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Want an Amazing Parish? Begin with the Liturgy.


Last week approximately 500 Catholic leaders and their pastors from around the country gathered in Denver, Colorado for the first Amazing Parish conference to “brainstorm and swap ideas about improving parish life.” As reported by the Catholic News Agency:

“The newly-founded Amazing Parish movement seeks to provide resources to pastors and parish leaders so they can create a thriving parish life. The conference…featured Catholic speakers and workshops on topics such as parish leadership teams, formation programs and evangelization.”

There is an entire industry which has developed in recent years trying to solve the problem of steadily declining attendance and participation in Catholic parishes across the U.S. I have no reason to question the goodwill and sincerity of the people involved with conferences such as this one. From their website:

“The Amazing Parish movement is the work of a group of committed Catholics from around the United States who love the Church and don’t want attention or acknowledgment; they simply want to help parishes be amazing by connecting them to great resources.”

Noble and worthwhile indeed.

The resources at Amazing Parish are broken out into 7 categories, what they call the Seven Traits of an Amazing Parish. They are:

A Reliance on Prayer
A Real Leadership Team
A Clear Vision
The Sunday Experience
Compelling Formation
Small Group Discipleship
Missionary Zeal

These seven traits, and their subcategories, total approximately 45 distinct pages of information on the site. Here is the problem: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass gets almost completely ignored. The supreme prayer of the Church, and the very reason for a parishes existence, is relegated to one paragraph. This is it…in it’s entirety:

“The purpose of this section – which is nothing more than the paragraph that you are reading – is simply to reiterate that the heart of the Sunday Experience is the Mass, and the heart of the Mass is the Liturgy. While everything on this site is intended to help amazing parishes enhance the Sunday Experience so that more people will come to know Christ and His Church, it is critical that the Liturgy be honored, respected and preserved. The Real Presence of Christ surpasses anything that people could organize or produce. That’s all.

We thought this was important enough for its own section. God bless.”

In his memoirs Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger famously wrote, “I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is, to a large extent, due to the disintegration of the liturgy.” It would seem that a movement looking to create amazing parishes might be more focused on the sacraments, most notably the Sacrament of the Altar.

At a time when many well intentioned people in the Church are looking to rebuild parishes and to seek the lost, implementing a business consultant approach has become the new norm. Instead of looking at what our Catholic parishes have lost over the decades, such as a sense of the sacred, a continuity with tradition and an emphasis on the sacraments, too many are simply looking for some new program to implement. Unfortunately the restoration of beauty to the liturgy is typically absent from most programs.

In the 1992 presidential election the Clinton-Gore campaign team, led by strategist James Carville, coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.” This mantra of sorts, purely for internal consumption, was meant to remind the team that ultimately no other campaign issue mattered. They would win, or lose, based on the performance of the economy.

Not to be profane, but every pastor and parish council needs to recognize that the “disintegration of the liturgy” is foundational to the loss of the Church’s relevance to the faithful, and to boldly declare, “It’s the Liturgy, stupid.” It is about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and restoring the sacred.

Archbishop Alexander Sample of the Diocese of Portland, Oregon clearly understands the foundational role that the liturgy plays in rebuilding our Catholic faith:

“I am solidly convinced that an authentic and faithful renewal and reform of the sacred liturgy is not only part of the New Evangelization—it is essential to its fruitfulness. The liturgy has the power to form and transform the Catholic faithful. We must live by the axiom lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of praying is the law of believing). What we celebrate in the Mass expresses the essential content of the faith, and it also reinforces our faith when celebrated well and with fidelity. The liturgy both teaches us and expresses what we believe. If we do not get the sacred liturgy right, I fear that we will just be spinning our wheels rather than getting the New Evangelization going in the right direction. If we are transformed by the sacred liturgy, then we, as believers, can help transform the culture.”

