobs, they report being asked what they think about “Rebuilt” and whether they are on board with this movement. Some classically trained musicians’ first reaction is skepticism.

There is a danger that the appearance of the “Rebuilt” movement, influenced by evangelical megachurch models and utilizing Christian contemporary music, would reopen old wounds in the Catholic liturgy wars between classical and contemporary musicians, between organists and guitarists (or now, Electric guitarists). Some of us had hoped that we had moved beyond these useless divisions from the 1980s and 1990s.

This bifurcation is not a helpful way to view the matter. It is not a helpful way to draw the lines marking off schools of thought about liturgy and music. The distinction that matters is not between classical and contemporary, between polyphony and percussion, or between conservatory and commercialism. It is between competence and incompetence, between energy and laziness, between intentionality and inertia, and yes, between life and death. These options hold for liturgists and musicians of all approaches.

The future belongs to those who are ready to build and to rebuild along the lines of ministerial competence that values the assembly above all else. Happily, new alliances are possible between those with the requisite intentionality and missionary zeal who might have thought themselves on opposite sides of past discussions. The director of a Latin chant schola can fruitfully compare notes with the director of singers in a contemporary ensemble: how do you motivate soloists to practice on their own? How do you select who the soloists are without hurting feelings? How do you handle auditions and encourage those who are not suited for a small ensemble to move on to another ministry? How do you find ensemble practice time amidst increasingly busy schedules? How do you maintain a positive, affirming atmosphere during rehearsals while striving for excellence? And so forth.

Because of my background, training, and monastic disposition, I am nourished spiritually by Latin chant, pipe organ, the treasury of sacred choral music, and classical hymnody. But if I were forced to choose between well-done Christian contemporary and butchered Bach, between energetic “pop” and a lifeless Chorale tune, there is really no question where I would come down and which of the two would engage me. I’ve heard enough lifeless, out of tune, unconvincing Latin chant in the liturgy to persuade me that there is little “sacred” or “Catholic” about that.

To put it more positively: I increasingly rejoice in the commonalities I perceive between the dance rhythm of a hymn tune from the Baroque era and the rhythmic drive of a Christian contemporary piece, or between the lyrical quality of tender Romantic choral music and its counterpart in well-rendered gentle contemporary music (as long as the latter is not too overtly sentimental). Surely I’m not the only one who has noticed the similarities between the complex extended tertian harmonies of Messiaen and Poulenc and the same in jazz literature.

As organized religion continues to contract and decline, as parishes continue to close and merge, it seems likely that we will see a process of sorting and sifting in coming years. Communities marked by bland incompetence will wither away, while communities marked by appealing energy will attract and retain members. We may expect, numerically, more of the former than the latter for the foreseeable future. Much will die, but green shoots will spring up here and there. All those in ministry hoping to belong to the latter group and be a part of the emerging new life need to join hands and work together.

Some readers might be looking for practical advice at this point. Should a parish have only three truly qualified lectors who cover all weekend Masses, and fire the rest? Or is it advisable to have as many as ten or twelve or twenty and expect them to come in for a half-hour rehearsal each time before they’re up? Should choir section leaders be paid? Should all choir members come from the parish community, or is it advisable to hire the whole thing out and bring in pros who can sing, whether they’re believers or not? Paid brass quartet?

There are no universal principles for such questions. The only principle is this: put the assembly first. Everything else follows from that. In some situations, it would divide the community to be overly stringent about qualifications for liturgical ministry, in other communities it would be welcomed. Some communities will not be comfortable hiring outside professional musicians; others will welcome it.

Putting the assembly first means asking what’s working for them and what isn’t. Or to put it bluntly—as White and Corcoran do throughout their book—when is it so bad that it’s painful? When does it need fixing because people can’t stand it anymore?

A final word is in order about the problem of perfectionism, lest my proposal be misunderstood. Aidan Kavanagh said it well many years ago in Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style: To be consumed with worry over making a liturgical mistake is the greatest mistake of all. Reverence is a virtue, not a neurosis, and God can take care of himself.” [5]

It sucks all the joy out of music-making to be obsessed about perfection. To be negativistic about mistakes is unhelpful living in the past. It is to be expected, also within an ecology of competent ministry which serves the assembly well, that things will not always goes right. This should be accepted gracefully and lovingly. A milieu in which that sort of light touch dominates is one that best serves the assembly.

So then: St. Benedict admonishes that readers and singers edify. Corcoran and White tell us to rebuild. Let’s go do it.


[1] Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 38. Trans. Leonard J. Doyle (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2001).
[2] Michael White and Tom Corcoran, Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2013, 104). 101
[3] Ibid., 88–89.
[4] Ibid., 90.
[5] Aidan Kavanagh, Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1982), 31.








11 responses to “AMEN CORNER: Monks, Megachurches, and Mediocrity”

  1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    Lucidly put – one of the best treatments of this undertreated issue I can recall encountering. (DTRSTB (do the red, et cet.) as a formulaic platform is not a universal widget for excellence – or even avoiding painful liturgy.)

