Liturgical Catechesis: Liturgy and the New Evangelization
By Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.
In pastoral practice over the last decade, attention has been given to the work of evangelization in catechesis. This attention has led many to draw a firm line between evangelization and catechesis. Evangelization is concerned with accompaniment, dialogue, and the proclamation of the kerygma. Catechesis is a systematic formation into Catholic faith, including initiating one into the Creed, the liturgical life of the Church, moral formation, and the art of prayer. One must be evangelized before one may be catechized.
The attention to evangelization has born great fruit in the Church. And yet, it has not always been attentive to the dual sense of evangelization employed by the catechetical documents of the Church. Evangelization is not reducible to a stage in the process of Christian formation but is the very mission and identity of the Church. Jesus Christ evangelizes the Church through the Word of God made manifest in the Scriptures, the sacraments, and the lives of the saints. And, the Church evangelizes the world through Christ. This global sense of evangelization has as its end the “gospelization” of the whole world.
Hence, participation in the liturgical life of the Church is not exclusively the fruit of evangelization as first proclamation. Instead, as Pope Francis writes in The Joy of the Gospel: “Evangelization with joy becomes beauty in the liturgy, as part of our daily concern to spread goodness. The Church evangelizes and is herself evangelized through the beauty of the liturgy, which is both a celebration of the task of evangelization and the source of her renewed self-giving” (The Joy of the Gospel, no. 24).
The liturgy is for this reason integral to the new evangelization. The “newness” of this evangelization is both its direction—toward those who have been baptized but live as if they have not been washed in the life-giving font of the Church—and its style—a joyful remembrance of the wondrous deeds that God has done.
The Nature of Liturgical Catechesis
And yet, what does a liturgical evangelization consist of? In the days before and after the Second Vatican Council, a somewhat naïve view of liturgical catechesis was adopted among many in the Church. It was assumed that participation in the liturgy would lead inevitably to knowledge and practice of the faith. Individualism, secularization, racism, and violence would cease when members of Christ’s Body understood what was happening in the liturgy. Normal systematic catechesis would also no longer be needed since everyone would learn doctrine through liturgical celebration.
There were three problems with this overemphasis on liturgical celebration as a site for both evangelization and catechesis.
First, liturgical catechists were operating out of a faulty understanding of how ritual works. Adopting the framework of anthropologists, they saw ritual as the way that societies pass on information to future generations through symbolism. One no longer needed to say that Christ was the light of the world. Instead, a candle was sufficient. Reflection on this candle in one’s life would lead to acknowledgment that Christ was the light of the world.
Ritual prayer is not reducible to a system of symbols that pass on culture. There is an immersion into the signs and symbols of Catholic faith. But that immersion is not a matter of immediate transference. Candle is Christ; therefore, Christ is light of the world. Liturgical catechesis is more like the act of marinating a roast. We slowly come to knowledge of God through the act of worship, through a lifetime spent in adoration.
Second, liturgical catechists presumed that this participation in the liturgy is itself a matter of understanding the purpose of liturgy. If lay Catholics understood this purpose, then we will fully, consciously, and actively participate.
This assumption of liturgical catechists is still thriving in dioceses throughout the United States. Liturgical catechesis becomes a matter of endless explanation. And yet, liturgy is fundamentally a practice akin to soccer or baseball. You learn to play soccer not through spending ninety minutes at a convocation learning about the history of soccer. You play it. In the act of playing, questions arise. Coaching is needed. But such coaching takes place in the context of the practice itself.
This is how monks learn the liturgy today. The first stage of liturgical formation is to memorize the Psalms. It is to be told where to stand. It is participating in the Divine Office each day. Through fidelity to practice, questions arise in the life of the monk. The formation of the monk unfolds as the monk learns to pray, to make liturgical practice integral to his life.
Third, liturgical catechists have tended to focus primarily on examining the meaning of liturgical texts rather than learning to pray the liturgy. This makes sense. After the Second Vatican Council, new texts were promulgated. They were taught to priests and religious, who would then teach them to the baptized.
