Brief Book Review: Historical Foundations of Worship

Historical Foundations of Worship:
Catholic Orthodox and Protestant Perspectives
Edited by Melanie C. Ross and Mark A. Lamport

What is this book? This book is the second in the Baker Worship Foundations series (the earlier Theological Foundations volume is reviewed here). It is an edited volume with essays by 18 authors from different liturgical traditions. It is divided into four sections dealing with different area of liturgical history: the common heritage of the early church, the Orthodox experience, the Roman Catholic experience and the Protestant experience. It provides a good introduction to the subject, but it is also offers a good refresher to non-beginners. The book is up to date and each chapter is written by experts in the particular area.

Who’s it for? The book is for any student of liturgy. It is written with the general US graduate student who is beginning their academic study of Christian liturgy in mind. But it can be profitably read by any interested reader and anyone who wants an up-to-date refresh of their understanding of liturgical history.

What difference will this book make? It provides a common basis for the study of liturgical history that can be appreciated by readers of any Christian tradition.  This could be very helpful in a diverse classroom with students from many ecclesial backgrounds and fosters a deeper ecumenical scholarship with the majority of the authors writing from within the traditions they are describing. The introductory section that deals with the common early history is also a great starting point for all study of liturgical history.

Why is this book significant / important This book is what it says on the tin, the title says it all: it provides the reader with an edited progression of chapters by individual authors on the Historical Foundations of Worship, from Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Perspectives.

Why is this book useful / practical? It provides a one-volume history that in under 300 pages provides a manageable introduction to liturgical history. None of the chapters says everything, but all offer a good starting point and all of them provide suggestions for further reading.

Suggestion/Quibble? A minor quibble, but I think there was a tendency to conflate all Eastern liturgical rites and traditions into the Byzantine. The section dealing with the Orthodox experience is the shortest with only two chapters. The essays do occasionally mention other rites, but these get very little attention.  The section on Protestant experience has eight chapters (and Roman Catholicism has three); I would have appreciated another chapter in this section with a short introduction to each of the non-Byzantine Eastern rites.

Next steps. I am a huge fan of introductions and half the books I read are introductions of one sort or another. It’s no surprise that I think that one introduction, no matter how good, is never enough. However, this book is as good a place as any to start. I would recommend that those for whom this is their first book on liturgical history, follow on with a few other general historical overviews, such as the Oxford History of Christian Worship, Liturgy: the Illustrated History , A Brief History of Christian Worship or History of the Liturgy: The Major Stages. Then the novice would be well served by some monographs on the common liturgical heritage of the early Church. After this they could continue reading about the time period, particular rite or denominational tradition that captures their interest.

Ross, Melanie C. and Mark A. Lamport, eds.Historical Foundations of Worship: Catholic Orthodox and Protestant Perspectives. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022. xxiv + 294 pages. $29.99. ISBN: 9781540962522.

REVIEWER: Neil Xavier O’Donoghue
Neil Xavier O’Donoghue is a priest
of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, NJ, U.S.A.
He currently serves as Director of Liturgical Programmes
in St. Patrick’s Pontifical University, Maynooth, Co. Kildare, Ireland
and as Executive Secretary for Liturgy to the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

Brief Book Review: Guide for Forming a Parish Bereavement Ministry

Guide for Forming a Parish Bereavement Ministry
By Robert Valle

“Each death is sacred because each life is sacred.” This is the truth at the heart of Guide for Forming a Parish Bereavement Ministry.

Who should read this?
Everyone who is responsible for parish liturgical celebrations that minister to the bereaved: pastor/clergy, liturgist/musician, lay bereavement ministry volunteers.

For those in leadership positions, the word “forming” is central. The book doesn’t merely tell how to recruit and organize (though these important aspects of the ministry are covered). Instead, the approach comes from an awareness that true ministers must care for the bereaved. It also emphasizes that the entire parish is responsible in the ministry of prayer for the bereaved.