  2. Alexander Larkin Avatar

    Well put. One of the weakness of the liturgical reform, at least on the parish level, was to categorize liturgical ministers as volunteers with low expectations. Over the past fifty years, our diocese has not invested in developing a cadre of trained lectors. To serve as a docent in one of our museums requires more commitment that proclaiming the Word of God in the liturgy. I periodically go to a Sunday Mass in a parish (I am a priest) and seldom do I hear the Word proclaimed in a manner that engages my attention, let alone my heart.

  3. Fritz Bauerschmidt Avatar

    I agree pretty much 100% with this. I do wonder about the image and the reality (at least as I have experienced it) of the liturgy at Nativity. The musicians are highly professional, but the assembly’s participation in singing is no better than your average east coast Catholic parish, at least as far as I can tell (their new building in particular is so acoustically dead—by design—that you can’t hear anything that is not amplified). You might say that they put the assembly first, but only in the sense of giving them a good musical product (taking into account taste and all that), but not in the sense of eliciting the assembly’s voice.

    Also, in the ten or so times I have either visited or watched their live stream, all but once the sole lector was the same paid staff person. She was excellent, and in a context where there are only a handful of people who read well, it might be good to “clericalize” this role (as it was clericalized in the early Church). But is there a virtue in “de-professionalizing” liturgical roles when you have a large number of people in your congregation who are capable of taking on those roles and doing them well?

    I know one of the things Michael White and Tom Corcoran rail against in Rebuilt is the consumer mentality when it comes to Church. Thus I was rather shocked when I first attended the liturgy there and experienced an assembly that was almost entirely a group of passive liturgical consumers, at least in terms of external participation.

    Maybe there is a difference between excellence in musical performance or public reading and excellence in liturgical leadership.

    1. Paul Fell Avatar
      Paul Fell


      The “consumer mentality” was on my mind as well. In speaking with colleges from various locations, a “commodification” of the Mass seems to be taking place where the Mass has become a product to be vended. If that product doesn’t feel good or isn’t entertaining enough, then the “customer” goes elsewhere to obtain what is desired. As the saying goes, “the customer is king”, so the church becomes the provider of whatever the customer desires. If the church does not comply, then there’s always another church out there to supply what the customer wants. Is this the kind of Mass / community / church that will, in the end, truly edify us and bring us closer to Christ? If churches adopt a business model, then shouldn’t they expect customers rather than parishioners?

      I have been in parishes which were very tiny, yet the parishioners understood that, because of their size, they had to do pretty much everything, even if the quality wasn’t outstanding all the time. They knew that tasks and ministries would just go begging with nobody to fill them if someone didn’t step up. They realized their role as the hands and arms and legs of which Christ spoke. At the same time, I have also attended medium and large parishes where people seemed to assume that clergy or staff would always be available to take care of whatever needed doing. Ministries often may go begging because “someone else will take care of that” or “someone should just be paid to do that.” The ministers who do help (both clergy and lay) may be overextended and burnt out due to overuse. One would think that larger parishes would have fewer problems with volunteerism. Often, it appears to be the opposite, and national trends seem to confirm that even secular volunteerism shows significant decline. This being the case, I wonder how parishes can be overly selective in this type of environment, where many do not participate and yet seem to assume a fully-staffed and smoothly-executed liturgy will be awaiting them.

  4. Scott Pluff Avatar
    Scott Pluff

    Excellent reflection. I have encountered musicians of long tenure ensconced in church positions, whether paid or volunteer, well past their prime. In the same way that bishops are required to hand in their resignation when they turn 75, I wonder if there should be a standard age for organists and cantors to retire, or at least move into an emeritus role. Otherwise there’s no good time to bring it up, if they were good enough yesterday then they are good enough tomorrow. I hope when I reach that point I recognize my time to bow out.

    1. Rene Zajner Avatar
      Rene Zajner

      Scott, while I appreciate your sentiment, I have to point out that age has absolutely nothing to do with this. What this has to do with is whether and when “decision makers” are capable of recognizing “good liturgy”, including music and hymnody, and whether such “good liturgy” is edifying for all concerned; or, whether the present state of liturgy in any particular circumstance warrants reflection and further growth (which is probably true in all circumstances anyway); or, whether a particular circumstance is mired in mushy and poor liturgical practice, and how relevant decision makers can amend that. Many good liturgists are well into their 70’s (which is now the “new 50”). We need to trap real issues in order to move forward, or more to the point, in order to permit God’s graces to work and flow through us.

