Voices Together: Q&A on the New Mennonite Hymnal

Five years in the making, Voices Together, the brand-new hymnal in the Mennonite tradition will officially launch on December 13, 2020. Voices Together succeeds The Mennonite Hymnal (1969) and Hymnal: A Worship Book (1992), and for the first time, will be accompanied by a worship leader edition. In this Q&A, I speak with Sarah Kathleen Johnson, a member of the hymnal committee and editorial team member of the Voices Together: Worship Leader Edition, about the project.

Let’s start from the beginning – how did this project come to be?

Figure 1: Where do the songs in Voices Together come from?

It is hard to say when exactly Voices Together began. It is common practice for Christian denominations to publish an updated hymnal every 20 to 30 years; Voices Together (2020) was published 28 years after Hymnal: A Worship Book (1992). Two very well-received supplements, Sing the Journey (2005) and Sing the Story (2007), were part of the groundwork for Voices Together, and about half of the new hymnal is drawn from these three volumes (Figure 1). A 2011 survey and curriculum resource were also oriented exploring the possibility of a new hymnal, although work began in earnest in 2015 when Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA asked MennoMedia, the publishing agency of these two denominations, to take the lead on a hymnal project. The Mennonite Worship and Song Committee was formed in 2016 and that is when I became involved.

Previous Mennonite hymnals did not have a worship leader’s guide. What are the motivations behind this new resource?

The past two Mennonite hymnals include spoken resources for worship along with songs. About 90 pages of the pew edition of Voices Together also consist of non-musical resources (Figure 2), including :

  • scripture readings arranged for use in worship,
  • works of visual art,
  • prayers and readings from a diversity of sources intended for a breadth of occasions and contexts, and
  • resources to support the central practices of the church, including baptism, communion, footwashing, church membership, church leadership, child blessing, marriage, healing, and funerals.
Figure 2: Worship Resources in Voices Together

The Worship Leader Edition was not part of the original vision for the suite of resources surrounding Voices Together. The idea of supplemental resources specifically for leaders emerged from the committee shaping resources for the central practices. As we developed a plan for the specific items we hoped to include, we realized certain items did not need to be available to the entire congregation. Originally, we hoped to use a few pages of the Accompaniment Edition for these resources. However, we soon realized it would be more beneficial to have a distinct volume intended to support everyone involved in planning and leading worship. From there, the Worship Leader Edition took on a bit of a life of its own and is now a 280-page introductory guide to worship planning and leadership.

Beyond additional resources for central practices, the Worship Leader Edition includes all of the non-musical resources from the pew edition (making it a standalone volume) as well context and suggestions for use (such as artist statements for the 12 works of visual art). It also includes over 100 short essays on various topics related to worship planning and leadership.

Lay volunteers plan and lead worship in many Mennonite congregations without a lot of formal training or concrete guidance. Supporting those dedicated volunteers is at the heart of this volume.

As compared to Roman Catholic and other mainline Protestant traditions, the Mennonite tradition has a much more localized and diffused authority structure and therefore also multiplicity of worship practices. How did the hymnal committee deal with such diversity in its worship resources and choice of hymns and tunes?

Although two Mennonite denominations commissioned the hymnal, no denominational authority (such as a bishop or general assembly) had to approve its contents. While this is a daunting responsibility for the hymnal committee, it is simultaneously reassuring that no congregation is required to use Voices Together. Each local Mennonite church makes its own decisions about worship and music.

Mennonite congregations are characterized by tremendous diversity in theology and practice. Some of this diversity is reflected in the breadth of theological and musical expressions included in Voices Together. We hope that each congregation will see themselves on these pages, as well as discover songs and words that challenge and expand their vision. Most congregations have a repertoire of a couple hundred songs; there are 759 songs and 310 worship resources in Voices Together. Not every song or resource is going to be a good fit for every congregation, theologically or musically, and that is okay. Binding this diversity together in a single volume still connects us to one another, allows us to share our songs and stories, and helps us to grow into new ways of singing together.

One example of this unity in diversity is our expansive approach to text revisions, especially gendered language for God. Instead of applying general rules, we assessed each instance on a case-by-case basis with an eye toward overall balance. Many communities will choose the parts of the collection that reflect their language use at a given time, which may also change in the coming decades. For more, see this statement from the committee: Expansive Language in Voices Together: Gendered Images of God.

Recent immigration flows have meant that the Mennonite tradition in the USA and Canada are more ethnically and linguistically diverse than ever before. How is this reality reflected in the Voices Together’s worship resources? 

