Liturgical Polarization: Clerical vs. Lay Power

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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PolarizationEditor’s note: This series on liturgical polarization was written to prepare for a gathering held at the University of Notre Dame on Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal on Monday, April 27, 2015.

Those who have experienced the strangeness of the academic job interview (especially at smaller schools) understand that it involves a series of high stress meetings with every faculty member in the department. These faculty ask you questions about your research plans, your teaching philosophy, and your planned lifetime commitment to the institution that you’re applying to. At one of these interviews, we began not with the usual chit-chat about teaching and research plans. Rather, this professor began immediately with “There are six sacraments for women. And seven for men. What do you think about that?”

In some ways, the question was to be expected. Every time that I have talked to someone on an airplane about my profession as a Catholic theologian, the question of women’s ordination surfaces. Yet, the inquiry at this interview was not really a question at all. It was a statement. One in which the presumption was that those refused ordination because of their sex are denied access to the full sacramental life of the Church. And that, indeed, the denial of this sacrament to everyone is a matter of clerical power. A job interviewee, I was not free to redefine the terms.

ClericalismOf course, there is such a thing as an abuse of power by clerics, what one rightly calls clericalism. Because of the sacrament of ordination, some deacons, priests, and bishops see themselves as lone rangers in rescuing the Church (especially us precarious lay people) from the perils of secularism. They see the rite of ordination as bestowing not simply the sacred power of representing Christ and the Church in the Eucharistic offering. They also believe that ordination has made them the premier expert in carrying out administration and financial work, legal matters, preaching, catechesis, theology, every aspect of living Christian life in the world, and anything else that can happen in a parish or diocese.  Of course, this kind of clericalism is not reserved solely for those ordained whether they are women or men (I’m 100% certain that Roman Catholicism is not the only group that suffers from clericalism). Receiving a master’s degree is often an invitation to a kind of “academic” clericalism, which elevates one above “those in the pews.” And those with doctorates are supremely good at being clerical, often far more expert at it than the clerics themselves.

This kind of reduction of the relationship between “lay” and “ordained” to the matter of power and prestige has a deleterious effect upon the worship of the Church. Priests can grow to see themselves as at the center of the Church’s life, creating a clerical culture in which we worship “Father So and So” or Bishop “X” and not Christ crucified. Yet, a similar approach to power can operate among those of us in the pews, who want to democratize liturgical action. “We should be able to do more in the liturgy, be able to participate in everything, because it’s our liturgy–we are the Church.” A theological statement may be true but can be said in the wrong way, becoming an expression of ideology not gift. We, all of us, are the Church. And this means that our identity is a gift from the crucified love of Christ, not setting “us” up against “them.”

Yet, how do we avoid this polarization of lay and ordained, played out frequently in the liturgical wars of the last twenty years? Can we move beyond power politics in our relationships, toward a relationship of mutual love and respect? In other words, can we be a Church, the family of God, Christ’s mystical body?

Healing Has Already Started…Some Time Ago

LogChapelSeveral weeks ago, I gathered for a baptism at the Log Chapel on Notre Dame’s campus. In that assembly, we had present four Holy Cross priests and a brother (one priest ordained the day before, who was serving as godfather and another who was presiding), two theologians with doctorates, five lay ministers and teachers with master’s degrees, and an accountant or two. A rarefied group, there was nonetheless no sense of prestige or ambition in the group that day. Fr. Aaron administered the sacrament of baptism because he was ordained to do so. But, he had a deep admiration and respect for those of us in that assembly, who live out the baptismal priesthood through caring for toddlers and educating in classrooms and loving our spouses.

DioceseofKnoxvilleIn reality, for many lay women and men, this is our experience of the priesthood. On numerous occasions, I have been asked to address groups of priests in dioceses on preaching and liturgical practice. Rarely has there been enmity expressed because I was a lay person telling ordained men how to do their job. At the same time, I have deep admiration for those men, who live out their ordained priesthood through transforming their lives into Eucharistic gifts. Fr. Pete McCormick, C.S.C. has taught me more how to care for my son than many parents insofar as I have watched him drop with joy all recreational plans to listen to a student in need. He misses football game after football game in order to preside at the wedding of a former student. He is a disciple, and there is something about his priesthood that makes him this in a way that inspires me on a daily basis.

My own deep admiration for the “set apart” quality of the priesthood is not unique among those my age. It is also not uncommon to encounter a generation of priests in the Diocese of Knoxville (my home diocese) or in the Congregation of Holy Cross, who see collaboration with lay Catholics to be not requirement but gift. There is a common mission that we are undertaking, one that we perform in our own particular way.

This Mission is the Eucharistization of the World

I often make it a practice to read interviews with seminarians who are currently in formation. Often, when asked to reflect on what they long for most, they note it is making available the Eucharistic sacrifice of Christ each day for the assembly of the faithful. When reading these texts, I often think to myself, “Yes, that is the most important thing that you do.” But, I hope that you recognize what this means for both of us, lay and ordained.

In his work, The Church of God: Body of Christ and Temple of the Spirit, Louis Bouyer writes:

Everything that [the layperson’s] activity encounters in this world–all human beings with whom it associates him, in any way; everything he does, on the personal, familial, professional, social, political, and cultural planes; and everything he becomes–must be made an occasion of giving thanks to God in the faith. This ‘eucharist’ of the faith becomes real only by being exercised in charity toward our brothers [and sisters] on all occasions, in all these paths. In this way the Christian extends in the world, in the life of every day, the royal priesthood whose fundamental exercise is his participation in the Eucharist, but which takes on its fullest meaning and reality only if his participation brings him consecration of his whole existence, preparing…for the consecration of the universe” (455).

Pope Francis (C) speaks during a mass at Tacloban's airport January 17, 2015. An emotional Pope Francis, wearing a plastic poncho over his vestments to protect him from the wind and rain on Saturday, comforted survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, the Philippines' worst natural disaster that killed about 6,300 people 14 months ago.   REUTERS/Damir Sagolj (PHILIPPINES - Tags: RELIGION ENVIRONMENT)

The reason why I get along so well with so many priests is because we’re aware of our respective roles in this eucharistization of the world. The priest’s ministry, including his liturgical ministry, is oriented toward offering me the resources to transfigure the world through his preaching and bestowing of the sacraments. Yet, the activity that I perform in the sanctification of the mundane is not some lesser Eucharistic activity, a kind of “spiritual” offering (which is nice and pleasant but not really Eucharistic). It is really the “making eucharist” of the world, part of God’s salvific plan for reality. My “eucharist” is not more important than the offering made possible by the ordained priesthood. But, it is not less important. It is a mutual sharing of gift, of role, of vocation.

Perhaps, it is this theology of the lay priesthood (and the gift of the ordained priesthood to this lay life), which still remains far too unknown following the Second Vatican Council.  The option in the Church isn’t between professional cleric (who cares about faith) and lay person, whose only responsibility is to receive the Eucharist every Sunday. Rather, it is two forms of priesthood, mutually co-adhering. Two forms of priesthood that make possible a world of self-giving love.

Clericalization in the Liturgy is Both “Liberal” and “Traditional”

It does seem important to emphasize that there remains approaches to liturgy that are clerical (in the bad sense of that term). And such liturgical styles are not simply reserved for so-called traditionalists. The priest may change the texts of the liturgy, making clear that he is the ultimate creator of the text. The priest may insert editorial comments into each liturgical action, refusing to give those of us gathered an occasion to offer the depths of our hearts to the triune God. The liturgical actions of the priest (or the way that he speaks certain words) may draw attention not to Christ but to himself. His preaching on Sunday mornings can become an occasion for him to engage in public forms of therapy or preaching on the social or cultural issues that he is most concerned about. He may only seek to cultivate liturgical ministry among men, who may one day be ordained to the priesthood.

Yet, it is equally the case that a similar form of clericalism can exist among those who do treat rubrics or the beauty of the liturgy itself as an idol. An ordained minister who wants to direct every moment of activity rather than forming lay women and men who have unconscious competence relative to their own activity in the liturgy. A priest or bishop who sees the liturgy as the place to express his personal vision of the Christian life. Parishes shows signs of such clericalism when they change their entire liturgical style based upon the arrival of every new pastor. As Bishop Peter Elliots, a good liturgical celebrant “…draws his collaborators into his own ars celebrandi by requiring high standards based on training to develop skills and to correct errors. He should expect dedication and never settle for less. Nevertheless he does not play the ‘sacristy priest,’ because he delegates liturgical training and formation to those he has already formed in the wider ars celebrandi” (“Ars Celebrandi in the Sacred Liturgy” in Sacred Liturgy: The Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church, 79).

