Way back before the pandemic, when we could still gather for liturgy, I was visiting a parish I had never been to before. The liturgy itself was dull and uninspired. The church was only half full, even though there were no social distancing restrictions. The musicians were skilled, but they only seemed interested in performing music that demonstrated their competence. They were not leading music that I—or many others in the assembly—knew well enough to sing.
There was only one lector, and he read as though someone had just woken him from the nap he would be resuming during the homily. The homilist was obviously a student of Scripture, and one who was fascinated with his ability to compare the stylistic differences of Mathew and Mark in the original Greek. The snoozing lector had surely chosen the better part. I confess I didn’t last and cannot report on the rest of the liturgy.
Google helped me find another liturgy that I could still get to if I hurried. The second parish was only 15 minutes away from the first one, but it might as well have been on a different planet. I arrived a little late, and almost didn’t get a seat in the packed church. I was able to join in the opening song as I made my way to the pew because the song was one I knew well. And I didn’t want to be the only one not singing since even the back row Catholics were belting it out.
Both lectors had obviously rehearsed the readings, mastered the cadences, and made eye contact with the assembly so often that I wondered if they’d memorized their passages. The homilist knew what the gospel for the day had to say to his parish, and he told them. He affirmed their commitment to the gospel while at the same time challenging them to be even more courageously faithful to the mission. I had the sense of a real pastor, caring for his flock—a true servant-leader.
How will you pursue liturgical excellence when everyone returns to the church?
In this COVID-time, parishes are striving to provide liturgy for a streaming audience. The normal principles of excellent liturgy don’t apply right now. However, once we can safely gather as a full parish, we will have the challenge we had before the pandemic. How do we avoid the mediocre liturgy of the parish in my first example and provide excellent liturgy like the parish in my second example?
The measurable performance difference between mediocre liturgy and excellent liturgy is not great. Every parish that has mediocre liturgy most likely has the skills to worship in a way that inspires awe and wonder. We probably don’t need more skilled musicians, lectors, or preachers. We most likely need to ask the ministers we already have to do a little better.
- Any musician, no matter what their skill level, can easily choose music that the assembly likes to sing and will sing.
- It is almost zero extra effort to schedule two lectors instead of one for Sunday Mass.
- If we expect every lector to rehearse their reading, out loud, at least ten times during the week before the read, they will be exponentially better.
- A homilist who can exegete the style differences between gospel writers can spend an extra 30 minutes editing his homily to tell us why it matters to this parish community that Matthew told the story one way and Mark told it differently.
- And we can ask the communion ministers to smile more, make eye contact, and not rush. These are not difficult skills to master.
I think after the pandemic we are going to have two kinds of parishes. On the one hand, we will have parishes where the community has experienced the pandemic break as a relief from their Sunday obligation. They may decide that they don’t really need to go to Mass after all.
And we will have parishes where people cannot wait to get back. As soon as it is safe, the pews will be jam packed.
How will the parish of the future be different than the parish of today?
Parishes that had poor attendance before the pandemic tended to blame demographics, the economy, the post-Christian world in which we live, the reforms of Vatican II, or bad catechetical programs in the 1970s. The pandemic will be one more woe they will add to the list. However, leaders of these parishes seldom look at things like the poor celebration of liturgy, the lack of a long-term, credible pastoral plan, the lack of parishioner involvement in the governance of the parish, or the lack of ongoing adult formation as the bedrock of parish life.
The parish of the future will be different than today’s parish, but it will not be a parish we do not know. There are loads of resources to help us navigate the road ahead. But none of them will help if we don’t focus on measuring the difference between mediocrity and excellence.It takes courage to evaluate ourselves. If we start measuring, we will find lots of places where we don’t measure up. We will have to face our imperfections and mistakes. Excellent parishes find the courage. Click To Tweet
Excellent parishes regularly ask themselves how well they are doing, especially in the Sunday liturgy, where we interact with the largest number of parishioners and visitors. Mediocre parishes tend to dismiss the need for measuring performance.
It takes courage to evaluate ourselves. If we start measuring, we will find lots of places where we don’t measure up. We will have to face our imperfections and mistakes. Excellent parishes find the courage. If they are doing something well, they do more of it. If something isn’t working, they change it, or they stop doing it. We will get the parishes we plan to have.
Measuring and evaluating is not easy work. But neither is it rocket science. It is, in fact, what we charge the catechumens with at the moment of their election: “Now it is your duty, as it is ours, both to be faithful to [God] in return and to strive courageously to reach the fullness of truth…” (RCIA 133).
The parishes of the future—the excellent ones—will be those that have found the courage to strive for excellence.