There is one last item of concern about the Amazing Parish site and last week’s conference. Both incorporated the “Weekend Experience” strategy of Father Michael White and Associate to the Pastor Tom Corcoran of the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD. They are better known as the authors of the book “Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost and Making Church Matter”. This book, in a relatively short time, has become the blueprint in parish after parish seeking to engage the faithful and fill the pews.

Father Michael White decided to rebuild largely by studying Evangelical mega churches and then making changes to the parish, based on those observations, including within the liturgy. The below video explains how they are “All About the Weekend Experience” at Father White’s parish. It is important to remember that this is the approach more and more conferences and dioceses are incorporating, hailing it as the solution to building amazing parishes.

I will end with this brief exercise. Watch the below video and count the number of times you hear the words “Mass”, “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass”, “Eucharist” or “Jesus Christ.” In contrast, count the number of times you hear the words “weekend experience”, “service”, “professional looking band”, “cafe” and “donut.”

As Archbishop Sample said, “If we do not get the sacred liturgy right…we will just be spinning our wheels rather than getting the New Evangelization going in the right direction.”


38 thoughts on “Want an Amazing Parish? Begin with the Liturgy.”

  1. Protestants go to their churches to get stuff: the Gospel, preaching, moral edification, encouragement, fellowship, and all the rest. Catholics used to understand that all this getting is secondary and contingent to giving — participating in the Holy Sacrifice. These poor people are a perfect example of how thoroughly Americanized the Church has become: protestantized, consumerist, self-referential, therapeutic, bourgeois, sentimental. There is nothing here to worship because the “weekend experience” has been evacuated of all mystery, holiness, and awe.

    • So you were around in the 1950’s and know that the Faith was reduced to “technique”?
      And apparently this dead and reductionist technique (did this include a “rigorist” liturgy as well?) somehow managed to result in full seminaries, convents, Catholic schools, greater Mass attendance, more baptisms and conversions, etc.?

      • It’s because our parishes were our homes in the 1950s (at least the early 60s that I remember) not rigorist rote Catholicism. We were a family, we were always at the parish. The doors were always open. Festivals, feastdays and celebrations. We picked different weekends for our First Communion parties so we could all attend, weddings AND receptions were at the parish, even our funeral masses and the cemetery were at the parish. This is what we lost. No amount of seminars will bring that back until we restore the beauty of our traditions, first being the liturgy.

      • Yes, I was around in the 50s. And let me tell you, the Faith was being lived largely on autopilot, a fact proven by the swiftness with which it collapsed as soon as the “spirit of Vatican II” blew through. Perhaps you believe the parochial liturgical norm was solemn Mass and chant on Sundays, with Prime and Vespers for the extra devout? Only in your dreams. The norm in American parishes 60 years ago was silent low Mass with devotional hymns and near-unintelligible Latin. A dialogue Mass maybe, for the liturgical movement exponents (show-offs!). Only the most prosperous, well-staffed parishes could manage any sort of sung Mass, but these were not popular as they were seen to be time-consuming, expensive, and unnecessary for the vast majority of the faithful who were showing up because it was required under pain of sin, because they wanted moral formation for their children, and because social pressure made sleeping in on Sunday mornings more trouble than it was worth. A great many Catholics were faithful to the externals. I’m not saying that’s nothing. But very few had progressed beyond the rule-book stage. Rotten on the inside, they toppled over as soon as the post-Conciliar liberals gave a push.

        • Believe me, I have no opposition to improving parish liturgical life beyond a low traditional Latin Mass (though I’d greatly prefer it to a regular Novus Ordo).
          All the collapse did was prove the importance of the liturgy and what surrounded it to the life of the Church. Once those were removed and the new liturgy along with felt banners and the stripping of the altars was substituted it’s no surprise the Faith collapsed after Vatican II. It would have collapsed in pretty much any century if you remove the visible manifestations of an incarnational faith.

          • This wasn’t a time when one could hop onto the internet and read the Vatican II documents. We were lied to because the felt banners and stripping of churches was no where in them. It took Mother Angelica and her nuns reading through them in 1997 and the internet that got the truth out. By that time, most of us were gone.

