Learning from the Liturgy

What happens when focus is placed on the liturgy and celebrating the sacraments well

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Msgr. Michael HeintzPope Pius XI (r. 1922-39) is quoted as having said that the primary instrument of the ordinary magisterium is the sacred liturgy. He was quite correct. What he did not mean is that we need to make our liturgical celebrations “catechetical” or “didactic” (heaven save us from that — it was tried and failed quite miserably). What he was emphasizing is that the Church forms us — not just intellectually but in all dimensions of who we are — by the faithful and regular celebration of the liturgy.

When I first became a pastor, a wise older priest pulled me aside and said, “if you’re going to focus on one thing, focus on the parish liturgy: make it beautiful, celebrate the sacraments well and with meaning, and the rest of parish life will take care of itself.”

It sounded rather simplistic at the time, but I did try and follow his advice. I tried to make sure the sacraments were available at times convenient to the parishioners (which, of course, is not always what is convenient to us priests) and to celebrate the Mass — especially Sunday Masses — with reverence, which does not mean stiffly or rigidly, and intelligence — that is, to understand the prayers and gestures and to communicate that understanding to others.

I tried to invest in good music (which does not mean only one particular “style”) and worked with the musicians and director to make sure that the hymns — whether intentionally or not have an impact in forming and shaping the imagination — were liturgically appropriate, theologically sound and pastorally fitting. I do believe all these efforts made a difference.

Participation at all levels began to rise, the parish became more and more theologically and liturgically literate and sensitive, and that did not happen simply or principally by preaching: The liturgy itself did most of the work. It was demographically a blue-collar parish, but it attracted an eclectic group of parishioners, including a growing number of Hispanic Catholics.

One learned European scholar and convert who happened to join the parish (though she drove from across town to worship there) offered what I think is one of the best compliments a pastor can receive: She said to me, “I love this parish. It’s a place where people truly pray.”

Nearly 20 years ago, a young mother approached me and asked if we could start Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in the parish. I knew little at all about it but told her we would give it a try. Within a few years, it was having a profound impact on parish life. It was shaping the minds and hearts of children aged 3-7 and (by the associative property) began to shape the imaginations of their parents as well.

After a Mass at which the bishop presided, as he was greeting families after Mass, a 6-year-old tugged on his chasuble and said, “You have a really good epiclesis.” It is not just that the child happened to know the gesture, but he also knew what the gesture signified. This was a fruit of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd with its Montessori-inspired formation that is at once scriptural and liturgical.

This may sound like product placement, but I encourage every pastor to investigate it — it is well worth the investment and offers a model upon which all parish faith formation — simultaneously scriptural, sacramental and liturgical — can truly take its lead from the liturgy and form souls accordingly.

As pastors, staffing challenges, budgets and facilities management can co-opt so much of our time and energy that we may forget that our most important work — the work that is quintessentially ours — is the celebration of the sacraments. It is also, in my experience, the activity that brings the most joy.

After a lengthy Lent (doesn’t Lent always seem like two weeks too long?) we are now about to celebrate the holiest week of the year and to celebrate the principal feast — the centerpiece and origin of all the other liturgical celebrations — of the entire year. It is perhaps an opportune moment, basking in the light of another Easter, to reflect on the liturgies we celebrate, how they and the liturgical year as a whole can and should shape us, our confreres, our staff and the people entrusted to our care.

MSGR. MICHAEL HEINTZ, a priest of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, serves as academic dean and director of intellectual formation at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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