More than 25 languages are primary languages of worship in Mennontie Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA congregations. While Voices Together includes songs in many languages, it will primarily resource English-language communities that use a hymnal in worship. At the same time, Voices Together aspires to represent the linguistic and cultural diversity of the church.

Representing this diversity is a particular challenge with non-musical resources because many Mennonite congregations that worship in languages other than English (in addition to many English-speaking communities) primarily pray extemporaneously. Nevertheless, Voices Together includes words for worship from six continents, and in Spanish, French, German, and American Sign Language, as well as one resource that includes 22 languages (Figure 3). There are also several resources that aim to celebrate and support extemporaneous prayer.

Figure 3: Voices Together #850 Peace Be with You

The hymnal committee chose to replace songs by David Haas following credible accusations of sexual abuse and spiritual manipulation, taking a survivor-centered approach to the situation. Could you say more about how the hymnal committee came to this decision?

Credible allegations of abuse became public at a critical moment in the process of shaping Voices Together when we were pursuing permission to print a body of material we had selected but still had the capacity to make changes. In this narrow window of time, the editors, with the support of the committee and MennoMedia staff, made the difficult decision to remove seven songs (a June 23 press release describes more of the process).

However, as previously mentioned, it is local congregations that make decisions about worship and music in the Mennonite tradition. We therefore also committed to creating a resource to support communities in navigating how to respond when worship materials are implicated in abuse. I encourage readers to carefully reflect on this resource which points toward some of the underlying principles that guided the committee: Show Strength: How to Respond When Worship Materials Are Implicated in Abuse.

As we launch Voices Together, we want to avoid centering narratives surrounding perpetrators of abuse. Instead, we aim to focus on the amazing collection of material that is present in the hymnal. This material was curated through a process that has, from the outset, prioritized contributions from female composers, taken seriously the ethical implications of the gendered language we use for God and human beings, and been concerned with singing and praying toward a just peace that opposes violence in all forms.

There are already many worship resources in the market, many of which are ecumenical. What is the potential of this resource for ecumenical use and to whom would you most recommend it?

Voices Together is a denominational hymnal and congregations associated with Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA are the primary audience. There may also be some capacity to extend into other Anabaptist and congregational traditions, especially those that emphasize peace and justice.

However, I trust that Voices Together would be a valuable addition to any church musician’s  or liturgist’s shelf. Items of particular ecumenical interest include:

  • Thoughtful and subtle revisions to familiar hymn texts that attend to a broad range of concerns associated with how we use language in ways that align with an intersectional approach to justice.
  • The organization of the hymnal by acts of worship from gathering through sending.
  • The inclusion of visual art throughout the book.
  • Newly commissioned translations of early Christian and medieval hymn texts by writers like Carl Daw, Mel Bringle, and Delores Dufner.
  • An expanded body of material with connections to sixteenth-century Anabaptism.
  • A substantial collection of new texts and tunes by Anabaptist writers and composers.
  • A diverse spectrum of Contemporary Worship Music streamlined for the printed page.
  • A projection edition that provides slides with musical notation for each song in the collection.

The Worship Leader Edition is a standalone volume. Because all of the non-musical items in the pew edition are reprinted, the use of this book does not depend on access to the hymnal. The Worship Leader Edition is an accessible resource for anyone involved in supporting lay leaders who contribute to a variety of aspects of worship, or who is looking for a curated collection of prayers and readings from a diversity of sources.

Finally, what was the most significant part of your experience working with Voices Together

It has been profoundly rewarding to be part of facilitating a collaborative process that brings people together from across the church for important conversations about who we are, where we come from, and who we are called to be in the years ahead, and especially to consider how these questions about identity and purpose intersect in concrete and embodied ways with what we sing and pray and do when we gather for worship.

Thanks for giving us a preview to Voices Together here on PrayTell and congratulations on its completion!

For more information about Voices Together and to register for the hymnal’s December 13 virtual launch, visit voicestogetherhymnal.org.

Sarah Kathleen Johnson is the worship resources editor for Voices Together, a member of the editorial team working with songs, and the editor of the Voices Together: Worship Leader Edition. She is a doctoral candidate in Liturgical Studies at the University of Notre Dame and a Visiting Fellow at the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre.

Racism and African American Liturgies – A Resource

The National Black Catholic Congress XII Mural. Heritage Liturgical © 2017​

In recent weeks, #BlackLivesMatter has prompted Catholics like me to learn about and examine racism in the Church in America. Inspired by reading lists on Black Catholics put together by U.S. Catholic and Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt, and for my own learning, I decided to compile a list of readings on African American liturgy which I share here.