Why is this book useful / practical?
This book is filled with numerous concrete ways to go about the responsibilities and specific tasks that will assist others as they walk the way of grief and sorrow. A deep experience and understanding of the realities of parish life are evident throughout its pages, with everything flowing from the formation process in a parish context.

The process is guided by the Order of Christian Funerals, with formation sessions and facilitator’s guides to help along the way. These will assist bereavement ministers through prayer, reflection, and sharing.

Why is this book significant / important?
The Church’s liturgy is presented as the primary catechetical and formative source for ministers. To reinforce/reiterate: as with all liturgy, the whole parish is primary in this ministry, with particular ministers drawn from it. This focus is particularly helpful in situations that find parish ministers working with unchurched children/families of the deceased, who might think of the parish merely as the location at which the funeral rites are staged.

Why should I use this guide?
The funeral rites are one of the moments richest with promise—and fraught with peril—in the life of a parish. Rich in the promise as a means to evangelize and share the Gospel; fraught with the peril of traversing an emotion-laden time in the lives of the bereaved. In the end, this Guide is a wonderful resource to lead all to the fullness of hope in Christ, the Resurrection and Life.

A side benefit
This resource is a concrete example of how to do liturgical/sacramental theology with the Church’s rites as a starting point, and how to incarnate that theology in the spiritual life of the parish and its members. A fine model for anyone interested in catechizing from the liturgy is presented here.

Valle, Robert. Guide for Forming a Parish Bereavement Ministry. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2023. 144 pages. $54.95. ISBN: 9781616717223.

REVIEWER: Alan Hommerding

Amen Corner: A Different Checklist

Previously published in Worship 97 (January 2023).

A Different Checklist
By Genevieve Glen, OSB

We have probably all been there at one time or another, if only in our dreams: at the perfect liturgy. Not one movement out of place, not one word mangled, not one note sharpened or flattened ineptly. What a delight! Until we recognize that something is missing.

I recall one such event. It was an elaborate and beautiful “high” liturgy, the sanctuary overflowing with carefully trained ministers of various kinds, all carefully clad in solemn garb—all matching, of course. It unfolded with the solemn precision of a military exercise or a well-choreographed ballet. It was awesome and beautiful. All that was lacking to the performance was a standing ovation at the end, but that would have been drowned out in any case by the majestic organ recessional. A simple checklist would have assured those responsible that it had been the perfect celebration. Still . . . It was sometime later that it struck me what was missing: in all that stunning perfection, there was no sign of living, breathing, imperfect humanity anywhere. To the onlooker—there were no “participants” outside the sanctuary—it seemed a carefully scripted, carefully constructed ceremonial graveyard. Very reverent, a work of art, certainly well intended, but a field of dry bones nonetheless.

Quite a different memory takes me to Sundays at an ordinary parish liturgy. At the time I was deeply immersed in the academic study of liturgy and allied disciplines. A fellow student and I chose to leave our local comfort zone to participate in a parish Sunday liturgy in another suburb. I have forgotten why. The late morning Mass laid no claim to perfection. I doubt it occurred to anyone there that it should need to. The associate pastor was no textbook definition of an ideal presider. He tended to stumble and drop things. His homilies seemed at first to be simple. But gradually they engaged us, and deeply.

We couldn’t quite put a finger on why, until we realized that in every homily, it was only the language that was simple. Every Sunday, that preacher engaged deeply in a conversation between Scripture and reality about the interplay of darkness and light in everyday life, and he invited everyone else there to join in. He clearly knew the light and the darkness well himself. We later learned that, like many of my generation, he had joined the Marines right out of high school. Before he turned twenty, he was boots on the ground in the horror that was Vietnam. There he took part in person in the terrible wrestling match between guns, bombs, torture, and war on the one hand, and the gospel of Jesus Christ on the other. He could preach as he did, I realized, because of what he knew. He knew that the death and resurrection of Christ are not religious platitudes. He knew that they are real life at its core. And he knew— obviously not from his formal education—that they were the deepest reality of the liturgy we celebrated there on Sundays in the clean safety of a suburban parish long after the war had become an embarrassing memory. If he sometimes stammered and lost his place in the homily, he had earned the right.

