The Ministry of the Parish Liturgy Committee
If we think of Sunday Mass as a sacred drama with two or three acts, several scenes, numerous props and a cast composed of presider, deacon, assembly, servers, lectors, eucharistic ministers, hospitality ministers and a choir, it is easy to see the reason for the rise and spread of parish liturgy committees since the Second Vatican Council. Someone has to plan and put all this together in accordance with the church’s norms and the people’s needs. But the church’s worship is not just a set of texts and rubrics. Liturgy committees exist principally to enhance the living experience of the people of God as they come together in yearning to sustain the vision of a kingdom come in Jesus Christ.
The revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal (G.I.R.M.) notes the importance of directions about the preparation of people’s hearts and minds, and of the places, rites, and texts for the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist (No. 1). It clearly acknowledges that since liturgy is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian Spirit...the entire celebration is planned in such a way that it leads to a conscious, active and full participation of the faithful both in body and mind (No. 17).
Although there is no scriptural basis for the team that prepares the liturgy, we have the example of Saints Peter and John preparing the Passover meal for Jesus and his disciples. We can also assume from other scriptural references, as well as early church documents, that when the church gathered each Sunday to celebrate, someone saw to it that people were welcomed, the site appropriately arranged and the prayers, stories and the Scriptures prepared. Egeria, a Spanish pilgrim who was present at the liturgies in Jerusalem during one Holy Week in the fourth century, expressed admiration in her writings for one of the traits of the Jerusalem liturgy: the selection of scriptural texts had been adapted to the circumstances of the time.
From the earliest years of implementation of the liturgical reform envisioned by the Second Vatican Council, Catholics of the time have responded with generosity to the call to serve as liturgy committee members. Principles and practices that lead to effective liturgy committees have emerged over the years, as have many challenges. All of them illustrate the complex realities of parish life and the gifts and tensions of people as they deal with diverse experiences and ecclesiologies.
What, then, can possibly bring everyone together? What can empower liturgy committees to soar beyond their very human, and therefore limited, vision into the mystery and Spirit-filled imagination of God, revealed through Jesus Christ and his experience of life, death and resurrection? The liturgy itself invites us into this imagination by showing us how we might know more deeply what it means to live, die and rise with Christ. The ministry of the liturgy committe is to live out the paschal mystery.
What are good practices for liturgy committees that can lead to full celebration of this mystery? And what are some of the challenges?
Parish leaders should understand that because liturgy is at the heart of all parish life, the liturgy committee and its work need to be among the highest priorities.
The committee’s needs and recommendations should be reflected in the parish mission statement, the allocation of financial resources and staffing and the prominence given liturgy in religious education programs. The mission statement of one Midwestern parish, for example, inspires a powerful mandate for ministry by clearly affirming Christ as the center and liturgy as the source and summit of the Christian life: We are the body of Christ at St. Nicholas Parish, Evanston, Ill., called to gather for worship, cherish the traditions of our faith, witness the Gospel, minister to others, be Christians in the world.
But practical matters like salaries also require close attention. A parish in southern California discovered that a gifted music director was considering resigning because he was not being paid what he considered a living wage. The committee reviewed his salary with the finance committee, which not only adjusted his pay but initiated a review of all salaries in the parish.
The parish liturgy committee should understand that its primary responsibility is not to prepare liturgical ceremonies.
Rather, the committee should focus on the full range of the parish’s liturgical life. This includes budgeting, long-range and short-range planning, establishing parish liturgy policy, developing job descriptions for liturgical ministers, evaluating liturgies and continuing the formation and education in liturgy for committee members and the assembly.
Other questions should also be considered: Who actually prepares the liturgy? Who works to shape the ritual and the environment, selects the music, considers possibilities for the homily and orchestrates the many other particulars and fine points of the liturgy?
Liturgy is a work of art, and therefore should be prepared by artists.
These artists should be drawn as much as possible from the congregation itself, as should those others they are forming and training. Parish leaders need to work diligently to identify liturgical artists, whose training and education in music, ritual movement, poetry and environmental art are focused on the liturgy, past and present, and its central role in the life of the church.
Committees with assemblies of diverse backgrounds have a great responsibility because their artists must discern how to express and celebrate unity in the midst of great diversity. Parishes that want to be most successful in meeting these goals should try to form committees that exchange views respectfully and frequently (sometimes in more than one language). These dialogues should focus on a cultural understanding and experience of liturgy, music, dance and visual arts, as well as on family prayer and meal-sharing customs.
One such dialogue was begun by a parish music director in California with a doctorate in ethnomusicology. She invited the Hispanic people in her music groups, whose experience was as diverse as their countries of origin, to share their knowledge and experience of All Souls Dayalso known in Hispanic areas as the Day of the Dead. Their discussions transformed the parish’s celebration of All Souls Day by leading to the adoption of new and more culturally friendly modes of liturgical expression. Word of their process spread and inspired dialogue in other parishes among Asian, African American and other cultural groups, who also honor their ancestors and the dead with their own traditional prayers and rituals.
Effective leadership is vital.
Committee members should have authenticity, integrity, respect, flexibility, courage, humility and a passion for making things better because they understand the power of the liturgy to transform hearts, lives and communities. Their leadership skills should be nurtured and supported by the group leader, and by prayer and surrender of self to God in service to the liturgy and the community.
In practical ways this means that liturgy committee members must be willing and able to explain and defend the decisions of the committee to the parish-at-large. They need to muster the courage to challenge respectfully the parish staff and others in authority. They should fight with passion and conviction for what they deeply believe in, but also be willing to support decisions based on alternative points of view.
Committee members should be willing to hold one another accountable and have the courage to face difficult issues with respect and honesty.
