Catholic liturgy in the 21st century: major challenges facing the Church

Catholic liturgy in the 21st century: major challenges facing the Church

Fr Peter Williams

Fr Peter Williams is Director of the Liturgy Commission of the Diocese of Parramatta and Executive Secretary of the National Liturgical Commission. This is the edited text of a talk he gave at recent conferences of the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy and the National Council of Priests.

Three areas will impact upon us as we continue to proclaim the mystery of Christ through the Mass in the 21st century - three areas that are currently contentious in the Church's life: texts, music and liturgical architecture.


Since 1970, with the publication of the Missal of Pope Paul VI, the Catholic Church in Australia and in other English-speaking countries has been celebrating the Mass in the vernacular. We now know that there was enormous pressure on those who were first entrusted with the task of translating the texts from the Latin into English. The result has been that while we now have English texts, the quality of those texts has been the subject of much criticism by serious scholars in linguistics, English usage and sacramental theologians who have lamented the paucity of doctrinal content.

Even those directly engaged in the now besieged International Commission on English in the Liturgy have admitted that the texts offered to the English-speaking Church were inadequate on several grounds.

Given that the liturgy is for most Catholic people their principal exposure to the public life of the Church, and for many their only opportunity to be exposed to any formation, then the body of prayers that make up the Church's liturgy must be authentic and faithful in expressing the deposit of faith and the Latin tradition of the Church. The texts need to be elegant in style, elevated in theological and sacramental language and effectively proclaimable in the assembly.

The recent publication of the fifth Instruction, Liturgiam Authenticam, as the principal document that provides guidance upon which all translations of the Latin are to be based, would appear to be a response to a perception that the liturgical translations in English in recent years have resulted in a "dumbing down" of the liturgy.

The current impasse on the question of texts perhaps reflects the desire of all sides in the debate to "get it right" so that our liturgical forms might have dignity, accuracy and provide a ready tool to assist not only the people of God to worship but also to act - as worship so often does, as a vehicle to evangelise those seeking to know God and the things of God.

Words are powerful and in an increasingly electronic age that relies more and more on the audio and visual experience, we must ensure that the words we express in the liturgy are well chosen, above all the right words and words that will speak to the people of the 21st century enabling them to make sense of their experience of life in Christ.


Chapter VI of Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was devoted to the reform of Sacred Music. The Council Fathers identified the centrality of music in the liturgical celebrations. Music simply is not an added extra or indeed purely an adornment. As they stated: "A liturgical service takes on a nobler aspect when the rites are celebrated with singing, the sacred ministers take their parts in them, and the faithful actively participate" (113).

Given the historical circumstances in which the Constitution was drawn up, the Council Fathers identified both Gregorian chant and polyphony as having a special place in the liturgical rites of the Church along with the pipe organ as the principal instrument of accompaniment. Provision was also made, for pastoral reasons, for the adaptation and the infusion of local musical traditions into the liturgy in what is broadly described as "mission lands."

The pastoral demand for a vernacular liturgy (in missions lands as well as those that might not be designated strictly "mission") meant that most of what appears in Chapter VI was overtaken by the development of a large corpus of new music, much of it contemporary in style, plus recourse to musical compositions emanating from other denominations with considerable experience of worshipping in the vernacular.

This was certainly the case in English-speaking countries. There were attempts in the production of some early ritual music books to foster Latin chant and keep aspects of the tradition alive; but largely this has not been successful in the average Catholic parish, either in the first, second or third worlds.

In assessing the current challenges that face the musical life of the Church in Australia the following issues are identified as requiring some degree of reflection.

Given the prominence of music in the liturgical life of the Church, has the Church itself adequately resourced those responsible for its "performance" Sunday by Sunday? The Constitution recommended, "higher institutes of sacred music be established wherever possible" (115). The average parish musician is most often a volunteer with varying musical abilities and needs guidance and formation in both the liturgy and in the practical aspects of music so that sound pastoral, liturgical and musical judgments can be made.

Has the time come to undertake a comprehensive review of what it is that we sing in our Sunday assemblies? While it is true that in Australia we have moved from simply singing hymns/songs to also singing the Ordinary of the Mass there is wide diversity in the quality of texts as well as music. As Music in Catholic Worship states so bluntly: "To admit the cheap, the trite, the musical cliché often found in popular songs for the purpose of instant liturgy, is to cheapen the liturgy, to expose it to ridicule, and to invite failure."

Is there still a place for the great "treasury of inestimable value" in music to find expression in our liturgical celebrations? Should we critically review musical genres? Have compositional styles found their way into the repertoire of the Church that mitigate against the singing of the assembly? Are texts theologically sound and what of the quality of poetry and prose?

