Liturgical Reboot: A Post-Pandemic Look At Reverent Worship
Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, director of the Office for Worship for the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, sheds light on what parishes across the country can do to strengthen liturgical practices in light of the Pope's new document.
Pope Francis’ new apostolic letter on the liturgy, Desiderio Desideravi, arrived June 29, as Catholic pastors across the globe continued their struggle to reverse a sharp decline in Mass attendance following the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, and fresh reports of liturgical abuses in U.S. parishes sparked questions from the faithful.
During a June 30 interview with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, the director of the Office for Worship for the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, and the rector of St. Mary’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, addressed Francis’ new apostolic letter, and explained why reverent liturgies and vibrant preaching must be at the heart of every parish renewal campaign. He also took stock of the pandemic’s practical impact on sacred worship and proposed changes that could deepen reverence for the Blessed Sacrament and eliminate problematic liturgical practices exposed during Zoom-facilitated Masses livestreamed during the lockdown.
Indeed, well before the pandemic, Msgr. O’Connor dug into the deeper issues at stake in parish liturgies while preparing the Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook, issued June 3, 2018, by Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland. The handbook is available online for free, and can also be purchased in both a Kindle version and hard copy from Amazon.
A priest on loan from the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, and a former official for the Congregation for the Clergy, Msgr. O’Connor received an MBA from Kingston University, London, and holds a licentiate and doctorate in sacred liturgy from the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome.
As director of the Office of Worship for the Portland Archdiocese, you prepared the Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook. What was your objective, and what has been the most important fruit of your work thus far?
The objective was to put all the Church’s teaching and instructions on the liturgy in one place. Archbishop Sample said at the time, “This is not me writing new rubrics for the Mass. This is a reference book for how the liturgy should be executed at this time. This is what the Church teaches and expects.” Often people are unsure about certain aspects of the Church’s liturgy; this handbook, gives them the answers they need with the exact citations as to where the Church documents contain these instructions. The ALH is very accessible to anyone interested in the liturgy, not just priests. It can be used by liturgy committees, sacristans, and servers etc.
The handbook has heightened the place of the liturgy in the life of our Church and in the Portland Archdiocese.
Why is that crucial?
The Church teaches us that the Holy Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. Therefore, the celebration of the Mass must be given the respect that is due such a great sacrament. Thus, the handbook is primarily focused on the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
Sacristans and liturgy committees go to the manual now when questions or issues arise. For instance, when planning a celebration of the anniversary of the dedication of a church or the Solemnity of the Title of the Church, there are various options for moving these feasts. The ALH gives the options and the conditions for the indulgence attributed to these feasts.
Pope Francis’ new apostolic letter on the liturgy, Desiderio Desideravi, released June 29, invites the whole Church “to rediscover, to safeguard and to live the truth and power of the Christian celebration.” Why is this invitation particularly timely?
Let’s face it: There is nothing new in DD, the Holy Father is just reiterating the Second Vatican Council and the Church’s teaching over these last 60 years. The Church expects the liturgy to be celebrated with reverence and dignity and that the liturgical principles and rubrics established by the Council, and clarified in subsequent documents, are to be followed without exception.
How can resources like the Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook help Catholics respond to Francis’ invitation?
The current Church teaching regarding the liturgy is totally contained with the ALH.
How does this instruction touch on your concerns about liturgical experimentation and parishes doing their own thing?
The Holy Father is very clear that there is no room for experimentation in the liturgy; the Church has a clear teaching regarding how the liturgy is to be celebrated. In DD, he mentions the ars celebrandi, which refers to how the Mass is to be celebrated, mainly referring to the priest. It is an important section. As the Holy Father says: “The priest is continually formed by the action of the celebration.”
The pandemic lockdown battered many U.S. parishes, with falling Mass attendance and collections. What vulnerabilities were exposed during this period?
Church pundits tell us that Mass attendance has fallen to 65%-70% of pre-pandemic levels. That affects the financial aspects of the Church, including its ability to build churches or keep staff. But COVID also revealed a certain lack of belief in Church doctrine about the Blessed Sacrament. You can see that with some of the aberrations exposed on Zoom Masses and from reports of hosts consecrated in Dixie cups and consecrated hosts put in plastic bags and left on people’s doorsteps to avoid transmitting the coronavirus. We have gotten to the point where we either don’t believe in the Real Presence or simply treat the Lord with an irreverence that is sinful, sacrilegious and needs to stop.
What should be at the center of any post-Covid parish reboot?
