After the virus: liturgy and accountability

shaping the assembly

Catholic liturgy has had its greatest social shock in generations.

No one had seen churches locked before, few had ever thought of “streamed” liturgies and, across the world, there have been liturgical experiments that were unthinkable just weeks ago.

Now the churches are opening up – slowly – but the legacy of the virus experience may be much longer lived.

We will have an immediate sense of “getting back to normal”, but we should not be fooled: things will not be the same.

More importantly, many slow social processes of change have been accelerated and this must prompt us to ask some basic – and awkward – questions.

Who is responsible for what and to whom?

In every situation of social responsibility – and the duty of presiding at the liturgy is one such – a key question to be asked is who is responsible for what and to whom.

While any answer is never clear-cut or wholly defined, in a successful group activity there is normally considerable agreement among all parties about the various regions and directions of responsibility. On the other hand, when this question cannot be answered, chaos follows.

While in those areas where there are major divergences between the various individuals or groups each with a stake in a situation, the result is stress, poor cohesion, and often strife between parties.

This sort of problem seems so much the stuff of industrial relations that it is not usually discussed in works on liturgy or in liturgy training. The result is that many priests are bewildered by what is demanded of them by their congregations.

Furthermore, many are aware that somehow the whole situation where questions of responsibility are raised seems “wrong”. While from the congregation’s side there are very often feelings of deep dissatisfaction with the performance of their priests.

Indeed, there seems to be a profound crisis in Catholic liturgy. We have well-documented statistics for steadily falling numbers at our celebrations – and this trend may be accelerated by the virus.

Such an obvious “sign” that things are not working is demoralizing.

And added to this are

  1.  the tensions of closing churches in the developed world;
  2.  the increased strains for the clergy of getting to more places over Saturday/Sunday; and
  3.  congregations ever more ready to criticize a priest’s perceived poor performance.

This has been happening slowly for decades, but “streaming” has massively contributed to people seeing themselves as consumers of a liturgical product. The effect is that already tired and stressed men become more disheartened and disempowered by being unable to respond creatively.

However, this aspect of ministry receives almost no attention at meetings of clergy among themselves, at diocesan level meetings, or in the literature.

My purpose is to draw attention to the problem to stimulate discussion among clergy themselves, and then between them and their congregations when they meet to discuss parish matters.

A rough comparison

Let us try to see where we are now by noting where we have come from. While we are now 50 years since the arrival of the reformed Roman Rite and more than 50 years since local languages were introduced, many priests active today were formed in the mindset of the pre-conciliar liturgy.

The attitudes and culture of that liturgy did not disappear overnight on the First Sunday of Advent in 1969. Some are only now changing as generations have grown up, and have come with their children to Mass, for whom the pre-conciliar rite is “history”.

So, while new attitudes are increasingly found among the key groups for handing on faith within a community, many priests are still having to change attitudes often formed before they entered a seminary.

The recent reversion to the justification of the “private Mas”‘ and the justifications used by many episcopal conferences, straight out of Tridentine-era manuals, are evidence of how the older culture survives beneath the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Compare two groups in 1960: a Catholic parish and Congregationalist church.

The Catholics expected that the priest alone was responsible for liturgy above the factual needs.


  1. provided public Mass at pre-announced times in sufficient number – in accord with his legal abilities to binate – for parishioners “to fulfill their duties” on Sundays;
  2. provided an opportunity for any Catholic who might wish to receive Communion; and
  3. preached on specified days.

Parish priests had the additional personal duty of offering the Missa pro populo.

While many priests may have seen themselves as having other obligations, those tasks were supererogatory. The minimum standard was clearly defined and known.

For their part the Catholic congregation had the duty – clearly spelled out – to “hear Mass” on Sundays and other appointed days, as well to fulfill the Easter Duty.

Hearing Mass was further defined as to duration and minimal presence. Everything above that minimum was voluntary, and unnecessary.

The priest’s major responsibilities were not to the congregation as they were for virtually every Mass (i.e. Low Mass), an optional extra to the actual celebration, but to the law (on major issues), the rubrics (on performance issues) and to God (in terms of his own fitness to celebrate).

Should any of these fail, there was a fall back position of “valid, but illicit” celebration, which could still ensure that “the job was done” (opus operandum operatum), all clearly defined in the Missal.

This concern with the ritual was an individual responsibility to an abstraction – the whole corpus of ritual law. While this sometimes caused stress to priests suffering from scrupulosity, there were no ritual police ensuring ritual details were being observed.