Has enough attention been given to the musical culture of our nation? What is meant by that? Have we largely become a "listening" people rather than a "singing" people? Australians do not automatically break into spontaneous singing at public events. Certainly the inherited Catholic culture from Ireland that was so formative of the development of Australian Catholicism was not disposed to a vigorous musical expression in the liturgy.

Aside from a few devotional hymns the culture from a musical point of view was largely silent. The influx of migrants from cultures, where music has enjoyed a far more central role in the liturgical life of the Church, while enriching the life of the many local parishes, has also contributed to the polarisation that is all too evident, with some members of the assembly singing and a vast majority not singing at all.

What impact is use of the electronic medium - particularly in the realm of sophisticated audio systems - going to have on the celebration of liturgy? Already there is widespread use of such technologies in celebrations and the danger lies in the liturgy becoming yet another form of entertainment where the body of believers are purely observers and passive participants.

Several years ago, while undertaking research on this topic, a leading liturgical musician from the United States rather ominously commented that "active participation" in the liturgy within 20 years might be manifest simply by people humming along to the CD!

Liturgical architecture

The final issue that relates to the challenges we face in celebrating liturgy in the 21st century is that of the buildings we inhabit for worship.

The Council Fathers included in Chapter VII of the Constitution a brief statement on buildings. "When churches are to be built, let great care be taken that they are well suited to celebrating liturgical services and to bringing about the active participation of the faithful" (124).

This one sentence was to be expanded in subsequent liturgical documentation that provided very clear guidelines about the design and appointments of church buildings.

Church buildings serve two purposes. Principally they are places where the baptised community gathers to celebrate its life in God through the liturgical rites of the Church. Secondarily, they serve as places where people come individually to pray and to engage in private devotion, one of the hallmarks of Catholic identity.

In a burst of zeal to restore the public prayer of the Church to the faithful many church buildings underwent partial or extensive renovation in the years after the Council. Some of these efforts were sensitive to the architectural integrity of what already was, but other attempts were not quite so successful, displaying an insensitivity that often resulted in many people lamenting the loss of their sacred places in which huge investment had been made.

In the planning and construction of new church buildings, the words of the Council Fathers again are to be taken seriously: "The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as its every own but has admitted styles from every period".

For reasons of practicality, and often also driven by economics, many new church structures were multi-functional complexes. Liturgical space was utilitarian in conception and there was a shift away from the monumental to the domestic.

What is essential is that today's architects need to be properly briefed on the requirements of church buildings as places of public cult, private devotion and the place where many people come to seek an experience of the transcendent reality that we call God.

Perhaps it is time to revisit many of the decisions that were made and effected on our church buildings in attempting to accommodate the demands of the new rites and ask whether what was deemed appropriate in the early stages of the reform is still valid today. Given that in many cases the structural changes were made before many of the liturgical books in the vernacular were published, should these changes be reviewed in the light of pastoral experience over a thirty-year period?

As with music some questions need to be raised again about our places of worship and need critical and mature reflection:

Are our church buildings beautiful? Do they reflect the "noble simplicity" spoken of by the Council Fathers? Do the altar, ambo, chair and other furnishings have integrity in design and fabrication?

Given the recent publication of a new Directory on the place of popular devotions in the life of the Church and a resurgent interest by many of the laity in private prayer and devotion, do our church buildings adequately provide for meeting these needs, in terms of both religious iconography and the orientation of the space?

Are the vessels, vestments and other liturgical items used in the celebration of liturgy expressive of all that is best in our worship of God? The Constitution reminds us "In encouraging and favouring art that is truly sacred, Ordinaries should strive after noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display. This principle is to apply also in the matter of sacred vestments and appointments" (124).


The liturgical agenda for the beginning of the 21st Century is by no means exhausted in a discussion of the three areas I have nominated here. In my judgment they loom as the subjects that most attract comment and engender discussion in popular Catholic magazines, newspapers and web sites. In a recent conference on assessing the influence of the Second Vatican Council, reference was made to what degree has the Council actually been properly "received" by the Church.

I think it undeniable that the vernacular celebration of the Latin rite has been an outstanding pastoral success in assisting the people of God appreciate their identity as the Body of Christ. However, problems remain about how best to execute that liturgy, particularly in the areas of text, music and environment.

My hope would be that an informed, intelligent and above all charitable conversation might be initiated about these matters, so that we might understand what it means to "worship in Spirit and in Truth."

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