Ordering Hospitality: Christian celebrations “on the same page”

In the recent annals of Pray Tell Blog, you can find a brief report from the August 2023 Maynooth gathering of Societas Liturgica by Rita Ferrone. It was, as she says, a joyful gathering after a long in-person absence, and an extremely fulsome and busy congress. Societas Liturgica is always ecumenical, and that was highlighted this time by the thematic focus on liturgy and ecumenism. Although we were sadly missing many of our Eastern Christian siblings, there was an ecumenical breadth of Western Christianity reflected in the attendees and in the daily prayers. Any time Christians pray together across ecclesial communal lines (and increasingly, within particular communities) we need a road map so that participation can be facilitated – participation in the elements of the corporate prayer being observed and participation in a sense of the movement of the prayer and how it calls each individual to move together as the body of Christ in glorifying God and engaging in our corporate sanctification.

The road map, the ordo, at this particular gathering was accessible through the booklet assembled which included all the liturgies of the week (texts, music, sub-titles indicating the movement of the rite and some rubrical instructions). Without this road map only a few people would have known the shape or been able to join in through common prayer texts and singing (and Societas Liturgica does love to sing!) That is not to say that the unknown, the ‘other’ is not also welcome in the gathering. I remember with great affection the Syro-Malabar evening prayer led by that community at the Societas LIturgica gathering in Leuven. Most of us could not understand a word, and even with the script in front of us, the best we could audibly contribute was the occasional “amen”. But the South Indian community had gathered in large numbers and with great enthusiasm prayerfully carried us through the rite full of movement, music, incense, light, and prayer. The care with which the local committee in Maynooth made sure that the participants could fully enter into the liturgy was apparent in the rehearsals observed before we began each corporate prayer as well as the details in the worship booklet itself. What emerged was a manifestation of hospitality – welcoming the stranger (and the local) into liturgies that may not have been the norm, even for those of that tradition and place, but which invited us to a “common place” from which to offer common prayer in spaces where “prayer had been valid” for countless liturgies.

In reflecting on the experiences of these prayers I couldn’t help remember some parishes (and some seminary chapels) where the opposite has been the case. In other words, in the desire to be innovative, to be creative (and on the part of the presider, to be fresh, cool, and progressive), the normative pattern of the liturgy was disrupted – and the changes known only to the presider. The desire to break loose from the confining ordo often resulted in a ritual or rite being about the presider alone. The results were as varied as the participants. Many felt excluded because there was no way to enter into the ritual, others were in awe of such daring change, most were simply confused and relegated to being entertained as spectators. As many others have pointed out, even Christian communities without a set order of service have an ordo – there is a structure which holds at a minimum a space in which the ‘un-ordered’ elements are able to flourish.

In a time of much discussion about hospitable liturgy – welcoming in the stranger (and visitor and others) – how much is too much instruction, outlining, rehearsing, ‘assistance’, and how do we know? I have noticed parishioners handing over a hymnal open to the correct number when a visitor is still trying to figure out which of the 3 hymnals we might possibly be in. I have seen visitors hoping that the actual text they are supposed to be praying outloud might be found somewhere in the pew – to no avail. Being a stranger at someone else’s liturgy seems a necessary prerequisite for everyone who welcomes the stranger to their own worshiping community. Some are content to be lost and observe, but others who come may want to know what is next in the order of prayer.

Praying together as an ecumenical body at Societas Liturgica reminded me that corporate prayer is a communal undertaking. Some didn’t quite get the structure of how the psalms were being prayed – others carried it for them. Some didn’t get the memo on crossing oneself, bowing, orienting for the creed – others simply did it out of custom and no one was fussed about the variety of embodied prayer forms. Some in the room got all the rubrics, others of us (particularly those of us arriving late for morning prayer) furtively discerned the pattern from our neighbours before launching into the psalm or song. As a community we probably needed more of the discomfort (or challenge) of praying in a language other than our own (Societas Liturgica is a trilingual gathering) but there was hospitality in the ordering, hospitality in the rehearsals, and hospitality in the doing of liturgies and prayers together. God was praised, prayers were offered, the community re-built and sent out to learn from and about each other.