The articles in this list prioritize Black authors, Black experiences, and highlight ways in which racism is intertwined with liturgical practices and the historical development of liturgies in America. They show that liturgical development is not “organic” but influenced by particular social and political forces in history, that liturgical inculturation is a means of acquiring racial justice, and that African American worship is not monolithic.

In parishes, racial justice is often left to social justice ministries, but this should not be the case. Readers will find in many of these articles that injustice is most visible (or invisible) in worship. In sharing this bibliography, I hope that liturgical ministers can use some of these readings for liturgical formation just as teachers may use them to diversify their classroom curriculum.

This list is by no means comprehensive; I welcome relevant additions. Please comment below if you have suggestions and I’ll be happy to include them.

Updated: 8/15/2020

Journal Articles

Cressler, M.J. “Black Power, Vatican II, and the Emergence of Black Catholic Liturgies.” U.S. Catholic Historian 32 no. 4 (2014): 99-119. doi:10.1353/cht.2014.0027.

Gregory, Wilton D. “Black Catholic Liturgy: What Do You Say It Is?” U.S. Catholic Historian 7, no. 2/3 (1988): 316-21. www.jstor.org/stable/25153838.

Harris, Kim R. “Sister Thea Bowman: Liturgical Justice Through Black Sacred Song.” U.S. Catholic Historian 35, no. 1 (2017): 99–124. doi: 10.1353/cht.2017.0005.

James P Lyke, “Liturgical Expression in the Black Community,” Worship 57 (1983): 14-25. (added 24/6/20)

Rivers, Clarence Joseph. “Freeing the Spirit: Very Personal Reflections on One Man’s Search for the Spirit in Worship” U.S. Catholic Historian 19, No. 2 (2001): 95-143. www.jstor.org/stable/25154770. (added 22/6/20)

Rivers, Clarence Joseph. “Thank God We Ain’t What We Was: The State of the Liturgy in the Black Catholic Community.” U.S. Catholic Historian 5, no. 1 (1986): 81-89. www.jstor.org/stable/25153745.

Whitt, D. Reginald. “Varietates Legitimae and an African-American Liturgical Tradition.” Worship 71 (1997): 504-537.

A series of debates in Plenty Good Room. (added 6/24/20)
Cyprian Lamar Rowe, “A Tale of War, A Tale of Woe,” Plenty Good Room 2 (Sept-Oct 1994): 10-13; J.-Glenn Murray, “Give and Take,” Plenty Good Room 2 (Nov-Dec 1994): 6-10; Cyprian Lamar Rowe, “A Tale of War, A Tale of Woe, Continued,” Plenty Good Room 4 (Mar-Apr 1995): 9-13; J.-Glenn Murray, “Doing the Rite Thing,” Plenty Good Room 4 (May-June 1996): 3-13; Richard McCarron, “Response to the Tales of War and Woe,” Plenty Good Room 4 (Sept-Oct 1996): 3-10; Cyprian Lamar Rowe, “How Long, O Lord, How Long?” Plenty Good Room 5 (Jul-Aug 1997): 3-11; Richard McCarron, “Response to Cyprian Lamar Rowe’s ‘How Long O Lord?’ Plenty Good Room 5 (Jul-Aug 1997): 12; J.-Glenn Murray, “Response to Cyprian Lamar Rowe’s ‘How Long O Lord?’” Plenty Good Room 5 (Jul-Aug 1997): 12-13; Joseph Brown, “To Sit at the Welcome Table,” Plenty Good Room 5 (Nov-Dec 1997): 9-15; Scott Haldemann, “Forging a New Self,” Plenty Good Room 5 (Mar-Apr 1998): 2-5.

Church Documents

Black Bishops of the United States.  ‘What We Have Seen and Heard’: A Pastoral Letter on Evangelization from the Black Bishops of the United States.  Cincinnati, OH: St.  Anthony Messenger Press. 1984.

Black Liturgy Subcommittee, NCCB. In Spirit and Truth: Black Catholic Reflections on the Order of Mass. Washington D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1987.

National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Plenty Good Room: The Spirit and Truth of African American Catholic Worship. Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1991.
See also: Gregory, Wilton D. “Overview of Plenty of Good Room: The Spirit and Truth of African American Catholic Worship” in The Liturgy Documents, Volume Four. 264-268. Chicago: Liturgical Training Publications, 2013.

Book chapters

Bowman, Thea. “The Gift of African American Sacred Song” in Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal. Chicago: GIA Publications, 1987.

