Like it or not, educational theory has entered the realm of soft sciences and journal-driven research. Teachers are expected to know scientific “best practices” and follow them in their classrooms. Somehow experts have discovered that two plus two is best communicated at 71.5 degrees and 38% humidity, with 3200K soft-white lighting, with Mozart not Bach, by a teacher who promotes inclusivity, cultural sensitivity, and individual autonomy for each learning style.
Our liturgy is a form of education, and Catholics too have experts who suggest certain worship aids, lighting schemes, boutique liturgies, color palettes, and gimmicks to “shock and awe” the faithful, hopefully spurring them on to become “dynamic” Catholics and buy the next book. Even if these folks don’t claim their materials and approach are the “best practice,” they usually are not advocating for the Roman Rite done well and done obediently. At best, the Roman Rite is seen as the springboard, the point of departure.
I would like to propose that the Roman Rite is itself the accumulation of two thousand years of best practices. The lectionary, the liturgical calendar, and the rite of Mass itself all attempt to put Christian teaching into a three-year (or one-year) curriculum, one which is suitable for the young and the old, the wise and the foolish. According to current educational models, this is a preposterous and ridiculous goal, akin to a one-room schoolhouse for pre-K through doctorate. It’s easy to criticize, but the reality is that it works.
It could work better.
Long ago, John Dewey introduced the idea of pragmatism within education. Dewey has long been on the naughty list for conservative Catholic educators, because they associate him with Venn Diagrams, Powerpoint, the disappearance of Dante and Shakespeare from reading lists, and other evils. But truth can come from the most unlikely sources. Dewey’s basic idea is that a student needs to demonstrate comprehension by doing something. This shouldn’t be novel to us. Saint James says, “if you say you have faith, show me your works” (2:18). Liturgy needs a response, whether that is internal understanding or something outward like singing along or going out and feeding the hungry. Faith makes this possible.
Faith at its most simple level means we believe God exists and is interested in us. Specifically, we believe that eternal God is eager to show mercy and kindness toward us, despite the hot mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Faith permeates the Mass, such that an explanation would quickly seem pedantic. Furthermore, our human wounds are private and we don’t want to bare them to others. So this sort of understanding and healing is uncomfortable, but it’s precisely what is needed. People everywhere are crying out for the mercy and redemption which is visible at the altar, and they can’t see it.
I’m not suggesting a play-by-play narration, and I offer no twelve-step road to success. What I am suggesting, however, is quite simple: do the Roman Rite obediently and without gimmicks. Attempt to connect the pieces of the Mass together in a way that brings about literacy and understanding, first for yourself and then for others. Plan for understanding, for success, for literacy, and even for ongoing personal renewal.
This seems pedantic, I know. But the problem is that so often we don’t make room for understanding, let alone a warm-blooded, sentient response, in our liturgy. In fact, we often steamroll over it. So often there is a priest who doesn’t expect anyone to be listening, and the faithful who don’t expect to hear anything worthwhile and therefore don’t listen. We don’t expect the Gospel to be good news, and we don’t think that God could have anything relevant to say about our situation. We would rather wallow in the status quo, so we can complain about it. As it turns out, help is hiding in plain sight.
As we approach Epiphany once again this year, let’s knock on the doors of wisdom and seek out understanding. The pieces of the puzzle are laid out, and with God’s help, it’s our task to put them together.