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Monday, February 11, 2013

What a liturgy director doesn’t do

“Director of Liturgy.”

That’s part of my job title, and that of a lot of other people I know. From the very outset, it’s a misnomer and an invitation to frustration, but if I tell you why right now, this little post will have nowhere to go. Let me start by saying what was envisioned by this job title when it came into being for laypersons in the 1980s or so. Then, I’ll say why it was doomed to failure. Finally, I will tell you what I really think, and why failure isn’t such a bad thing.

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, liturgical research centers like the North American Academy of Liturgy and the Composers’ Forum for Catholic Worship, and pastoral centers like the ones at Notre Dame and Georgetown were founded to facilitate the study of liturgy by clergy and laypersons alike. In Phoenix, where I lived, in 1985, Fr. John Gallen, a Jesuit liturgist, who had received his doctorate from Trier in Germany, began a liturgical center called “The Corpus Christi Center for Advanced Liturgical Study.” As things went, the center only lasted for four or five years, but was able to graduate a hundred or so persons in that time with a certificate in liturgical study. I was in the first group of those, as were my friend and colleague Gary Daigle and a good 
I wanted one of those "what my mom thinks I do" memes,
for the liturgist, but couldn't find one. But this is what I
do most days - sit at the computer and talk to people.
number of other friends and colleagues.

The idea was that, armed with this broad-based pastorally-oriented study of the liturgy of the church from its ecclesial and christological sources through the whole range of sacraments, the divine office, sacred art and music, and so on, a person could become a resource to his or her parish as a professional staff person (or a volunteer minister for that matter) and what amounted to a better liturgical background than most of our pastors had. For the most part, this worked, and with a handful of other cities, Phoenix became a place where there was a network twenty years ago of people who helped to cultivate the liturgical ministry in parishes.

Now, all of that sounds fine, and some time ago, pastors were genuinely happy to have trained religious and laypersons around help to do this sort of thing, even when there were more priests available. We ended up do the sort of work that would let priests do priest things, like visiting the sick, counseling, and playing golf. 

The thing is, and we always knew this, we were never directing anything. Once the downbeat of the opening song begins, everything is at the mercy of the priest, in addition to the forces circumscribed by chaos theory. And that would put the actual liturgical celebrations all over the map in terms of their style, pace, attention to rite, and language. You can lead a presider to baptismal water (or a missal) but you can’t make him sprinkle it (or use it, or however you want to help me mangle the metaphor.) Quick example: the Roman Missal has always specified that, after the opening song/chant, the first words out of the priest’s mouth ought to be, almost without exception, the sign of the cross. The only exceptions are general times when the song doesn’t begin the liturgy, like Good Friday. But count the times your priest actually does that. It’s a little thing, sure, but it’s the first of a million little things in every liturgy that prove my point. 
Recruiting, training, scheduling,
and pastoral care of Extraordinary
Ministers of Holy Communion and
Lectors, and servers, is part of the job.

So it’s an illusion that any of us uses the term “liturgy director” to describe ourselves. What is it, in fact, that a liturgy director doesn't do? Direct the liturgy. That, for better or for worse, is the presider's job. He’s had it from day one, it’s very clear in Sacrosanctum Concilium that the bishop is the liturgist in the diocese, and since the bishop can’t be everywhere, the pastor is in the parish, the priest at the liturgy. He can delegate a lot of the preparation to us, but even by the act of delegating it, he's directing it.

I guess the best description of what we actually do is that we direct lay liturgical ministries. Because you know what?

When it comes right down to it, the priest doesn’t “direct the liturgy” either. He can guide or misguide its flow. He presides over the chaotic humanity of the rite. But the one who is in charge, thank God, is, well, God. The liturgy is the work of people, yes, but people who have been incorporated into the cosmic worship of the Father by Christ. Or it's a "public work," done on behalf of hoi polloi, by the church. It is Christ alone who knows the Father as an equal, and can love in return with the same divine love that the Father is. Through Christ, united to him and to one another solely by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we are, amazingly, privileged to join in the eternal liturgy which Isaiah and John the Divine fell over their words trying to describe from their visions.

