LITURGY MATTERS: ‘Praise and Worship’ in a Catholic community

Last Friday we marked the opening of Catholic Schools Week with a liturgy in the Cathedral that was a bit different. Indeed, some people said they got a bit of a shock. Many left saying, ‘best ever!’ Bring on more shocks I say!!

We called it a ‘Praise and Worship Liturgy of the Word’. Yes, we were in the Cathedral and yes, Bishop Michael Kennedy was the presider.

As with all good liturgy preparation, we began months ago with a representative group sitting around a table reflecting on previous Catholic Schools Week (CSW) liturgies – a Mass in 2023, a Liturgy of the Word in 2022.

The theme for Catholic Schools Week 2024 is ‘Follow me’. And so, we pondered what type of liturgy might best open the ears, hearts and minds of these young people, firstly to hear Jesus inviting them to follow him, and secondly to know what following Jesus might mean for them in practical terms.

One of my oft-used sayings is, ‘The Holy Spirit is flapping around’ and indeed she was! We were delighted when Amanda Mohr, the Ministry Co-ordinator at St Pius X Adamstown (SPX), said that Gen Bryant was working at their school the very week of the CSW liturgy, and that SPX could move things around so Gen could lead the music for that liturgy.

If you don’t know Gen Bryant, I suggest you check out her website where she describes herself as a ‘composer, performer and music minister’. She is one of Australia’s leading young Catholic musicians.  Gen has deep faith. She is a woman of great grace. She is a powerhouse of passion and energy. She is beautiful and charismatic in an unassuming way. If I had to find one word to gather all that in, I would say she is a woman of integrity. She walks her talk! Gen’s availability enriched our long-awaited first step in a diocesan ‘Praise and Worship’ style liturgy.

One of the constant challenges with school liturgies, be they local or diocesan, is the passivity of the Assembly. There is nothing worse than a church full of people who don’t open their mouths, and whose faces radiate well-behaved boredom. I cringe when I hear the measure of good liturgy being espoused as ‘the kids were well behaved!’.

And so, on Friday, to have more than 300 students and staff on their feet, opening their mouths in prayer and song, and their hearts in attentive presence, exemplified a full, conscious and active participation that we have only dreamed of previously. The Holy Spirit was indeed ‘flapping around’. 

While the majority of the feedback is effusively positive, there are some other comments which need to be heard and considered. One, heard a few times, was that the liturgy was ‘too evangelical’. What do we Catholics mean when we say that? This is something we all need to reflect on, as together, we keep developing and nurturing the liturgical life of this Church of Maitland – Newcastle.

I don’t think ‘too evangelical’ means energetic music or clapping or actions. A common criticism of Catholic liturgy is that it is too sombre, too solemn, too stripped back, too controlled. Indeed, it is not too far a stretch to say many people find it lifeless and have totally disengaged. As we know, most Catholics don’t participate in Sunday liturgy.

Interestingly Catholic liturgy is of its nature ‘praise and worship.’ Check out paragraph 7 in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy

To paraphrase one of Fr Richard Lennan’s common quotes, the Church’s catholicity is marked by diversity. The same is true of the Church’s Liturgy. While our liturgy celebrates our unity, it does so via a rich treasury of rites and prayers meant to enable the wide diversity of the Catholic faithful to express their thanks and praise to God with meaning and integrity.

I believe there is a place for more ‘praise and worship’ style liturgies in our parishes, our schools, and the diocese as a whole. Not always, but sometimes. Not for everyone, but for some. Take a look at the faces in our schools and Churches. We are a people of great cultural diversity. Many of our brothers and sisters who come from other cultures find our Australian liturgy a pale reflection of what they are used to.

Our liturgical diet needs to be diverse. On Pentecost Sunday I went to the 9.30 am Mass in the Cathedral. It was solemn Catholic liturgy at its best.  It was very different to our CSW liturgy. Across the liturgical life of our Church of Maitland – Newcastle the choice of liturgy is not either/or. Catholic is always both/and. We need to make space for legitimate liturgical difference.