Yet, lay participation in liturgical prayer is distinct from that of the ordained. The baptized are not leading the prayer, and therefore, are not always attentive to each word of the Collect, to the structure of the Eucharistic Prayer, or to the blessing over the waters of baptism. These prayers are beautiful, a rich source of the Church’s theological and spiritual life. I teach them every year to students.
Lay experience of liturgical prayer, however, is often more an act of devotion, meditation, and contemplation than attending to every word of the liturgy.
One week, a young woman experiencing a personal crisis related to identity may find herself reflecting on the stained-glass window, contemplating the lives of the saints. A crucifix may be the primary focus of a widow who recently lost a spouse. An image of Our Lady of Guadalupe may arouse more devotion than a Eucharistic collect.
Of course, this devotion, meditation, and contemplation can become an obstacle to the celebration of the liturgy. The Eucharistic Prayer is not a time to begin praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet. One should be attentive to the Church’s remembering of salvation history, to the presence of our Lord in the Eucharistic species, and to the intercession that the Church offers in the sacrifice of the Mass. Since baptized Catholics are not speaking these prayers aloud, however, our act of praying will be different. Praying the Sanctus at Mass could lead us to desire a world in which heaven and earth were full of the glory of God, where violence did not reign. By the time we get back around to the Eucharistic Prayer, the Institution Narrative may have begun. Weekly and even daily participation in the liturgy means that one facet of the Eucharistic Prayer may attract us one day more than the next.
A Liturgical Catechesis for the New Evangelization
If liturgical catechesis is fundamentally absorbed through practice and related to developing prayerful dispositions, what implications are there for developing a liturgical catechesis for the new evangelization? Here, I offer five hypotheses for parishes, dioceses, and publishers who seek to renew liturgical formation in the Church.
First, liturgical practice matters. Much liturgical catechesis is devoted to teaching people about the liturgy and the sacraments. This education supposes that everyone knows how to practice the liturgy. The first stage of liturgical formation is learning the technique needed to pray the liturgy. How many diocesan catechetical guidelines have a learning objective related to the chants of the Mass or the Liturgy of the Hours? How many of those involved in formation in the RCIA begin with bodily postures such as genuflection, kneeling, standing, and sitting in the Eucharistic liturgy before explaining the doctrines of real presence and transubstantiation? How many of those preparing couples for the baptism of an infant teach the family to celebrate Compline? The liturgy becomes evangelizing when it forms men and women to use their bodies aright to worship God.
Second, matter matters. The celebration of the liturgy in many parishes is overly verbose. Everything is explained, silence is loathed, music is rare, and art is absent. Prayer is a formation of the imagination. Mass is a prayer, and therefore it is not time for verbosity. The liturgy employs a language of material signs, and the more signs that the Christian can contemplate, the better. Medieval Catholics knew this. Altarpieces were not simply didactic. They were spaces of contemplation. As the Eucharist was consecrated, the baptized would gaze upon an image of the Annunciation. Simultaneously, a Mass setting would be sung that employed a chant from the feast of the Annunciation. Silence allowed each person to recognize this link, and then to perceive his or her own life in relationship to the mystery of the Incarnation and the Eucharist.
Third, prayer matters. Catechesis has tended to separate learning to pray and liturgical celebration. This separation is artificial. Regular participation in the liturgy requires initiation into the art of prayer. Think about the kind of questions that should surface in the life of those who are regularly participating in the liturgy. How do we prepare to enter the presence of God? How do we avoid distraction in praying the liturgy? How do we learn to discover the fruitfulness of silence? What happens when we no longer experience consolation in our praying of the liturgy? What role is there for fidelity in prayer? What kind of devotional prayer would best enable me to actively participate in the Eucharistic liturgy of the Church? How do I pray with the Scriptures according to the mind of the Church? Again, most catechesis rarely addresses these questions at all. And when such catechesis does, it is often addressed abstractly, outside the context of the practice of prayer. If we want a liturgical renewal, there needs to be a contemplative renewal.