This is why I said, at the outset, that failure isn’t so bad, because it’s not about us anyway. Liturgy goes on in the dominion of God eternally, and has since before the beginning of time, and will after the universe expands beyond the attraction of dark matter, or collapses in on itself in a singularity that will destroy and give rebirth to time. God, pouring self out in love for the Other, the Other bowing and giving self completely for the Father, the love between them as analogous to “being” as we are able to contemplate, though in my uneducated opinion, being is too small a word for what-or-whoever God may be. It is that liturgy, that music, that free flowing of life into which we are initiated in the Easter sacraments, and in which we hope to be more and more fully formed.

Will we ever grasp how tremendous this act is, what privilege we are given, or get swept up in some kind of mystical appreciation for it, in a way that will change the way we think and act and perceive reality? I don’t know, but I wonder whether it can be accomplished with a too-enthusiastic "Hello, everyone" instead of a sign of the cross, or with some hastily improvised banality that is supposed to render the poetry of the liturgy more "relevant."

Coordinating and rehearsing musicians and choir,
being sure there are ushers and greeters who know
their responsibilities, having seats for everyone
and defibrillators. And people who know how to use them.
At least two things further complicate these thoughts for me. The 2010 Roman Missal in its current English translation made the language of the liturgy more obscure, not more poetic. This seems to require the presider, at times, to intervene on behalf of intelligibility. Secondly, the complex structure of many of the prayers and "heightened" language of the rite suggests an intentional distancing between the community and God, rather than fostering an indwelling, participative presence (albeit mystical) of God within the community. It suggests, if you will, a sense of complete transcendence that is in every way except intellectually at odds with incarnational immanence. It mistakes unintelligibility for mystery. If we moved, via the familiarity of the 1970s and 80s, through the living-room liturgy that suggested a hip, winking Jesus, we've swung to a model that grovels before a distant God never satisfied with the human enterprise. Of course, neither version is right. No version can ever be. The correctives are scripture and the cross, which, thank God, have not been lost to us, and which will eventually right the Church's course.

I’ll leave you with these words from Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk, which say so beautifully and concisely what needs to be said about liturgical prayer. The last sentence hearkens back to the gospel from yesterday, and those innocent-sounding but dangerous, life-changing words, "Follow me."

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. (page 45).


  1. All true. Nothing bears more influence over the liturgy than the demeanor of the presider. My parish is in an interesting position now, which is fast becoming the norm: our pastor serves two parishes, plus frequently travels throughout the diocese. This means half the time we have a rotating cast of guest presiders, retired priests, ordered priests, etc. Our pastor tends to follow the missal closely and lets the rite speak for itself. But many of our visiting retired priests, formed in the 1960s and 70s, tend to be free-wheeling, each with lots of variation and improvisation. As the liturgy director, charged with maintaining some kind of continuity in our worship, I never know what's coming next.

    It would be helpful if visiting priests had more consideration for the way a parish is accustomed to praying (in our case, using the actual rites in the book.) I can prepare all of the binders and presider notes in the world, but if the visiting priest is bent on going off-script, there's nothing I can do. The end result is inconsistent and confusing patterns of worship for our parishioners. One week they are encouraged to maintain prayerful silence before Mass, the next week a guest presider is warming up the crowd before Mass with jokes. One week we are chanting the dialogs, the next week we are being confused with "the Lord is with each and every one of you," um, "thank you? back atcha?" It is frustrating.

  2. Amen, brother. As I say, it's complex to me, because there are certainly cases where I actually wish, if not expect, the priest would "improvise" for the sake of clarity and prayer. But "Good morning!" is not a good opening after the singing has begun to bring the assembly together. I'd love to hear the sign of the cross, the ritual greeting, and THEN whatever the priest may feel he has to add before the penitential rite.

  3. Good; broad agreement with your essay here.

    My personal preference has been to dispense with the title. (You wouldn't believe how many pastors resist having directors, coordinators and ministers on staff.) I like my name listed, then a comma, then liturgy. It communicates who people go to in order to volunteer or serve. And it communicates I prefer to serve the community, or possibly manage. Not direct.


  4. Thanks, Todd. That's a good idea. We could also switch to the apparently preferred "Worship" from "Liturgy," with two unhappy outcomes. Outcome #1 "Rory Cooney: Worship", which looks like a line from a sitcom, where I'm playing an idolater in a golden-calf scene of the school play. Outcome #2: We are listed by office in the parish bulletin, reading thus: "Worship: Rory Cooney", which I might find an interesting idea but would send my enemies screaming to the blogosphere. :)