Many priests learning that the rubrics would not permit this or that, simply put the law to the test by saying, “Watch me”. When the heavens did not fall, they knew that every law – unless backed up by physical force – has only that binding force that people accord to it.

So, the priest had two wholly distinct sets of responsibilities. In terms of quantity, responsibility to people was minimal, while responsibility to the law was maximal. Both were clearly separate, and in each case, were well defined.

Moreover, everyone knew these boundaries. Hence, priests were interchangeable at a moment’s notice, at least, in terms of saying Mass.

For example, an English parish might not have liked having an Irishman as their “PP”, but that did not affect the actual celebration of Mass.

While a visiting French priest who wanted to “say Mass” was just slipped in to celebrate a public Mass without further ado if that allowed the local priest to avoid bination and to get his breakfast sooner!

The Congregationalist church situation could not be more dissimilar. The group would have seen itself as being there by choice and personal decision, not out of obligation to law. It was their assembly; they collectively were responsible for the service; and would have shunned the idea of being part of a ritual.

The minister was one of them, although acknowledging his/her skills due to training. There was no automatic right to preside due to a status independent of the congregation.

The congregation, indeed, was the minister’s employer. They had interviewed him/her and checked to see if they liked the style.

The prospective minister would have been initially invited to come and preach – the process called “preaching with a view” – because preaching was seen as the minister’s personal bit in any service, and preaching performance was a key indicator of suitability. The rest was a free form made up and changed to suit the congregation.

While this might often have been decided upon by the minister, it was clear that the congregation’s wishes were paramount.

Moreover, there were mechanisms to hold a minister to account, and, if necessary, dismiss him/her. S/he was “minister to them”, i.e. the servant of the congregation and only for so long as they wanted and on their terms.

Despite the differences with the Catholic parish, there was an equal, and probably more explicit, awareness of liturgical responsibility. The congregation was responsible collectively for their worship, “their” minister facilitated this.

There might be an awareness of maintaining patterns of worship with the larger denomination, but that was little more than an awareness that certain practices were “too Romish” to be considered. The minister was wholly responsible for his (and, by 1960, her) particular part in the liturgy to the group.

Personal responsibility before God was a wholly private affair, and the key tasks upon which the minister had to perform were to communicate through the sermon, to co-ordinate the various groups through negotiation and, to an extent, have a winning style that neither frightened the horses nor bored too many too often.

The parallel situation of the visiting French priest would have seen a pastor from Zürich simply sitting as a visiting member of the congregation.

There would be no need for any special consideration for him/her, and any idea of leading the service ratione personae would have been absurd.

Many priests today are stressed by being caught between these extremes: pulled in both directions with insufficient training, and often being unable to articulate this problem that has crept up upon them.

Obeying the rubrics!

There is still the tension with regard to obedience to the general law and the rubrics. The liturgy is not a free form; it must be in accord with the permitted limits of adaptation.

Rome has repeatedly pointed out the rights of people to have “the authentic liturgy”. It has criticized “abuses”, and has encouraged local ordinaries to police the celebrations in their charge.

In effect, any departure from the rubrics, no matter how worthily demanded by a situation, can be considered an abuse.

However, there are three other complexities, unknown when the rites were in Latin and when, the odd lay expert apart, they could not be followed by the congregation.

The first is the rising phenomenon of unpaid and self-appointed liturgical informants – sometimes jokingly referred to as “the temple police”. The priest has broken the rubrics; therefore, he should be reported.

Every community seems to have one or two of these and they are functionally similar to biblical fundamentalists: the liturgy is given, frozen by text, it is approached by rejecting modern scholarship, and the one always approaches those who work with it on the suspicious assumption that they are “not sound”.

Fundamentalism is a fact in all forms of modern Christianity and is especially virulent in the Anglophone world. It is often reduced to its most plentiful form (biblical fundamentalism) but it is, in fact, far more diffuse.

Among Catholics one of its forms is liturgical fundamentalism: “Father has been given a book, he should stick to it.”

The simple answer is that the liturgy is worship, not a book; and that the books are only elaborate aids to the memory.

But because Catholicism has patrolled the liturgy since 1570 through insistence on printed uniformity, this reply excites the fundamentalists’ worst fears that the “old time religion” is being sold out!

Second, often priests, when “following the book”, find their actions are rejected by parts of their congregations as if he were acting on a personal whim.

Recently, a zealous bishop took the position that only men should “normally” be asked to be “special Eucharistic ministers”. He saw this as reflecting the fact that the priest had to be male and imagined that a woman performing this role might contribute to “gender theory”.

