Last month, the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference appointed Fr John O’Connor
of Christchurch diocese as acting director of the National Liturgy Office. Fr O’Connor agreed
to do a Q&A for NZ Catholic. The questions and his answers are below.
NZC: In February, Pope Francis told the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments that the Liturgy is “a living treasure that cannot be reduced to tastes, recipes and currents . . . (it is) not ‘the field of do-it-yourself’, but the epiphany of ecclesial communion”. Can you comment?
Fr O’Connor: It is inspiring to witness Pope Francis celebrating the Mass. While he informally greets people with casual chat and humour before and after Mass, from the moment he makes the Sign of the Cross until the Prayer after Communion, he celebrates the Liturgy with single-minded focus. While socially he is relaxed and informal, when he is celebrating Mass he directs our attention to Christ.
Pope Francis is both truly radical and deeply conservative in his understanding of the Liturgy of the Church: radical because he seeks to get back to the root of the Liturgy originating in Christ and in the experience of the first Christians, and conservative
in ensuring that this living treasure is faithfully conserved, communicated and celebrated in the Church around the world today.
In one of his many teachings about the Liturgy, Pope Francis exhorted us to prepare well for the Mass: “When we enter a church to celebrate the Mass, let us think like this: ‘I am arriving at Calvary, where Jesus gives his life for me.’ And in this way, the show disappears, the chattering disappears, [along with] the comments and all those things that distance us from this beautiful thing which is the Mass, Jesus’ victory.”
It is essential to remember that we do not create the Liturgy, we celebrate the Liturgy. A parish or school liturgy committee might think that in a meeting to prepare a liturgy they are starting with a blank canvas. Thanks be to God this is not the case! Our work of preparation and active participation is primarily to make our hearts ready, becoming aware
of our need for Jesus in the midst of the routines and demands of daily life. On the fiftieth anniversary of the first papal Mass in the vernacular, Pope Francis reflected: “Authentic worship and liturgical celebrations should lead people toward ‘a real conversion’ of heart by letting them hear ‘the voice of the Lord’.”
NZC: Based upon the number of arguments it generates, the topic of liturgy can sometimes seem to divide as well as to unite. How can unity be maintained while allowing debate?
Fr O’Connor: Unity in the Liturgy cannot be reduced to uniformity. On first glance it might seem that people in different parts of the world celebrate the Mass in different forms including cultural adaptations of the rites, but the Mass is the same act of worship whether
celebrated in a cathedral, the hospital room of the dying parishioner, in Māori, English or in Latin, in ordinary or extraordinary form.
Good formation in our understanding of the Liturgy helps us to experience this depth of unity. Most often debates about liturgy centre on style and language. A liturgy committee might struggle to agree on music, organ or guitars, modern or chant, English or Latin,
but the Liturgy of the Church legitimately embraces a diversity of expressions when the central focus is the presence and action of Jesus Christ, rather than the instrument or language used.
Our prime mission is for the people of our Aotearoa New Zealand Church to grow in full, conscious and active participation in the Mass by deepening our understanding of what the Liturgy is and what it is not. If we see the Liturgy as our creation and our production, then, inevitably, what we do and how we do it will be the focus. When we understand that the Liturgy is our participation in the action of Christ, we are open to hearing what each person brings to the Mass, what the people bring and what they need, what Christ is giving to us and asking of us.
NZC: Some celebrants explain the Liturgy while they are celebrating it — punctuating it with little commentaries as to “why we are doing this”. Do you see a place for such
things in the Liturgy, or should it speak for itself?
Fr O’Connor: The Liturgy celebrated well is the most effective education and formation method. While at times it might be necessary to add an explanation comment either verbally or on a screen (for example when a large number present are new to the Mass, or at a funeral or wedding), those who come to the Mass for the first time are often inspired by the beauty of the ritual. They will have questions, but their experience of the Liturgy celebrated well will motivate them after the Liturgy to ask good questions of Catholics who love and understand the Mass.
Like every important endeavour, a time of training is required, but then quickly the extra words and instructions are unnecessary as the action becomes second-nature to us. In the past, many people found missals helpful, not only to help them to pray during Mass, but because they often provided helpful explanations that they could read after Mass as their
NZC: What do you consider you bring personally to the role of acting director of the NZ National Liturgy Office?
Fr O’Connor: While I have completed some study of the Liturgy sitting in classrooms with good text books and wise teachers, my real liturgical formation began as a young child at Mass, watching, listening, noticing and questioning. Somewhere back then, I picked up that the Mass in which I was participating was something that God was doing. I realised too that when I prepared well and participated with eyes and ears and heart open, I experienced the presence and strength of Jesus.
In recent years, an enormous amount of work has been done to provide good formation and resources to help parishes and schools to grow in their full, conscious and active participation in, and celebration of, the Liturgy.
Many of these resources are offered on the National Liturgy Office website and in other NLO publications. I hope to use my time in the role to bring these resources to dioceses, schools and parishes and am happy to respond to any invitation to assist this formation process.