Conducting a liturgical whirlwind at the Religious Education Congress

Young attendees at last year's Religious Education Congress in Anaheim. (CNS photo/Victor Aleman, Angelus News)Young attendees at last year's Religious Education Congress in Anaheim. (CNS photo/Victor Aleman, Angelus News)

This weekend, 40,000 people from around the world will gather at the Anaheim Convention Center for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ annual Religious Education Congress. There will be more than 300 workshops led by some of the Catholic Church’s most prominent figures, but the signature experience of the R.E.C. has long been its liturgies. Fourteen different services will be offered over four days, in styles ranging from small and contemplative to amphitheater-size celebrations of the Eucharist, staffed by hundreds of volunteers.

For decades the still point at the center of this whirlwind has been soft-spoken liturgist and composer John Flaherty. He recalls his first year working at the Congress in 1987: “We had one conga player, one piano player—I played synth—and a choir of about 10 people.”

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“We had one conga player, one piano player—I played synth—and a choir of about 10 people.”

Leadership came quickly and without warning: A month before the 1991 Congress, the director of music took ill and Mr. Flaherty was asked to take over. “I have this vivid memory of Marty Haugen playing the piano,” he recalls. “David Haas, Chris Walker and all of these other artists were up there. They were giants to me, and they were all looking to me for direction, and I had no idea.

“I thought ‘Lord, just get me through this.’”

The Lord has seen to more than that. Under Mr. Flaherty’s leadership the R.E.C.’s liturgy committee has been a font of renewal and experimentation, exploring everything from the position of the altar to the place of silence in ritual.

“Sometimes musicians think they have to fill a moment, like when Father’s walking,” Mr. Flaherty explains. “Father doesn’t need that. That’s just muzak.

“When ritual is not filled up with noise, we experience it differently.”

The liturgy team’s most significant work, though, has been in the area of culture. When he began with the R.E.C., “There wasn’t much inculturation of the liturgy,” says Mr. Flaherty. “It wasn’t happening anywhere, really.”

But Los Angeles is one of the most culturally diverse communities in the United States. “The Eucharist is celebrated in over 50 languages every Sunday in this diocese,” Mr. Flaherty points out. “Fifty-seven of the world’s 195 countries have their greatest concentration of first- and second-generation immigrants in metropolitan Los Angeles.”

Respectful inclusivity is not enough. An inculturated liturgy must still be an invitation into a shared experience.

Mr. Flaherty believes the Congress should reflect that diversity in its liturgies. But how?

One possibility is a sort of liturgical “multiculturalism”: “The Vietnamese choir does a song in Vietnamese, the African-American gospel choir do their song, the English-speaking choir…”

But he found that this approach lends itself more to watching one another than to communal worship. “We’re all in the same room and we think we’re celebrating together, but really we’re not because we’re not doing anything together.”

And therein lies his key insight: To function as ritual, respectful inclusivity is not enough. An inculturated liturgy must still be an invitation into a shared experience.

With this lesson, participation and unity became the liturgy team’s guiding principles: “Who is the assembly,” Mr. Flaherty asks, “and what can we do to unify us?” So if the Congress offers a Vietnamese cultural liturgy, they might have the psalm verses sung in Vietnamese, he says, “but we will always answer in whatever language is most common among us.”

The resulting Mass looks different than it would in Little Saigon, but Mr. Flaherty discovered that this is an asset. “It becomes something new because we’re all doing it together.”

For Mr. Flaherty, the question of finding communion among various cultures is deeply personal. His mother grew up about 50 miles outside Nagasaki, and as a child she was repeatedly strafed by American fighter planes; her older brother was killed fighting for Japan at Iwo Jima. “Every time I see that famous picture of a Japanese soldier’s skull still wearing his helmet in the burned-out tank on Iwo Jima, I think of him,” Flaherty says.

“The war, and in particular the dropping of the atomic bombs, have had a profound impact on our family.”

Those in attendance at the R.E.C. this weekend will find in the liturgies a powerful expression of the worldwide Body of Christ.

Mr. Flaherty hopes there are moments for mystagogy and imagination, as well.

“That’s the beauty of art,” he says. “You’re constantly thinking and learning and growing.

“I look to moments that model the possibilities.”

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Mike Theman
2 months 1 week ago

Not a new issue. Latin mass handled it well. Anyone who's ever been to a mass in which one's native language is replaced by a foreign language just doesn't pay attention to that part of the mass.

This is just another exercise in which the emphasis on diversity just further divides us. I know the intentions are good, but as a practical matter it's destructive not constructive. In the US, the best solution is that mass be in Latin and that all immigrants learn the de facto US language: English.