In a course that I have taught this year on liturgy, theology, and aesthetics, many of my students attended a Ukrainian Catholic liturgy, one in which the priest prayed the Eucharistic Prayer facing the same direction as the people (ad orientem). In their description of this rite, they commented upon how “un-clerical” it was for the priest and lay person to face the same direction in their prayer. That our prayer is a common one, performed together. And it is a prayer that neither of us own but receive as gift from the Church. Perhaps, there is more wisdom (than simply some return to an archaic practice), something deeply formative about an ad orientem posture in Eucharistic praying, one that is not simply about the ordained excluding the lay from prayer.

Christ is the Powerful One

The last suggestion, implicit all along, is that the problem with many approaches to liturgical prayer (and why people see it as polarizing) is that everything is immediately reduced to the question of power. Why does Rome have all the power? Why does the priest have all the power? Why do “we” not have more power?

While power may work well as a sociological category in assessing how institutions function, the reduction of all liturgical activity in the Church to power is a de-sacramentalizing one. The Church exists not because of its own power but because the Church gathers around the only one who has power to begin with, the powerless one, Jesus Christ. The one who did not claim “power” over the Father but emptied himself. The one who learned the power of obedience, even unto death. The one who was raised up from the dead through the power of God.

PopeFrancisTo analyze lay and clerical liturgical action according to “power” is, in some ways, to simply perpetuate the polarization that can be present in the Church today. Both lay and ordained are to exercise power but a power that comes first and foremost from the crucified God, Jesus Christ. This point is emphasized by Pope Francis in his Evangelii Gaudium: 

The ministerial priesthood is one means employed by Jesus for the service of his people, yet our great dignity derives from baptism, which is accessible to all. The configuration of the priest to Christ the head – namely, as the principal source of grace – does not imply an exaltation which would set him above others. In the Church, functions “do not favour the superiority of some vis-à-vis the others”. Indeed, a woman, Mary, is more important than the bishops. Even when the function of ministerial priesthood is considered “hierarchical”, it must be remembered that “it is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ’s members”. Its key and axis is not power understood as domination, but the power to administer the sacrament of the Eucharist; this is the origin of its authority, which is always a service to God’s people. This presents a great challenge for pastors and theologians, who are in a position to recognize more fully what this entails with regard to the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life (EG 104)


This series on liturgical polarization began with a claim that polarization, the creation of an “us” vs. “them” in liturgical worship is a problem for ecclesial unity. This statement remains true. But, it must be emphasized at the conclusion of the series that liturgical polarization in parish life is not the normative reality. That most of our parishes are places where human beings participate in Christ’s own life from birth to death. And while parish structure is changing, while attendance (at some parishes, those not in the South) may be dropping, the unity of the Church is performed week-after-week in these buildings.

I learned the possibility of divine love in my local parish. It was a parish that sang hymns, which I didn’t always want sung. It was a parish in which there were real arguments over liturgical space. It was a parish in which I’ve seen political conservatives and liberals argue over the demands of the Gospels. But, it was a parish in which we dined at the Supper of the Lamb. A parish in which God’s glory was made manifest among us. A parish in which wounds were healed through the sign of peace, through learning to recognize the presence of the Word made flesh dwelling in our midst. That we gathered around a truth that we ourselves did not create, a truth that is traditioned by the Church itself. A truth spoken in love.

Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world, happy are those called to the Supper of the Lamb.  

Practicing Easter: Building the Church

Hope BoettnerHope Bethany ’15

Theology Undergraduate

Fellow, Center for Liturgy

Springtime means a number of things. It means the smell of freshly cut grass, the return of thunderstorms, and the bane of allergies. But this springtime through this reflection brings together two of my favorite things in a new way. It brings together a) baseball and b) a concrete example of a way that theological thought—the way we think about and grow in our faith—truly does impact our daily lives.

field-of-dreams-poster-artwork-kevin-costner-amy-madigan-james-earl-jonesThe connection here is a little more subtle than a church softball league, so I will explain. In the baseball movie classic Field of Dreams, a down-on-his-luck Iowa farmer begins (without really understanding why) building a baseball diamond in his cornfields. He is prompted to do this by a few rather mystical experiences, including the whispered, repeated phrase, “If you build it, he will come.”

My home diocese, the Diocese of Knoxville in Tennessee,  isn’t building a baseball diamond. But she is embarking on a building adventure of her own. This past weekend, members from all corners of the diocese (along with leaders of the wider Church) came together to celebrate the groundbreaking of the building project for a new Cathedral. Originally, when Pope John Paul II created the Diocese of Knoxville in 1988 by splitting it from Nashville, the already existing Sacred Heart Parish was chosen because of its size and central location to serve as the Cathedral parish. But the diocese has grown and changed in the last twenty-five years, and with it, the Cathedral parish demographics have increased and changed dramatically. In deciding to build a Cathedral, Catholics of East Tennessee are coming together to build; we are remembering and honoring the past and (short) history of our diocese and we are getting ready for the future, for a new chapter in which we will stand more on our own feet as a maturing diocese.

From left, Father David Boettner Tennessee First Lady Crissy Haslam, Governor Bill Haslam, Bishop Richard Stika, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and Cardinal William Levada participate in the groundbreaking ceremony for the Sacred Heart Cathedral on Sunday, April 19, 2015.   (SAUL YOUNG/NEWS SENTINEL)
From left, Father David Boettner Tennessee First Lady Crissy Haslam, Governor Bill Haslam, Bishop Richard Stika, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and Cardinal William Levada participate in the groundbreaking ceremony for the Sacred Heart Cathedral on Sunday, April 19, 2015.

Although I was privileged to go home for the weekend and participate in the events associated with the groundbreaking, I have mostly been watching this entire process unfold from afar. My home diocese has been my home in many ways for nearly my whole life. As a daughter of the Diocese who loves her home, while living (in happy exile) away from home and majoring in Theology at Notre Dame, I have been geeking out quite a bit as it all transpires.

I am watching my home Church come together, work together, and learn together about why and how we think about our sacred spaces in the way that we do. I am seeing tutorials on the meaning behind church architecture reach people; I am watching as people transition from hesitancy about the need for a new Cathedral to excitement, pride, and willingness to go the distance and to be a part of this effort. I am seeing a countless number of individuals devote their time, their talents, and their efforts in order to make all of this happen. And most importantly, I am seeing first-hand the way that physically building a new Cathedral church is teaching, forming, and building up the Body of Christ in East Tennessee.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, greets guests at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Sacred Heart Cathedral on Sunday, April 19, 2015.   (SAUL YOUNG/NEWS SENTINEL)
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, greets guests at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Sacred Heart Cathedral on Sunday, April 19, 2015.

This weekend, I saw hundreds and hundreds of people work together and come together for this moment. (Apparently the final count was 1200 local folks, 12 bishops, 3 cardinals, a governor, and two mayors.) This time in Knoxville diocesan history clearly has become a teaching and formational moment. It has taught and re-taught us about our need to worship God rightly so that we may live rightly, not just as the parish of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but as the entire diocese and all of her members. The tagline of the Cathedral campaign itself packs a theological punch about this rightly ordered way of looking at church building: “Home, Where We Worship, Teach, and Serve.”Home-Campaign-Logo_RGB

Thinking about building, thinking about the seasons of life, and deciding to build has helped all of us who call ourselves a part of the diocese of Knoxville to realize that the Mass, the liturgy, and the life of the Church (both local and universal) is not simply about “we the people.” The Church is actually about the Trinity; the Church only exists because the love of the Trinity overflowed and continues to overflow to creation. God’s overflowing, self-giving, and ever-expanding love explains the basic fact of why we are here. But reflecting on God’s love also helps us understand the fitting priority list for our lives and that if we don’t worship rightly we cannot live rightly—and this is why I’m so proud of the “Worship, Teach, Serve” tagline.

Reflecting on worship and on what it means to build a fitting space for the “home base” of the Diocese (the baseball jokes continue) also means something else. It means that we realize our lives of faith mean more than the sense of community or feeling of belonging that we encounter when we gather for the liturgy. In the Mass and in other liturgies, we (the people of God) participate and pray in hope and in confidence of the fulfillment of God’s promises to us.

But we ourselves, though we are the people and the assembly of God, are not actually the main focus of the liturgy. The Mass and the liturgical life of the Church is not meant to inspire and entertain us, so that we come back next time for more. The liturgical life of the Church is meant to take all of us up into the love of the Trinity, so that we glorify our Creator and are strengthened by the sacraments in order that we may then go out and participate in the work of the Trinity. We do this by helping to sanctify the world with Christ’s love and Christ’s beauty. Paraphrasing Mother Teresa, we make something beautiful for God by our lives and our loves.

