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Online Edition - Vol. VI, No. 2: April 2000

The seminarian's liturgical education --

Liturgy as Ecology

by Robert J. Johansen, Jr.

Many Catholics, concerned about the state of Liturgy in the United States, have begun asking questions about the way our priests are being trained to celebrate the Sacred Mysteries. There is a widespread perception that many priests were poorly prepared, and that where sound teaching and experience were lacking, ignorance, experimentation and laxity filled the void. What is being done to close the gap between the Roman Liturgy as prescribed and what is practiced in all too many parishes?

Liturgical education and practice is beginning to improve in American seminaries. The attitude of experimentation and "make it up as you go" has all but vanished. The seminaries themselves are returning to traditional devotions such as Eucharistic Adoration. There is increasing interest among seminarians in understanding what Vatican II's Liturgy documents actually taught. They are also increasingly aware that they were deprived of much of the richness of the Church's liturgical tradition by the reductionist tendencies of the 1970s and 1980s.

Liturgical training at Sacred Heart Seminary, Detroit

Bishop Allen Vigneron, auxiliary bishop of Detroit and rector of Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, is deeply concerned with the liturgical education of the seminarians under his charge. During the summer and fall of 1999, Bishop Vigneron generously gave his time to this author and engaged in a series of conversations about the liturgical life of the seminary. He was quite candid, but always careful to distinguish between his personal opinions and the official teaching of the Church.

According to Bishop Vigneron, a seminary needs to inculcate seminarians with three qualities: First, theological insight. This is "more than scholarly expertise, but an ability to comprehend the mysteries themselves." Second, knowledge of the rites themselves -- that is, what the liturgical books actually say. Third, practical judgment, grounded in both Canon Law and Sacramental Theology, but also drawing on experience and practice.

Theory is not enough

Knowledge of the Liturgy cannot be merely theoretical, because it involves something that we do. One can read all of the right liturgical books and know the rubrics by heart, but that will not make a man a good celebrant. There is a practical, experiential component of liturgical education. Because teaching future priests to be reverent and diligent celebrants involves forming in them a whole set of dispositions and attitudes, it might be more accurate to speak of liturgical training or formation.

The average seminarian comes into the seminary with only a slightly better knowledge of Liturgy than the average layman. Since he is probably in his mid-twenties to early thirties, this means that he has experienced only the watered-down, sentimentalized liturgy of the 1970s and 1980s.

He probably saw incense used only at Christmas and Easter. He may never have heard Gregorian chant sung in the Liturgy, unless he went to the cathedral (if then). The music he did hear probably was of the faux-folk variety, which places a premium on one's own subjective emotions. He may very well have seen actual abuses practiced routinely in his parish, such as altering the words of prescribed texts or preaching by the non-ordained.

Bishop Vigneron summarized the condition of seminarians upon entering the seminary as "lacking a profound knowledge and experience of liturgy", and thus "lacking a profound sense of the mystery present in the liturgy."

According to Bishop Vigneron, many seminarians, like other Catholics, have been poorly catechized, and consequently misunderstand what Liturgy is. The good news is that most seminarians desire deeper knowledge and experience. And we have remedies for the poor catechesis readily at hand in the Catechism and the Church's teaching documents on the liturgy, such as Sacrosanctum Concilium. But prudence is necessary in gradually fostering the seminarian's liturgical formation.

At Sacred Heart Major Seminary, the common practice was, until five years ago, to remain standing at Mass during the Eucharistic Prayer. Bishop Vigneron wished to bring the seminary's liturgical discipline into line with the norms of the Roman rite. Rather than simply dictate and enforce a regime which would have been perceived by the students as "new", Bishop Vigneron instituted a series of catecheses and studies on the liturgy of the Mass, and the theology behind the various postures we adopt during the Mass. The restoration of the prescribed practice was undertaken over the course of a year, with a minimum of confusion.

"Ecology" of Liturgy includes music

Because liturgical formation is practical, a great amount of it takes place simply by living the liturgical life of the seminary. Seminarians learn not merely by study, but by participation. One learns almost by osmosis what good Liturgy is, and develops judgment concerning what is consonant with the Church's liturgical tradition.

Bishop Vigneron calls the liturgical life of the seminary an "ecology, the environment in which one lives."

"Liturgy", he says, "is not something just seen, but lived through, and by living through it the skill is passed along."