As my friend and I went back to that parish Sunday after Sunday, we began to realize that he was not alone. The parishioners had accepted his invitation to join him silently in that weekly conversation, attentive eyes filled with understanding, unspoken thoughts clearly working over what he was saying. What he knew, they did too. They were ordinary hardworking people, many of them people of color, some with shoulders hunched and faces seamed by aging, illness, and worry, others struggling to manage squirming children while hiding smiles at a preschooler’s antics, some sitting alone and keeping a careful distance from their neighbors, others sneaking a peak at texts and checking the time. In other words, ordinary folk.

One Sunday a member of the choir put into song the story they all clearly shared in one way or another among themselves, with their presider, and with whoever else present who was listening. The man stood and sang in unforgettable solo: “There is a balm in Gilead . . .” He had clearly fought his own way to Gilead in search of healing, and he had found it there. And from what I read on the faces of the rest of the congregation, he was not speaking for himself alone any more than the homilist had been. They had all studied in the same school of life and learned there what the paschal story of Jesus Christ really means, because it was their story too. No careful choreography here, no flawless ceremonial, no perfection from which real humanity had been banished. Quite the contrary. And worshiping with them drew my friend and me deeply into the mystery of Christ dying and rising at the core of our own lives. No one was only an onlooker there unless they chose to be.

No one was only an onlooker there unless they chose to be.

These two experiences have set me to thinking about many things, but here
I would like to focus on what they taught me about the “doing” of liturgy. Over the years as writer, workshop leader, teacher, and seminary liturgy instructor, especially during the intense years of liturgical reform and renewal and their still-active trailers, I have paid a great deal of attention to the serious business of liturgical performance, as have many of you.

Performance is, of course, an essential dimension of liturgical celebration because liturgy is something we do. It can be described as communal prayer performed in the various languages of word, ritual, and music. It is communal because, ideally at least, everyone present plays a part, even if the part is not obvious. Sitting still attentively, praying silently as well as verbally, focusing attention on the core dimension of worship, the paschal event, are all modes of “performing” the communal act of worship as much as carrying gifts and lectoring are. They are just not the same type of performing as that of publicly identifiable ministers. To be sure, effective liturgical performance does require public words well chosen and well spoken or sung, actions both clearly expressive and inherently graceful, and music well selected, well played and/or well sung. Behind the scenes, we often disagree, of course, about the choices to be made for a particular celebration to live up to that ambiguous word “well.” But we tend to share a common drive to “do it right,” whatever “right” might mean in a particular community.

Church is, of course, a reality that lives and breathes and changes. In the period of post-conciliar liturgical reform and renewal that began in the mid-sixties and never quite seems to end, scholars have pursued study in a number of disciplines to help us understand how the various aspects of liturgical performance can be made more effective in serving the paschal life of the community. Among these disciplines are history (how did we get from there to here anyway?), language (tell me again what “performative language” is?), ritual (how high should that cross, that candle, that consecrated bread be raised?), sociology (how do groups integrate new and diverse populations?), biblical studies (what is the significance of all those stories of bread and water?). All these disciplines and more have played important roles in the development of liturgical performances in various settings. However valuable they are, though, they sometimes seem to miss the essential questions raised for me by the two celebrations I described at the beginning of this article. Perhaps that’s because they are questions so obvious we never think to ask them. We perform as best we can according to our lights—but to what end? And with what effect?

We perform as best we can according to our lights—but to what end?
And with what effect?