Design of the interior of the Cathedral
Design of the interior of the Cathedral

There’s a pertinent phrase in liturgical theology “lex orandi, lex credendi” that can help us think about this. It means that the law of prayer is the law of belief, or more colloquially, what we say in prayer reflects what we truly believe. Building decisions with churches and with this cathedral extends this “lex orandi, lex credendi” to “lex aedificandi, lex credendi.”  Aedificandi means build, and so what we build and the way we build it reflects what we believe, too. In his book Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, Denis McNamara says that “architecture is the built form of ideas; church architecture is the built form of theology. As go the ideas, so goes the architecture . . . all architectural decisions are theological decisions.”

Actually, the self-gift (kenosis) of Christ on the Cross forever changed the way that we see our lives and think about beauty. Because Christ’s gift of Himself to the point of death transformed even the worst suffering into the opportunity to give and in that giving to become something beautiful for God, everything in our lives can be transformed by Christ’s work on our behalf. Here and now, in our local churches, we have a chance to give of ourselves, in our daily life. This occurs for Christians all over the world in a significant way through the celebration of the liturgy. By investing prayer, thought, time, energy, and our own personal resources into the building of our local churches (both physically and metaphorically) we also participate in another way in that mystery of self-gift and self-emptying in order to help build the Kingdom of God in new ways.**

In the book Theology in Stone by Richard Kieckhefer, this theological understanding that what we build and the way we build it says something about what we believe is inferred from the title itself. Kieckhefer also makes the comment that

“art in a religious setting can serve as a sacrament of grace, and the capacity to see oneself as worthy of beauty is one dimension of recognizing oneself as by grace made worthy for grace—the sole condition for beginning to receive it” (99).

New Dome 041415(1)Our churches should be fitting, beautiful places for God to be housed, where we can enter more deeply into the mysteries of the Faith so that we can recognize that we are called to be where God is—because God is worthy of the beautiful. And since God is the author and source of all beauty, and since our ultimate call is to become more like God, we are worthy to sit and contemplate God’s love and God’s beauty in beautiful places so that in better understanding God’s beauty we can go into the world and share that beauty.

So how is a building project or thinking about building up and supporting a local church practicing Easter?

Many of our first readings in the Lectionary this time of the year are drawn from the Acts of the Apostles, where we hear the stories of the early Church growing and building, coming together to break bread and to hear the Word of God. In East Tennessee, we are building and re-building our growing local church, so that we may have a place to come together as an entire diocese. Like the members of the early Church, we do this so that we may hear the Word of God in the Scriptures and break bread together in the Eucharist. The book of Ecclesiastes helps us think about this in another way highlighting tbe seasonal, liturgical factor of life.  There is a season for everything. The season of spring is baseball season, like I mentioned earlier. But in East Tennessee this year, spring is also church-building season. It is a stone-moving season, and a planting season for the seeds of faith.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together” (Eccl 3:1–5a)

1397951614000-ghostfieldAt the end of his own season of building in Field of Dreams,  Ray Kinsella realizes that his baseball diamond building project was not about the baseball players who came, or the field for its own sake. Instead, it was actually about re-building his relationship with his own father, through a simple coming together in playing a game of catch.  At the end of Field of Dreams, Ray is asked by his father, “Is this heaven?” Ray responds by stammering out, “…This.. it’s… it’s Iowa…”

In the movie Field of Dreams, because of his building project, Ray experiences the healing and growth of relationships in his life, including his father. The comparison with the Cathedral project in Knoxville wasn’t meant to be trite. Because in the building and completion of a Cathedral for the Church in East Tennessee (or anywhere where the people of God continue to build) we see a closer glimpse into the call of our eternal relationships with our Heavenly Father and with each other.  Our Father in Heaven wants much more than the time spent in a game of catch with us; He wants time with us for  all of eternity. The glimpses of that heavenly call  show us little glances of the beauty of God’s image for the world in His new, restored creation made possible for us by Christ’s defeat of death and promise of eternal life.

East Tennessee isn’t heaven. But I swear,  sometimes, it is pretty close. And I do think that the new Cathedral, upon its completion, will be a little bit like a glimpse into heaven.




**We obviously do this too by the way we serve the wider people of God. The website for the campaign,, puts it this way: “While we aspire to glorify God through our worship, we plan to continue our work to help the poor. The Diocese of Knoxville provides over $6 million in ongoing charitable services to the poor and marginalized every year. Over the next 5 years, we will have spent more on charitable initiatives than we will have spent on the building of the cathedral.”


For more information, visit:

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus website:

Diocescan Website: ; also

McCrery Architects:


Liturgical Polarization: Is All Beauty Subjective?

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

In our series thus far on liturgical polarization, we have dealt both with the diagnosis of the problem (the applying of a political ideology to liturgical practice), together with a reasonable assessment of the translation of the Roman Missal (refusing to elevate the process of translation to perfection, while also recognizing the many fruits of the translation in the life of the Church). The hope, thus far, is that I have avoided falling into ideology, a temptation that Pope Francis himself bemoans in politics, social life, and the Church itself.

But, the question of what constitutes “beauty” in liturgy raises the stakes relative to liturgical polarization. Indeed, the problem of judging the beautiful  is not unique to the liturgy. The humanities themselves seems to have given up on the project as a whole.  As Roger Scruton writes:

“It is true…that people no longer see works of art as objects of judgement or as expressions of the moral life: increasingly many teachers of the humanities agree with their incoming students, that there is no distinction between good and bad taste, but only between your taste and mine” (Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, 84).

DuChampIn liturgical art, this means that anything is potentially beautiful and thus acceptable for worship if there is some group of people, who find the piece of art beautiful. All liturgical music that is published is potentially beautiful as long as the liturgy or music director says that it is (and people enjoy singing it). All liturgical architecture is beautiful if there are members of the assembly who experience a space as beautiful.

Yet, the dilemma of assessing liturgical beauty is not merely a matter of the subjective turn in aesthetic taste. Rather, an additional source of polarization is an argument over form and function. That churches exist solely for the sake of liturgical action, and thus their “sacredness” is dependent upon the activity of the People of God. A space or piece of music should be “beautiful” but the measure of what makes such a space or piece of music “beautiful” is the quality of worship that is facilitated among those gathered. Thus, every church should be made in a circle insofar as it facilitates the act of singing. Every hymn should be sung by everyone, which means that a certain repertoire of music no longer is appropriate for worship (Palestrina, William Byrd, and even James MacMillan). Any architecture used, any musical style employed is necessarily sacred. And implicitly, the closer that this style is to daily life, to what we experience on the radio or in work, the better.

SchwarzIn recent years, there has been a reaction against functionalism and the elimination of the category of the sacred in liturgical art. Duncan Stroik in his “Ten Myths of Contemporary Sacred Architecture” writes:

From the beginning of time, God has chosen to meet his people in sacred places. The ‘holy ground’ of Mount Sinai became translated into the tent in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem. With the advent of Christianity, believers constructed buildings specifically for the divine liturgy which would reflect the heavenly temple, the upper room, and other holy places…As a place set apart for the reception of the sacraments, the church itself becomes sacramental, having as its focus the sanctuary, which means ‘a holy place.’ Just as the ceremonies, elements such as the altar and the ambo, and the art are all referred to as ‘sacred,’ so are the buildings designed for them. Therefore, to seek to remove the distinction of the church as a sacred place for sacred activity is to diminish our reverence of God, which the building should help to engender (The Church Building as a Sacred Place, 64).

That is, it is not enough to say that the People of God is the source of splendor within the Church. Instead, matter itself is integral to worship, to fostering the disposition of reverence. Human beings within the Church are beautiful but so also are stones, crosses, sound, space, and color (to name a few). And there are ways of organizing such matter in artistic form that are not simply to be sloughed off in the name of the avant-garde.  To say that it is those within the Church who are the source of beauty, to deny that styles and forms of art are part and parcel of the tradition of the Church, is to ultimately deny that matter and history, well, matters.

But, of course, we have wandered into yet another area of polarization. That is, perhaps the real problem with liturgical aesthetics is that it is impossible to celebrate beautifully within the context of the reformed rites. That the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council destroyed traditions; and the only thing to do is to return to an exclusive celebration of the Extraordinary Form. Only then will the rich tradition of liturgical beauty be restored to the Church.

Thus, the possibility for polarization within liturgical prayer relative to beauty is three-fold.

  1. Beauty is simply in the eye of the beholder, and thus there is no way to have a reasonable conversation about what constitutes beauty in worship. What I like, I like. What you like, so be it.

  2. What really matters in liturgical beauty is not outdated categories like the sacred. Instead, the source of beauty in any act of worship may be found exclusively in the people who are gathered in the assembly. The category of the “sacred” should be done away with.

  3. The Extraordinary Form alone can restore the beauty of the Church. Liturgical ugliness results from the reformed rites.