The challenge in preparing ‘Praise and Worship’ liturgies is to ensure they are indeed Catholic. By this I mean that the hymns and the prayers and everything else that comprises the liturgy, does articulate and celebrate our Catholic faith.

Let’s return to the comment about the liturgy being ‘too evangelical.’ Evangelical Christianity is a different expression of Christian Faith to our Catholic expression. We have much in common with our sisters and brothers who belong to evangelical Christian churches. Indeed, there is much we could learn from them. What marks our difference is our theology. You hear this difference in many of the hymns sung in evangelical churches. When I hear them, I know that they are not articulating our Catholic faith.     

In Catholic ‘praise and worship’ we use Catholic music not Christian music. That is an important part of what Gen Bryant brought to our CSW ‘Praise and Worship Liturgy of the Word’. Hymns that sang our Catholic faith. Hymns that prepared the Assembly to pray the prayers. Hymns that opened their ears and their hearts to hear the Word of God call them precious and honoured and loved. Hymns that settled their hearts and called their attention to listen to Bishop Michael Kennedy’s homily. Hymns that invited people to commit to following Jesus. Hymns that were primarily about us rather than me.

Gen Bryant is one of many Catholic composers writing wonderful music for liturgical use. Not all hymns, particularly Christian hymns, are appropriate for the liturgy. Some are more appropriate for personal prayer and retreat or reflection settings. There is little to no need for us to be using Christian music in our Catholic liturgy. 

Three things marked our ‘Praise and Worship Liturgy of the Word’ as Catholic. Firstly, the centrepiece was the Word of God proclaimed. Secondly, the structure was true to the very particular structure of Catholic liturgy. The ‘praise and worship’ became the ‘Introductory Rites’. ‘Praise and worship’ also in part shaped our response to the Word. Thirdly, as already mentioned the hymns and the prayers articulated our Catholic faith. You might like to look at the People’s Booklet which will give you an idea of how the liturgy unfolded. It may function as a resource for you and your community, should you want to explore this style of Catholic worship. If you would like some assistance, please contact me.

It would be a rare person who left Friday’s liturgy without some of the following words and thoughts echoing in their minds and hearts:

            Dignity: each one of us has dignity, given by God.
                        Raise it up! Come alive!
                                    Your love is all I need!
                                                We will sing! We will shout! We will go so send us out!

If the outcome of Catholic Schools Week 2024 is that our school communities know more deeply that intrinsic to following Jesus is respect for the God-given dignity of self and others, then Catholic Schools Week will have made a significant contribution to bringing about the Kingdom of God.

For our Catholic Schools Week liturgy 2024, thanks goes to:

Amanda Mohr and the St Pius X High School Adamstown staff;
Anne Millard and the Sacred Heart Cathedral Staff who were ‘all hands on deck’;
ASPIRE – particularly Luke Baker and students for music, Lauren Harvey, and students for the movement, and all the amazing parents who get students to rehearsals and liturgy;
Erin McCort and the Catholic Schools Office Religious Education and Spirituality Team   

The representative group that first gathered to prepare the CSW ‘Praise and Worship Liturgy of the Word’ will gather again to review it. Our work is not yet done!

The Diocesan Liturgy Council will continue to reflect on ‘Catholic Praise and Worship’ as we develop ‘Sacred Heart Beat’, a new initiative focusing on liturgical music for formation and celebration. We have twenty-one people participating in our first ‘Sing to the Lord’ cantor training and formation which will get underway in July and August 2024.

Watch this space! The Holy Spirit is flapping around!   

Diocesan Liturgy Council Update

To keep abreast of the work of the Diocesan Liturgy Council click on the link and then the ‘Council News’ drop down menu where you will find the latest meeting Report.


Image: © Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. All rights reserved.

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Louise Gannon rsj

Louise Gannon rsj is the Diocesan Manager of Worship and Prayer.