Sandi Sinor
2 months 1 week ago

I grew up with the Latin mass - it was the everyday mass until I was about 20. I have no desire to return to it. I have participated in mass in a few languages - not too many, but in Latin, German, French, Italian and Spanish, as well as in English. I never had any trouble at all following the mass, although I admit I didn't always follow the homilies. I'm not sure if that really mattered though, as most American priests manage to put me to sleep within the first few sentences, no matter how hard I try to stay interested. Most English speaking priests I have encountered in my long life are pretty bad homilists, and it's probably the same of most priests, no matter what language they use.

I always enjoy going to the masses of different ethnic groups. Very often experiencing the mass as experienced by hundreds of millions of non-American Catholics in the world, with their music and religious customs, is a very enriching experience, making one very grateful to be part of this amazing global church.

The Roman Catholic church IS a universal church, encompassing a whole lot of world beyond Europe. Forcing all Catholics to use a language that is European in origin, and is also a dead language, is foolish and unnecessary and a tad bit arrogant and condescending. It is also divisive, because it forces the vast majority of Catholics into a narrow, euro-centric mold that does not respect their cultures and languages and traditions.. Latin is not the language that Jesus spoke, nor is it the language that the gospels were written in. Latin is not used by anybody in the world as a working language except for the Vatican. Yet few bishops, cardinals and priests can actually read and write Latin fluently. Even in the Vatican they depend on translators for the most part. And many of the priests who say the Latin mass today know little Latin beyond what they've memorized from reading bil-lingual mass books and certainly their congregations don't. They have to read along until they memorize everything. I knew Latin fairly well when the mass was in Latin. I studied it for four years and won several awards. But I was among the very few at mass who didn't have to read the bilingual missal - at least on the few occasions that I could actually hear the words the priest mumbled on the altar with his back towards us, making it almost impossible to hear what he was actually saying.

Those like you are welcome to your Latin mass, but why do so many Latin mass fans try to denigrate others do not share their preferences and try to force their preferences on all?

In the US, most immigrant groups master the language by the second generation. Many of the first generation do not become fluent, as it is much harder to master a foreign language as an adult in most cases. Depriving them of opportunities to worship in their own language, with their specific cultural religious traditions and music is a rather unchristian idea. I lived in a European country for a while. Although I could get by in the language, including at mass, I generally went to the English language parish in the city. It had a lot of Americans in addition to English and Irish. I didn't have to strain to understand the prayers, and the hymns were familiar, a reminder of home. I could relax and focus on the mass, on prayer. I would never think of depriving others of the comfort of mass in their own language if it's available to them.

Mike Theman
2 months 1 week ago

The Europeans are responsible for growing the Church, but it seems to be a thing these days - recall Obama's "You didn't build that" speech - to discount the importance of those who are responsible for building the great institutions of the world and claim ownership of those who merely reaped the benefits of these who created. Jesus, I've been told, spoke Aramaic, so why didn't Aramaic become the language of the Church and why isn't the Vatican in Bethlehem or Nazareth or Jerusalem? Ah, but now that the Church is established and wealthy, all of those responsible for that history and growth are suddenly dispensable. Just like in the US, where great capitalist built the most powerful nation the world has ever seen are now attacked by socialists and communists as evil by those who did nothing but take advantage of that which was created for them. Nonsense.

Sandi Sinor
2 months 1 week ago

Latin became the language of the church because the church chose to model itself on the Roman empire. Its hierarchy emulates that of the Roman Empire, and, as some have noted, when the christians came out of the catacombs to inhabit cathedrals in the 4th century, it was a testimony to wealth and power instead of to the poverty of Jesus and his disciples and apostles. Tragically, the church then started on the long road towards forgetting about what Jesus actually taught in the gospels. Jesus was not a first century Joel Osteen.

Constantine is the reason the Vatican is in Rome. It was the center of power - not Bethlehem., a city where people were oppressed by the Roman Empire. It was politics - and has nothing to do with authentic religious worship. Constantine adopted Christianity as the empire's official religion, as much for political expediency as for anything else. Latin was the vernacular of the Romans of that time and place.

The church started in the middle east and moved to Europe. As you may notice from looking at a globe, Italy was a lot closer to what is now Israel than Brazil was. Or Viet Nam. Or......In fact, the early followers of Jesus did not even know those countries existed. The church expanded in a normal fashion in an era when travel was slow and arduous. So it was founded in the middle-east and then spread towards its neighbors. Europe was relatively close, a bit easier to reach than the nations of the world that are home to the majority of Catholics today.