An integral part of the liturgical "ecology" is music. Liturgical music has suffered deformations in recent decades which derive from misunderstandings of the nature of Liturgy.

The single greatest problem is the tendency to turn the Liturgy into a focus on the self, rather than on God. Bishop Vigneron believes these tendencies are misguided, because they "obscure the Christological and Trinitarian focus inherent in liturgy."

"Liturgy", he says, "is not entertainment, it is not self-validated. Liturgy is the experience of heaven, not something that happens to me in some sort of emotional-personal state." The music sung and heard in church must reflect this Trinitarian and Christological focus, and the depth of the Church's tradition.

Unfortunately, the music heard at Mass today often does a poor job of reflecting this Trinitarian and Christological focus, or the depth of the Church's tradition. Many seminarians have heard little good liturgical music before entering the seminary. Therefore, the seminary must deliberately form its students to understand the role of liturgical music, and to appreciate good liturgical music. According to Bishop Vigneron, seminarians need to develop competence in evaluating musical texts theologically:

They need to understand why "Vexilla Regis" is a better hymn than "The Old Rugged Cross". They need to develop enough knowledge to distinguish between good and bad music, and to be able to recognize and hire a competent music minister.

The seminary has a fine music program. The music director, Dr. Deborah Friauff, is very gifted, and her courses in liturgical music for seminarians have had high enrollment. The musical life at the seminary is rich: There is a schola of about 30 seminarians, whose repertoire runs from works by Palestrina to Bruckner.

For the first time in years, chant can be heard at Sacred Heart liturgies. During Advent 1998, a Gregorian chant schola was formed to chant the Introits for the Sundays of Advent and for the annual Advent concert. A permanent schola was formed during the current academic year.

Discussion is underway to standardize the music curriculum. All seminarians are now required to take a course in liturgical music, so that they may acquire the basic competence in knowledge and practice Bishop Vigneron described.

Advancing the Latin revival

In the wake of Vatican II, Latin virtually disappeared -- a matter of concern to many Catholics. Few priests now have training in Latin or experience in the use of Latin in the Mass. But concern for the state of Latin in the Church predates Vatican II.

In 1962, Pope John XXIII promulgated his Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia, in which he lamented the decline in Latin education that had already taken place, and decreed that the ancient and uninterrupted use of Latin be maintained and, if it has deteriorated anywhere, be thoroughly restored. Seminaries, said Pope John, must continue to teach Latin and demand competence of its students in the language, lest they, through ignorance of the language, be unable to attain a full understanding of doctrine.

The Second Vatican Council clearly taught that Latin was to be retained in the life of the Church. Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council's Constitution on the Liturgy, stated that the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites. (36.1) Both Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II have reiterated the need for priests to be well-versed in Latin.

Currently, students at the seminary receive only two years of Latin. Both students and faculty admit that this is inadequate. The seminary is reviewing its Latin program to see if a better curriculum can be devised.

The Church's teaching on the Liturgy makes Latin necessary, and the formation of seminarians makes education in Latin integral. Bishop Vigneron is well aware of the need for Latin. He would like to move toward a fuller implementation of the teaching found in such documents as Veterum Sapientia. But, he says, "there is not yet a general sense of re-valuing Latin in the liturgy."

Because of this, and the active resistance from some quarters, re-integrating Latin into the seminary curriculum must be pursued with prudence, Bishop Vigneron thinks. "What the Church requires of us" concerning Latin, is clear, he says; but it is not so easy to find a solution to the problem.

Sacred Heart Major Seminary has a rich liturgical life and high quality instruction. The Church's own documents on the Liturgy make up the principal texts for Sacramental Theology courses. There is a great desire on the part of the professors and administrators to form priests who will be men of the Church, and who will celebrate the Sacred Mysteries as the Church intends.

Most of all, as Bishop Vigneron said, the seminary seeks to form priests who will "pray the liturgy". Despite some weaknesses in the program and areas that need improvement, the attitudes and purposes of the program are very much in line with what the Church asks of its seminaries. Sacred Heart Major Seminary succeeds in creating an "ecology" of liturgical prayer, which is the prayer in and of the Church.

Robert Johansen is a seminarian for the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan, studying at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. He holds a Master's Degree in Classics from the Catholic University of America, and a Bachelor's degree in Religious Studies from the University of Illinois.

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