In the first celebration I described, the conscious end that seems to have driven all practical decisions was to give glory to a transcendent God—an admirable purpose indeed. I knew those responsible and knew them to be people commendably committed to it. The unintended effect, however, seemed to me as a member of the congregation to be separation and exclusion. Those who really counted were identified by their elaborate and beautiful uniforms. They ringed the altar in impenetrable ranks, barring entry to anyone who was not wearing the right kind of clothing. One felt there would be consequences if anyone was irreverent enough to try—which, of course, no one did. I’m afraid I could not help remembering the gospel story of the man cast out of the wedding feast because he was not wearing a wedding robe (Matthew 22:12). The general message to us outside the rails seemed to be: watch, be quiet, pray, but don’t touch! There were obviously many people in the congregation who complied in a very deep spirit of prayer and adoration, but since they were not invited to verbalize their prayer publicly, the ritual had the feel of solitary communication between individual worshipers and the Almighty. Focus was on the action in the sanctuary. Perhaps without anyone’s intending it, the ritual drew everyone’s attention to itself at the expense of awareness of one another as members of Christ’s Body.

In reflecting on that second liturgy, I realize I don’t remember anything unusual about the particular way Mass was celebrated there. The liturgy must have been as ordinary as the participants. Nothing done, except that one solo, drew any attention to itself at all. The preacher himself was an example.
What my friend and I learned about his experience of war did not come from him. He never mentioned it, or anything much about himself at all. Instead he adhered to St. Paul’s approach: “. . . we do not proclaim ourselves; we pro- claim Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:5). All the facets of the celebration seemed instead to draw everyone, with their ordinary everyday experiences, their joys and sorrows, their personal stories, into a single shared focus: the reality of Jesus Christ in his dying and rising. Somehow, what was said and done in readings, homily, song, and action connected that reality to the everyday lives of all those present and wove them together. I think, upon reflection, that the “somehow” was the dynamic power of God’s ever-transformative Spirit always at work fusing us into the living Body of Christ, inside the church and then in the world outside it. That is the dimension of performance that is under no one’s control but God’s and forces no one’s participation except those who choose it.

Even though we may know that, and know it from experience, those of us responsible do sometimes want to evaluate the individual elements of the performance to see what each contributed to or detracted from the desired outcome, the end and effect we hoped to achieve starting out. What is frustrating about this very businesslike approach is, of course, that the melding of the paschal mystery of Christ and our own lives through the liturgy is not something we can measure. We may, and often do, make a checklist of items after the event, hoping perhaps to be able to say: not one movement out of place, not one word mangled, not one note sharpened or flattened inaptly. But in so doing we will find no way of reaching beyond that desired perfection, or its absence, to assess the interaction between what we have done and what God has wrought in us through it.

Where do we see the evidence of paschal transformation wrought through the liturgical event?

A priest friend recently offered me a clue as to what to look for in answer to the real question: where do we see the evidence of paschal transformation wrought through the liturgical event? He told the story of taking Communion to an old lady confined to bed in a tenement. Family and friends had gathered with her. It was no ideal performance, this rite of sacramental Communion in a dark, crowded, malodorous room. Words were the minimal version prescribed by the rite, music was not possible, ritual actions were rather quick and cramped. My friend was momentarily dumbstruck, though, by one woman who came forward to receive: her face was seamed with hideous scars laid over facial bones that had all clearly been broken and had reknit haphazardly. She could barely speak even a clear “Amen.” But after she had received the sacrament, he said, her face was suddenly lit with a light from within that was so radiant that every disfigurement seemed to disappear from sight, at least for a moment. He saw, he said, death and resurrection.

That deeply moving story suggested to me that perhaps we ought not bother with checklists and evaluation meetings. They will tell us something of what we might want to know about the performance itself. Were the words said and sung correctly? Was the ritual well carried out? Was it all done right? Those responsible for that high liturgy would really have wanted to know. Those in that parish might have thought them interesting, but most probably they would not have thought they mattered much. They would have been right. They really are not the most important questions to ask. Perhaps instead of asking any questions at all, we should watch the people’s faces as the liturgical performance unfolds. In the end, that is the only evaluation that really matters.