Fourth, doctrine matters. Those who are learning to pray need a formation in doctrine. Doctrines, after all, are not abstract propositions for the intellectuals in the Church. Doctrines help us live the Christian life. As we learn to pray the liturgy, we will inevitably need doctrine to advance in our union with God.1 Let us think about the doctrine of creation from nothing. What does this doctrine mean for the one praying? This doctrine is an invitation to prayer. God created the world not out of existing matter but from nothing. Before God spoke a word, there was nothing. This means that God does not need the world. God created everything that exists as gift. Further, it also means that creation is not an event that happened once upon a time. The God who created through the peace of the spoken word, through the breath of God’s Spirit, even now sustains creation. Flowers in the liturgy, therefore, are not just pleasant décor for the celebration. Flowers, as part of creation, are God’s gift being given right now. These flowers, their fragrant smell, their stunning colors are invitations to worship the Creator who gives them even now. What a gift it is to be in the presence of these flowers that invite us to consider our own status as creatures! The doctrine of creation from nothing is not a distraction from prayer but teaches us a posture of prayer. It helps us to form our experience as those engaged in prayer.
Fifth, culture matters. If evangelization is the “gospelization” of the world, and liturgical catechesis is evangelizing, then this catechesis must also “gospelize” the world. Liturgical catechesis gospelizes the world through the creation of a culture oriented toward worship. What does this mean?
Liturgical catechesis as described above allows the art of every culture to be taken up in the act of worship. Such inculturation necessitates prayerful attention to suitability. But all things may be renewed in Christ. The history of liturgical art and music, even in the West, is a narrative of artistic transformation rather than exclusion. Liturgy has already transformed artistic culture, and we should expect the same thing to continue in our day.
Liturgical catechesis necessitates the building of a human culture appropriate for worship. The consumer economy offers to us one way of being human. Human beings are made for consumption and production, and therefore, they should always be on the move. Time is money, get to work. This attitude is detrimental to worship, and thus requires critique. The family can live a different form of life through simplicity, poverty, obedience, friendship with the poor, fasting, and prayer. The creation of this culture creates domestic churches oriented toward worship.
Liturgical catechesis is also ordered toward a culture marked by embodied solidarity. All human beings are made for the activity of worship. And yet, many human beings are treated in society as expendable—the unborn, the migrant, the prisoner, the poor, and people of color. Our solidarity with our brothers and sisters is already an act of worship. Our bodies are made for love and communion. To make a sacrifice of ourselves for the flourishing of our neighbor is not merely the concern of “social justice” Catholics. It is instead intrinsic to all those who bend the knee before the Lord in the Eucharist. The one who receives communion must create a culture of communion, and the one who is creating this culture must receive constantly from the font of Love itself.
Liturgical catechesis is not separate from the work of evangelization. Rather, it is an occasion in which, through worship, the world becomes a space oriented toward Eucharistic love. For this to take place, we need a renewal of how we think about liturgical catechesis. It is not just an explanation of the rites of the Church. Rather, liturgical catechesis forms men and women to live a liturgical life through practice, prayerful reflection and contemplation, and self-sacrificial love unto the end. It is the task of parishes, dioceses, publishers, families, and all Catholics to develop this approach as part of the new evangelization.
- How does your parish, diocese, or publisher understand liturgical catechesis? What did you learn from reading this article that might change this understanding?
- What are the implications of this article for the RCIA? Sacramental preparation throughout the lifecycle?
- If liturgical catechesis must be evangelizing, how does this change the way that you understand the work of evangelization? What would it mean for your parish?
Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D. is director of McGrath Theology Online at the University of Notre Dame. He is also the director of the Center for Liturgy at the McGrath Institute for Church Life and an affiliated faculty member in the Department of Theology at Notre Dame. He is the author of four books, most recently Divine Blessing: Liturgical Formation in the RCIA (Liturgical Press, 2019). Dr. O’Malley has three books coming out this next year—one on transubstantiation, the second on sacramental theology, and a third on Augustine, liturgy, and the reorientation of Catholic education.