Transcending polarization will necessitate some sort of response to these three “potentially” polarizing assumptions.

A Non-Polarized Liturgical Aesthetics

1. Beauty Is Objective…We Learn to See It in Christ

Within the framework of the Catholic liturgical and sacramental imagination, it is problematic to simply say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder for two reasons. First, there is an objective source of revelation in Catholicism, the beauty of Jesus Christ. Second, the tradition of art within the Church is not simply to be dismissed insofar as it presents to us an incarnate account of what constitutes salvific beautiful.

Jesus Christ is the source of all conversations about beauty within Catholicism. What is revealed is the total, agapic and erotic, love of God. It is a form of love that humanity could not construct upon its own. The crucifixes within our churches are not intended to make us feel guilt for the suffering of the Son. Instead, they manifest to us a new way of perceiving the entirety of creation itself. As Hans ur von Balthasar writes:

…the paradoxical events with which God ‘shocks’ sinful man are seen as an invitation and stimulus to overleap the bounds of a closed world of finite ideas and to share in God’s self-manifestation and openness, something to which the creaturely condition itself points, though unable to attain it (“Revelation and the Beautiful,” 114).

An objective (and new) sense of beauty now orders the world. The beauty of a body given over in the totality of love. A beauty that is never simply a judgement subject to culturally-inscribed taste. God’s total self-giving love is the origin of all that is beautiful. And now the beauty of the created world itself can only be understood in light of Christ’s self-giving love. As I have written elsewhere, “A Christian notion of beauty is not an idea or an abstraction. It is a deeper immersion into the particularities of the mystery of divine love enshrined in salvation history…” (Liturgy and the New Evangelization, 118).

ArtAnd this objective sense of beauty has itself taken flesh in art, which is inscribed in specific cultures. The problem with the plainness of so many churches today, of the less than poetic images of the hymns that we sing, of presiding styles that put more emphasis upon the prelate’s own self than Christ, is that it detracts from what is revealed in Christ. The tradition of liturgical art is valuable in that it enshrines for us the Church’s centuries own reflection upon this beauty. The aesthetics of liturgical practice (the structure of Eucharistic prayers and the rituals performed), incarnate in the rites of the Church, also form us to see this beauty.

Thus, not only is there is an objective sense of beauty within Catholicism. But, we can learn to see such beauty through the artistic tradition of the Church. To reject these traditions because we perceive them as “too old,” “antiquated,” not sufficient for expressing our sense of beauty today is as dangerous as denying that the specific language of Christian doctrine matters. We will lose some aspect of our capacity to contemplate the beautiful One when we get rid of Romanesque and Baroque churches, crosses that present the beauty of the crucified one, altar pieces that provide grist for the imagination, and music that gifts us with the ability to see how time itself is taken up into the transcendent.

2. The Sacred Matters

Though related to the previous point, it is essential to recognize that the category of the sacred cannot be done away without denying the  graced orientation of creation itself. “Natural” religion reveals something about what human beings need in order to worship. There are moments of our lives, which necessarily stand apart from others. We are born, we make a life time commitment, we have a child, we experience illness, we retire from our career, and we approach death. “Sacred” spaces, spaces apart, are not contrary to the intimate union of love made possible through the gift of Christ’s sacrifice. Rather, nature itself is lifted up and transformed in the process.

NewYorkSaintPatricksIn this way, the various possibilities of religious experience must be employed if art is to be beautiful. Contemporary liturgical art too often reduces human experience only to the intimate, to music that does not strike one with awe, to art that is folksy. Our churches are small in size. They have walls that recall not a grand basilica or a mighty cathedral but a quiet, sleepy office building. The music is not an icon, an experience of participating in heavenly worship, but feels more like a protest song on a city street. There are spaces for this form of music. But the reduction of religious experience to this one mode reduces what it means to be human before God.

Perhaps, it is this reason that natural religion still (at least for now) interrupts when young women and men want to get married in “traditionally” beautiful churches. And even those who are not interested in being married within such spaces still want to choose landscapes in which the drama of the commitment unfolds (beaches, mountain peaks, etc.).

For this reason, relative to liturgical beauty, it is acceptable to acknowledge the existence of the sacred, of that which “gives meaning to” the ordinariness of life. This does not mean that every piece of liturgical art must be expensive or comprehensible  only to the artistically literate. It simply means that we find things beautiful that are set apart, which enable us to have the variety of human experiences that are part and parcel of the religious life.

The total elimination of chant, of polyphony, of certain architectural motifs and sacred art from parishes, of the use of an organ, etc. is not simply a rejection of all art that has come before. Rather, it seems to say that the religious experience enshrined into ancient hymns and practices of chant and altarpieces and the use of incense and stained glass…well, it’s not authentic religious experience. Sacred art is sacred because it’s set apart; it’s beloved because it reveals to us something about what it means to be human in Christ.

3. The Aesthetics of the Ordinary and Extraordinary Form

It is simply untrue (and ecclesiologically problematic) to say that only the Extraordinary Form offers a legitimate experience of beauty in liturgical prayer. It is often the case that those who celebrate the Ordinary Form of the Mass experience a less than beautiful event. The music is often poorly done, the preaching is aesthetically (and theologically) repugnant, and the space feels more like a living room.


Yet, the young adults whom I have taught this semester at Notre Dame (in a course on liturgy and aesthetics nonetheless) have made it clear that they find ample beauty in the worship of the Church today. They see the benefit of intimate gatherings in dorm chapels; massive spaces with professional choirs for the celebration of the Triduum; architecture that reflects the rich diversity of Catholic experience. They want the old. They want the new. They want both. Can we have both in the Church today? If we do, can we have them without leading to the other being perceived as “more authentic” than the other?

Liturgy is beautiful insofar as it is contemplative. That is, beauty is never simply a matter of “sensation.” It is not pleasure alone. We can gaze into the face of an elderly couple, holding hands while sitting in a park, and see beauty. The beauty that we perceive is not their wrinkled flesh. Rather, to see an old couple still holding hands is to encounter the beauty of a love that has lasted. Yet, if we move so quickly through the world that we cannot gaze upon this couple, that we cannot take a step back and contemplate this love, then we will not see the beauty.

The danger of the Ordinary Form of the Rite is that every space for contemplation is taken away by the choir, the presider, the announcements, etc. No space is given to perceive the beauty that unfolds in the silence of the heart. Every verse of every hymn must be sung by everyone (and if the liturgical action is not finished, the hymn must begin again). The words of the hymns themselves seem to say everything, leaving little room for mystical silence (as one finds in the great liturgical poetry of the tradition). If the Extraordinary Form has anything to “teach” us who practice the Ordinary Form, it is to make room for this contemplative silence. The kind of silence that Aidan Kavanagh notes:

“…is not the embarrassed, barren, uncontrolled lack of sound which occurs when things break down and no one knows what to say or do. Liturgical silence is purposeful, pregnant, and controlled–the thunderous quiet of people communicating that which escapes being put into mere words” (Elements of Rite, 51).

That being said, the pedagogical dialectic will go both ways. The gift of the Ordinary Form (when done well) infuses the beauty of ordinary life into the liturgical celebration. Of families bringing up gifts to the altar. Of men and women offering their voices to the living God in hymns of praise. Of a community of disciples gathered together to participate in the breaking of the bread.

These are not mutually exclusive visions within Catholicism. In fact, anyone who says that only one offers the proper vision, the proper sense of what it means to be Catholic, has failed to see the most frustrating reality of Catholicism: that there are often multiple goods, which seem contradictory, but must be perceived together.

This last point will bring us to our final column in our series on liturgical polarization: priesthood and laity.

Practicing Easter: Almsgiving

Samuel BellafioreScreen Shot 2015-01-23 at 1.43.20 PM

Undergraduate Fellow

B.A. 2015 Philosophy, Vocal Performance


What better way to celebrate Easter than to think about Lent? On Lent’s second day the Office of Readings shares this from Leo the Great: “What the Christian should be doing at all times should be done now with greater care and devotion.” If in Lent we do more eagerly the things we should always do, how much more eagerly should we do them in Easter? Almsgiving is as important to Easter as it is to Lent.

Lenten fasting reveals man can in fact live without as much bread as he normally eats. When you’re fasting perhaps you don’t think you can make it, but afterward you realize it’s quite possible. In Easter, we can examine ourselves: What do I really need? Lent primes us to realize the only thing we really need is God. We see this but find it so easy to return to what we don’t need. In Easter doesn’t this excess still belong to the poor who do need it?

In Easter, God reveals more and more of His Trinitarian life. He startles us with the mystery and promise of Resurrection in Jesus Christ, who then ascends to the Father and pours out the Spirit. Will we live more of this life? Will we pour out any of what God constantly pours on us? The Resurrection should press us to imitate Christ more fully. This should drive us toward the poor.

