Liturgical flow: the missing piece to compelling liturgy (part 3)

Liturgical flow: the missing piece to compelling liturgy (part 3)

Do you remember the last time you watched a movie that seemed to just plod along? Maybe you stuck it out to the end or maybe you gave up half way through. Contrast that with the last good movie you saw—one that gripped your attention and carried you away with the story.

Liturgy can be like either movie. Liturgy is a sacred story and as such, we need to use good storytelling techniques to make it gripping instead of plodding. We need to tell the sacred story in a way that flows.

Just as we don’t always know why one movie plods and another flows, liturgical flow can be difficult to nail down. At the very least, however, we have to consider these three elements:

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

In previous posts, we looked at the climax of the liturgy and the purpose of each of the parts of the liturgy. In this post, we will cover the rhythm and pace of the liturgy.

Know the rhythm and pace of the liturgy

Like a good story told by a good storyteller, the Mass has a natural rhythm and pace, with peaks and valleys, a trajectory and movement, primary thematic moments and secondary transitional material, and a progression to the climax and a resolution from that climax. In other words, the liturgy has a beginning, a middle, and an end. To tell a memorable story, this basic structure needs to be absolutely solid:

  • A powerful beginning establishes the direction of the story
  • A steady progression and quickening excitement lead to a clear high point
  • A relatively short conclusion, flowing organically from the climax, moves us out to bring that story to life in the world

Though every part of the Mass may be necessary, not every part bears equal weight. We do a disservice to the liturgy and to the work of the assembly when we give undue emphasis to secondary actions, then rush through primary rites meant to establish the union of the faithful with one another and to the entire church in Christ.

Primary and secondary actions

Every great movie has a great editor, a person who sees what is extraneous to the story and flow and cuts those out, and recognizes that lingering in a moment is as important to the story as moving quickly and smoothly to the next scene.

Sometimes, our liturgies could use a good editor. Here are some things that we should cut out if they are distracting from the main storyline of the Mass:

Non-ritual words

We are a wordy culture, and we’re also celebrity-focused. These aren’t necessarily bad things, but we want to be sure they don’t creep into the liturgy and take over the flow and focus. For example, when the presider includes the non-ritual words, “Good morning!” after he and the assembly just did the ritual dialogue, “The Lord be with you…And with your spirit,” he has 1) added more words to the ritual in an attempt to be more personal, and 2) put the focus on him and his personality.

Sometimes this is done out of a well-meaning desire to connect more personally with the people. But this is not the time in the ritual to do it. The dialogue, “The Lord be with you…And with you spirit” is such a profound moment of connection and mutuality between preside and people. It basically says, priest to people and people to priest, “I need you to help us do this important work we’re about to do together.” Adding “Good morning” breaks that profound moment of sacred recognition and brings us back to everyday small talk.

We are a wordy culture, and we’re also celebrity-focused. These aren’t necessarily bad things, but we want to be sure they don’t creep into the liturgy and take over the flow and focus. Share on X

The Mass has specific places for non-scripted words. For example, after the dialogue greeting above, the presider can add brief words of introduction to the Mass. Although he has much freedom in what he says here, there is a specific purpose that his words need to fulfill. The introduction is not the time for him to re-connect with the people or to welcome them; that should have happened all before Mass as they arrived at the doors of the church. The introduction is when he can introduce the assembly to the focus of the day, preparing them to celebrate the Mass well.

Another place where the text is not prescribed is the homily. Again, the homilist can be tempted to break out of ritual mode and begin the homily with a joke or some interesting thing that happened to him the past week. Humor and personal stories are common elements of excellent homilies. But they must serve the homily and not merely be transitional moments that ease the homilist and people into the sacred act of breaking open God’s word. If you include a joke or a personal story, they need to connect deeply to the homily itself. Otherwise, they merely distract, break the flow, and put the focus on the homilist rather than on God’s word.

