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Issue Date:  August 27, 2004

Is creativity in song enough?

Eucharistic prayers need new attention


How refreshing it was to hear Msgr. Giuseppe Liberto, the man whom NCR dubs “the church’s top musician,” calling for “new musical wine to pour into new liturgical wineskins” (NCR, April 16). To hear a Vatican official say, “We must conserve, but we must also augment. Conservation of the antique musical repertory is a custodial duty, but this can’t block the charism and the prophecy of inventing new forms” (italics mine) is nothing short of breathtaking. We can only wish that the good monsignor has a sufficient supply of antacids to ward off the effects of the sour air his comments will evoke in some quarters.

His plea for creativity in the sounds of our liturgy is surely welcome. I would suggest that we also read it as an opportune signal to take a good look at the words that are recited over and over at every liturgy in churches all around our globe.

I hasten to say that, no, this is not yet another jeremiad about the poor preaching of Catholic priests. Fr. Andrew Greeley has been thumping that particular tub, with some justification, for years now. More power to him; long may he keep thumping. Better preaching would hurt no one and might even help a few.

The fact, however, that when I refer to “words” people might immediately conclude that I am talking about preaching is itself a telling sign. We evidently have accepted an unexamined assumption: that the rest of the words in the liturgy are not open for exploration, that they are off the table. My particular (and more modest) tub concerns not preached words but the texts every presider is expected to recite -- excuse me, to pray -- day in and day out in such a way as to engage a widely variegated flock in genuine gathered prayer.

A particularly alert reader (especially one of a more reactionary bent) will probably sniff the air and figure out where I must obviously be heading. Aha! He’s going to get on the soapbox of sexist language and patriarchy and all that bad stuff.

Well, to put a point on it, no. The issue I am raising has nothing in the least to do with the gender wars. John Paul II could start calling God the Divine Crone and we wouldn’t come near addressing it.

Nor am I innocently stumbling onto a meadow strewn with mines placed by the various combatants in the ICEL -- International Commission on English in the Liturgy -- wars. This is not about high-flying debates concerning translation theory and such. My theme is, rather, communication. Connecting. With real people in hard pews.

I am talking about the expectation that a priest be able to breathe life and spirit into the same set of words over and over and over. In the Eucharistic prayers themselves.

A comparison might help to make the point.

We’ve all listened to high school students recite the Gettysburg Address in oratorical contests. We smile at their sincere but innocent efforts at conveying sentiments beyond their comprehension, their strained effort to make it a stirring reenactment for us. Put a Raymond Massey or a James Earl Jones up there on the stage and perhaps with consummate skill he might actually take us to that battlefield and compel us to dip our fingers into its blood-stained contradictions.

But not every Sunday. Much less three times every Sunday. Lincoln himself would have a difficult time with that.

Syllable rattling

I have a secret hunch that poor presiding -- mumbled delivery of mandatory words -- drives more people out of the church than even impoverished preaching. Many times have I participated in liturgies where I was quite impressed at the solid, even quite moving, homily delivered by a modest priest in a very ordinary church, only to have the possibility of communal prayer implode as he says “Liftupyourhearts,” “letusgivethankstotheLord,” “Lordyouareholyindeedthefountainofallholiness.”

As painful as such syllable rattling is, I feel a certain empathy for those parish priests who are expected to pray with three different congregations on a Sunday morning while constrained to use sets of words that inexorably drive toward formulaic repetition rather than genuine prayer before God. To engage genuinely and personally in prayer to the Lord in the midst of hundreds of people is not the easiest thing to do in any case; to burden the effort further by constraining it within the same few formulae is just too much. (One of the rabbis in the Talmud says that to approach God with any preordained formula is itself sacrilegious. We wouldn’t do that with a human loved one; why would we presume to approach the All-Holy One that way? A very evocative notion, for sure, but I’ll leave it to persons far more contemplative than I to mine its radical implications. My plea is for something much more modest.)

