Thoughts on Tim O’Malley’s “Liturgy and the New Evangelization”

Recently I’ve seen some rather passionate discussions surrounding the relationship between liturgy and the New Evangelization, especially in response Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran’s Rebuilt (Ave Maria Press, 2013). I’d been a bit dissatisfied by the tenor of the discussion, and so I’ve been looking forward to reading a new book by Timothy P. O’Malley, entitled Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love (Liturgical Press, 2014).

O’Malley lays out three central purposes. First, he reminds us that the New Evangelization is not to be reduced to the discussion and implementation of pastoral practices. That it’s a call to a “transformation of all culture, of all human existence, spurred on by an counter with Christ himself” (p. 2).

For those of us actively engaged in evangelization, this may seem like a rather mundane point–clearly communicated in the Venerable Pope Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) and many Church documents since then. But, I can say from some recent experience of leading a discussion with a mix of paid parish lay ministers and interested faithful, that there is a surprising amount  of confusion, curiosity, and ambiguity about what the New Evangelization is. Most did not know what made the new evangelization “new” and many had the sneaking feeling that it was some sort of trend, rather than at the heart of the Church’s identity. O’Malley’s work clearly and concisely makes this point, drawing from Church teachings of the past 50 years. From this angle, I’d  strongly recommend this book for anyone who feels like they have a theological gap when it comes to knowing what the Church has taught about evangelization and the liturgy since the Second Vatican Council, and doesn’t have the time to wade through hundreds of pages of Vatican documents 🙂

O’Malley’s second main observation is that despite all of the liturgical debate over the past few decades, formative liturgical prayer is a still “rather elusive reality” in our context, and we need a “liturgical education that is evangelical, transformative of history, culture, and each individual life” (p. 3-4). I’ll buy that. Though many in the Church are experiencing liturgical prayer as a wellspring of grace, a continuous renewal of God’s promises to us, and a place for intense encounter with Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, two of the audiences of the New Evangelization–the baptized but not practicing/evangelized and those who have not heard or responded to the Gospel of salvation–are likely not experiencing liturgical prayer in this way! And we should all care, since the liturgy isn’t just extra smells and bells for those who like those sorts of things, but experiential formation, fundamental worship, encounter with Jesus Christ, and more.

In short, great need exists. There’s clearly a chasm between what we believe liturgy to be, and the actual experiences of most Catholics or seekers. O’Malley does a great job (in Chapter 2) of placing Church teaching in the context of secularizing cultural forces, helping us to understand some of the specific context of the New Evangelization that’s relevant to how people experience the liturgical life of the Church.

O’Malley’s third and final purpose is to emphasize that liturgical prayer has a formative role for evangelizers like us, as it “inspires the Christian toward a mysticism of the ordinary, to an offering of the return gift of our very lives as an act of love” – and love is of course central to evangelization, as we must love others enough to risk rejection by sharing the Gospel with them, and love others in a way that reflects, ever so slightly, the saving love of Jesus Christ  (p. 4).

Of his three main points, I think this third one has the most staying power. It reminds me of the instructions given in the Decree on Ecumenism, that a primary duty of Catholics “is to make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be done or renewed in the Catholic household itself, in order that its life may bear witness more clearly and faithfully to the teachings and institutions which have come to it from Christ through the Apostles” (para. 4). Before we can invite others into the liturgical life of the Church, to experience the gift of the liturgy, we must first be renewed by the liturgy ourselves as evangelizers. We must be formed by the liturgy.

So at this point, I was pretty excited to dive into the remaining chapters and gain some insight into practices and mindsets that might help bridge this gap between formation and reality. And, I think that was my biggest disappointment with Liturgy and the New Evangelization–I felt like it never fully made the leap from beautifully summarizing and synthesizing theology to concretely unpacking “practicing the art of self-giving love” with regards to the multiple situational audiences of the New Evangelization. Now to be clear, O’Malley lays this out early on, explaining that his “essay in liturgical evangelization will not address every facet of how liturgical prayer is integral to the new evangelization.” Instead his hope is that you and I “might encounter in this text a renewal of one’s own imagination regarding the formative and thus transformative potential of liturgical prayer int he life of the church” (p. 5). Fair enough. I still can’t resist wishing there were some more chapters or a sequel to this book so I could consider some of his imagined ideas, and not just my own 😉

With that expectation management in mind, here’s what was in the rest of the book…in Chapters 3-5, O’Malley covers the Liturgical Homily (primarily as the Eucharistic Homily), the “Eucharistic Vocation,” and Rites of Return.

