Lessons on liturgy from both sides of the Atlantic

Lessons on liturgy from both sides of the Atlantic

I have had an interesting summer so far: bookended by two strong liturgies, but with a fairly weak one in between. The American bishops’ statement on liturgy always comes to mind as I reflect on celebrations in which I participate: “Good liturgy builds up faith, bad liturgy tears it down and destroys it”. I know that’s a strong claim, but I appreciate the truth of it from my own experiences.

First the positive: we had a great day in Cork on the last day of June, when Fintan Gavin was ordained as our bishop. The liturgy was meticulously planned at local level here in Cork, which made a great event spectacular. In particular the music greatly enhanced the day: entering the cathedral as all sang Fintan O’Carroll’s ‘Praise the Lord, all you nations’ set a tone that reverberated throughout the event. I congratulate all who prepared the liturgy of that glorious new day!

Just over three weeks later, we priests and people of Cork gathered to bury the retired parish priest of Ballinora, Canon Donal Linehan. Every strand of his life was reflected in a beautiful liturgy, held in a small parish just west of Cork city. The liturgy was strengthened greatly by the superb parish choir, who motivated everyone to join in the singing. ‘The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee” after the Salve Regina at the graveside completed the liturgy in a suitably inculturated fashion. May this great man rest in peace.

Between those two events, I spent a few days on holidays in Canada, driving through rural Quebec. Finding myself in a town just before 4pm on a Saturday, the standard time for the anticipatory vigil Mass in both the USA and Canada, I sought a church and duly heard the bells summoning the faithful to prayer.

About 50 of us gathered in the big church of Warwick, for a rambling liturgy in French, that hinged on the personality of the priest. Before Mass began, he was out in the church, welcoming us individually and encouraging us to talk to each other.  At 4pm, he moved into Mass, with an Opening prayer bringing us to the First Reading and Gospel. It would nearly be easier to list what was missing: penitential rite, psalm, second reading, creed: even the collection!

As a priest, I always find it interesting to sit in the pews for Sunday Mass, but on this occasion, I did not have much to bring away with me, apart from a word of thanks to God for the many shapes our Church takes in all the places in which it is rooted.

Coming back to Ireland, I bring with me a renewed resolution to pray the Mass, to be attentive to its parts, to preach well but not to overwhelm the Mass with my personality. I must be conscious that some are happy, others heartbroken, others impatient, more hungry for an encouraging word. I hope to encourage those who come, building up their faith and not undermining it.


Giving creative names to the units that take the place of parishes is a challenging task. The four-parish cluster in west Clare (set up to comprise Tubber, Corofin, Crusheen and Ruan in 2004) is cleverly called ‘Imeall Bóirne’ (edge of the Burren). In my locality, two parishes which share a pastor on the Lee estuary have taken to themselves the title ‘The Harbour Parishes’.

My drive through rural Quebec revealed a creative approach: a gathering of churches sharing altitude. Titled Paroisse Notre-Dame-des-Monts’, (Our Lady of the Mountains), the churches were listed on the newsletter — with their height above sea level (390, 213 and 155 metres respectively).


Liturgical keys

A previous journey took me to Marbella, to officiate at the wedding of the son of a neighbour and friend. There I picked up another interesting idea (travel does broaden the mind — as well, unfortunately, as the gut!). The rehearsal church had a notice on the wall in many languages, obviously geared at visitors, but applicable to local parishioners too:

“Before the Mass, we talk to God;

During Mass, God talks to us;

After Mass, we talk to each other.”

It struck me as an apt dictum, combining prayer, listening and community, surely the keys to a true Catholic liturgy.