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January 6, 2023

Promoting liturgical catechesis in your parish during Lent

The liturgy and eucharistic Adoration

Lately, as I occupy this awkward time when our ministries are in the midst of Advent, yet rehearsing for Christmas, but planning for Lent, I have been drawn to reading articles and blog posts that help inform my liturgical planning. That is how I discovered the helpful article, “Liturgical Catechesis: Liturgy and the New Evangelization,” by Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., originally published in 2020 on the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. I encourage you to check it out and thoughtfully read the entire thing; it’s worth your time. For today, though, I want to focus on one specific point made by Dr. O’Malley.

In the article, O’Malley outlines three problems with the current practice of parish liturgical catechesis. One problem he identifies is that, in the years following the Second Vatican Council, “liturgical catechists were operating out of a faulty understanding of how ritual works.” Research from the field of anthropology demonstrates that societies transmit important information, ideas and values through symbols and ritual. Liturgical catechesis, O’Malley argues, misapplied this research because they didn’t fully understand it. The results have been problematic: “One no longer needed to say that Christ was the light of the world. Instead, a candle was sufficient. Reflection on this candle in one’s life would lead to acknowledgement that Christ was the light of the world.” Certainly, symbols are important to our experience of liturgy. But, let’s not forget, “ritual prayer is not reducible to a system of symbols that pass on culture.”

This point has stayed with me. I’ll admit that my first impulse was denial, but that defensiveness didn’t last. The space I gave for reflection on liturgies from the past has quickly been filled with examples of symbols that didn’t resonate, ritual action that fell flat, and emotional responses that failed to materialize. Do these examples signify wasted effort? No. Ministry in vain? Of course not. The need for better understanding and room for improvement? Absolutely.

In response to the problem he identified, O’Malley offers a way forward. Symbols are integral, and the liturgical life in which we are immersed is symbol-rich. But, he writes, “that immersion is not a matter of immediate transference… Liturgical catechesis is more like the act of marinating a roast. We slowly come to knowledge of God through the act of worship, through a lifetime spent in adoration.”

I find this metaphor – liturgical catechesis as a “marinating” act – to be extremely helpful. It’s one I’ll be keeping front-and-center as I look to plan our community’s observance of Lent. Here are a few considerations you might find helpful as you work to plan a 40-day “marination” for your community:

  1. Repetition is good. A roast turns out best if it’s marinated overnight; 20 minutes might add a little flavor, but it won’t be what you’re looking for. Similarly, maintaining a sustained liturgical experience throughout the entire Lenten season will go a long way toward ensuring that what you’ve planned will have the desired effect. There are lots of things you can do musically, from the use of silence to the use of a seasonal hymn at the Preparation of the Gifts, and more. But, I want to emphasize two current “marination” issues in particular.

    For those of you who minister in communities where the presider changes from week to week or Mass to Mass, what steps can you take to ensure each liturgy flows in the same way, regardless of who is presiding? If the Gathering Rite or Penitential Act is different because the presider is different, how could you possibly ensure a cohesive Lenten liturgical experience, let alone consistent liturgical catechesis?

    Also, what elements of your community’s Lenten observance should you continue from year to year? It’s tempting sometimes to start from scratch. I’m all for thoughtful change, but I also realize that for many in our communities the actions, symbols, music and even the environment we choose is meaningful because it’s repeated year after year. I’m sure you’ve experienced this yourself. Fill in the blank: “I can’t imagine Thanksgiving without _______ on the menu.” “It’s not Christmas until we sing ________.” “It wouldn’t be right if we didn’t do __________ at the Easter Vigil.” Well, the same stands for Lent. Yes, let’s get creative and try new things, but find out what elements are most important to your community and give them pride of place.

  2. Assumptions are unhelpful. When planning the ritual actions, symbols, music, environment, etc. for the Lenten season, think about how people will come to understand and interact with what it is you are planning. Are you assuming everyone will “get it,” just like the candle example in O’Malley’s article? Given the realities of generational diversity, changing demographics, spotty attendance at Mass and other liturgical worship, how can we assume that everyone in the pews will understand the depth and meaning behind what we do? Sure, you could write a bulletin article, and you probably should. But what about taking a few minutes at the start of faith formation classes to talk about what happens (or doesn’t) at Mass during Lent, or why the decorations in the church look different? This is the perfect opportunity to stop by the parish school and the youth group, to drop in for a few minutes and chat with the quilters and the Knights of Columbus and the men’s group and any other gathering where you can engage in conversation. You can start with, “Remember that Lent begins next week, so the next time you are in the church you’ll notice…” “Have you ever wondered why we don’t do _______ during Lent? Well, here’s why!” “The next time you’re at Mass, make sure to pay attention to ______.”

    If this sounds crazy, trust me, it works. The conversation will snowball, especially with kids, with all kinds of observations and questions. In general, people are interested but we don’t create opportunities to engage. They are hungry for information and, most importantly, it’ll make a different in their experience of liturgy. Also, if nothing else, take a few minutes to talk about it at choir rehearsal.

  3. Total immersion is best. So, you’ve planned seasonally to include all your community’s cherished traditions and corralled all your possible presiders into following the same order, and you’ve also stopped by every group or gathering or captive audience and shared what’s happening. Don’t stop there! How else can you immerse your community in the symbols, images, language and sound(s) of Lent? Could you provide something to those groups you stopped by so they have questions they could use for reflection at their next gathering? Do you have a few bullet points to share with homilists so they know why you chose the texts of those hymns, providing an opportunity that the messages will connect? Does the person who manages your parish social media accounts know it’s Lent and can they change your cover image or profile picture to represent the season? Can the cover of your bulletin look different? Does your choir room look different (other than the stacks of Triduum music and the unfiled octavos from Christmas)? Do you begin rehearsals differently?

I hope the “marinating” image will stick with you, too, as you go forward to plan and prepare for this holy season. If nothing else – if the ideas above don’t resonate with you or you just don’t know where to get started – remember this: What you do catechizes. What you do evangelizes. What you do matters. Thank you for the many ways you build up the Church.