If the music and choir directors, for example, regularly select music that the assembly cannot sing, the committee should propose more appropriate songs. If parish resources are spread too thinly over six Masses each Sunday and the church is less than half-full at some of these, the committee should consider eliminating one or more of the Masses and adjusting the Mass schedule. If liturgy committee meetings are poorly planned and managed, the members need to speak up and be willing to hold accountable those who are responsible, including themselves.
The committee and the pastor need to be clear about who makes final decisions.
In some parishes, the pastor decides; in others a small designated team, usually paid staff, has the final say. Decision by consensus is another option. When I served as director of the Office for Worship in Los Angeles, both pastors and committee members frequently expressed confusion and frustration about decision-making. Usually my response was simple: Put the issue out front; then keep talking and listening to one another until the issue is clearly understood by everyone who has decision-making power. Then hold one another accountable for what everyone understands.
Other situations call for a process to help build relationships and trust. One parish worker told me, Our new pastor will hardly let us do anything! I asked her what he would let them do and suggested that for the time being they work hard at doing that task exceedingly well. One year later, the same person called and told me that the pastor was gradually expanding the committee’s decision-making responsibilities, because he was learning to trust them. The committee’s respect for him was also growing.
Liturgy committee members should honor, respect and continue to grow in their understanding of theological, historical, spiritual, pastoral and juridical principles of liturgy.
Liturgical competence, especially on the part of the presider, is essential. The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states that priests especially must be imbued with the spirit and power of the liturgy. My experience at our diocesan worship office taught me that many priests strive tirelessly and with deep commitment to achieve this goal, but many do not.
The General Instruction affirms the importance of the ministry and leadership of the priest-celebrant. I have observed countless priests welcoming and embracing this call to liturgical leadership. They were working with one another, their liturgy committees and others to learn and be formed by their role as the one who presides. Others, unfortunately, acted out of clericalism, ignorance or indifference, making unilateral decisions because of a too-strict adherence to rubrics, personal biases and preferences, or in response to pressure from a vocal few in the parish.
This can be especially difficult when a new pastor comes into a parish that has a strong and established tradition of vibrant, faith-filled liturgies and almost immediately begins to impose his personal agenda. New pastors would do well to worship with the assembly and participate in its liturgical practices for at least a year before suggesting any changes. Liturgy committees that have worked effectively in a spirit of collegiality will dissolve if a new pastor arbitrarily ignores their dedication, hard work, expertise and experience. By the same token, pastors who experience hostility or disrespect for their role as presider may avoid meetings or even consider disbanding the committee.
The liturgy committee must know, love and respect the assembly.
Establishing this kind of relationship and understanding is as basic to the committee’s success as knowing the ages, races, ethnicities, languages, cultures, socioeconomic statuses and education levels of the parishioners. It is vital if the committee hopes to be in touch with the assembly’s hopes, dreams, fears and struggles or to understand and support the way it prays, gestures, sings and listens liturgically.
Parishes all over the country are discovering that learning about the people who assemble each Sunday is not a matter of demographic fact-finding or reading the latest book on multicultural liturgy (although these can help). It requires experiences that develop and deepen the relationships and understandings that can profoundly influence liturgical prayer. These may include meal-sharing, with various ethnic and cultural foods on the table; seminars and retreats that encourage dialogue and sharing of stories and values; and intergenerational and multicultural social gatherings, with music and dancing.
A liturgical committee should center its primary attention on doing the basics exceptionally well, Sunday after Sundaythe fundamental actions of gathering, welcoming, proclaiming the Word and celebrating the Eucharist.
The committee members must identify clearly what needs to be done and pursue solutions honestly, with respect for the demands of the liturgy. If the Liturgy of the Word needs improving, for example, the committee should be willing to consider a broad range of areas to work on. Among these might be the quality of proclamation and the homily; ritual movement; the sound system; the appearance of the Lectionary and Book of Gospels; catechesis for the assembly about liturgical silence, listening and response; religious education and Scripture study that are Lectionary-based; and weekly reflection on the Scriptures with homilists. But liturgy committees need to be realistic about what they can accomplish with often limited time and resources.
Members of the committee should believe that evaluation matters.
The evaluation should consist of concrete observations offered by people with a vision that goes beyond Sunday. Comments should clearly indicate in detail what promotes full, active and conscious participation and what hinders it. More important, the committee should know that participation is not just about what happens on Sunday. People’s lives and the life of their community should be transformed by their worship and prayer. Participation in and support of parish soup kitchens and outreach such as prison ministry and care for the homeless or shut-ins are just a few examples of another kind of liturgy, one that is experienced beyond just Sunday.
Finally, liturgy committee members should enter fully into the liturgical life of the parish.
They should freely and reverently open their hearts to the awesome experience of confronting the image of God in Christ gathered, proclaimed, blessed, broken and shared. Courageously, and sometimes painfully, they must grapple with what this confrontation calls them to be and to do in their own lives as well as at liturgy committee meetings.
Good liturgy committee practices like those described in this essay develop over time. Each group of people can begin only as God begins with each of usexactly where we are. A thoughtful and prayerful assessment of current practices and a commitment to move forward, one step at a time, are a good start.
Liturgy committee members who accept God’s call to enter fully into the celebration of Lent and its liturgies, with sincere and courageous hearts, open to conversion in their lives and ministry, will arrive at the great Easter Vigiland the next liturgy committee meetingrenewed and more deeply formed in the joy of the Resurrection. Through this joy, they will more deeply know what it means to prepare and celebrate Sunday as exemplified by the Opening Prayer for the Second Sunday of Easter: We no longer look for Jesus among the dead, for he is alive and has become the Lord of life. From the waters of death you raise us with him and renew your gift of life within us. Increase in our minds and hearts the risen life we share with Christ and help us to grow as your people toward the fullness of eternal life with you.