Eugene, Toinette M. “Between ‘Lord Have Mercy!’ and ‘Thank You, Jesus!’:Liturgical Renewal and African American Catholic Assemblies.” In Taking Down Our Harps: Black Catholics in the United States, 163–175. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1998.

Glenn V. Jeanmarie, “Black Catholic Worship Celebrating Roots and Wings,” in Theology: A Portrait in Black. 75-90. Washington D.C.: National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, 1980. (added 6/24/20)

Harris, Kim R. “Creating and Reclaiming Our Welcome: Listening Back and Ahead to the Sound of Our Prayer.” In Fully Conscious, Fully Active: Essays in Honor of Gabe Huck, ed. Bryan Cones and Stephen Burns, 53-66. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2019.

Holmes, Barbara A. “Come Ye Disconsolate: Contemplation in Black Church Congregational Life.” In Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church (2nd Edition), 67-92. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2017.

Johnson, Kevin P. “African American Scared Music in Catholic Worship: Core of African American Survival in America.” In Uncommon Faithfulness: The Black Catholic Experience, ed. M. Shawn Copeland, LaReine-Marie Mosely, S.N.D., and Albert J. Raboteau. 181-194. New York: Orbis Books, 2009.

Pratt, Tia Noelle.  2019. “Black Catholics’ Identity Work”, in PP 132-152 in AmericanParishes:  Remaking Local Catholicism, eds. Gary Adler, Tricia C. Bruce, and Brian Starks.  New York, NY:  Fordham University Press. https://muse.jhu.edu/chapter/2325129/pdf
[Available online for FREE during the pandemic]

Spencer, Jon Michael. “The Roman Catholic Church” in Black Hymnody: a Hymnological History of the African-American Church. 1st ed.,182-199. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992.


Bellow, Kathleen Dorsey. “The African American Catholic Assembly Towards ‘full, Conscious, and Active’ Participation in Liturgical Celebration and Black Life.” D.Min. Thesis. Catholic Theological Union at Chicago, 2004.

Brown, Joseph A., and Fernand Cheri. Sweet, Sweet Spirit: Prayer Services from the Black Catholic Church. Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2006. (added 22/6/20)

Hayes, Diana L. 2012. Forged in the Fiery Furnace: African American Spirituality. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2012.

McGann, Mary E., Lumas, Eva Marie, and Harbor, Ronald D. Let It Shine!: the Emergence of African American Catholic Worship. Ashland, Ohio: Fordham University Press, 2008.

Moore, Cecilia Annette., White, C. Vanessa, and Marshall, Paul M. Songs of Our Hearts, Meditations of Our Souls: Prayers for Black Catholics. Cincinnati, Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2006.

National Office for Black Catholics and the Liturgical Conference, This Far by Faith: American Black Worship and Its African Roots. Washington D.C.: The Liturgical Conference, 1977. (added 24/6/20)

Rivers, Clarence Joseph. Soulfull worship. Washington D.C.: National Office for Black Catholics, 1974. (added 22/6/20)

Rivers, Clarence Joseph. The Spirit in Worship. Cincinnati: Rivers, 1979. (added 22/6/20)

GIA Publications. Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal. Chicago: GIA Publications, 1987. [See introductory essays.]

Public Scholarship

Brown, Grayson Warren, “Shaken up so we can pour ourselves out.” National Catholic Reporter, August 2010. (added 6/24/20)

Brown, Joseph A. “Come by Here” The Sankofa Muse, 2013. (added 22/6/20)

Pratt, Tia Noelle.  “Authentically Black, Truly Catholic:  Liturgy & Identity in African-American Parish Life”  Commonweal, April 2020.

Pratt, Tia Noelle. “Racism and the Liturgy: Q&A with a Sociologist.” Pray Tell Blog, November 2018.

Harris, Kim R. “Black Lives Matter in the Worshiping Church.” National Catholic Reporter, July 10, 2020. (added 8/15/2020)


Autism and Liturgical Participation

April is Autism Awareness month. Eugenic ideologies have reared their ugly head again amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, making plain many societies’ utilitarian ethics. I cannot think of a better time to be mindful of those among us who have to fear for their lives simply because they are different. Here, I interview Fr. Matthew Schneider, LC, an autistic priest, about autism, prayer and the liturgy in the hopes that we may take a small step toward becoming more inclusive of those that societies so readily discard when our churches reopen.

Let’s begin with some basic terms we’ll be using in this interview: neurotypical, neurodiverse, autistic vs. person with autism. How would you explain these terms?