Chapter 3 is at its best as a sustained reflection on the USCCB’s Preaching the Mystery of Faith with more direct connections to history, doctrine, and the place of human experience. It’s an important companion chapter to Preaching the Mystery of Faith, in many ways, as that document does not incorporate the vision of the liturgical movement as fully. However, this chapter, much like Preaching the Mystery of Faith, seems to avoid of the tension between our theology of the Eucharistic homily and the actual spiritual state of people in the pews. In short, many of us struggle with a reality I sum up as, “Mass is not a seeker-service. Except when it is. And then what?” Though this aspect of liturgy in relation to the New Evangelization was outside of O’Malley’s particular parameters, it would be great to hear from more liturgical theologians on how to navigate this challenging area.

For me, the importance of this challenge and tension was most on display in the sample Christmas homily provided at the end of the chapter. It’s a beautiful sermon. And beauty indeed evangelizes. But, I don’t think it evangelizes in the same ways for the various audiences of the New Evangelization. I found the Christmas homily very appropriate for those who have been evangelized and are in various stages of initial and lifelong catechesis and formation (the second setting of the New Evangelization, based on the order of audiences presented in Prop. 7 of the Episcopal Bulletin of the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization) . However, it’s too abstract for seekers–for the pre-evangelized and those who have not yet responded to the initial proclamation, who are certainly part of the New Evangelization. There’s lots of multivalent language and phrases, and little concrete guidance or suggestions for what to do with this hearing, how to respond. I tried to imagine how this sermon might sound to someone who had not yet heard the Gospel, or how it might resonate with a “Christmas-only” Mass attender and bring them back in January. And I struggled with imagining the process of response. My uneasiness is that without abandoning the authentic purpose of the Eucharistic homily in the history and teaching of the Church [for the converted] we do need to somehow make specific applications for seekers during unique opportunities like Christmas. I think exploring this tension would be a good addition to Chapter 3, but unfortunately it was outside the focus of this book.

Chapter 4 is where O’Malley’s third point about the formative power of the liturgy for evangelists is demonstrated most fully. And it’s a fantastic chapter for anyone looking for a handle or entry point to more prayerfully and authentically be swept up in the liturgy and begin to find the Eucharistic prayers especially as a unique moment where heaven and earth mingle and meet.

Chapter 5 is creative and intriguing. And it ends with an interesting description of  an imagined seeker-focused ministry of daily preaching and prayer in a small (100k) rust-belt city in rural northern Indiana [South Bend]. I can’t not like this section 🙂 because it’s practical and stretching beyond formation for the evangelized to some outward movement [aka moving from the second setting of the New Evangelization to the first (those who haven’t heard the Gospel) and third (baptized but unevangelized or distant from the Church) settings as well]. Every parish in the U.S. should consider this imagined ministry and reflect on how the same need can be met in their own community and cultural setting. At the heart of the New Evangelization, and Pope Francis’ use of the term “missionary disciple” is the truth that every person and every parish has a responsibility to proclaim Jesus Christ in all three settings of the New Evangelization–and as O’Malley compellingly explains, creating realistic invitation and opportunity to enter into the liturgical life of the Church is an essential, not optional part of the New Evangelization.

On the whole, I’d recommend this book with the important reminder that O’Malley is leaving much of the imagination to us, and instead providing inspiration for renewal.

The best parts of this books are the many valuable chapters for those seeking to better understand the theological underpinnings of evangelization and liturgy. In fact, I’d say that in terms of getting a good feel for liturgical theology in a short number of pages, in a way that could translate well for communicating among the evangelized in parish life, this is probably one of the best books out there. [The other great way to get a quick feel for liturgical theology would be to read these 200 key points from David Fagerberg. Being greatly indebted to both Fagerberg and O’Malley for my own formation in liturgical theology, I can’t really choose whose writing style is better 😉 ]

When it comes to reading this book for a comprehensive look at the New Evangelization, I wouldn’t give it as strong of a recommendation [though as I stated earlier, it would be a fine starting place theology]. The focus seems almost entirely on the faithful being formed in the life of the Church, and so “Liturgical Catechesis for the New Evangelization” would seem to be an equally accurate title. While this is certainly part of the New Evangelization, I worry that the equally important audiences of those who have not responded to the Gospel or are baptized but distant from the Church might get lost in the mix.