        • YOUR parish may have lived on Autopilot, but ours sure didn’t.
          What devastated us was the ruling that Catholic schools could no longer get public funding.
          Please don’t speak for all Catholics in the 50s. They were taught to obey and were lied to.

        • Romulus, I DO remember seeing you with nearly the same post on another blog.
          Low Masses are silent masses. Probably a good reason why you couldn’t understand the Latin. I was in a Polish parish and we had sung masses on Sundays. Where there were nuns, there were sung masses. Just because your parish was the way you describe, doesn’t mean that the rest of us were.
          Please don’t push the same tired meme across blogs. It’s tiresome.

          • We had nuns in my parish too, but their mass was conventual, and we never saw them on Sundays. The parish had an abundance of priests, but they were Jesuits and consequently not interested in liturgy. nevertheless, it was the same at nearby diocesan parishes.

            BTW, the Latin never bothered me, and I understand it just fine if it’s pronounced well. lots of American priests before the council barked and mumbled without any care at all for the text. Watch a video of JFK’s funeral mass some time.

            if yo had sung mass on Sundays back then, you were in a fortunate minority. The mad collapse of the post conciliar years would never have happened if Catholics had known and loved the liturgy. I stand by my contention that most were there just to get it over with.

          • It must be wonderful to see into the heart, soul, and motivations of fellow parishioners and discern that most of them attended Mass just to “get it over with.”

            The liturgy collapsed because it was handed over to a committee headed by Archbishop Bugnini which had Carte Blanche to add, drop, and alter prayers and rubrics as they saw fit as long as the changes were approved by Pope Paul VI.

            Research by people such as Lauren Pristas and an interview with a friend of Pope Paul VI, Jean Guitton, reveal that there was a desire on the part of the committee and Pope Paul VI to adapt the liturgy to “modern man” and bring the liturgy as close as possible to a Calvinistic service in order to foster unity with Protestants.

            The changes to the liturgy, and all that normally surrounded it, along with the de facto suppression of the traditional Latin Mass, were thrust on lay Catholics who did not ask for it and were essentially powerless to stop it as they are laypeople.

            All they could do primarily was appeal to the authorities and the Pope for a restoration of what they had lost, but other than that there was not a lot they could do as they simply did not have the authority or power (and a number simply voted with their feet). Naturally those who did protest were branded as disobedient “troublemakers” stuck in the past.

            This is not an indication that Catholics did not know and love the liturgy but rather that a revolution that they did not want or ask for was thrust on them from above. The collapse was inevitable once the liturgy was altered in the manner it was and would have occurred at any other time if it was done with the authority of th Pope and other Churchmen.

          • No, we weren’t a fortunate minority. We had family all over the country. It wasn’t any different for them. Why do I know? Because there were MANY discussions with my Great Uncle, the Priest and my Uncle, the Bishop bragging about parishes during the holidays.

            I’m sorry you had a sucky parish, but it wasn’t the norm. Maybe it was because of the Jesuits.

      • Hello Brennan,

        Let’s bear in mind that the 50’s were the Age of the St. Louis Jesuits, and the dominant arrival of banal church architecture. And, not least, the formation of many of the priests and bishops who implemented the whirlwind of changes in the 1960’s with reckless abandon.

        That the the 50’s did not evidence the same kind of open modernist assault does not mean that things were anything close to hunky-dory. Indeed, so much of it was already lurking under the surface.

        But I will agree that, to the extent that a criticism is being made of things like the Baltimore Catechism as”rote,” I greatly disagree. The BC remains unmatched for its catechetical ability. If there was a problem in the decades before the Council, it was that too often spiritual formation did not continue on from there. It’s a starting point, not an ending point.

        • Yes, I agree that there was a group of “progressive” Bishops that were better organized and took as much advantage as they could of the convening of Vatican II. “The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber” details this. And yes, modernism had gone underground since the time of St. Pius X, but it certainly hadn’t gone away.