Autism is a variation in brain structure. It is not characterized by a single trait but a combination that varies a bit between different autistics. Some of these characteristics are: sensory irregularities (hyper- or hypo-sensitivity), difficulty reading social signs and thus a difficulty understanding what others are thinking or feeling, literal thinking and use of language, and difficulties in executive function. Many of these primary characteristics are not directly observable by an outside observer, so non-autistics will often notice secondary characteristics. Some examples: sensory irregularity may come out as stimming or fidgeting to moderate sense input exteriorly or in meltdowns from sensory overload, difficulties in executive function may be displayed as rigidity in schedule, etc.

Neurodiverse and neurotypical are correlative terms. Neurodiverse usually refers to someone with autism or related conditions like ADHD or OCD, while neurotypical refers to those who do not have any of these conditions.

You shared on your blog that you were diagnosed as an adult, after serving a year as a parish priest. As the saying in autistic circle goes, “when you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.” Looking back, how do you think autism made you experience the Mass — as a celebrant and member of the assembly — differently from your neurotypical peers?

Personally, I think I have tended to grasp the faith more on the intellectual side than the emotional side. For me, one of the most important books of my teen years was Kreeft and Tacelli’s Handbook to Christian Apologetics, which goes through the rational arguments for many aspects of the faith. I think that has extended to a certain extent to the liturgy. I may not pick up on the emotions of the homilist but I definitely pick up on the intellectual content. I definitely appreciate the consistency of the liturgy. I went to an evangelical service as a teen and found the whole indeterminate structure difficult to follow. Beyond that, I would suspect I experience the liturgy itself pretty close to normal. The social time often right before or after can be a little more of a challenge.

Many autistic individuals have sensory issues with Mass. Although, I do have some autistic sensory issues, most Masses don’t cause an issue in this regard for me. I am still amazed by priests who can do back-to-back big parishes Masses on Sunday. I can say something the 9 and 11:30 Masses, but I need some alone time to recharge between them.

Liturgies are often celebrated in ways that aim to stimulate the senses. What are some immediate ways that churches can better accommodate those with sensory processing differences, which is one of the more commonly shared effects of autism, be it hypo or hypersensitive senses?

For those on the hyposensitive end, I don’t think much needs to be done besides accommodating if they are swaying back and forth at the back or need a weighted blanket over them during Mass. Hyposensitivity can usually be resolved by the person adding more sensory input and most can learn ways to do so that are minimally disruptive like what I mentioned.

Hypersensitivity is a little more complicated as you need to lower the lights, turn down the microphones, avoid incense, avoid florescent lights (since these appear like strobe lights to many on the spectrum), etc. A number of places around the country have done a sensory friendly Mass of this style. Another aspect often in such Masses is that they use the same songs each week to help with autistics’ executive function difficulties and preference for sameness.

A sensory friendly Mass should ideally be weekly at the same place and time. As we are a small minority of the population (current estimates say 1 in 54), it may require several nearby parishes coordinating to have one Mass. A variation on the sensory-friendly Mass that has also happened in other places and I think what most parishes should be able to do at one Mass a week is the “reverse cry-room” where you turn down the lights and sound system in there and make it a place for those with sensory issues, especially hypersensitivity.

Sensory-friendly Masses would not be exclusive to autistics. Obviously, families of autistic individuals would be invited as it is good to go to Mass together. However, I think it is best to leave it open to everyone: some elderly people start having sensory issues related to other conditions or some neurotypicals may just prefer that style.

Let’s talk about the self-stimulatory behavior of “stimming”—repetitive body movements or movements of objects that provide calming effects for autistic people. How do you suggest churches create space for stimming safely during the liturgy?

I think some stimming just requires those around not to worry about it. I have often been in a lecture or other social event and pulled out a small item to stim with. (As a celebrant or concelebrant at Mass, I notice I sway at times but this is not usually too obvious.) I carry items I know that don’t make much sound or light but provide my hands with a nice tactile sensation. If a person does this in Mass, all that needs to happen is that those around need to know this helps them focus and not to be judgmental.

If someone needs more significant stimming like some kind of jumping or a vocal stim, then we should help with further means. Something like swaying can be done at the back or in a “reverse cry-room” as explained above. Others might require that individual to step out of the Mass for a minute or two to get out a verbal stim before coming back. We can be less judgmental on those aspects: most people don’t judge when parents step out for three minutes to calm their child or take them to the bathroom. I hope the community can similarly accept if an autistic young woman needs to step out for a few minutes to maintain composure.

You’ve tweeted about the idea of creating a prayer book for autistics. Could you say more about what would make the prayers unlike other prayer books that already exist?