Jesus’ Incarnation, Passion, Death, and Resurrection clarify human life, especially poverty and suffering. God’s love for His impoverished, suffering people drives Him to take flesh. For all time He illuminates ways-to-help-the-poorHis presence in people, which was already emblazoned there since creation. He dwells in people, especially the poor and pained, since He has known poverty and pain. They dwell in Him because He has dwelt with them.

Christ becomes poor because He loves the poor. Yet His coming and conquering do not end immediate suffering. Jesus’ life on earth instead simply endears the poor to Him more. And He shows us where to find Him. Perhaps the statements “The poor you will always have with you” (Mt 26:11) and “I will be with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20) belong together.

Jesus’ Resurrection drives home that He lives in the flesh, as a person. When we seek Him we should seek Him in people. In our neighbor. We should seek Him out even where we’d prefer not to find a neighbor. Like the women on Easter, we should go in search of His body. And we can find Him, in the bodies of our friends starving, reeking, and begging. These people too were created for the Resurrection.

We might not expect to find Him there. But there was no reason to expect to find Him when He first came to earth. “He had neither beauty, nor majesty, nothing to attract our eyes” (Is 53:2). There was no reason except Mary’s desperate hope to think He would come again, this time from the dead. Again He comes. Would that we were already ablaze with charity.

But God can show Himself to us, just as He did to the incredulous disciples, though He doesn’t always point where we expect. This may be clearest in Peter’s post-Resurrection confession of faith. He reverses his threefold denial of Christ by saying three times, “You know that I love you” (Jn 21:15–17). Christ’s response to Peter’s love is: “Feed my sheep.”

Maybe Peter thinks his love for Christ can be a simple two-way street. But Jesus is clear: if you love me, it’s going to involve other people. If you love me, feed them. And somehow this “them” is also “Him”: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). The Easter encounter does not let us cling to Christ when we find Him. He sends us to those who need to find Him. He sends us to the hungry.

Feeding the hungry is, perhaps more than anything else, God’s work. The Psalms say it: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt. Open wide your mouth and I will fill it” (Ps 81:11). Mary says it: “You have filled the hungry with good things” (Lk 1:53). surrender-hands_1And Christ says it: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger” (Jn 6:35). As people, we are fundamentally starved. We are not entirely starved, but at our core is the desire to be filled and satisfied. Because we are God’s creatures, this hunger is for nothing other than Him.

God recognizes this desire and answers it recklessly. He even gives Himself as food, since we’re hungry for Him in the first place. The Resurrection and Eucharist remind us: Christ is alive and with us always.

This is wonderful but disconcerting: if we need to be fed, this means we’re weak. People who need a Father’s hand to feed them aren’t the autonomous adults we like to think we are. “As once for the disciples, so now for us, he opens the Scriptures and breaks the bread” (Masses for Various Needs, Roman Missal). What we can provide—our understanding, our bread—is not enough to satisfy our hunger.

If we realize our weakness, “the poor” become less scary. “The poor” are not someone else. We are poor. There is nothing that should keep us away from the poor. God sees our hunger and feeds us. In this Paschal time, why should we do anything else?

Liturgical Polarization: The Roman Missal (2011)

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author





PolarizationEditor’s note: This series on liturgical polarization is being written to prepare for a gathering being held at the University of Notre Dame on Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal on Monday, April 27, 2015. A live feed of this event will be available

Part 1: A Diagnosis

Not everyone loves the recent English translation of the Roman Missal. Among those involved in liturgical scholarship, teaching, and ministry, the reception of the translation has often been frigid. Not simply because these scholars, teachers, and pastoral ministers have objections to the poetics or translation principles of the text. In her June 30, 2011 article assessing the translation in Commonweal, Rita Ferrone proposes what she sees as the root problem with the Missal:

Beneath the words of the new translation, one senses a drive to minimize the practical effects of Vatican II. The reforms of Vatican II prized clarity and intelligibility in the liturgy; they gave priority to the work of ecumenism and evangelization; they respected the local work of bishops conferences; they invited aggiornamento and engagement with the world. This vital heritage is being eclipsed by another agenda. We are seeing a wooden loyalty to the Latin text at the price of clarity and intelligibility. We are seeing a retreat from advances already made in ecumenism. We are seeing the proper role of local bishops and bishops conferences increasingly taken over by the authorities in Rome. We are seeing the liturgy reimagined as an event taking place in some sacral space outside of our world, rather than the beating heart of a world made new.

TheRomanMissalFerrone is not alone in her less than positive assessment of the Missal. Fr. Gerald O’Collins, S.J. in The Tablet has asked the English-speaking bishops to consider adopting the 1998 Sacramentary, translated before the promulgation of Liturgiam authenticam, a document that set forth the principles used in translating the 2011 Roman Missal. The website, Misguided Missal, assembles many of these concerns in one place. A summary of the objections that one hears relative to the adoption of the Missal include:

  • Prayer texts, which too often sound clunky not simply to the presiding minister but to those assembled that day in prayer.
  • A process of translation and editing, which did not widely consult beyond bishops and priests, one that further resulted in additional edits after the bishops had approved certain texts. That is, there seems to have been some secrecy and not enough consultation, which in this instance is too much secrecy and too little consultation alike.
  • Inattention to the ecumenical implications of adopting translations not used by Protestant churches.
  • The adoption of what is perceived as overly sacral vocabulary including the words oblation, consubstantial, chalice, in addition to the use of repetition (this sacrifice, this oblation, this offering).

If one only attends to the voices of those who have objected to the Missal, then one might surmise that the translation of the Missal is the most polarizing liturgical issue of our day. But, at least to those who participate weekly in the Eucharistic worship of the Church, it does not seem to be the case that these translations are quite the breaking point that liturgical theologians and practitioners have surmised. Summarizing the results of a survey by CARA out of Georgetown University, the editors of America Magazine note:

While it may do little to end disagreements among liturgists over recent changes to the Roman Missal, a survey conducted in September, nearly a year after controversial revisions of the English language Mass took effect, found that seven in 10 Catholics agree that the new translation of the Mass “is a good thing” (20 percent agree “strongly”). Nearly a quarter of the Catholics surveyed (23 percent) disagreed, however, and an additional 7 percent “strongly” disagree with the view that the changes were for the better.

Catholics who attend Mass weekly were the most likely to be satisfied with the new translation, according to a report prepared for the Catholic University of America by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Eighty-four percent said that the revised Mass was a “good thing.” Just over 60 percent of self-identified Catholics who rarely or never attend Mass, however, were not positive about the changes. The new survey also found that regular Mass attendance levels remained the same, compared with a similar study conducted in 2011. Both polls estimated that about a quarter of adult Catholics attend Mass weekly or more often. Last year’s survey reported that only one in four adult Catholics were aware of the then-impending changes to the English-language liturgy, which began to be used during Advent 2011. This is part of the reason why this year’s apparent level of general satisfaction is of interest.

What then is one to believe? Is the Missal a poetic disaster and a radical abuse of power, dialing back the reforms of the Second Vatican Council? Is it what will lead men and women away from Eucharistic participation? Or has the Church become so used to mediocrity in liturgical aesthetics that no one even notices the poverty of the present texts?

A Via Media

NewRomanMissalIn reality, the truth about the Missal is most likely somewhere in the middle of total wonder at its poetic genius (and doctrinal fidelity) and an abject failure, which was nothing more than a covert war upon the principles of the Second Vatican Council. There are texts in the Missal, which are not exemplary of good poetry, whose syntax is far too complex:

O God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin

prepared a worthy dwelling for your Son,

grant, we pray,

that, as you preserved her from every stain

by virtue of the Death of your Son, which you foresaw,

so, through her intercession,

we, too, may be cleansed and admitted to your presence.

At the same time, there are also texts, which have already become dear to those who pray them. The Contifeor is not a reflection upon the total depravity of the human condition (as some charged when it is introduced). It is an occasion to recognize that my sin is not anyone’s fault but my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault. The Eucharistic Prayers are poetic. For example, the repetition in the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I) is not ultimately distracting but an invitation toward contemplation: this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim…. Repetition is beautiful and attractive to the ear as poets diverse as Christina Rossetti, Robert Southwell, SJ, and Charles Peguy have demonstrated in their art.

Thus, is there a way forward where we can offer an objective (and at times critical) assessment of the Missal, while also recognizing that its promulgation has in fact been fruitful? I think so.