In the end, what I’d love to see is Tom Corcoran and Fr. Michael White in conversation with Tim O’Malley on the topic of liturgy in the New Evangelization. I’d even pay if they promised to talk to each other and engage with each other, rather than politely and respectfully talking past each other with each sticking to their own areas of expertise and comfort. 🙂 Earlier this month (judging from social media), I think that coincidentally Fr. White and I were both visiting the University of Notre Dame (where O’Malley teaches) during the same couple of days. Had I only read this book earlier, maybe I could have thrown up some fliers and gotten to hear this imagined talk 🙂 (just kidding, I’m sure they were all busy).

Note: sections of this essay originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.com

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9 thoughts on “Thoughts on Tim O’Malley’s “Liturgy and the New Evangelization”

  1. An excellent review. Thanks for this. This book is in my “to read” pile and I appreciate your thoughtful overview. I am glad to know that there is some practical wisdom in it, as I have been reading O’Malley’s blog and often find it too academic. I did check out the David Fagerberg link. as well – those bullet points are an entire course in liturgical theology! Again, thanks!

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    • Yeah, every time I re-read those “century” lists from Fagerberg I feel like my mind is blown (again) as to the incredible depth, richness, and divine life Christ offers in the liturgical life of the Church–and I’ve actually read the two books the lists are based on–so I shouldn’t be surprised, but the gift of the liturgy such as it is, there’s always more depth to enter into and appreciate. I struggle however to translate Fagerberg in a way that I can talk to typical-person-who-doesn’t-read-theology-books, such is life for all of us, I suppose 🙂

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  2. Our Parish is grappling with New Evangelization. Over the past year , small groups have studied “Rebuilt” , and are now reading “Forming Intentional Disciples”.

    It always comes down to. … Now what? This book on Liturgy may be the perspective missing. Many of us in the pew may not understand or appreciate what exactly IS happening at Mass – the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. But to a seeker, that concept is rarely mentioned in plain language and is hard to accept. It’s almost like we need interpreters / commentators 🙂 to explain the play by play of the Liturgy. And more importantly, stress the encounter and belief that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist.

    Have you read Scott Hahn’s “The Lamb’s Supper”? If so, how does it compare to this book ?

    Thank you sonics for your work.

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    • Hmm…what a great question, re: Scot Hahn’s “The Lamb’s Supper.” The books are extremely different. “Liturgy and the New Evangelization” isn’t about the Mass specifically in a play-by-play or Biblical parallel sort of way (which is the focus of “The Lamb’s Supper,” specifically through the book of Revelation)–but liturgy and the New Evangelization more broadly, with three main examples of the liturgical homily, vocation/formation in the Eucharistic prayer, and liturgy as “rites of return.” O’Malley is more about stirring and inspiring with Church teaching, whereas Hahn offers more information/content–definitely apples and oranges–both suited for a particular circumstance.

      I would say, that if you really liked “The Lamb’s Supper,” there is an older book, Jean Daniélou’s “The Bible and the Liturgy” that reveals many beautiful patristic interpretations and Biblical typologies within the Church’s liturgical life and sacraments. It’s a more theological, less “down to earth to our modern ears” sounding style…not as fast paced a read as Hahn, but still great for meditating on liturgical rites and symbols.

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      • Perhaps it is time To read the “Liturgy and the New Evangelization” ! It is difficult to know where to begin. So many entry points to consider in energizing the faithful. Just need to find the balance between “too churchy” 🙂 and getting people to fall in love with the Mass.

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  3. The Mass, especially accompanied by a Scriptural accounting of what’s going on, works well at my parish. It’s not unusual to see someone at Mass quietly explaining to a guest what’s happening and why.

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    • Thanks. That might be interesting to offer that. One-on-one. And not just for RCIA candidates! Offering to teach what’s going would give such beautiful context to the Liturgy. Have you ever used technology to complement?

      What can we do for the sheep not in the pews? What can we do to communicate Why be Catholic? Why bother coming to Mass at all? About 1/3 of our registered Parishioners come to Mass. 😦 makes me sad.

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