The Nicene Creed was the product of the political discord of the times, as I am sure you know. The papacy is a backward built construct - Peter was declared the first pope in hindsight, hundreds of years after he died. And so it is not surprising that the Council of Nicaea was not called by a pope but by the pagan emperor Constantine. He needed the christians to help him continue to solidify his empire. He was not even baptized until he was on his deathbed even though he had been using the christians for his imperial purposes for much longer than that. But he needed the squabbling among christians to stop because it was hurting his empire building. So he sent them to Nicaea and ordered them to hammer out and agreement on basic beliefs and to get on the same page so that his empire could continue to gain strength. Eventually the pope became the most powerful monarch in Europe, crowning the emperors and kings. None of this history has anything to do with what Jesus taught. It was politics.

The majority of active catholics in the 21st century are not in Europe and N. America,. They are in the third world, and that is the only part of the world where their numbers are rising rather than falling. The church in the US would be in very bad shape without the arrival of millions of Latinos during that last 30-40 years. The Catholic church in America lost more than 30 million cradle euro-descended Catholics during the last 30 years, and the losses are accelerating.. Latino immigrants are more than 1/3 of the population of US Catholics. Latinos are the majority (more than 50% , of American Catholics under 30). Pushing them out the door by refusing to respect their liturgies, languages and religious traditions (all perfectly valid), along with the catholic immigrants from other countries that don't have white skin is not what one would call a christian thing to do.

Jesus founded a universal church, not a European church. He and his disciples were Jews, not Roman Catholics. The Romans were the oppressors, and Latin was their language.

Language changes are normal as civilizations advance. Romans have not spoken Latin for many centuries. Their language evolved into Italian. Others who were ruled by the Romans for a very long time also saw languages evolve. Thus we now have modern languages that are actually spoken by real, live people. The "romance" languages all evolved from Latin, not just Italian. But Italians speak Italian, and the French speak French and the Spanish parts of the world speak Spanish. The English you speak and read and write is not the same as the English Chaucer read and wrote.

Somehow I don't recall Jesus commanding his followers to go forth and make a wealthy powerful church. He told them to go out and teach ALL nations. He did not tell them to go out and subjugate all nations. He told them to care for the poor, the homeless, THE STRANGER, those in prison and in hospitals. He told them to clothe the naked and feed the hungry. He told them that the rich will have a tough time getting into heaven. He did not wear silk robes with lace trimmings and gold thread. He did not ask for gold chalices and tabernacles. And he did not teach them to pray the Lord's Prayer in the Latin language.

If one chooses to use sweeping generalizations about people who are working to make our country a more humane nation that reflects the christianity taught by Jesus instead of the false religion being promulgated by far too many alleged christians in this country, others can do the same.

It seems that many of those with a desire that the Latin mass be IMPOSED on ALL Catholics have a desire for power and domination, still modeling the Roman Empire. Apparently this is somehow justified in their minds by being citizens of a nation that is more powerful and wealthier than the countries where the majority of Catholics in the world live.

Jesus weeps.

Mike Theman
2 months ago

Jesus doesn't weep.. You weep. Cry me a river.

Jess Bailes
2 months 1 week ago

The L.A. Congress is hardly a model of good liturgy or liturgical music. 9/10 songs performed -- and I use that term deliberately -- at Masses there are unsuitable for liturgy. Bad music, inappropriate styles of music, shows of ethnic pride in full costume that eclipse Catholic faith and the Eucharist, composers/performers who put on a concert/talent show and have the gall to call it Mass or a prayer service. Prayers and songs that not-so-subtly communicate a left-wing ideological bias that at times is opposed to Catholic faith. There is almost nothing at the L.A. Congress that people who know what they are doing (who know liturgy and theology and catechesis) would take back to their parishes to use or implement. The whole weekend is a spectacle put on by people who love themselves and their own music and their ideologies more than they love Christ and his Church. Thank God it has little impact or influence outside of Coastal California.

Edward Graff
2 months 1 week ago

Thanks, Fr. Jim, for this conversation with Mr. Flaherty. I have attended the REC several times now and you have captured here something that’s obvious to everyone in attendance: the genuine passion for the Catholic faith as it is practiced throughout our community and the wider world, and an equally strong commitment to joyfully and energetically ministering to our young people who, frankly, don’t always get the spiritual care they need and deserve.

Because Los Angeles is a massive faith community reflecting cultures from across the world, it’s appropriate that the one Creed we share and profess is echoed and amplified in many tongues and songs as it was at the first Pentecost.

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