First, the process of translation itself may benefit from closer attention to how English itself functions as a poetic language. Now, it must be emphasized that liturgical prayers are not English poems (though some poems can become prayers). But, it is also the case that there is a power and beauty in the Latin text that one must “translate” into English. For example, when I am looking for a very literal translation of Augustine’s Confessions (which is more than readable), I turn to Frank Sheed’s. On the other hand, when I teach the Confessions, seeking to immerse the students into the vitality of Latin as a language, I read Maria Boulding’s. The latter is not always the most literal translation; but it most often communicates the aesthetic and theological sense of Augustine’s text. Are there ways that some of the genius of the English language itself might inform future translation projects?

ConsubstantialIt should be said that this is not an invitation to “update” our technical vocabulary for the modern world. The word “consubstantial” (derided by many) in the Creed is a term that guards the mystery of the Son’s sharing in the divine nature of the Father. The one who is born in Bethlehem, preaches in Galilee, and dies upon Calvary as a human being is consubstantial with the Father. Really, really, God. To have a term like consubstantial that can be passed on from age-to-age, guarding the mystery of the Christ’s divinity, is worth hanging onto.

Second, the actual process of releasing the text as it presently functions (from ICEL down to the bishops back to Rome back to the bishops back to Rome, while the English-speaking Church waits) needs to be reformed. There is no particularly good reason why the translation of liturgical texts needs to occur as some entirely secretive process. Texts can be tried out in local assemblies, and if found wanting for good reason, then an adaptation of the translation can occur. One recognizes that there are various dialects of English spoken throughout the world and that there will always be conflict and dislike (that is ultimately the problem with translation to begin with). But, the more open the process, the better.

Third, it also must be admitted that the present translation is better than the previous one and many in the Church do find the translation a source of beauty. The latter is less about the necessary poetic genius of the text (which there is much to admire), and the fact that liturgical texts are used in offering our very humanity to the Father. These texts are the ones that we have not simply assessed as written objects. But, we in the Church have prayed with the opening collect of Advent, longing to run forth to greet Christ. We have let our imagination be taken up with gratitude for the Spirit that falls like dewfall upon bread and wine. We have participated in the song of the angelic host, which heaps praise upon the triune God: we praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks. To simply get rid of the present Missal will lead to discord not from those who object to the text; but those of us, who have learned to love it.

EcumenismFourth, there are ecumenical implications of the new Missal, which have not presently been explored. We should reflect on why Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists were not invited into a dialogue with the Church about this new translation. But, it may go too far to say that ecumenism is dead because we do not pray the same texts from week-to-week. I don’t pray the same texts as Orthodox Christians from week-to-week. I don’t even pray the same words as Spanish speaking Christians at Mass. My toddler son prays no words at all. But, I do long to be one. I do long to be one with Anglicans and Lutherans and Methodists alike. I long to be one with all of humanity for that is what Christ promises in the Church. Perhaps, the Missal rather than serve as an obstacle to ecumenism can open new avenues for common dialogue and prayer alike. A recognition of difference need not forestall a desire for unity; it can jump start it.

Fifth (and lastly), too often those involved in liturgical and sacramental theology and ministry have taken on the habit of dismissing the Missal as an abject failure. As a grasp for clerical control and power. Such language, while reflecting a specific experience of liturgical reform, could lead to even deeper polarization in the Church. For, it is often assumed in such circles that reasonable persons will all agree that the present Missal is a failed project, nothing but a display of raw, clerical power. But for those who have learned to pray this Missal, to encounter Christ as mediated through these words, such statements are polarizing. They function in such a way that the one who encounters these assessments of the Church (yet disagrees) is the one who is placed on the outside. A line is drawn, and such a student or parishioner (who loves the Missal) learns that there is an “us” and a “them” (and I belong to the group of “thems”) An us, who is right. And a them, who is deadly wrong (and selfish and power-hungry and clerical).

Perhaps, it is then fair to say that the new translation of the Missal is the greatest source of polarization in the Church today. But it is not the Missal itself that polarizes. Instead, it is “we” who polarize.

  • We who dismiss anyone who has a problem with aspects of the Missal as some “liberal, heretic” rather than someone who has an ear for what proper poetry might sound like or a concern for openness in the Church or an ecumenical spirit.
  • We who dismiss anyone who loves the Missal as some arch-conservative, who seeks to dial back the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
  • We who dismiss those in the pews, who just continue to do their prayer and celebrate the ritual, not yet aware of how “dreadful” the text is.

In each case, perhaps it is the prayer of the Eucharist itself that can be healing for us (I know, ironic):

Humbly we pray

that, partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ,

we may be gathered into one by the Holy Spirit.

A Liturgical Hymn to the Bacon-Wrapped Date

Esther TerryEsther Terry

Program Director, Camino

STEP, Institute for Church Life

Editor’s Note: On this cold spring morning in South Bend, we have been seeking ways to escape the drudgery. Esther Terry, program coordinator for Camino (online theology in Spanish) offered us this hymn for contemplation. 

When I found this forgotten delicacy in my fridge this morning, the muse struck. With all due respect to St. Augustine and the Chalcedonian Fathers… 

Hymn to a Bacon-wrapped Date

Oh bacon! Oh date!

Late have I discovered you,

Beauty ever ancient,

Ever new.

Two in nature,

Yet in essence one.

Unity in duality,

Truly salty, truly sweet,

Undivided, unconfused.


Not-so-glorious in appearance,

Yet majestic in flavor.

I open my lips

And receive you with joy!


One Prayer for One Life

Leonard DeLorenzoLeonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Vision

Contact Author

Rosary beads passed through my fingers this past Friday as I prayed over a child’s grave at the back of Cedar Grove Cemetery.  Just over a year earlier this young girl was laid to rest, the daughter of loving parents, the sister of loving siblings, the beloved of many.  The first half of her life was spent in her mother’s bodily care and the second half was spent almost without interruption in the arms of family and friends.  In the resplendent light of this April morning, I prayed for her intercession because later that day a young mother—the friend of one of my students—was scheduled to terminate her own pregnancy.

I went to this grave with my rosary in hand because I didn’t know exactly what to pray for.  I had thirty minutes before I was to drive my student to the train station so she could go home to be with her friend—the pregnant mother, whose appointment at the abortion clinic was later that day.  Certainly, I wanted to pray for the life of this child, which, as far as I knew, would only last another few hours.  Of course, I wanted to pray for this young mother, whom I do not know and whose particular suffering I could not fully imagine.  And yet in the passing of the previous night I had already begun to ponder all that a ‘prayer for this child’ and a ‘prayer for this mother’ would entail.  It would at least also mean praying for the child’s father, who, as I was told, is an “abusive boyfriend.”  It would mean praying for the child’s mother’s mother, who, as I was told, “wants her to get the abortion.”  It would mean praying for the love and support of a family I cannot name, a community I cannot picture, and, ideally but also rightly, a set of conditions that would truly support life.  In short, I needed to pray for a miracle and I didn’t quite know how to do that.  But I did know Issa Grace.

“Issa Grace O’Brien of South Bend, IN, passed away in the loving arms of her family, on Monday, March 24, 2014, after living for nine months with Trisomy 18.”

This blessed child.  It would be foolish to try to mark where the care she received ended and her life began.  Who she was and the care she received were inseparable.  The care she received was bound up in who she was, and thus those who provided the care were themselves bound up in her, and she in them. That isn’t just who Issa was, that is who Issa is—the same Issa who is now moving into the fullness of glory.  How can I pray for that unborn child in the last hours of his or her life?  What does this prayer sound like, what does it look like?  My answer was this blessed child, Issa Grace.

I wasn’t just praying ‘to’ Issa ‘for’ this other child.  I don’t really know how else to say this, but I was praying ‘with’ Issa and, even more startling, she ‘is’ my prayer.  I pray that the child in the womb of that young mother will become who Issa is: the beloved of many, the one whom many behold, the gift of care.  To pray for this unborn child is to pray for everything.  It is total prayer.

If Trisomy 18 is an abnormality; the care Issa received should not be.

Praying over Issa’s grave I found myself desperate for the life of this other child I did not know.  I prayed for her life, and in doing so I prayed for her mother, and thus for her father, and for her mother’s mother, and for all those circles of care that could and should be there for this child, and for all the arms that can and should hold him or her, and for all of us who must not rest at anything less than total care in our total prayer.

I don’t personally know any of the people for whom I was praying and I don’t presume to know too much of their situation, nor do I presume to know too much about what it is like to carry a child into this world.  What I do know is what I have witnessed and, in some real way, participated in as my wife carried our four children to term.  I know that even under the best circumstances—with a supportive family, excellent medical care, more than adequate financial resources, the seemliness of a child born in wedlock—that child bearing and child rearing is nothing short of heroic.  Truly.  No matter how common childbirth might be in this world, it requires much more than common virtue.  What’s more, no one can do it alone.  It is an act of community to support the mother who supports the child who comes into the world.  Next to all the more obvious sacrifices of body that most everyone can probably imagine for the mother, there are innumerable imperceptible sacrifices that run from beginning to end: small sacrifices of time, preference, comfort, privacy, and the like.

