‘Happy are those who are called …’


MOUNT PLEASANT — “If it’s good for you to be here, inform your face.” With this quote from the late theologian Father Eugene Walsh, Elaine Rendler sought to convey an image of vibrant, contemporary Catholicism to a recent gathering of liturgical ministers at Christ Our King Church.

Rendler spoke to the assembly of greeters, ushers, lectors, eucharistic ministers and church musicians as part of an annual workshop for all ministers at Christ Our King. She is a liturgical minister herself with the Catholic campus ministry at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., where she also teaches music theory. Rendler holds a doctorate of musical arts in organ performance from the Catholic University of America and is a composer and arranger as well as a choral director. She writes a weekly column for the newsletter Today’s Liturgy.

Rendler told the liturgical ministers that each of them had been blessed with a particular gift, a calling, through their baptism and confirmation, to be Christ to others.

“You not only have to do the ministry, you have to love the people,” she told her audience.

She delivered her message so entertainingly, through her musical gifts and lively sense of humor, that after their laughter subsided her listeners realized the serious challenge behind her amusing anecdotes.

Being Christ to others today as a liturgical minister means being aware of and attuned to three shifts in emphasis in Catholic liturgy. These shifts are evidence of an ongoing search for balance between the concepts of the sacrifice and the meal and between the transcendent and the incarnational aspects of worship.

In the first shift, the high point of the Liturgy of the Eucharist is now the meal. When members of the congregation respond to the invitation, “Happy are those who have been called to his supper,” they affirm the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, they look beyond the forgiveness of sins to the joy of Easter and the promise of their own resurrection, and they rejoice that they have been invited to the table of the Lord. For those called to liturgical ministry, this new emphasis means that the greeter or usher acts as a host who happily welcomes each guest to the meal. Likewise, the demeanor of both the eucharistic minister and the communicant should reflect this same joy.

Rendler also spoke about the second shift in emphasis in liturgy, from a contemplation of the transcendent God whom people worship in awed silence, to an awareness of the Word incarnate. The incarnation, the sense of “God-with-us,” means life and movement. Instead of entering the church in silence to prepare themselves to “hear Mass,” the congregation comes as a community of believers to welcome the Lord among them. The congregation can once again receive Christ’s Body and Blood in the liturgy of the Eucharist, whereas prior to Vatican II, the laity was denied the cup. One result of this shift, Rendler noted, is that younger Catholics are less attracted than their parents and grandparents to traditional devotions such as benediction, Forty Hours and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. It is not that contemporary Catholics do not revere the sacred but that they experience the presence of Christ among them in a different way. Likewise, when we come to the liturgy “we come out of time,” Rendler said, to an awareness of the living Christ whose redemptive act is extended throughout history to include each of us. The new regulations concerning the placement of the tabernacle indicate that the church is still working through these changes.

The third shift in liturgical emphasis that Rendler examined was the change from the “theater model” to one of community worship. It is in this area that the Catholic Church still has farthest to go, said Rendler. She termed current practice in most places “Vatican One and a Half.” Much of liturgical practice still promotes the passive observance on the part of the community rather than active participation. Liturgical ministers help the congregation break out of the theater model in a number of ways. Greeters welcome the congregation as guests. Ushers refrain from seating late arrivals during the proclamation of the Word. Musicians teach the congregation new psalms with memorable melodies and invite all to sing rather than to join the choir in its performance. Each of these small encouragements to more active participation will hasten the day when the congregation no longer views the priest as praying to God for them but can see the priest as the vessel in whom they place their prayers to God.

Rendler reiterated many of these themes in a workshop for liturgical musicians on the following day. Music ministers from the local area, including some from other faith traditions, joined the musicians of Christ Our King for a day of singing under Rendler’s direction. While guiding the group in singing, she made suggestions for improving the effectiveness of music ministry.

One challenge for musicians is to distinguish between performance and ministry. When one is performing, the listener responds, “My, what a beautiful voice.” But when one ministers through one’s music, the listener’s response is, “What a moving text.” Rendler encouraged the formation of good musical and vocal techniques. It is also important, she said, for musicians to pray that they might be the instruments through which the Holy Spirit moves the assembly.

Rendler spoke at length on the importance of the responsorial psalm in contemporary Catholic worship. Participation in the proclamation of these Scriptural texts enables the community to affirm that God is truly present in the Liturgy of the Word. She demonstrated with musical examples how different musical settings of the same text can enhance or detract from the congregation’s reception of the text.

It is the task of music ministers to hand down not only the traditional, non-Scriptural music that each of us learned as children but these new, Scripture-based settings as well. Rendler encouraged the music ministers to not only teach the new, short settings of the psalms but to study the texts of these psalms in their entirety to enhance their interpretation. Catholics need to become more familiar with the Scriptures, with church history, and with church documents that present a rationale for new practices and rituals.

Finally, Rendler told her workshop participants, “You either believe or you don’t believe.” The demeanor of the music minister, in proclaiming the text and interpreting the melody, should give witness to the incarnation and should be a special means of evangelization. Her presentation both challenged and encouraged her listeners to grow in their ministry.

Written by Joanne M. Comar and Susan A. Welsch.