          • Well, from what I understand that’s one reason Pope Pius XII decided it wasn’t prudent to convene an Ecumenical Council. He knew the potential damage that could happen if he gave them an opportunity to try to enshrine their views in a Council’s documents. Turns out he was right.

    • But wait! Why did the early Christians go to Mass? Didn’t they get fellowship, encouragement, preaching, edification and all the rest? Did n’t they, in such a hostile culture, not only need to receive the graces from the Sacraments but also be united in the Body of Christ with their fellow believers.

      The modern world, like the Roman world, is a cold place. We NEED each other. So much of what we see/ hear/ experience is against the Faith. We were made for connection with each other. And how do we evangelize those outside the Church without making those connections? And how will those outside the Church say “See how those Christians love one another?” unless they see US in a relationship in the Church?

      Its not either/ or. We need REVERENT liturgy. But, oh, how we crave to be a part of the “family.” How we want to know we are precious to others, are seen by others, are loved by others. We need connection to our parish family, and the larger Church.

  2. This conference is, in small and relying upon the above author’s account, exactly what happened leading up to Vatican II. In the book The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber, the author details how the opinions of the bishops, abbots, and etc. were collected, collated, and turned into position papers for discussion. All kinds of things were suggested. Change this or that. Update & pastoralize. In the end all this work was tossed out, because a particularly well-prepared clique didn’t like the work that had been done and approved by Pope St. John XXIII.

    I repeat: They didn’t like it.

    But then it occurs to me: What on earth does the opinion of even a cardinal or, dare I say it, the pope matter when it comes to tradition? Their job is to serve and defend tradition, not muck around with it. Jesus Christ trained His Apostles in the practice of the Christian religion. He knows better than anybody what needs to be done. This process of surveying opinion, which I realize something similar (I can not confirm if it was the same) was done for Vatican I, has introduced tastes, likes and dislikes, into what should be an objective analysis.

    This same surveying-of-tastes methodology was introduced into the Jesuit order, leading to similar results. I am sure something similar happened in many congregations that have self-destructed. If you can stomach it, here is an account, written by the “victors” of course:

    Now, let me offer doubters a little experiment. The next time you enter into a conversation with a non-blogging, happy-to-now-be-ministering member of the universal priesthood, and some issue of controversy comes up, listen to what the first words out of their mouth will be as they mount their defense: “I like…” What is necessary in religion has become that you like it.

    Previous to this innovation, the definition of religion, true religion, by which I means the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic faith, is what comes from God and is preserved and propagated by His Holy Church. He tells us how to serve Him. We can’t save ourselves, so it behooves us to listen closely to His teaching as preserved in scripture and handed on by tradition.

    “Oh,” you say, “but I don’t like the way things were done traditionally. I like the new way.”

    Ahem. Yes, you do like (or dislike) it, but that has nothing to do with the practice of Christian Catholicism. All you have done is mistaken your accidental tastes and feelings for the truth. There is no objective basis for this. Taste are not objective. They are subjective and liable to disorder.

    Ah, but disabusing your aunt or the nice lady with the smiling face of her mistaken notions when you hear her saying that she really likes the way things are being done now is not the work for the faint of heart.

    The Roman Catholic faith is properly, objectively, practiced in the way everyone knows it has always been practice. That is what capital “T” tradition is. Many may not have seen it in a long time or even ever, but all know that changes were introduced. These changes amount to, and here I reason from facts and judgement, a revolution of the catered post-war tastes of the middle-class patrons of the Church.

    Hmm, my bishop has an upcoming speech on ecumenism he wants to give, and I have been invited. How do you think this analysis of mine would go over if I present it during the discussion period? Do you think it will be well received?

    Do you think the gathered luminaries will like it?

    • I agree with what you have said and here in our own parish, we have the same divisions but what makes it even worse is that the youth in our parish are turning towards a more traditional as in the Latin Masses and it is the baby boomers and older generation that are pulling the brakes on this, stating that they have been in the liturgical ministry longer than the youth and anyone else who wants to return to tradition.