The North American Academy of Liturgy, 2023

The North American Academy of Liturgy (NAAL) met last week (January 2-5, 2023) in Toronto for a hybrid meeting (in-person and online). After the “interruptions” of the COVID pandemic, the gathering was a joyful reunion for the majority who met together to give papers, socialize, catch up with news personal and academic, and sit together as an academic community to sort out changes in the field of liturgy as well as in the life of the academy.

For those who are not familiar in a firsthand way with the academy, NAAL first gathered in 1973 as an ecumenical association, was shaped as an organization in 1975, and had its first official meeting in January 1976. From those beginnings the academy has added Jewish members, becoming not only ecumenical but also interfaith, and broadened its conversations to include a growing breadth of liturgical and related conversations. The academy’s description of its work remains: “to promote liturgical scholarship among its members through opportunities for exchange of ideas, and to extend the benefits of this scholarship to the worshiping communities to which its members belong.”

As is the case with all professional organizations, NAAL is still getting back on its feet after COVID restrictions, but the in-person gathering of approximately 180, along with the 40-60 people online at any given time was a wonderful start. NAAL’s annual meetings are primarily shaped by the seminar groups which number approximately 20, and in which the “scholarly exchange” of members leads to a focused and informed conversation within and between liturgical studies specialties and allied disciplines. These intense and focused gatherings are punctuated by a few plenary sessions, as well as meals and time to catch up with people who, for many of us, have become dear friends.

Now, I suspect if you ask individual members their experiences of the meeting each will have a different emphasis – bear in mind this is the perspective of only one member.

My favourite part of an annual NAAL meeting very much remains the ongoing conversations and exchanges in my seminar group (aptly named “Problems in the History of Early Liturgy”) For others it may be the plenaries, the publishing houses present, individual conversations, specific ecclesial gatherings, or morning prayer. This year, however, I came away with a more profound sense of how the field of liturgical studies is changing – whether we are ready or not.

First, there is the reality of hybrid meetings, and the divided ‘house’ on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. The past president, Todd Johnson, worked extremely hard during this time of transition to make sure this meeting would work – and it did – thanks to him and his elected and enlisted committee. But the reality is that while seminars which are smaller in size (ours had 19 people in the room and 2 online) can work fine with a hybrid model, common prayer, meals, social gatherings, and other important elements of the meeting do not. The extensive equipment necessary to really make things work simultaneously for those in the room and those at home, along with the need for well-trained tech experts is a lot – a lot of money and a lot of time and a lot of people. NAAL pulled off quite the test of this in the plenary business meeting with electronic voting, conversations, feedback, and pauses to help individuals get on the right “page”. But even with all this assistance, the digital divide was evident in the room, ‘digital natives’ and those who are not were in very different places.

The second point is far more important. Younger scholars said in person, “I need to be here because a big part of this is getting to know people – it’s good, old-fashioned schmoozing.” Other younger scholars said, “I cannot be there – it’s too expensive and I can only come through Zoom…” (which was not free, they also paid a registration fee). These differing opinions about in-person meetings versus online meetings seem to be the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Why can’t scholars of all ages afford to come to the meeting? Because they get little or no financial support from the institutions for whom they work. Why is that? Because many institutions are scrambling, especially faculties of theology, with shrinking enrolments (mirrored in the larger shrinking of humanities), and because of smaller teaching faculties (and the recurring pattern of liturgical scholars not being replaced by liturgical scholars when they leave). Those who work in parishes, especially musicians, face a parallel situation with regard to financial support and sabbaticals. There are fewer doctoral programs in liturgy, fewer graduates (because of fewer jobs?) and fewer tenured positions across the board. Many conversations were had (or overheard) about the growing indifference to the field of liturgical studies in ecclesial communities (or other religious gatherings) where liturgy has historically been central, while other scholars work in schools and Christian traditions where no one is actually sure what liturgy is (or can’t even spell ‘liturgy’ as heard on one elevator ride!)