Leaving aside the factors that led to this dubious position, let us simply note that experience shows that this was not a good idea in regions where Catholic women assume their equality with men in the congregation.

A priest following the zealous bishop’s instruction is then torn between his duty to his ordinary and pastoral common sense. Some priests just proclaim loudly: “Blame the bishop!” Others, unwilling to “pass the buck”, are blamed personally for not being “willing to listen”. Others are just bewildered that people are annoyed.

These tensions derive from an adherence to responsibility to the law whose boundaries within the groups it affects are unclear.

Third, the focus of most training is still competence to perform the liturgy as a given. It is not as a set of skills on how to preside at the liturgy, an activity that assumes there is more free form in the liturgy than is commonly seen.

So, every departure from the training creates a tension over loyalty, as well as uncertainty about what is best.

However, given the richness of our liturgy, seminaries must concentrate on technical mastery in training.

What the liturgy demands!

There is the tension that results for many priests through a sense of responsibility to “ideal ritual form”.

The restored liturgy of Vatican II presented an ideal of Eucharistic liturgy more excellent than anything seen before. This was because of more than a century of scholarship and well-resourced piety going back to the time of Prosper Guéranger OSB (d. 1875).

The result has been that many priests have worked to renew the liturgy in their communities. Often there is incomprehension, disinterest and, at worse, open opposition – and this too is a factor in stress and low morale.

Here is a case of someone recognizing their basic responsibility as liturgical leader and teacher, but where there is often a rejection of responsibility by others in the community; primarily by those who perform functions in the liturgy such as sacristans and musicians, but this refusal to take responsibility as a genuine participant in a participation-based liturgy is a major failing among Catholic laity today.

The resulting dissonance of expectations between the liturgy’s president and the other participants often makes a shamble of the whole liturgy.

Whose celebration is it anyway?

There are the stresses that result over unclear boundaries between the role of the priest and that of the congregation.

In the pre-1969 liturgy a priest had few matters on which he needed to consult anyone in the community about the Eucharistic liturgy. Now he is expected to be listening to the needs of the community and responding to their needs as a basic element of his functioning.

The priest in a vernacular liturgy must also be a skilled communicator. He stands judged by the congregation on this point against a benchmark of professional communicators. A priest who “bores me” or, even worse, “bores my children” is, in the eyes of many, fit only for the clerical scrapheap.

That the Eucharist cannot be celebrated without him is seen as secondary. Many think that if he cannot communicate and meet “my needs” then either he or I must go.

The key responsibility here is seen to be in meeting the needs of those who see themselves in a quasi-employer role. The priest is expected to be the listener.

With this goes the further stress of coordinating the various liturgical interest groups, and arbitrating between them. Often in these processes no one is clear to whom they have responsibility except to their own role.

That they might all have responsibility to the community – or the effective worship of the community or “the Church’s liturgy” or the virtue of religion – is not part of their decision frame.

In such situations, because the priest is one individual and the focus of the listening and coordinating process, he is in a lose-lose situation.

It is little wonder, therefore, that many priests have given up on the agenda of the renewed liturgy; which, in turn, exacerbates the fundamental problem of people seeing the liturgy as irrelevant.

Finally, we must not see this new line of responsibility for “performance” to the congregation as a transient pathology.

Within a vernacular and participative liturgy, as Vatican II recognized the Eucharistic liturgy should be, this line of responsibility of the president to the assembly is at least as important as his, or the group’s responsibility to the demands of the liturgy as expressed in our liturgical books.


The effects of changes that began more than 50 years ago are only now being felt. Celebrating liturgy is now more demanding that ever.

It is informative to look back over the pre-1960s manuals on how to say Mass. They saw it as an individual’s action needing technical skill and practice, but the tasks are clear and the lines of responsibility crisp.

Today the skill-set needed is far more diverse, but often under-acknowledged. That there are new attitudes towards, and new lines of responsibility within, liturgy is something we tend to ignore, but should be discussing openly and widely.Moreover, since presidency at the Eucharist is something that is very closely linked with the whole notion of the identity of the ordained priest, that discussion will have ramifications well beyond the liturgical sphere.

  • Thomas O’Loughlin is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and professor of historical theology at the University of Nottingham (UK). His latest book is
    Eating Together, Becoming One Taking Up Pope Francis’s Call to Theologians (Liturgical Press, 2019).
Additional reading

News category: Analysis and Comment.

Tags: , ,