      But what you have said about it is not what we like but what God wants of us, is the crux of the whole mass. How do we get the message across to the lay people that God did not ask us to like the mass or the faith, but whether we want to repent and be saved, even if we do not like certain parts of the mass.

      • There is no easy fix. The only thing to do is turn to what has always been used to propagate the Faith, namely to make a reasoned presentation of the facts that leads to an act of faith.

        How might this be done?

        Recognizing that decisions about what is to be done in liturgy are being made on the basis of taste, likes and dislikes, is a good first step. Finding out what is actually issued as norms for the practice of liturgy is probably helpful. Though, I must admit, reading the GIRM makes my blood pressure rise. The new order of the mass has several options available for the celebrant to select. The door is wide open to reading the GIRM on the basis of preference.

        Hmm, this is a fairly new insight for me, so I am not too sure what more to say other than these suggestions. What does give me hope is the the knowledge of what is going on, tastes trumping objective reason, will at least prepare me not to be surprised when I encounter muddle headed tastes and opinion masquerading as reasoned judgement.

        It is important to note that, if my observation be true or accurate, what I am talking about is happening at the very highest levels of the exercise of authority in the Church.


  3. Brian, as one of the organizers of the Amazing Parish conference, all I can say is “Amen!” You are so right that the Liturgy, the Eucharist, the Sacrament of the Mass is the source and summit of our faith. To minimize that would be tragic. It might be helpful to know that at the conference in Denver, we started each day with Mass (multiple bishops presiding with dozens of priests), and finished the first day with Adoration and Confession. I do understand how one might erroneously come to the conclusion that the Mass/Liturgy/Eucharist are secondary in our movement, but we have been very clear in our conference and in the language that you cited from the site, that this is not our intention or position. Please know that, and let others know. We’ll take another look at the site and see if we can’t reiterate this point in other areas. Thanks for your interest, and God bless you.

  4. AMAZING! Seeker friendly parishes. That is why we left the protest-ant world. You can have it all in the Catholic world but you need to have a personal relationship with Jesus, that is true evangelization… not more mega churches – protestant or Catholic. People who have a personal relationship with Jesus can automatically reach out without the gimmicks. Sadly, we found hardly any of the natural communication when we became Catholic- not even good homilies. WE came to the church for the Eucharist. WE usually get spiritually taught, fellowship- fed and discipled at protestant settings, still. The Mass is not made for discipleship, although the homilies could lead into good, friendly teaching times. The outside the mass community is where all of these wonderful welcoming things should be going on and don’t. I guess seeker friendly Catholic masses is something I never fathomed would ever happen.

  5. “People who have a personal relationship with Jesus can automatically reach out without the gimmicks.” Yes. My parish doesn’t have programs or a mission statement, or a cafe. but we do have a critical mass of folks who are happy to offer personal witness at the drop of a hat, 24/7.

  6. I think this blogpost–while well intentioned–totally misses the point. The laity behind the “Rebuilt” model has already accepted the doctrine of the centrality of the mass. It is a given. As it is a given, it is not discussed at length, but assumed in the other seven parts of their novel approach.

    A Reliance on Prayer – TO JESUS THROUGH THE MASS
    The Sunday Experience – WHICH IS, BY DEFINITION, THE LITURGY
    Compelling Formation – THROUGH THE LITURGY

    Furthermore, proper liturgy is the sole responsibility of the priest and, in lesser part, the music director. There is no hook for a layperson to hang his talents upon, for the greater good of evangelization, if you keep pushing this task on an already overworked parish priest.

    • Thank you for reading the post and for your comment Nick.

      I would respectfully disagree with you. As Catholics look to reinvent the Holy Mass by turning away from the liturgical traditions of the Roman Rite and seeking direction from evangelical mega churches, I would posit that there is a great deal of misunderstanding of the Mass. I will discuss this further in my next blog post.

      • In all fairness, they are not discussing turning away from liturgical traditions; they are discussing finding innovative ways to introduce timeless liturgical traditions to a modern culture.

