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Heading west for good liturgy

NCR Staff
Los Angeles

What can provoke more change, stir up more storms, cause more commotion and be more threatening than El Niño?

The answer: liturgists.

It was Bishop Donald Trautman, of Erie, Pa., who used this quip to inspire an auditorium filled with pastoral leaders from the Los Angeles archdiocese last week. His address, which received a standing ovation, and a similar one in Spanish by Rev. Domingo Rodriguez, launched 2,000 people from dozens of parishes on a mission: the renewal of liturgy for the millennium in the spirit of Vatican II.

Gathering Oct. 10 in consultation with their priests and regional bishops, Los Angeles Catholic leaders sought to implement “Gather Faithfully Together: A Guide for Sunday Mass,” a pastoral letter distributed in September by their archbishop, Cardinal Roger Mahony. According to Trautman, the letter is the first of its kind to address “the problems the celebrating community faces each time it goes to the altar.”

The letter is so significant and timely, Trautman said, that it will have an effect far beyond Los Angeles. “I think when other bishops read the pastoral letter, they will want to copy it for their own people. The cardinal has taken the problems we all face of enlivening the liturgy and addressed them through the example of a parish,” he said. “It’s not like other pastoral letters. It is not aloof from the people. It is a practical and creative approach.”

Gabe Huck, an acquisitions editor for Liturgy Training Publications of Chicago, which published the letter for national distribution, said the letter comes at a crucial moment in the life of the U.S. Catholic church.

“We’ve been through the sacramentary wars at the bishops’ meetings, then the lectionary wars last spring. It sort of seemed to mean to people that the excitement and renewal is past, that there was retrenchment,” Huck said.

The tensions over liturgical renewal were also manifest at the local level, he said. For example, in St. Louis, Archbishop Justin Rigali recently mandated 13 liturgical norms for the archdiocese that ranged from a requirement to kneel during the eucharistic prayer to reverential methods of purifying communion vessels.

“It was that kind of atmosphere. And here comes one of the most important church leaders saying things like, ‘We don’t learn to be Catholics from the catechism, but from doing our liturgy.’ ... At a point where a major figure needed to be heard from, here he is. ... It was wonderful,” Huck said of Mahony’s letter.

He said he believes that many bishops who are feeling timid in the face of an atmosphere of retrenchment will, with Mahony’s letter, be emboldened. “Here, they’ve got something important to look to,” he said.

The letter, said Huck, is indicative of a growing tendency among church leaders committed to reform to look now to the West, particularly Los Angeles, and beyond traditional hubs of church renewal in the Midwest. “Progressive leadership has long come from the Midwestern church, good steady stuff. But there are problems now. And you can’t look to the East. Things never took hold there in many ways,” he said. “Los Angeles is not only a positive influence, but the rest of California seems to be a lot more exciting than what we’re seeing.”

By inviting Trautman to deliver the keynote address at the conference, Mahony sent an unmistakable message that the Los Angeles archdiocese would resist efforts to turn back liturgical reforms inspired by the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.

In June, Trautman, a biblical scholar, drew national attention with an address to a gathering of liturgists at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind., where he openly criticized the “reform the reform” movement, which is led by powerful U.S. conservatives. He termed the movement “a sophisticated applying of the brakes to liturgical renewal and an attempt to return to a liturgy that looks more like that before the council.”

In Los Angeles, Trautman delivered a talk titled “New Wine in New Wineskins,” in which he equated the liturgical reforms of Vatican II to the “new wine” that “our people have tasted ... and have found it to be very good.” Mahony’s letter, he said, is “more good wine.”

In an apparent reference to the atmosphere surrounding liturgical renewal today, Trautman reminded conference attendees of the tensions Christ faced when confronted with the Judaic legalism of the day, “those who blindly defend the ways of the past, those who are closed to new ideas, those incapable of acquiring new, fresh ideas.”

Trautman said he hopes the Los Angeles letter will “be seen as a positive step for us, important in the renewal of Vatican II.” Echoing Mahony in the letter, Trautman, in an interview and during his address, emphasized the importance of early Christians as a model for liturgical renewal today.

“There are some folks who would like us to stop in the Middle Ages, when the laity didn’t even bring gifts to the altar, when the choir replaced the congregation, when the liturgical books [omitted] the laity,” Trautman said. “The Middle Ages are not normative. What is normative is the apostolic era of the early church.”

