What a Difference a Mass Makes: The Editors Interview Father Keith Pecklers, S.J

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As a professor of liturgy at Rome's Pontifical Liturgical Institute, Jesuit Father Keith Pecklers has a unique perch from which to view the current liturgical controversies. "I've gotten to the point where I can read a Vatican document and have a sense of which part of the world it's directed at," he says. He points out that a recent rule directing the presider to offer the sign of peace only to those close by might be directed more at Italy, where the peace can go on for 10 minutes, than at the United States.

What is key for Pecklers, however, is that the assembly celebrating the liturgy connects what goes on inside. "You can have the most beautiful liturgy in the world, but if you don't have people on board, it won't matter," he says. His own efforts to make that happen include co-founding Caravita, an international Catholic community that meets in Rome's St. Francis Xavier Caravita Church.

Still, Pecklers is concerned by the trend toward the liturgical past. While acknowledging that today's liturgy isn't perfect, going back is no solution. "The pre-Vatican II liturgy was as idiosyncratic as the post-Vatican II liturgy, but in different ways. There's no golden age there either."

We Catholics talk a lot about the centrality of the Eucharist, but do you think everyday Catholics, even priests, really get what Mass is all about?

I still am not convinced that 40 years after the Second Vatican Council the average Catholic actually grasps what it is that we're being called to when we go to Mass on Sunday.

I think perhaps those of us who are clergy, pastoral ministers, or liturgical leaders take too much for granted, even when it comes to basic things like why it is important that we sing, why it is important that we recite the Creed or the Gloria when half of the assembly isn't. Why does that matter?

Why is it important? Why sing?

Active participation in the liturgy is about professing that we believe. I look around at Mass and wonder if we really believe that Christ is risen. The simple answer to your question is why shouldn't we sing: We sing because Christ is risen, because we presumably believe it, or we wouldn't be at Mass.

I think we still have the idea that we go to church because that's what Catholics do, that we're fulfilling our obligation. People don't talk that way, but I think it's still in the back of our minds. When people ask why we need to go to church when we can pray any time, I always say that from the earliest centuries of Christianity, to be a Christian has meant to be together on the Lord's day. We need to hear the baby crying next to us or see that old person on the other side of the church, because we're linked together and it's not just about us as individuals.

How does that connection affect us?

What I'm talking about is liturgy transforming moral behavior, liturgy shaping the way we think and act. A professor from Notre Dame, recently deceased, used to ask whether we find ourselves living any differently this week because of having been to church. The honest answer for most people is no. But I can remember experiences at parishes where I felt so nourished by the preaching, by the singing, by the participation, by the worship itself, that I would look forward very much to the following week, to be back there in that community.

Are there aspects of our current culture that make it harder for liturgy to foster that connection?

If you're talking about North America, immigration is a key one. Our parishes are evolving multiculturally, and really celebrating together can be a challenge in a parish that has both immigrant and native-born Americans of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. That obviously is something quite different from 40 years ago when the Second Vatican Council launched the liturgical reform.

The other reality is demographic, specifically the many divorced and remarried Catholics, gays and lesbians, and other different groups of people who are on the edges of the church. …