I know this from (imperfectly) accompanying my wife as she carried and, in many ways, still carries our four children, but I also know this from that remarkable witness of little Issa Grace and her family.  Rarely if ever was there a moment when that child was not carried, and rarely if ever was there a moment when those who carried her—beginning but not ending with her mother—were not themselves carried by others.  The prayer I was learning to pray for this unknown child now held within the body of this unknown mother is a prayer for the miracle of these layers of care and carrying to sprout in the apparent hopelessness of the present situation.  In the desert of desolation pressing in on that child, I was learning to pray for the emergence of those concentric circles of life, opening like a rose in full bloom.


When I felt that last bead of the rosary slip through my fingers, and as those last words of prayer were passing over my lips and floating over Issa’s grave, my heart had expanded to make room for what my prayer means:

Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy

Our Life, our sweetness, and our hope,

To thee do we cry,

poor banished children of Eve…

If that child for whom I sought to pray is the one crying out to the Mother of Mercy, then that child is praying that I, myself, recognize the poverty of my own care for others and how I, myself, am wandering in exile from the love in which I should live.  But that child is also praying that I, myself, might always remember that I am a child of the care I have received, and do receive, and will receive, in the sight of those eyes of mercy turned towards me and in the eyes of all who have likewise seen me in mercy.  That child for whom I pray is already the image of what I pray for: that child lives for the moment without fear or anxiety, wholly supported in the body of his or her mother.  In a moment such as that, who that child is and the care that child receives are inseparable.  That child was not in exile; I’m in exile—along with all those like me who do not trust in this care nor live up to the duty of providing it without ceasing.  That child did not know the day nor did that child have any sense of the approaching hour.

All this pierced my heart as I concluded my prayer, and all I knew is that I wanted this child to live.

Sometimes it is harder to accept the answer to a prayer than it is to pray the prayer itself.  But when I received the text from my student later in the day that her friend, “isn’t getting it done until Wednesday because she printed off the wrong sheet of paper,” I immediately rejoiced.  The “wrong sheet of paper” meant five more days of life, all of it gift.  For this child who, I imagine, cannot yet measure time (though who knows if I am right about that), five days is an eternity… almost literally.  Dare I even hope that in those five days that miracle for which I pray might come to be: that the family and the community and all of us will hold the mother who holds the child and accept the sweet weight of holding that child now and at the hour of his birth?  Dare I hope that this child will be another Issa: the one beheld and beloved all the days of her life?

All I know at this moment is that that child lives, even though, as of this writing, nearly half of the time given by the miracle of that “wrong sheet of paper” is already spent.  It is still hard for me to know exactly what I should pray for, and so I continue to think of Issa, to pray for her intercession, to allow her to be my prayer.  She is the image of my prayer for this one life.  Issa holds together my prayer for this child with the prayer for this child’s mother.  Issa connects that prayer to the prayer for the father, for the mother’s mother, for the mother’s family, for the community, and even for myself, even though I don’t personally know any of them.  In short, I pray for life.

Issa Grace, pray for us.

St. Gianna Beretta Molla, pray for us.

St. Joseph, pray for us.

Mother Mary, pray for us.

Liturgical Polarization: A Diagnosis

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author





PolarizationEditor’s note: This series on liturgical polarization is being written to prepare for a gathering being held at the University of Notre Dame on Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal on Monday, April 27, 2015. A live feed of this event will be available

Growing up in East Tennessee, I had never heard the terms “conservative” or “liberal” ascribed to liturgical practice. In my own parish as a member of a minority religious community, we would hold hands during the Our Father; celebrate Stations of the Cross and Benediction on Fridays during Lent; use incense on feast days; sing Wesleyan hymns, Catholic chant, and even occasionally we’d dip into the repertoire of Praise and Worship. We were just Catholic, and the way that we prayed reflected this fact. Yet, when I arrived on the campus of Notre Dame as an undergraduate seminarian, I quickly learned which of the liturgical practices that I presumed as normative were in fact on the “left” and on the “right.”

  • “Holding hands during the Our Father is a liberal practice that distracts from the act of communion and should be disallowed.”
  • “Any form of Eucharistic worship outside of Mass detracts from communion and is evidence of a dialing back of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.”
  • “The use of incense necessarily outs you as a conservative; or an Anglican.”
  • “If you want to see chant/hymns/praise and worship, you want to destroy the liturgy.”

Being eighteen years old at the time, I remember entering into PoliticalSpectrumconversation after conversation with others, attempting to figure out whether I was liberal or conservative. Because I did not mind singing hymns during the celebration of Mass and had no particular problem with aspects of horizontal inclusive language, I decided I was a liturgical liberal. Except I also found Eucharistic adoration a gift, loved singing liturgical Latin chant, and wanted to kneel before I received the Eucharist. So I guess, I was a liturgical conservative with liberal tendencies. Or a liberally conservative liturgist.

Of course, it never occurred to me at the time that the problem was not with my own liturgical prayer but with the discourse of conservative and liberal within the grammar of liturgical practice in Catholicism at all. In the years since, I have come to realize that polarization in liturgical practice (evident in the desire to ascribe political categories to such prayer) is a temptation to de-Catholicize the Church. To decide who is an “authentic” Catholic and who is a CINO (a Catholic-in-name-only). Who is in the Church and who is outside the Church. Liturgical polarization is not ultimately a debate about style, or even about the proper implementation of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. It is an ecclesiological heresy whereby we re-create the boundaries of the Church according to our own image and likeness. Augustine dealt with this in Donatism, and perhaps because of the present political climate in the United States, this is the great heresy of our time.

AdOrientamIn the years since my undergraduate seminary days, I have seen this ecclesiological heresy grow like a weed in the verdant field of the Church. I have encountered those who practice the Extraordinary Form speak with derision at conferences of the liturgical reforms brought about at the Second Vatican Council (and those who pray according to the reformed ritual including myself). I have heard prominent liturgical scholars and musicians speak with their own dislike of those who read and find wisdom in the works of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (this also includes myself); or who engage in “practices” that might be perceived as traditional. In both cases, the bounds of charity are broken–a far more serious offense than singing either Lord of the Dance or wearing lace albs. The reality is that all of us who engage in acts of liturgical polarization desire to shrink the size of the Church to those who think and act and pray just like us. Although the liturgical rites of Catholicism do include rubrics, although there is an ordo, the genius of Catholicism remains the plurality of ways that one might pray.

There are signs that this form of liturgical polarization is coming to an end. The students whom I teach at Notre Dame are not quite infected by the same desire to draw boundaries between those on the inside and those on the outside. They do perceive in liturgical practice today in their own parishes violence against the beautiful. Music that is ironically both flat and sharp at the same time. Liturgical spaces in which ideology imposed itself upon theology, tradition, and artistry alike. Homilies that either condemn or are mere wisps of the Gospel.

Dorm Mass in Lyons HallBut these students (many who write for this blog) are just as likely to sing Palestrina on Sunday mornings, sign up to spend a summer serving the poor in India, participate in Vespers at the Basilica, join in an evening dorm Mass where they sing We Are Called, and conclude the week with perpetual Eucharistic adoration. The concern of these students is not in deciding who gets to be in the Church and who is outside of the Church. Rather, it is living a Eucharistic life. It is living in such a way that the gift received in the liturgy is offered to a world craving love. And any liturgical practice that forms them in this way of love is considered gift, considered within the bounds of Catholicism.

These students are for a me a constant reminder that the polarization fostered around the liturgy is not something intrinsic to the life of the Church. That such polarization, albeit the result of real wounds inflicted by bishops and priests and laity who have failed to love at times, need not be the norm. That we, as the Church, are called to something more. To a life that has become a gift because of the God, who first loved us. The liturgy remains for these students (and for the entire Church) a way to experience this gift, this form of self-sacrificial love.

In additional columns to prepare for the conference on polarization taking place at Notre Dame, I will next treat three liturgical (and thus ecclesiological) issues that are perhaps the greatest source of polarization today: the recent translation of the Missal into English, beauty in the liturgy, and the relationship between “priest” and “laity.”


The Engineers and the Writers: Different Gifts, Same Spirit

HopeHope Bethany ’15

Theology Undergraduate

Fellow, Center for Liturgy



This past fall, I experienced one of the fearsome nightmares of most college students: my laptop began to die a slow and painful death. computer_crashWhen it came to the point of not saving my work, or moving so slowly that I could not do my work, I started panicking. My life as a student and the tangible witness of what I have do learned, and really all that I’ve managed to do in the last few years is all on this machine. I love to write! And so without my computer, I feel like a carpenter without tools, or a surgeon with no hands.