  5. Todd Flowerday Avatar

    I am in large agreement on this, with some reservations here and there. Zeroing in on two points:

    – I wouldn’t be so sure that a mediocre minister is necessarily in it for himself and the polished pro is always a selfless paragon of the liturgical arts. Fr White’s perspective is an Eastern US one, and the liturgical bar there is usually lower than in the Midwest or the liturgically intentional new parishes of the south and west. Opera singers and organists notwithstanding. I have known many fine musicians who would have added a great deal to the celebration of Mass, but they couldn’t be bothered with rehearsal, peeling away from their Saturday night gigs, and so forth. An objective experience that left me high and dry: I had a super-talented singer/director/vocal pedagogue I managed to finagle some budget to support. She turned me down and took a more frustrating position as a high school teacher. She harped on me for months about a fading organ/choir effort. I don’t know that she would have saved it, but she was the best person to give it a try. She later told me she didn’t remember the stipend I offered. “If you gave me that, I sure would have done it.” My bottom line, volunteer or paid, is to ask: are you willing to commit to ministry with us, and all that involves?
    – The elephants in the room, of course, are many of our clergy. How do we put our assembly first when the seminary assembly line has given a diocese a newly minted man in black who will serve parishes as a sub-par preacher and presider for a half-century? We all know there are uniquely qualified lay people who could break open the Scriptures in effective and fruitful ways. My bottom line here: I’ll tell the retiree with a fading voice she can’t hack it any more–and I’ve had to do that. But will clergy and theologians who hobnob with bishops promote lay preaching and urge some change on that front? I can’t deny that there are a host of lay people doing things they are uniquely unqualified to do. But the rest of us, selfish and unselfish, have seen very ineffective kerygmatic ministry from the clergy. I’m not suggesting they go first and show the lay people how it’s done. But …

  6. Paul Schlachter Avatar

    Just to address the lector ministry, the restoration beginning in 1964 was a completely new development for most parishes. I recall the readings being recited sotto voce before then, and occasionally chanted, neither of which gave us useful examples of how to proceed. So, despite all the aids out there, including my blog, it will take a very long time to obtain a uniform level of excellent proclamation – if ever. Of the hundreds of monasteries in ninth century Europe, we remember one (Cluny) for its attention to liturgy. Of all the Benedictine abbeys in this country, why is only one celebrated for its attention to celebration and for its quality publications? Let us give thanks that the Spirit has succeeded at least to this degree in a half century.

  7. Jack Feehily Avatar
    Jack Feehily

    The biggest obstacle to there being a larger number of men and women who truly proclaim the scriptures is failing to see the ministry of lector as a vocation equal in importance to that of presbyters. In many places it appears to be perceived of as an important task able to be fulfilled by sincere volunteers. Our best readers are so good that they have raised the bar for the less able. Occasionally, one of the best will be followed by another who is only adequate and the contrast can be both stunning and frustrating. I believe the bishops should propose a change in legislation and in practice so that those who discern vocations as readers and communion ministers can be duly called, trained and instituted.

  8. Jack Wayne Avatar
    Jack Wayne

    Fr Anthony wrote: “So much of the diagnosis of our problems coming from “Reform of the Reform” quarters…seems off the mark to me. What I observe is not so much irreverence, loss of the sacred, and unrestrained creativity by people cooking up rituals that celebrate themselves rather than God. What I see is unbearable boredom, lifeless going through the motions…”

    I don’t see these two positions, save perhaps for the allegation by ROTR types of people being too creative, as being incompatible – in fact I think they go hand in hand for the most part. A Mass that is unbearably boring and “lifeless” isn’t going to inspire a sense of mystery, reverence, or “a sense of the sacred.” It isn’t going to capture the imagination and give one “spiritual” feelings. The biggest buzzword thrown around about the post-conciliar liturgy among ROTR/traditionalist circles is that it is “banal,” which according to google means “so lacking in originality as to be obvious and boring” and is synonymous with words like “stale,” “ho-hum,” and “trivial.”

    The rare times one encounters unrestrained creativity can make the Mass seem even more boring – because if it wasn’t boring why would they need to cook up rituals to make it less so?

  9. Charles Kramer Avatar

    I am not sure that it is a question of creativity or not. I think it is a question of intentionality and looking at what we are communicating by our actions and how we perform them.

    An example which happened at two different parishes I have been to for All Saints. The presider in each case decided to use EPII for the mass. Of course, this is a legitimate option. But I seriously wonder what the intention was, if any, in making that choice. In using EPII, the presider is limited in mentioning only the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph. Had the presider chosen to use EPI, literally dozens of saints would have been mentioned. Granted EPI takes about two minutes longer. However, since there were fewer people present in each case than on Sunday, there were fewer communicants. The use of EPI would not have unduly prolonged the mass. Why make the choice? (Please understand that I am not advocating for or against the use of a particular Eucharistic prayer at other times — just on this particular feast.)

    Another example – I was at a parish on Trinity Sunday when they said the Apostle’s Creed. Admittedly, this, too, is permitted. But I think it was a missed opportunity to make tie in what we do when we recite the Nicene Creed with the Feast.

    The planning of every mass involves choices. But I think too often we don’t ask why we are making that choice. And if there is a reason for that choice, many don’t ask if the reason for that choice is in accord with what we are called to be doing at that particular moment.

    Does, for example, the proclamation of the readings truly convey that the Word is life transforming and life giving? And if not, why not? Does for example, the music at the Sanctus truly convey that, at that moment, we actually were joining with the heavenly host in worshipping the Almighty? If not, why not?

    If we actually planned and executed the mass to reflect all that we believe it to be, I am not sure we would have to worry much about attendance.

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