Well, this is currently a book I’m working on. I don’t want to give away too much: maybe year or so when it comes out, you can interview me about it. I can give three ideas though. First, a big difficulty for autistics is what psychologists call theory of mind. This means that through their words, facial expressions, etc. people intuit what other people know, think or feel. Most people do this subconsciously but we autistics often lack such automatic filters, but can sometimes do a poor but passable job through conscious effort. The initial stages of prayer, thus are difficult as a certain amount of prayer is based on us grasping what God knows, thinks or feels, which can be a challenge for us. However, once we overcome that difficulty in developing a prayer life, we get to the second point. We know that God can read our mind directly, not just hear our words and see our face like other humans, and he can implant a thought in our mind, not just speak to us in words or work through the senses. I think that our autistic tendency to think in ideas but not directly in words can help prayer progress faster at this time. Prayer is one form of bidirectional communication not requiring sensory processing. Finally, I think we will tend more towards intellectual prayer over emotional prayer.

“Nothing for us, without us” is an on-going cry of the disability rights movement. It strikes me that it is important to hear this cry when planning and celebrating liturgies as well. Parents of autistic children tend to be involved in churches with religious education programs for children with special needs. However, I wonder if there are as many autistic adults involved in ministry, or if they tend to feel shunned. How can churches urge more participation by autistic people in liturgical ministry?

Finding autistic individuals in a local community who would be interested in Catholic activities, whether Mass, catechesis or small groups might be difficult as you are correct that many feel excluded and thus don’t actively participate. Let me offer a few ideas. Deacon Larry Sutton wrote a book on catechesis for autistic children and I think his idea of starting small is good: even if at first you only have five people, the word might get out and in a few years others who are on the sidelines start participating. Another point would be to make a simple announcement at Mass asking for autistic adults and parents of autistic children to email a certain person to organize something to serve this community. Most parishes have a few who are autistic but blend in enough that it might not be obvious to everyone else. Another idea would be to approach local autistic groups and see if they could send out a note offering something to autistic Catholics.

Thanks for your time, Fr. Schneider!

Fr. Matthew Schneider, LC is an autistic priest with the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi and a doctoral candidate in Moral Theology at Ateneo Pontificio Regina Apostolorum in Rome. He blogs on autism, bioethics, and other topics on his blog, Through Catholic Lenses. Follow him on twitter @FrMatthewLC and @AutisticPriest.

Mass Online with Full, Conscious, and Active Participation?

I’m in a diocese that did not suspend Masses until Monday. However, my husband and I decided the night before to stay home last Sunday since the both of us were recovering from a cold — we didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. What ensued was a series of events that had me inadvertently participating in three Masses online. Here’s how it all went.

Mass #1 – St. John’s Deaf Center, Detroit, MI

It was about 11 am when we decided to find an online Mass. I knew that the Detroit Deaf Catholic community at St John’s Deaf Center live streams a Mass every week on facebook at 11:30 am with voice interpretation in English for non-signers in the congregation, so we decided to go with that. I was ready to just pop open my laptop on a TV tray by the couch when my husband said, “let’s get the projector!” Great idea, I thought. Why didn’t I think of that?  I associated the projector only with entertainment, but it was perfect for this moment.

We have a cheap $100 projector and screen, so the resolution was not necessarily better than my monitor, but the large screen certainly made a difference. I was wrong about there having voice interpretation. Masses in Detroit had been canceled, so there was no congregation and therefore no voice interpreter. However, Fr. Mike Depcik, a Deaf priest, celebrated Mass at a small chapel anyway so Deaf Catholics could tune in if ASL or interpreted Masses in their area were suspended. Accompanying him was one lay lector who also signed the congregational responses. This was much appreciated since signs for Mass texts can differ from place to place according to local traditions.

Facebook live videos are accompanied by a live chat. As I was setting up  my screen, it was neat for me to see familiar names show up in the chat from all over the country who I get to see once a year at conferences. I loved knowing that we were celebrating Mass together. Since I was using a projector, I made the video full screen and did not partake in the chat. I thought it would have been a distraction for me. Looking at the chat log after Mass, however, I saw that it enhanced participation for some who typed responses such as “it is right and just,” “Amen,” or with emoticons.

The video quality was excellent and the live feed was smooth. The camera was placed up close, facing the sanctuary, with the altar in the center and the lectern by its right. Typically, Masses on TV are at large churches and cameras are distant from the altar. I realized I much preferred being able to see the elements on the altar up close. It certainly helped me pay attention and feel closer to the liturgical actions.

Mass #2 – St Albert’s Dominican Priory, Oakland, CA

Since my husband did not know ASL, we found another Mass in English that he could more fully participate in. He received an email about Mass at St. Albert’s in Oakland that was starting right as the Mass in Detroit was ending, so we decided to go with that.