Enter in the engineers. Most of my extended family has an engineering background, and so this means some funny things for family gatherings. We discuss computer chips and 3D printers at Thanksgiving dinner (3D printers made the conversation three years in a row; I kept track).

(Saturday afternoon toys)
(Saturday afternoon toys)

We take apart old computers and play with circuit boards for fun, and nearly everyone (even those of us who aren’t engineers) generally know what’s going on in the tech world due to the engineers and those who aren’t engineers but still managed to inherit engineering brains. While I’ve long been awed by the things that many of my family members seem to know instinctively, my computer crisis gave me a reason to appreciate their place in the world even more than normal. My laptop was healed, just in time for me to write 50some pages and do all the research I needed to do for finals season.

That was the windup, and here’s the pitch: I will never forget the text my cousin Chris sent in to the family group message, after I sent a celebratory message proclaiming the laptop fully cured.

IMG_0839His quote there had my brain buzzing instantly about the idea of vocations. Chris’ comment- whether he realized it or not- showed an insight that said his role in the world and the gifts that he has- his role of a “fixer,” bound-to-be-a-brilliant-engineer, is somehow intertwined with mine: the cousin who is a student, a writer, and an aspiring catechist.

Now, Chris would not be offended if I said that he was not the most theologically minded high schooler on the planet. Theologian he may not be, but he’s wise about a lot, and his statement made me start thinking about the universal call to holiness, and yet the particularity of the vocations that God gives each one of us. My cousins’ (and dad’s/grandpa’s/uncles’) tech geniuses have helped support my work as a student and writer before; this isn’t an isolated incident. Maybe, in turn, the way that I can support the engineers is to hope that a few of the things I write help the Christophers of the world to understand that this “religion stuff” isn’t just for a class in school or sometimes on a Sunday morning, but rather is about responding to God’s love by the way we live our whole lives. If Chris’ job was to help restore me to my full capacities and functions as a Theology major, maybe part of my work is to help instill in him an understanding of realities and calls outside the tech world and to show that it is just as necessary as the work of the engineers. [Disclaimer: Chris gave me permission to use and twist his words in this piece].

Chris’ statement acknowledged an understanding of the importance of different types of work, but it also made me think about the fact that we have different gifts but the same call and destination ultimately. There has been a lot of discussion about this- what we call the universal call to holiness- especially since Vatican II. By virtue of our Baptism, all Christians are called to respond to the triune God who has out of love created, redeemed, and saved us:

“The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one—that sanctity which is cultivated by all who are moved by the Spirit of God, and who obey the voice of the Father and worship God the Father in spirit and in truth. These people follow the poor Christ, the humble and cross-bearing Christ in order to be worthy of being sharers in His glory. Every person must walk unhesitatingly according to his own personal gifts and duties in the path of living faith, which arouses hope and works through charity” (Lumen Gentium, 41).

Maybe my cousins don’t consider helping their technologically deficient cousin a work of charity, but I certainly do, and it is a classic example of a way in which they used the gifts that they have been given and worked to acquire. They use and will continue to use their gifts to do great things. And they can do it and be holy, too. Holiness does not mecome-to-the-dark-side-we-have-cookies-19an boringness. Sometimes we joke at home about the “dark side” being more fun, but what’s more exciting than literally being a part of the side of good to fight and save the whole world? C.S. Lewis once made the comment, “‘How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints” (Mere Christianity).

Sometimes, though, there is such a tendency within many of us- myself included- to delegate holiness to the saints of old, to nuns and monks in garb that seems foreign to our own; at best, sometimes we delegate holiness to the “nice, boring guys” historically. And yet among the canonized communion of saints we find carpenters, doctors, writers, artists, teachers, nurses, priests, soldiers… and that’s just the start. The point is that to be a saint does not mean to become boringly identical; it actually means to be sometimes startlingly unique and yet working for the same goal of glorifying God.


This what I mean by the “particularity” of vocation. The God who has created each of us in His image and likeness has always recognized that we are unique individuals. We all are called to the same thing- holiness, and we are all called to same final destination- heaven, but we aren’t all called to make our way there in the exact same way. We have our own personalities, our own families, our own life stories, our own gifts, and our own messiness. The magnificent thing is the fact that our Lord wants all of us, and can use all in our uniqueness of us for His glory.

As Chris recognized (or at least, like I’ve argued that he recognized) our vocations and our gifts are given by God to support one another and yet can all those different gifts be used together to help sanctify the whole world. I’m going to let St. John Paul II’s papal exhortation Christifideles Laici have the last word here on how to think about the particularity of our own vocations. It’s a lesson for the engineers of the world, the writers of the world, and all of us who fall somewhere in between:

“The “world” thus becomes the place and the means for the lay faithful to fulfill their Christian vocation, because the world itself is destined to glorify God the Father in Christ… They [the laity] are not called to abandon the position that they have in the world. Baptism does not take them from the world at all, as the apostle Paul points out: “So, brethren, in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God” (1 Cor 7:24). On the contrary, He entrusts a vocation to them that properly concerns their situation in the world. The lay faithful, in fact, “are called by God so that they, led by the spirit of the Gospel, might contribute to the sanctification of the world, as from within like leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties. Thus, especially in this way of life, resplendent in faith, hope and charity they manifest Christ to others.”

To live out our call to sanctify this world, the Church militant needs the engineers, the doctors, the writers, the teachers, the artists, the lawyers, and everyone in between. All of our collective work can be sanctified and participate in Christ’s work of leading the world to its proper end: that of heaven, if we all remember the source of our gifts and for whose glory we should offer our lives.

What We’re Reading: Prayer and Humanity, Grateful Liturgy, and Shakespeare

A return of our series of what we’re reading this Monday, April 13, 2015:

1) A piece by a Notre Dame undergraduate from China in Notre Dame Magazine, reflecting on her longing in prayer:

Now, a year and a half after my awkward first encounter with the Catholic Mass, I still have no intention to be converted or baptized. But I frequently go to the small chapel in Lyons Hall and simply stand there and watch my friends praying. I still talk with Nina about my life here at Notre Dame and listen carefully to her perfectly logical responses. The reality is that there are irreconcilable conflicts in the world and they are probably going to exist for a long time. The question is: How can we each fight for our deepest belief with whatever we have but without demonizing those who hold equal passions on the other side?

Buddhism has a concept called “absolute see.” It means seeing without judging. Through the “absolute see,” we fully accept the world as it is and give up those useless attempts to change others or ourselves. Finally, we are able to truly face up to those irreconcilable differences in the world and start to appreciate them. The “absolute see” of the world does not ask that we change ourselves and abandon our deepest convictions. But it should humble us, temper our passions, make us realize our excessive self-righteousness, and compel us all to open our hearts and minds to new beliefs.

All of which brings me back to my crush on South Dining Hall Guy. I understand now my crush was not actually on the guy. I realize now that I was not drawn to his words or gestures or even to his subtle, peaceful smile as he finished his prayers. Rather, my crush, my feeling of pure happiness, was on that flashing moment when I accepted the common beauty of human beings shining through our irreconcilable differences. This conflicting world is beautiful, especially when we choose to fully accept it.

2) Learning to practice the radical gratitude of the liturgy with Peter Leithart of First Things (through the help of Paul Griffiths):

We are trained, Griffiths says, in “radical gratitude.” The liturgy trains us as recipients, as “being one who who has received” and received gratefully (234). The liturgy doesn’t leave any corner of life untouched by its habituation. What Griffiths calls “the liturgy’s imperialistic omnivorousness” involves “a complete embrace of those who undertake it.” We die and rise n baptism, having received a “renaming, reclothing, the gift of something radically new” (234-5). Other liturgical acts “depict and endlessly repeat the subsumption of the individual into, first, the community, and then, second, the LORD.”

Griffiths means this quite literally: “The individual’s language is overtaken and framed by the language of the canon of Scripture: he is written into its margins as an ornament to the illustrated capitals of its pages. And the individual’s very physical life is shown to him to be given its meaning by his membership in the communion of saints, a body of people extending far in time and space beyond what he can directly sense.”

The liturgy “constantly signals that there is nothing external to it, nothing belonging to the individual that cannot be taken p into it, and nothing anywhere that will not, finally, be embraced by it.” Even the inner theater “is gradually transformed by participation in the liturgy from a private spectacle into an iteration of a public drama. It becomes an instance of the liturgy that claims it” (235).

3) Terrance W. Klein on Shakespeare and the salvation of the created order:

History isn’t cancelled by heaven. Eternity doesn’t annul the work of earth. The cosmos will have a consummation, the final revelation of a resurrected humanity, one rent yet redeemed. To borrow from the Bard, the winter of our discontent shall yet be made glorious summer.