If I could ask for one great pastoral initiative (especially from the Friars Preachers), it would be sung Vespers, with benediction and good preaching, and a priest in the confessional the whole time.
This idea especially struck me on a recent vacation, in a parish with pretty bad liturgy and preaching.
Lots of little points:
- What strikes me, first, is that the problem is more a lack than any positive evil. This is a disputable point, but this is how it seems to me. Yes, yes, there are many evils taught in our society. But the key point is, people don’t know what prayer is, what liturgy is, what the Gospel is, or what Catholicism is really about. They need someone to show them.
- Fixing parishes is a huge problem. It requires a huge work of priestly education – a work many of us are involved in (I teach in a seminary – and perhaps you just support your priests), but it will take a long time (since the men we educate now will not be pastors for a long time) and a huge cooperation (since none of us alone can change everyone). But even good pastors are up against hugely complicated parish situations, with all the complications of hundreds of malformed parishioners. These are things we should work on – but the danger is that, seeing such a huge work, we are tempted to give up and do nothing. We should all do our best to improve Sunday Mass, but honestly, most of the work has to happen somewhere else. That’s why I propose Evening Prayer, Vespers. It doesn’t have to involve all the parishioners. Lay people can go to Vespers at a different church from their parish, and come back refreshed to renew their parish. Priests, or even lay people, can lead vespers even if they are not pastors.
- Another danger is trying to convert everyone at once. Often it means watering things down, to try to win people who aren’t much inclined to be won. To the contrary, I think we can do a lot more by supporting those who are actively seeking. If people want to pray, if they want good preaching, if they want to go deeper, give them the opportunity. Rather than watering things down so that no one will be much converted, we need to help create the saints who can be real apostles – to their neighbors, to their family, to their coworkers. And if those apostles get people interested, we need to have somewhere good to bring them.
- But we don’t want to take people out of their parishes. We need those apostles everywhere. They are the force for renewal in parishes. One danger is that we can form separatist parishes, so that everyone serious about their faith leaves behind the parishes and pastors that so desperately need them – and think of the need: yes, there are a lot of confused people in those parishes, but they are interested enough to get there on Sunday morning. This is fertile ground. We need apostles in the parishes.
Another danger is that we nurture a spirituality that has nothing to do with Sunday Mass. The first problem with this is for those we preach to: Sunday Mass is the source and summit of our faith; we need to teach people to benefit from it, not lead them away. The second problem is for the other people at Sunday Mass: what the parish needs most is people who can show what Sunday Mass is all about. To nurture parish apostles, we need to teach people how to pray Sunday Mass better.
The Liturgy of the Hours is a great way to do that. Show people what real liturgical prayer is about. Nurture their liturgical spirituality. With adoration and benediction, teach them to long for the Eucharist. With the Psalms, teach them to cling to the words of Scripture. With good preaching, teach them what everything else is really about – teach them how to listen to Scripture at Mass, how to sort out the good points in the often confused homilies, to receive the Eucharist with the fervor it deserves.
My proposal can be broken into parts. I would be happy if priests just sat in the confessional, without preaching, vespers, benediction, or good music. We can pray the liturgy of the hours even without priests, in our homes and communities, with or without serious liturgical music. And we can preach elsewhere – this web site is one effort to preach the Gospel outside the liturgy.
But wouldn’t it be better if communities could form around all of these things at once? Vespers Sunday evening, or midweek. Morning Prayer for mothers. All done well, prayerfully, beautifully, with serious preaching, and confession, and benediction. Liturgy will save the world.
What elements of this plan could you implement? What alternatives can you suggest?