The camera was placed in such a way that the viewer a side view of the altar and lectern, but also the organists’ face, probably so that the camera would not be in the way of those who are seated in the congregation. The camera zoomed in at the lectern and altar at various points of the Mass which helped, but the side view meant something was always obscured — I found myself wishing I could see more of the altar.

When the entrance hymn began, I immediately felt a desire to sing along but realized I did not have the means to do so. I liked that the hymn tune was familiar; I just wished the text was provided too. The Mass ordinary was a chant setting but one that I was not familiar with. I pulled out my Graduale triplex which happened to be nearby but could not match the settings in time to sing along. Bummer, I thought.

After communion, a Dominican brother invited people watching the simulcast to kneel and pray the Act of Spiritual Communion with him. The request to kneel took me by surprise. I did not kneel since I recently skinned both my knees in a minor accident, but I appreciated the Act of Spiritual Communion and liked that my presence was recognized. It made me feel more like I was part of the celebration.

Mass #3 – Church of the Nativity, Timonium, MD

I then remembered that Nativity Church of Rebuilt renown regularly streams Mass for their “online campus.” I figured this was a good time as any to check it out. Since I was not able to join in the singing at St Albert’s, I was hoping I’d be able to do so with a Mass designed for an online campus. A lady’s gotta get her congregational singing fix!

I had missed the live stream, so I participated in a rebroadcast later in the afternoon. Like facebook, Nativity’s set up had a live chat. I went full screen again so as not to be distracted.

The production of the video was clearly superior at Nativity. The cameras could show different views of the sanctuary depending on what was going on. I liked being able to see the band and cantors at different times.

Texts of the readings and Mass ordinary, some of which were in Latin, were provided with English translations in brackets. As one who has done RCIA, I appreciated that they were thoughtful about including translations. There was also a screen which highlighted certain points that the priest was making in his homily. I noticed how that held my attention in ways that a purely oral delivery did not.

I also noticed that lighting in the sanctuary helped to focus the liturgical actions. During the liturgy of the Eucharist, the spotlight was on the altar and the altar only. Even though the camera was already on the altar, the lighting focused it even more.

Music was of the contemporary/ praise and worship genre, which brought me right back to my days in youth ministry. Lyrics were provided for all the songs the way karaoke tracks are which made them easy to follow. I didn’t know any of the songs; I wished they played traditional hymnody,  but the simple and catchy refrains got the better of me and eventually, I began singing along!

After Mass ended, I looked at the chat log and saw that the administrator had posted the prayer of spiritual communion in the chat. Nice touch, but I wish it was prayed in the liturgy as it was at St. Albert’s.

Final thoughts

My experience made me realize that I had watched Masses many times online before—watched—as a spectator rather than a participant. I often would have other online distractions. Because I had access to Mass in person, TV and online masses felt optional, something “extra,” so I never had the urge to participate fully, consciously, and actively until now. It also made me question why it did not occur to me to seek out a Mass online when I was unable to attend Mass due to illness — I would typically read the readings for the day and leave it at that. Mea maxima culpa!  I am now convinced that “full, conscious, active participation” is certainly possible with an online community and that churches committed to online broadcasting for the long term can invest in some best practices to make it work. Here are some possible starting points:

1. Prioritize the visibility of liturgical space and actions with clear sight lines and with a centered camera close up. Do a test-run and adjust lighting and volumes accordingly.

2. Provide liturgical texts including hymn texts or direct your audience to them. If it is too complicated to include texts as live captions or to insert a powerpoint to the feed, provide a link to the texts so people can pull them up on their screen or print them beforehand.

3. Pick familiar hymns and ones with easy refrains if you’re not providing the hymn texts.  Assuming texts are provided, new texts to old tunes are possible and much easier than ones that are completely brand new. Avoid heavily syncopated hymns. Brian Hehn at congregationalsong.org has an excellent article covering more ways to get people to participate at home.

4. Offer rebroadcasts and simulcasts. Providing flexibility helps in uncertain times. I’d love to see every parish provide at least one live Mass for their congregation even though I know many parishes do not have such resources. There is something about seeing a familiar face and liturgical space that can make one feel like an online celebration is still home.

5. Enable livechat if possible but establish etiquette for using it. I was glad to see that there wasn’t any trolling on the chats, but wondered if some protocol could be drawn up so when a community is gathered, they are not chatting during Mass, but have an avenue to chat after Mass ends. The live chat could also be a place where the priest can interact with his parishoners briefly after Mass the way he does at Church.

