Liturgical flow: the missing piece to compelling Liturgy (part 2)

Liturgical flow: the missing piece to compelling Liturgy (part 2)

When a liturgy goes completely off the rails, we know what needs to be fixed. If the musicians are poorly trained, the lectors are lackluster, or the preaching is subpar, we know where to focus our energy. But sometimes all the elements of the liturgy seem fine. And yet, the overall celebration seems to be lacking.

When all the obvious elements of the liturgy are working well, but something still feels off, consider how well the liturgy flows. Liturgical flow is what happens underneath the outward elements that makes our worship feel like a sacred story.

When we consider how the liturgy flows, we are concerned with three things:

  • The climax of the liturgy
  • The purpose of each of the parts of the liturgy
  • The rhythm and pace of the liturgy

In a previous post, we looked at the climax of the liturgy. In this post, we will cover the purpose of each of the parts of the liturgy.

Know the purpose of each part of the liturgy

The next time you watch one of the movies in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, listen to the music. The film scorer, Howard Shore, is one of the best at using music to tell the story. He composes a unique theme that we hear for each main character as that character takes the lead in the story. He matches the mood of each scene with appropriate music, and he uses silence as well to communicate. He knows the intent of every scene and how it fits into the whole story; then he uses the music to achieve the scene’s purpose.

We need to do the same with the story of the liturgy. Each part of the Mass has a purpose, and the music we select and how we lead it must fit that purpose. Here are some places in the Mass where liturgical flow can fall apart if we don’t attend to that part’s purpose.

Entrance chant

Right from the start, the trajectory of the Eucharist is set. The purpose of the introductory rites is “to ensure that the faithful, who come together as one, establish communion” (GIRM 46). Therefore, the very first action of these rites, the entrance, must serve that same purpose. Thus, the General Instruction reminds us that the gathering song’s purpose “is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical time or festivity, and accompany the procession of the Priest and ministers” (47).

The entrance is not a time to sing an unfamiliar song. The procession itself should establish a sense of solemnity and not look like a rush to the altar. Finally, though one of its purposes is to accompany the procession, this does not mean the song should end once the ministers have arrived at their places if the unity of the assembly has not yet been fostered.

Eucharistic Prayer

The center and high point of the Mass is the entire eucharistic prayer, from opening dialogue to great Amen. The prayer itself has its own flow:

  • The dialogue establishes this as a prayer of the entire gathered assembly, led by the priest on their behalf in the name of Christ.
  • The preface calls to mind the blessings poured out upon God’s people throughout history and presents the reasons for our thanksgiving.
  • In the blessing of bread and wine, we recall the culmination of the Father’s blessings in the giving of his Son and his self-giving sacrifice.
  • We memorialize this sacrifice of Jesus in the heart of the entire prayer, the institution narrative.
  • Having called to mind the Father’s saving act through Christ, we then ask that the entirety of creation throughout the ages be united in Christ by the Holy Spirit, that with him we may give eternal praise to the Father. Amen!

Two things disrupt the flow of this prayer. The first is when the institution narrative is treated as a separate, more special part of the prayer. The US bishops, however, say that “[t]his narrative is an integral part of the one continuous prayer of thanksgiving and blessing. It should be proclaimed in a manner that does not separate it from its context of praise and thanksgiving” (Introduction to the Order of Mass: A Pastoral Resource 119).

The second is when the acclamations of the Mystery of Faith and the great Amen are delayed, either by introductions that are too long or musicians who aren’t ready. The prayer is structured as a dialogue between priest and people, so be ready! Also, consider timing or omitting altogether the introductions of these two acclamations so that the people’s parts immediately follow the priest’s texts.

Communion rite

Liturgical flow most often falls apart during the communion rite, especially after the invitation to communion and after the distribution. Once the people have said, “Lord, I am not worthy,” the priest takes Communion. This is the moment when the communion song begins: “While the Priest is receiving the Sacrament”— not after the priest has received, not after the communion ministers have received, not once they are in place to distribute communion, but while the priest is receiving (see GIRM 86).

When all the obvious elements of the liturgy are working well, but something still feels off, consider how well the liturgy flows, what happens underneath the outward elements that makes our worship feel like a sacred story. Share on X

Too often instead, the music ministers wait to begin the communion song, either because they feel it’s more reverent to wait or because the music ministers are lining up to receive communion themselves. Yet the purpose of the song is “to express the spiritual union of the communicants by means of the unity of their voices, to show gladness of heart, and to bring out more clearly the ‘communitarian’ character of the procession to receive the Eucharist” (GIRM 86).

We don’t have the priest’s communion, then the ministers’, then the choir’s. We have one communion, and the song should begin when that one communion starts. Not doing so puts the rest of the assembly into passive, observer mode and communicates to them that their communion is, on some level, different.

Second, liturgical planners often misunderstand the purpose of the time after communion, which is meant to be a time for “interior prayer and contemplation on the Eucharistic mystery” (Introduction to the Order of Mass: A Pastoral Resource 139). To achieve that purpose, we are given two options:

  • silence
  • a song of praise

The silence needs to be long enough for the entire assembly to enter into prayer. It also needs to be accompanied by stillness. “The absence of words, actions, music, or movement” (Introduction to the Order of Mass: A Pastoral Resource 139) helps achieve the purpose of this part of the Mass.

The priest and other ministers also need to be part of this stillness. Therefore, it is not a time for putting away vessels, taking up a second collection, making announcements, or finding pages in hymnals or ritual books. This silent prayer is a distinct part of the Mass, and nothing else should happen during it.

Alternatively, the General Instruction gives the option for a psalm, canticle of praise, or a hymn sung “by the whole congregation” (86, emphasis added).

There is no such thing as a “meditation song” after communion sung by a soloist or the choir. When this happens, the people become an audience; the music ministers, performers; and the sense of all of us being one body by the sharing of communion is lost. If there will be any song after communion, it must be one sung by the entire assembly. Solo and choral pieces are best used at other appropriate times, such as prelude, postlude, or during the preparation of gifts.

Knowing the purpose of these parts of the liturgy and planning the rite in a way that emphasizes their meaning will go a long way toward improving the flow the liturgy. In a future post, we’ll look as the final element necessary for good liturgical flow—the rhythm and pace of the liturgy.


This post is based on an article that originally appeared in GIA Quarterly (28.1).
Photo by Vadim Sherbakov on Unsplash.

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