        • I would really like for you to explain exactly what you mean by this statement with concrete examples. How does one find “innovative ways to introduce timeless liturgical traditions?”

        • If you only knew spiritually lame this video is for educated Catholics who connect to the Divine Properties in the Eucharist…At 2:45, the individual explains what he is looking for in his ‘weekend experience’ – a well-lit stage with professional music, like he experiences at the theater.

          Men are creatures who are perfectly capable of making their way to a chair at a sporting event or crowded train. The idea they are standing at the door of our Churches, frozen in fear and clinging to the hands of their children because they don’t know rules about sitting down, is goofy.

          The people who come to our Churches are not OUR GUESTS. You’ll excuse those of us who are not going to sit quietly by as the parish cafe is made ‘the cornerstone of the weekend experience’.

          There’s going to be a lot of commotion.

  7. Thank you for taking the time to read the post and comment Patrick. As I said in the piece, I see that this movement has all good intentions and the site itself links to some excellent resources, of note I saw that Bishop Sample’s pastoral letter in Marquette regarding sacred music is linked.

    In someway, though, that’s the point. You may link to Bishop Sample, but it was the latest fad/mega churching team of Fr. White and Mr. Corcoran who were invited as the “Weekend Experience” experts. I wonder if you have watched either the video in this post or their live Mass feed from Timonium? The loss of Catholic identity is stunning.

    You mention adoration. To note, it wasn’t sacred music that was offered (like Bishop Sample addresses in that previously referenced pastoral letter), but Matt Maher. It would seem that a rather evangelical/Life Teen approach is endorsed by the conference.

    The foundational argument of my post is that far too many in the Church today look to “finding your strengths”…”find your charism”…”rebuild your Parrish”… But never ask why Catholics walk away from the Mass and the Eucharist. That no one looks to the restoration of the sacred and a more traditional liturgical life (in the Mass and outside of it) would seem to suggest that folks are ignoring THE lasting lesson of Pope Benedict’s papacy. If we think a reverent, sacred, liturgy is only a matter of preference, then we are spinning wheels.

    I will be discussing this further on future posts. I prayerfully hope that movements such as Amazing Parish look beyond the fad of Rebuilt and draw upon a millennium of Catholic heritage to help form our strategies.

    Finally, thank you for revisiting your site for an opportunity to refocus a greater degree of attention on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the highest prayer Holy Mother Church has, and the very re-presentation of Calvary.

    I would ask you to take a look at my next post on this topic…which should be posted early next week.


    Brian Williams

    • Yes! Thank you. If you check out an article written by Leila Marie Lawler, she gives a wonderful (and brief) explanation of why LifeTeen will never be okay for Catholics. I have seen for myself the shallow, convenient faith cultivated within these “Parish Renewal” programs, where the Mass and Adoration are tacked on at the beginning and end and are anything but the focus. The parishioners are very active, going to this traveling devotion and that Bible Study and this prayer group and that men’s club and this ladies club and that teen service project (that you can pay hundreds of dollars for your teen to attend in another state). But the modernist ideas persist. It’s all very emotional, and they come to believe that the Holy Spirit is moving them to whatever rationalizations they have made. I actually know one man who was convinced that the Holy Spirit was telling him that he was meant to be with his adulterous partner, instead of his wife. And he would have to know, because after all, he was a CRHP leader. I see much danger in putting laity in charge of these programs, as many in paid positions are trying to sell their own beliefs (women as priests, Communion for the divorced) and under-catechized individuals are leading Bible studies that are heretical. An interesting side-effect of all of these programs is the little cliques that they create within a parish.

  8. “a particularly well-prepared clique didn’t like the work that had been done and approved by [the] Pope”

    Reminds of this Humanae Vitae story: “In Baltimore in early August, 1968, a few days after the encyclical’s issuance, I received an invitation by telephone from a recently ordained assistant pastor to attend a gathering of some Baltimore priests at the rectory of St. William of York parish in southwest Baltimore to discuss the encyclical.”


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