In any case, the evident result of our present limited set of phrases is that in many (most?) places priests do tiny vocal pirouettes by adjusting a phrase here or there. Instead of “from East to West” they might add “and North and South” or perhaps “around our globe.” The text may read “in memory of his death and resurrection” but it might come out as “his dying and rising.” For a visiting priest who knows the verbatim text by heart the little filigrees can be fascinating. Most of the congregants probably don’t even realize the boundaries are being adjusted, but from time to time you may notice one or other perking up: “Never heard it put that way before.”

These presiders are not storming the liturgical barricades in pursuit of some liberal revolution. In most cases they are simply trying to pray: to verbalize their faith -- addressing the Lord -- in a way that is evocative of prayer from the congregants. Many of these presiders are merely trying to keep their congregation (or themselves?) awake. The homily is now over and the good music may not come until the Communion meditation. If you look out at the congregation from the presider’s place, you can sometimes almost feel the communication shutdown: Nothing new to attend to for a while. It’s time for woolgathering.

The desire on the part of sincere presiders to engage with the congregation in genuine, personal prayer can be demonstrated in the very choice of the canon to pray at a particular liturgy. It may bend the rules slightly, but it is not uncommon for presiders at a celebration for adults to pray one of the Eucharistic prayers for children’s liturgies, simply because they judge that its very direct, affective language could make the adults listen up more attentively than does the more abstract language of the Eucharistic prayers that are offered as legitimate options for adult services.

The bottom line is that we need greater creativity in the Eucharistic prayers if they are to engage the faith community week in and week out. Yet it seems that what we are soon to undergo is precisely the opposite: an attempt to purge any and all deviation from prescribed texts. Apparently human constructions do not have to be graven to make our bowing before them almost idolatrous. And these are merely human constructions, aren’t they?

But wouldn’t having greater flexibility for local Eucharistic prayers give rise to -- heresy? That is the fear that guides the effort at centralized control.

Testing texts

I would guess that the risk enjoys a very low if not zero probability. People who might be inclined to create more engaging Eucharistic prayers are more likely to make the prayer of the community richer rather than impoverish or distort it. Their aim would be not to distort the faith of the people but rather to stimulate it by drawing on images and turns of phrase that evoke serious engagement.

The critique is worth entertaining, however, because it can open up two other avenues of productive reflection.

The first would be to ask how some of our loveliest liturgical prayers arose in the first place. Think of the great hymns that are rightly held up now as rich gems of our tradition. Surely hymns like “Victimae paschali laudes” or “Ave regina coelorum” were not first subjected to some centralized judicial scrutiny before being accepted as prayer for the universal church. With no such monopolizing central church structures yet in existence, creative individuals in local churches brought forth these beautiful models of Christian piety. The people of a local area found them conducive to common prayer, and gradually they spread beyond that area, being adopted by yet others until after years of vetting by the people, they became the patrimony of the universal church. Why not trust a far more theologically astute contemporary communion of the faithful to engage in a similar process of testing creative texts against the movements of the Spirit within their community?

The second reflection surfaces an irony: As careful as centralized church authority has been to insure that the recited words remain within the bounds of accepted teaching, it is amazing what kinds of theological mush have been allowed to warp the spiritual development of our people over the years in the form of the song-texts perpetrated. The sappy sentimentality of “Good Night, Sweet Jesus” may not have been formally heresy, but the distortion it helped to propagate for decades may have been more harmful to the spiritual health of our people in the long run. When we decry the individualistic theology of many of our people; when we shudder at their lack of awareness of the social dimension of Jesus’ mission, we needn’t go looking for some promoter of heresy to pummel. Check out the songs on which they were fed.

A further irony: It wasn’t imprimatur-granting Vatican agencies that eventually drove things like “Good Night, Sweet Jesus” from the field. It was the growing theological sophistication of the people, assisted by liturgical musicians formed in the church’s rich biblical and social consciousness.

Why not trust a similar dynamic with the Eucharistic prayer of the people?

But then, I guess I could be too impressed by a personal experience I had in Germany in the 1950s. The renewed Holy Week liturgy had just been promulgated, with loud fanfare and excitement. It was slightly deflating for this naive American when I talked with a German pastor and he said, “So what’s new? We’ve been doing that for the past 30 years.”

Jesuit Fr. George Wilson does church organizational consulting out of Cincinnati, and can be reached at

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 2004

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