Parishes need good preaching and good liturgy. We need to teach on the fundamental doctrine of the Eucharist, and that effort should affect the practical things we do, as well. Pastors need to preach on what Catholics believe about the Eucharist, and get people thinking about this. We can’t do the “Jesus-loves-you” homilies every week. People are tired of that and get nothing out of it. Let’s start teaching about our beautiful Catholic doctrine. I also agree with Pope Francis about those homilies that go on forever, like a plane that never lands.
What were some of the liturgical abuses revealed in Zoom-facilitated Masses?
In my capacity as the director of worship, I have received letters about people not using the right Mass translations, or the correct rubrics. Innovations are introduced at the whim of the priest or the liturgy committee.
That will happen until people understand that the liturgy is super-important. It should be executed the way the Church wants it to be. Her teaching is the culmination of 2,000 years of experience with what good liturgy should look like.
The liturgy is not about personal preferences. If you think you have a better translation and want to make it up as you go along, you risk invalidating the whole sacramental economy — look at the recent problem with invalid baptisms..
What are the practical impediments to maintaining a Eucharist-centered parish, where the congregation believes in the Real Presence, and worships accordingly?
A newly-arrived pastor may perceive such impediments when he finds that his new parish has entered into a liturgical silo, and he is told, “Father, this is how we have always done it at St. Jude’s. We are different from everybody else.” That attitude is pervasive in some areas of the country. But if St. Jude’s is a Roman Catholic parish, then it must follow the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church that is current now, as the Pope has said we should do.
What practical recourse does a parishioner at a parish like “St. Jude’s’” have when they seek to end liturgical abuses?
The Church has given us this beautiful idea of hierarchical recourse. Following St. Matthew’s teaching, you go first to the parish priest, and if he doesn’t do anything about the problem, you go to the bishop. If he doesn’t do anything, you go to the Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome. This was spelled out in Redemptionis Sacramentum, a 2004 instruction issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. It says that the faithful have recourse from the Holy See regarding liturgical abuses that occur when liturgical law and practice are not followed.
Parishes were forced to pivot during the pandemic, with increasing online donations and Zoom-facilitated Bible study. You propose that pastors consider other practical changes that address new realities, and also strengthen reverence for the Eucharist in sacred worship.
For example, you have discontinued collections during Mass. Why?
Ninety percent of our giving is electronic now, and very few of our parishioners use envelopes. The collection caused a break in liturgical action, and led us to focus on what is temporal. The collection usually took place during the Preparation of the Gifts, when the congregation should be focused on what the priest is doing. It was always a noisy messy time: People banged doors, put stuff in baskets and played some music. It took 10 minutes and added nothing to the dignity of the Mass. Shoving baskets into people’s noses does make them go into their pocket and get out a dollar, but you are not getting to the heart of why they need to tithe. That should be done in a very intentional way. In many places the collection is now superfluous and it won’t come back.
Any other changes?
The kiss of peace has always been a big distraction for me, with people shouting out and moving from their pews.
During COVID, we started with no touching and we have maintained that. I look at everyone and say, “Peace be with you.” They say, “And with your spirit.” We don’t move, and the Agnus Dei is no longer the soundtrack for the “kiss of peace spectacular.” That has brought the rite into conformity with what the Church expects.
Many Catholics have to suffer through bad liturgical music. What do you recommend for addressing this?
If a parish does not have resources, they should pick out a good repertoire of classic hymns that people can sing. Then, if possible, find someone to sing the entrance and Communion antiphons. Use very accessible simple plain chant for that. Anybody who can sing can do that.
You have observed that some social justice-focused parishes may give less priority to providing a reverent Eucharist-focused liturgy. How can this be addressed?
The Church teaches that everything, including good works and charitable apostolates, flows from the Eucharist. If we get that right, everything else falls into place.
How does parish-based Eucharistic adoration help to deepen reverence for the Eucharist in sacred worship?
Eucharistic adoration deepens the faith of all those involved. A large adoration program can mean that many of the faithful spend an hour in Eucharistic adoration each week or even more often. Having so many parishioners praying like this changes the parish is all sorts of ways.
As you are a pastor, what concerns do you have about your flock, as you reflect on the lessons of the pandemic and move forward?
We need to get down to basics. As St. Paul tells us, “Think about the things above.” This world is passing away for us all. When you are young, you don’t think about this much. But as we get older, we think about death, about our union with God and participating and sharing in Jesus’ glory.
We need to start using this sort of language to get across the great mystery of our faith. When COVID hit, many just thought about avoiding the risk of death, but didn’t grapple with death itself. We should be thinking about death, about preparing for death and our encounter with Our Lord Jesus Christ, who will come to judge the living and the dead. We say it all the time, but we don’t think about it much.