Although these moments allow for more freedom in the words used, the words spoken must always focus on the ritual action at hand because we never break out of ritual-mode in the liturgy (or in movie-speak, we don’t break character). Though they may be unscripted, the words should always be well-planned, solemnly proclaimed, and serve the purpose of the ritual and not of the individual saying those words.

Speak without words

Music ministers can be tempted to use non-ritual words as well. For example, at the beginning of Mass we often say to the assembly, “Please stand,” instead of using our own body to do the speaking. Next time you want the assembly to stand, try this. Stand in a place that is visible to the assembly (this won’t work if you’re in the choir loft), be silent for several moments and you focus your gaze toward the assembly. When you feel you have made eye contact with a good number of them, slowly, gracefully, and clearly raise your arms at your sides. The assembly will understand what you want them to do, and you did it all without speaking a word.

Lengthening what should be short and curtailing what should linger

Sometimes we speed through things that should take more time. One place this often happens is right at the beginning of Mass with the gathering song. Music ministers sometimes cut the opening song short, timing it to end right as the presider arrives at the altar. Yet a primary purpose of the song is to foster the unity of those gathered (GIRM 47), and you often need more than two or three verses of a song to accomplish that.

We also do the opposite, especially at the preparation of gifts. This is a transitional moment during which the gifts are brought to the altar and prepared for what is to follow in the Eucharist Prayer and Communion. In most ordinary celebrations, this is not a significant part of the Mass in comparison to the Liturgy of the Word before or the rest of the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Sometimes, at special celebrations or in specific cultural contexts, this procession may take on a more solemn, grander feel and indeed should take more time. But for the most part, this is a short transitional moment of preparation. Yet, we often use it to sing the lengthy solo or choir anthem that goes long past the time it takes for the gifts to be prepared. If a song is used during this part of the Mass (silence is also an option), it should not only match the timing of this brief rite but also be in relative proportion to the solemnity of the day and the greater importance of other parts of the Mass where music is used.

Silence is an action

Silence (and stillness) adds as much to a scene in a movie as a fast-paced dialogue or action. The Mass also needs these silences to regulate a good flow. Yet one way we rush through and hinder liturgical flow is by dismissing the parts that call for silence. There are several specific places for silence, each with its own purpose (see GIRM 45):

  • ​during the Penitential Act
  • after the invitations, “Let us pray”
  • after the readings
  • after the homily
  • after Communion if a song of praise is not sung
  • and before the celebration

Some communities focus only on the last point, discouraging conversations before Mass, yet ignore the other required silences. However when communities consistently work on practicing the silences (accompanied by stillness) within the various parts of the Mass, they begin to notice a deeper reverence, intentionality, spirituality, and a more communal sense of ritual prayer among the assembly. For more in the silences in the Mass:

So know which parts are primary, keep the secondary in check, and don’t omit the silences.

Go with the flow

There is a saying “Music is the river upon which the church’s worship flows.” This is true to a point. Our worship flows upon not only the river of music but also on all the other dramatic arts of spoken word and silence, visual arts and space, and movement and stillness.

Furthermore, our worship flows well if we attend well to one another in the use of these arts. All of us are actors within this story of the liturgy, and our actions influence not only the story but also each other. The best way to let liturgical flow happen is to attend carefully to the movement of the Spirit working through each one of us to unite us together into one body giving praise to God.


This post is based on an article that originally appeared in GIA Quarterly (28.1).

See also these related articles:

  1. Train your lectors in this one most effective skill
  2. Writing invocations for the Penitential Act, Form C
  3. The Penitential Act
  4. How the liturgy teaches us what is most needed today
  5. What the new Directory for Catechesis says about our ministry as liturgical ministers
  6. Liturgical adaptations during the pandemic
  7. The four dangers of weak liturgy
  8. Why does good liturgy matter?
  9. We will need courage for parishes of the future
  10. How to critically read blog posts and magazine articles about liturgy
Photo by Mike Lewis HeadSmart Media on Unsplash

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