While many of us look with envy on our European colleagues with regard to institutional support (yes, the NAAL is international!) I keep returning to the inner circles of my own experience, and ask “how in the world can a Roman Catholic school not hire a trained liturgist?” How can an Anglican seminary not care about hiring in the field of liturgy?” How have we become so irrelevant, superfluous, or invisible? At the same time as I rejoiced in seeing friends and colleagues, and listening to wonderful and thought-provoking papers, I keep returning to these questions. I suspect part of the answer is that we need to find new ways to name the essential nature of the field of liturgical studies, we need to start at the beginning (in theology and liturgy) to help people understand what they do on Sunday mornings is shaped by the ongoing action of God, scripture, tradition, reason, experience, and trained human hands! On Sunday I had a conversation with an eight-year old about chalking their doorway at home (prompted by blessing and distributing chalk and prayers for Epiphany). He was fascinated, declaring it “totally cool” that they get to do “church stuff” at home. In 10 years he’ll be at university – now is the acceptable time to remind everyone in the parish (and beyond) that they too are liturgists-in-training!

For the Season of the Word: A Biography of the Lectionary

I have mentioned a number of times in posts for the Pray Tell blog that I was privileged for a number of years to work with Lucien Deiss, CSSp (1921–2007), who was part of the group appointed after the Second Vatican Council to assemble the Lectionary for Mass. Fascinated to be with someone who was (to use a phrase that emerged years later) in “the room where it happened,” I would often ask him questions about the Lectionary and its creation—the psalter in particular. A man of genuine humility (who also had as one of his greatest fears speaking uncharitably about others), I was not successful in prying loose many stories or much information from him.

So nothing Lectionary-related could have delighted me more than to learn that Paul Turner had written a “biography” of the Lectionary. Within the hour, I had secured permission to do a review for the blog. (Full disclosure: the prospect of receiving a free copy of this book was no small incentive!)

The introductory section gives a thorough background of the project beginning with the Council itself, and then progressing through the personnel and more than three hundred schemata that eventually were approved by Paul VI in 1969. The overarching criteria used were encountering Christ in the liturgical year (especially through a larger offering of Old Testament passages), the influence of early twentieth-century advances in scripture scholarship, and a concern for catechetical effectiveness. The organization was around the principles of harmonization (especially Old and New Testaments), semi-continuous reading/proclamation, and giving certain pericopes “pride of place,” retaining them for special Sundays and feast days.

As you might imagine, the bulk of the book consists of a presentation (and bit of analysis) of the readings as they are presented through the course of the liturgical year. Where an original proposal or plan was later altered, it is noted—and only rarely with any sort of speculation as to why the change may have occurred. This restraint contributes to the sense of solid research and scholarship that permeates this book. A section on weekdays follows, with much helpful correlation made between weekday liturgies and the conciliar revisions to the liturgical calendar. Though not as in-depth a presentation (which would have likely doubled the book’s size), the same care is taken as in the “Sundays and Solemnities” section.

In eight pages of “concluding observations” there is a treasure trove of insights which flow from the author’s work on this book, as well as from his years of ministry as a preacher and musician. Included are some honest presentations of ways in which the Lectionary has been critiqued over the years. A “dossier” of the studies on lectionaries from the members of the original working group concludes the book.

For a work in this genre, the absence of indexes seemed, at first, a curious omission. Upon further reflection, it occurred to me that aside from the enormity of the task, it would have again increased the size of the book substantially. The price for a softcover book may seem high, but for a resource like this that can be turned to again it is, in this reviewer’s opinion, a fair price to ask.

Fortunately, this book arrived near the beginning of the new liturgical year, and so I have already had three weeks to discover that it makes an excellent Sunday-by-Sunday spiritual companion, and would be well worth offering to parish lectors. Though the scholarship is—as one would expect—important and exemplary, it may be as a partner in formation with the Lectionary and the liturgical year that its greatest contribution might be made.

Turner, Paul. Words without Alloy: A Biography of the Lectionary for MassCollegeville: Liturgical Press Academic, 2022. $34.95. 296 pages. ISBN: 9780814667637, 6763.

REVIEWER: Alan Hommerding