In chapter 9 of Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry Weddell teaches the would-be evangelist about an essential skill: listening.
Grab a drink, get comfortable, and take a few minutes to practice that skill right now, by reading this post, written by my friend Jenni, about the pain of feeling isolated in the parish. This is listening-evangelism, so read the whole thing if you can. No walking out mid-story.
For those who skipped, the topic is liturgical change. It’s easy for the liturgically-satisfied evangelist to ignore the importance of the felt-experience of the Mass. After all, the Holy Mass is about the worship of God, not about warm fuzzy moments of “community” or “acceptance”, right? If “welcome” were the highest aim of the liturgy, we’d serve a casserole instead of the Eucharist, and furnish the place with easy chairs, no?
Not so fast. The reality is that for 99% of people who darken the doors of your parish church, ever, the Mass is the only, or the most important, encounter with the faith they’re going to have.
Which means that even as we work to make our liturgy as worshipful as we can manage, we also need to be mindful of the experience of the visitors and parishioners who must endure the fruits of our efforts.
You may have some ideas about how to strike this balance, and I’d like to hear them. Here’s my list:
Rule #1 of Evangelism: Don’t be a jerk.
I’m keenly aware of this rule, because being a jerk comes naturally to me. My apologies right now if you’ve ever borne the brunt of that anti-charism. When introducing change, or turning down a request for change, or in going about our daily business, courtesy and consideration have to rule.
Is Your Parish Kind to People?
A second friend in the same diocese as Jenni, different parish, shared a horror story about the introduction of the all-chant liturgy. I had to point out: She has horror stories about every aspect of parish life. Top on her annual list of cry-on-a-friend’s shoulder topics? Exorbitant fees for (mandatory) religious education classes and humiliating collection letters for parents who can’t afford them. The GIRM felt like a nasty infection, I proposed, not because chant is meant to be a form of communal penance, but because the changes were introduced by thugs wielding liturgical crowbars.
Is the Liturgy Comprehensible?
It’s hard to appreciate what you don’t understand. “Gather Us In” indeed welcomes the haughty, but that’s not license to dismiss the unwashed masses because their tastes aren’t properly attuned, or their catechesis insufficient. I love Latin. But guess what? You can’t dump a bucket of Latin on a mono-lingual congregation and expect instant love, anymore than you could announce that from now on, all correspondence must be conducted in Ancient Slobovian.
Sacred Polyphony is sublimely beautiful, but it only resonates in the soul if your ear is trained to make sense of it. And sometimes you need a Mass that doesn’t take three hours to finish. There’s a genuine need for simple, singable settings, clearly presented, that permit mere mortals sing along.
(And don’t smirk, Gather Hymnal and OCP, I’m looking at you, too. If the meter is “irregular”, don’t make regular people sing it.)
Quit Disdaining, Start Teaching
If people don’t understand the language of the liturgy — symbolically, musically, catechetically — you must teach them. Gently. It takes years to master a new language. For the spiritual traveler, perhaps visiting Liturgy Land for a funeral or baptism, think about what makes you feel welcome when you’re stuck in a foreign country. A few explanations and a pile of reassurance, perhaps?
Is the Congregation Getting a Complete and Balanced Spiritual Diet?
I suspect one of the causes of the Liturgy Wars is the rise of the music industry. We’ve transitioned over the past seventy or so years into a culture that mostly just listens to professionals make music for us. How many families do you know that sing together for entertainment? Do most of your fellow parishioners pass the long commute to work by singing to themselves from their repertoire of favorite memorized songs? Probably not. We’re trained to flip on the radio and listen to the experts do it for us.
What’s the result? Humans have a need to sing, and we have a need to sing meaningful songs. So we try to cram our entire spiritual-music diet into four hymns on a Sunday morning. The results are about as successful as if you announced that the whole parish had to eat the same four foods, but thank goodness we have a Nutrition Director who’s professionally trained to write our grocery list for us.
You can be the perfect combination of empathy and competence, but you will never, ever, make 300 — let alone 3,000 — people happy with a menu of four items per week.
If we want good liturgy and a peaceful congregation, we must rebuild our musical culture. We must provide many overlapping opportunities for parishioners to sing a wide variety of inspirational tunes outside of Mass.
Those are my thoughts. What are yours? Having listened to Jenni’s story linked above, how would you, the aspiring evangelist, answer her?
A note about the album cover I selected as the image for this post: If your parish is just introducing chant to its repertoire, may I suggest Chant from the Hermitage as a helpful resource? The settings are simple but beautiful tunes that have stood the test of time. They’re easy for untrained pewsitters to learn, the words of every prayer are clearly enunciated, and the range is suitable for ordinary voices. You don’t need to be a musical genius to learn these settings and lead them a capella. Simple, beautiful, worshipful. Highly recommended.
Copyright © 2013, Jennifer Fitz