How was your experience of celebrating Mass online this past week?


Deaf Access to the Sacrament of Reconciliation: Past and Present

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington D.C. celebrates Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Deaf Catholic Church in Landover Hills, Maryland on September 22, at the start of the International Week of the Deaf. (Photo by Andrew Biraj, from the Catholic Standard)

Reconciliation has historically been one of the most difficult Sacraments for Deaf and hard-of-hearing Catholics to access and continues to be so. Prior to Vatican II, children who went to Catholic residential schools for the deaf were taught to write their confessions on a slip of paper and hand it to the priest when they entered the confessional. The priest would in turn respond in writing with their penance. This resulted in two problems. Firstly, it only worked with those who had adequate English literacy skills. Secondly, it seemed to have worked at schools when the chaplain knew what to expect, but the method did always achieve favorable results for adults who attempted the same at their neighborhood parish.

Recounting some of his awkward experiences from the 1930s-40s, one Deaf man wrote, “Several times, [after] I passed my written confession through the grate, the priest began to slap his head, slap the grate, and jump around in the confessional to my great confusion. He thought that my paper was a big bug trying to crawl into his ear… Another priest would take my confession paper, run out of the confessional, back again, out again and in again, not knowing what to do. Another would look out of the confessional. When he knew it would be my turn to enter, he would send me back to the last of the waiting penitents.”(1) Suffice to say, these incidents were enough to cause him to avoid the sacrament for many years. He only returned after he learned about a priest in his diocese who could sign.

Some Deaf adults continue to use write their confessions today if they do not have access to a priest who can sign. Those I have spoken with in my research have said that they would explain what to do beforehand so the priest knows what to expect. Those who have speech and can lipread would ask for a face-to-face so they could speak their confession. Lipreading the priest’s response can be a challenge, but one can always ask for clarification in writing if need be. Cochlear Implant or hearing aid users may or may not desire or require a face-to-face confession — preferences and needs vary and can change according to the acoustic environment as well.

The Church allows those who wish to communicate in American Sign Language (ASL) to use an interpreter. The interpreter is bound to secrecy according to the seal of confession, as is the priest. However, I have met no one who has ever employed an interpreter. Every Deaf person I’ve asked acknowledged the accommodation as a positive step toward recognizing their needs but also admitted that they have never used one. “Why would I? I don’t want anyone else knowing my sins!” they said.

There is no question that the vast majority of Deaf Catholics who use ASL as their primary language of communication prefer going to a priest who can sign. For many, waiting until a priest who signs come into town is worth it. When a Deaf or hearing priest who signs comes into town, news of his presence spreads. Deaf Catholics would drive more than an hour in order to see them and the lines for Reconciliation are always long. When a Deaf priest is available, confessions can last several hours. As an interpreter once said to me while clutching her right fist tightly close to her chest (a variation of the sign for hanging on to something), “The Deaf just hold their confessions in until a Deaf priest comes along!”

Needless to say, the need for a signing priest in every diocese is ever present but often unmet. Is it unreasonable to request that every bishop assigns one priest to deaf ministry and to learn ASL? In 1924, this demand was not considered far-fetched. Several seminaries owned sign language dictionaries and religious orders such as the Jesuits and Sulpicians even had sign language classes for novices and seminarians. As Edward J. Cahill, a commentator writing in “The Catholic Charities Review” optimistically exhorted, “Let the sign language be added to the curriculum and be brought to every cleric who aspires to the priesthood. The sign language is not difficult to acquire, only needed steadfast practice and any seminarian interested could learn the language well in one year with the opportunities he would have among so many for practice. Given a general knowledge of sign language among the priests, there will be created a country-wide interest in the deaf, and once every priest is working, the Catholic deaf-mute problem will practically disappear!” (2)

Cahill’s vision is not simply a practical one but an eschatological one where the Kingdom of God includes all who sign in an intimate sacrament where humans encounter the living Christ. Dare we, the Church in America today, embrace this vision?

September is Deaf Awareness month and this week is the International Week of the Deaf. Many churches around the world that serve Deaf and hard-of-hearing people have events this week for those interested to learn more about deaf history, culture, and sign languages. Find out if you have a Deaf church in your neighborhood, make a visit and see what it’s like.

(1) Voice of the Deaf, unpublished manuscript, 5. From the Deaf Catholic Archives at College of the Holy Cross.
(2) A reprint of the original article can be found in The Catholic Deaf-Mute Vol. 24 no. 12 December 1923, 3. From the Deaf Catholic Archives at College of the Holy Cross.