For a long time, I’ve had an image stuck in my head about Sunday liturgy. From the looks of things, it seems many liturgical leaders—probably unconsciously—think of Sunday Mass as a kind of prayerful talk show. Much of what goes on seems to mimic the format best popularized by the Tonight Show.
I don’t mean that liturgical leaders are irreverent. Quite the opposite. I think they are trying very hard to engage the parish assembly in the action of the liturgy. What I question is the model they are using to foster participation.
Jay Leno and folks like him are masters at improvisation, humor, and—most of all—engaging the audience. We see these men every night on every network working the crowd and creating a high level of interest in seemingly mundane, boring topics. It’s only natural that we would try to imitate them.
A cure for boring liturgy?
The talk show, however, the wrong model. First of all, you have to be Jay or Conan or Dave to make boring things interesting. It is a rare talent, and most people cannot do it. And the premise is wrong. Of course, we, the parish leaders, don’t think Mass is boring. But we often concede that the parishioners think so. And with that premise, we try to spice things up a little.
I don’t believe parishioners think the story we are telling in the Mass is boring. But I think they often find the telling of the story to be boring. That makes me think the analogy we should have in mind for the liturgy is opera. The stories that underlie famous operas are compelling. But badly performed opera is an exercise in watching paint dry.
If you are the director of an opera and your goal is to make the opera compelling, what do you do? Do you ask the tenor to make a quip to the orchestra, wink at the audience, and chat with the soprano who has just published a tell-all about her time in the chorus? Of course not. You would, instead, find people who have the talent to carry off their role and then rehearse them until they had mastered the dramatic flow of the story. You would work at making the opera more operatic.
An opera is an art form. It is a dramatic work that combines theater, dance, and music. The dialogue is mostly sung. It think that describes Sunday Mass pretty well. Or it ought to. We have lost the sense of the Mass as a sung event, but that is what it is intended to be. One key to engaging the assembly is, instead of mimicking the talk show, make the liturgy more operatic. Introduce more sung dialogue. Some of the parts of the Mass that are not usually sung—but could be—include:
- Penitential rite
- Opening Prayer
- Profession of faith
- Prayer over the Gifts
- Eucharistic Prayer
- Lord’s Prayer
- Blessing and Dismissal
Of course, this will require work. It will require change. It will be uncomfortable at first. You’re going to have to rehearse more. Badly performed liturgy is like badly performed opera—excruciating. To avoid bad performance, you’re going to have to risk more. Talk shows are not art, and they require little risk. Opera—and good liturgy—is art and requires dying to ourselves for the sake of the art.
If your assembly is not used to this much singing, I wouldn’t suggest unveiling a complete operatic revision next Sunday. But you could begin to introduce some more sung elements and build gradually. Try, for example, singing the blessing and dismissal for six Sundays in a row. See if that doesn’t change your sense of the dramatic power of the liturgy. I guarantee the assembly will be more engaged.