Overall, I am happy with the renewed liturgical rites the Church has put in place since Vatican II. The new liturgical books that began to appear in the late 1960s are far from perfect, though, and will always be in need of improvement and development. The kind of ongoing reform I espouse would slowly and carefully build on the rites we have been given.
However, the success of modern liturgical reform has been evident more in print than in practice. By print I mean the texts given to us on paper; by practice I mean the way in which the rites are celebrated.
I would identify six areas in which the practice of the liturgy can be improved.
The first is helping the clergy achieve a more dignified and reverent celebration of the liturgy. Recent Church documents on divine worship have spoken of the importance of the ars celebrandi, the art of celebration. A lot of work needs to be done on priestly leadership of the liturgy. Too often, the rites as celebrated lack a prayerful, reverent and dignified style. There is still too much spontaneous talking and ad-libbing by priests. The priestly performance of rites is often sloppy, and many priests adapt the rites to personal taste.
The second area is the practice of preaching. A survey some time ago sponsored by the Bishop of Trenton, N.J., found that bad preaching is one of the principal reasons why Catholics leave the Church. Too often, preaching is uninspiring, lacking in spiritual depth, exhibits not much poetic quality, and fails to move the hearers. Sermons are often disorganized, involve many disconnected themes, ramble all over the place and are too lengthy. An improvement in preaching would dramatically help the quality of liturgical celebration.
A third area concerns the performance of liturgical ministers. Readers are often inadequately trained in the art of public proclamation: They read without conviction and enthusiasm for the scriptural texts, and often do not seem to understand the meaning of the assigned scriptures.
Extraordinary ministers of Communion are also often badly trained. They move around the sanctuary without any clear plan being in place; and their dress is often unbecoming (I recently helped out on Sunday in a parish where three out of six ministers of Communion wore blue jeans and sneakers). I am a firm believer that all liturgical ministers should wear albs, not least to cover up casual dress.
A fourth area concerns liturgical music. Thomas Day, the author of Why Catholics Can’t Sing (available now in an updated version) argues correctly that much (most?) liturgical music composed since Vatican II is poorly crafted, theologically thin and unsingable. A number of bishops in the U.S. are opening training centers for liturgical music in their dioceses. This is a encouraging sign; I hope it will be duplicated in other dioceses.
The fifth area is liturgical art and architecture. In my opinion, modern Catholic church architecture has been disastrous. Many in the pews find post-Vatican II churches lacking in dignity, beauty and majesty. Modern places of worship do not help to give expression to the truth that the liturgy is celebrated in communion with the glorious liturgy of heaven. They do not express visually the communion between the worshipping assembly and the angels and saints.
Last, but not least, there is a pressing need for further formation of the people in liturgical spirituality through a more adequate understanding of active participation, the fundamental meaning of which is that all interiorize and make their own the great mysteries being celebrated.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Salt Lake City.