During the keynote, Trautman stressed that “those who want to turn back the clocks are few, but vocal.” Setbacks, however, he said, “can never be an undoing of the work of an ecumenical council of the church.” Those who reject liturgical reforms, he added, “do so because of our past failure to provide an adequate catechesis.”

He defined Mahony’s letter as “a renewed catechesis on the nature of liturgy” that “gives hope to all liturgical ministers.”

Mahony also acknowledged the tensions and difficulties of liturgical renewal in the letter. “So difficult have been these first efforts that some seem ready to declare it a failure, an embarrassing mistake of Vatican II. Others would say we have come as far as was intended, so let us hear no more of liturgical renewal. And yet others call this task meaningless in light of the great need for the church to throw itself into causes of justice and peace,” the document states.

Affirming the Second Vatican Council as one of the “finest graces of the just-ending century,” Mahony invites the faithful to take ownership to make Sunday liturgy the center of parish life through the “full, conscious and active participation” of all. Trautman, in his address, pointed out that this is no easy task in “a culture that dislikes community celebration -- in a culture that promotes individualism, a Lone Ranger mentality -- in a culture indifferent to transcendence and mystery -- in a culture that seeks an entertainment model with the assembly as audience and ministers as performers.”

At one point he asks, “How do we teach Eucharist as a meal to families who rarely eat together?”

In Los Angeles, achieving full participation of parishioners through the liturgy means embracing cultural diversity. “Liturgy is alive. It must have flesh and blood and spirit. ... It must speak to this people, here and now,” Mahony states in the document. “We do not need more mechanical implementation in response to liturgical directives any more than we need a liturgy that seems to be of the presider’s own making.”

Liturgy, Mahony stresses, should “take on the pace, sounds and shape that other cultures bring,” adding that “homogeneity and comfort are not gospel values.” He demands communion, however, within cultural diversity.

Trautman added to Mahony’s list that youth should be integrated into all aspects of church life and that music is the key to attracting youth to the Lord’s table. “We need Eucharist to have the sounds and beats that attract young people’s ears,” he said, eliciting widespread applause.

Trautman said that the city’s rich cultural and ethnic mix has forced Los Angeles to the cutting edge of liturgical renewal. “Cultural diversity makes people more open to accepting a living liturgy,” he said. “When people fight it, it is because of fear.” Los Angeles, the largest diocese in the United States, serves more than 3.6 million Catholics from 102 different ethnic communities. Mass is said on any given Sunday in 55 languages.

Workshop participants at the conference recognized the immensity of the task outlined in the pastoral letter. One leader said during a large session, “Yes, he’s dreaming.” Then she sent small groups off to figure out “how we get from here to there.” Trautman had quoted Brazilian Bishop Dom Helder Cåmara: “When one dreams alone, there is only a dream, but when we dream together, we have the beginning of reality.”

Using a consultative approach -- priests sat in conversation with parishioners -- conference attendees dreamed and schemed and brainstormed about how to put Mahony’s directives into action, how to create “extraordinary celebrations of faith.”

Some parish leaders said the letter affirmed models already developing. “A lot of this, we’ve been doing by default, Spirit led,” said Josie Jiménez from St. John the Baptist parish in the eastern San Gabriel region. “This makes us feel we are on the right track, going in the right direction.”

David Estrada, from St. Benedict’s parish, talked of the gentleness with which multicultural models must be introduced in parishes. “We need to take steps so that no one feels threatened or alienated, and we need to do multicultural liturgies well,” he said.

Parish leaders from St. Dorothy’s followed the pastoral letter’s suggestion that presiders prepare for Sunday homilies by meeting with parish leaders. “Your homilies need to be fed,” they told their priests, “to hear that this gospel speaks to me because my two-year-old is driving me nuts, or to hear from an elderly person laid off after 30 years -- experiences you’ve never had.”

The same group discussed creative ways to invigorate liturgies, to get “the vast 80 percent of the people in church involved.” Responses ranged from training sessions for “greeters” to planting singers and chanters at intervals in the pews who could belt out melodies and responses, encouraging those around them.

During coffee and lunch breaks, conference attendees tasted the “pace, sounds and shape” of different cultures: In the lobby, there were Philippino dancers, an African-American guitarist playing jazz and a Mariachi band that drew even an older Anglo priest in his collar to the dance floor.

The full text of Bishop Trautman’s talk can be found on this Web site under "Documents".

National Catholic Reporter, October 24, 1997