2. The Ministers' Liturgies

This post on Minister's Liturgies is a continuation of the first one.

I visited one hundred Sunday churches, fifty in the U.S. and 50 in Guatemala, and divided them according to their level of participation by 1) the priest only, 2) the priest and the liturgical ministers only, and 3) the priest, ministers, and the assembly. Out of the hundred liturgies, besides the priests’ liturgies (24% of the total) described previously, I also observed:

     43 in the U. S. and 19 in Guatemala classified as ministers’ liturgies or 62%
     None in the U.S. and 14 in Guatemala classified as assembly celebrations or 14%

The vast majority of the Masses in this survey (62%) are ministers’ liturgies, from which we can draw two conclusions. First, as already documented by the Notre-Dame study, most Masses today are post-Vatican II services with active involvement of lay ministers. Second, at most Masses the assembly does not actively participate in the singing. This claim may be shocking, but for contemporaries who can see on television the enthusiastic singing of charismatic and evangelical churches and who know the semantic difference between singing and whispering, at most Masses there is mainly humming and moving of lips.

In the American sample nearly all Masses besides the seven described above can be classified as ministers’ liturgies, while in the Guatemalan sample, nineteen fell into this category. The difference is due in part to resources and culture. Usually a ministers-centered liturgy consists of lectors, a cantor, an organist, and often a choir, but in Guatemala most churches do not have an organ and few have a choir. Moreover, most Guatemalans belong to the lower-class, as 50% or more of the people live below poverty level according to official statistics; in addition, some people over fifty cannot read and write, hence the lector and cantor may only serve as priestly helpers rather than liturgical ministers.

The American sample of ministers’ liturgies can be divided into four sub-groups: Masses with and without a choir, family Masses, and a few special quality Masses. Most Sunday Masses involve a choir with 10 to 20 members. What is the purpose of the choir? Most obviously to sing, that is, to perform, which in many cases means polyphonic singing. When the choir sings a well-rehearsed piece, the natural tendency for the audience is to listen in silence, that is, passively. By its very nature, polyphony excludes participation, as if the choir were singing in Latin or a foreign language. This independent role of the choir may begin at the entrance hymn when performed by the choir with little participation from the assembly, it continues with the Gloria and the Alleluia sung polyphonically, the Responsorial Hymn sung by the cantor and the response by the choir, a recital at Offertory and Communion, and a final piece at the exit procession. Most of these Masses enjoy full or near full attendance, which means that the assembly is satisfied with their professional quality and the low requirements.

Family Masses are usually geared towards children rather than the whole family. At these Masses, the reading may be done by a child; there may also be a small children’s choir. At some of these Masses the homily makes the difference: the children are invited to sit in front of the alar around the priest and the latter may even sit among them. Some of these homilies are in the form of a dialogue, like “To break one of the Commandments is what?” R: “A mortal sin!” Or, “Do you like French fries without salt?” The expected answer was to lead to, “You are the salt of world.” The parable of the 10 wise and foolish virgins was explained thus, “At the time of Jesus they used lamps. What makes lamp burn? (lots of raised hands) R: Oil! It is the oil of good works. Playing nicely with your friends and praying is filling your lamp with good works. We need to have that light burning when Jesus comes back.” Usually the parents are very happy with the performance of the children, as they applaud warmly at the end. At these Masses the children are elevated to the level of liturgical ministers; it seems that the adults are put at the level of children rather the children at the level of adults, to the merriment of the parents.

The ministers’ liturgies without choir are most common on Saturday and Sunday evenings. Many are both pious and perfunctory. The entrance hymn may be sung by a cantor and a few isolated voices, and the Responsorial Psalm could be a duet between the cantor and the organ. In many places the organ plays louder and loudest when the faithful are supposed to sing, to the point of becoming a substitute for the assembly. However, during the Kyrie, the Creed, and the Our Father the assembly asserts itself by praying in one voice, especially when the pastor is not overpowering. The seniors seem a reliable audience: they are always on time, keep silent during the singing, and pray in one roaring voice when given a chance.

The last group consists of above-average parishes that reveal traits that are less prominent in other churches. At the beginning of one Mass, all lay ministers were recognized by name; the pastor then introduced a new Eucharistic minister who was prayed over by the assembly; next a new lector was decorated with a medallion to carry around his neck and prayed over collectively. A few churches begin Mass by inviting people to shake hands; in one church they were to introduce themselves by name, which proved warmer than the kiss of peace after the Our Father. At one Mass at the recitation of the Our Father people filled the central aisle, holding hands to form a continuous chain throughout the church. Finally, the first Mass of a new priest in his 70s proved the most perfectly integrated Mass of the sample. During the Gloria, the 10 priests, deacons and the celebrating new priest faced the assembly to the polyphonic sound of “Gloria! Gloria!” The choir’s singing was so powerful that one could not say anymore whether anybody or everybody was singing, as the music filled the church to its vaults like the robe of the Lord filling the Temple in Isaiah (chapter 6). This was a rare occasion when polyphony was a truly religious experience; yet few people in the assembly joined in the singing and the church was half empty.

This last group is very important because many ministers’ liturgies are truly devotional and pious; they are invitations to pray, but it is difficult to say how many there are. This devotional and private dimension of priests’ and minister’s liturgies is more obvious in Guatemala, but otherwise the ministers’ liturgies there are about the same as here. At most religious services, the Guatemalan people show a level of religiosity that is hardly found in the U.S. In public buses one can see people making the sign of the cross each time they pass in front of a church; I have seen a bus driver do so each time, which may amount to scores of times in a single day. Throughout the day, people come to pray in front of life-size statues of the suffering Christ, the virgin, and the saints; throughout the day and throughout the Masses, one may see numerous burning candles before these sacred images. Before Mass, many people kneel and pray privately for a while; they do not just come and sit. Throughout the nation, there is a Holy Hour every Thursday. The Forty Hours are also practiced on a rotating basis, each parish organizing exposition of the Blessed Sacrament for forty hours. The rosary is still recited every day in October in a few parishes and daily on the radio; it is still practiced regularly in many families. Collective manifestations of faith are common: the prayer vigil for peace in a public park of October 31, 2011 attracted 25,000 participants and lasted from 8 pm until 6 am the following day; the yearly January pilgrimage to Esquipulas attracts about 100,000 visitors in January, and the attendance at the various processions during Lent and the holy week may reach one million.

Many of these practices are “devotions” or forms of “piety” which have progressively disappeared in the U.S. and have not been replaced.

Many of these traditional devotions are out of sync with the spirit of the times, but what can replace them? More liturgical performances? No. Something different is needed, namely assembly celebrations. To be discussed next time.