Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

When the power of liturgy is loosed, ‘it can change things in an astounding way,’ says workshop presenter

by Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor, Inland Register

(From the July 29, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)

What’s a good working definition of liturgy?

“I like to keep it simple,” said Father Jan Larson, a liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle. He defines it this way: “Ritual prayer done in community.”

Father Larson, a long-time liturgy columnist for the Inland Register (see page 18 of this issue) as well as a senior priest for the Seattle Archdiocese, will be presenting a workshop, “Fundamentals of Liturgy,” on Saturday, Aug. 21, from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. at Sacred Heart Parish in Spokane.

The workshop, he said, is for “anybody who wanted a little refresher on the meaning of liturgy,” not just for liturgical ministers or liturgy directors.

Prayer, ritual, community: “From those three items,” he said, “come all the basic principles of what good liturgy ought to be. Sure enough, the Vatican II reforms address those exact three issues, if you look at them in that light.”

His passion for liturgy began when he was still a seminarian, at St. Thomas Seminary in Kenmore, outside Seattle.

The Second Vatican Council was in progress. Seattle’s Archbishop Connolly would send reports every week, published in the archdiocesan newspaper, on the Council’s progress. “A few of us got excited about liturgy” as a result, said Father Larson.

“At the time,” he said, liturgy wasn’t really taught as something “other than how to say Mass. Liturgical principles, history, all that – we didn’t know anything about those things.”

But the Council’s changes – use of the vernacular, increased involvement of the laity, receiving Communion under both species, “things like that, got us all excited. Here we were just about to be ordained, going out into parish life with these exciting new ideas.”

The initial vote on the final draft of the Council’s Liturgy Constitution, he said, received a “landslide in favor” – 2,162 votes in favor, and only 46 opposed. “That was a 97 percent approval, even though there had been strong resistance from a minority of bishops,” he said.

The final vote on Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, in December 1963 found 2,147 in favor, and only four against, he said.

“This was the first document approved by the Council and, compared with others, was remarkable for how little it changed from the original version,” said Father Larson.

And it was the Council that gave him the opportunity to deepen his own knowledge of liturgy. Another aspect from the Council was that dioceses should have personnel with advanced training in liturgy. “When I was ordained I didn’t see anybody like that, so I asked the archbishop” for permission. He studied at the University of Notre Dame’s summer program, overlapping with two priests of the Spokane Diocese: Msgr. John Steiner and the late Father Terry Tully.

In the meantime, he has been pastor of several parishes, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Worship, and teaches liturgy through the archdiocese’s Ministry Institute. He was one of those consulted for the renovation of the Cathedral of St. James in Seattle, and has been part of the renovation of several other Western Washington churches.

He also grew up in Spokane, where he learned to be an altar server and first began to discern a call to priesthood, before his family moved to Seattle when he was in the fifth grade.

So what makes for good liturgy?

“For me, the obvious ingredients for good liturgy are the words of the Council: full, conscious, and active participation.”

Even secular life is filled with rituals: reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, or singing “‘The Star Spangled Banner’ before a Mariners game,” American rituals, and powerful. “But to have that work right, you’ve got to do a couple of things with everybody else. Stand up, put your hand on your heart, look toward the flag, and sing. Somebody chose to do none of those things, the ritual really isn’t working for that person. If enough people didn’t, it wouldn’t work for everybody.

“The secret to good liturgy,” said Father Larson, “is engaging in it. Sharing in it.”

Another example: Two people embracing. That, too, is a powerful ritual, one that doesn’t require words and can mean “all kinds of important things, but if one person doesn’t participate, it doesn’t work. Then it becomes ritualism.”

The Second Vatican Council enhanced the participation of the laity in the liturgy, expanding their roles. One of the important principles of the Council, he said, was to divide the liturgical roles that belonged to different people, “not try to do somebody else’s, too.”

In planning liturgy, “The ideal, I’d think, would be to have a group of people share ideas about how to best express the liturgy for a particular day.” Although the celebrant could write the Prayers of the Faithful, for instance, “I think they’re done more ritually if there’s a group of people who put out some ideas about it. Five are better than one.”

One advantage of liturgy committees is that the work helps the committee members themselves to pray better, to become more deeply engaged in the liturgy. Plus, with more members, “you come out with more ideas … not that the priest couldn’t do a wonderful job by himself, but sometimes he can’t.”

There has to be a certain level of caution, however. Committees can’t do their work simply by adding or subtracting at will. Begin with the liturgical texts. “If you use the liturgical books well, you don’t have to add things or change things,” he said.

The coming changes to the Roman Missal, he said, mostly have to do with wording, rather than ritual changes. His talk will touch on that subject – “it’s impossible not to. That’s on people’s minds” – and while he’ll share his opinions, he doesn’t want to come across as a “religious fanatic on that.”

Rather, his presentation will have two main goals.

First, enhanced prayer for those who participate in the workshop.

“It’s exciting, the power of liturgy and ritual, and if we let the power loose, it can change things in an astounding way,” Father Larson said. “The first change is that I’m able to pray better and take liturgy more seriously.”

His second goal is that the participants learn a few liturgical principles they weren’t aware of before.

The principles, he said, are “between the lines” of liturgical texts. “Some things are obvious.” By the end of his presentation, participants will “know how to find the principles” within the texts.

Many of those liturgical principles are common sense. “We already know them in our heart. We’re ritual people, whether we know it or not,” he said. “We use ritual as a principle way of communication with people.”

In a way, he said, “Liturgy principles aren’t any different really than the principles of our civic religion: The way they open sessions of the Senate or House of Representatives. Or the ritual of a courtroom,” with its “special vestments, raising your right hand, decorum, silence. The Bible is in there.

“That’s what we’re going to talk about a lot: the meaning of human ritual, and within that, the use of symbols, which is an action that tells something about a relationship,” said Father Larson.

Symbols are key to sacramental ritual. Within the liturgy, that means symbols like “touching, eating, drinking, washing, and so on.”

Spirituality is highly individual. “For every congregation of 50, there’s 50 spiritualities, every one shaped differently by education, parents, teachers, friends.”

And an individual’s sense of spirituality will have an impact on their experience of liturgy.

“For example, if your spirituality is largely ‘Jesus and Me,’” there probably isn’t much interest in such things as the sign of peace, or increased participation of the laity. “Your spirituality, your ecclesiology – how you understand the Church – is going to shape how you think of liturgy,” said Father Larson.

Even within that understanding, however, “spirituality can change. It can be reshaped. Some people think, I’d lose my faith if I changed my spirituality, but not so,” he said.

(Father Larson will speak on “Fundamentals of Liturgy” on Saturday, Aug. 21, from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. at Sacred Heart Church, 219 E. Rockwood Blvd. in Spokane. Registration is $25 per person before Aug. 1, $30 after Aug. 1. Price includes a box lunch. To register, call 509-624-9869, or email

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