The tyranny of the template

by Frances Novillo
Posted at 10:29am on 23rd June 2017

Templates are effective in liturgy preparation since they outline the shape and content which renders an act of worship recognisably Catholic.  Following a template ensures nothing vital is overlooked.

However, since templates simplify and summarise, they may omit valid options available to liturgy planners, which can lead to unnecessarily repetitive and dull worship.  For example, there are different formats available for the Penitential Act but some parishes only ever use one or two, and a template which insists on a certain format may misinform planners on those occasions (e.g. Candlemas and Ash Wednesday) when the Penitential Act is omitted.  Likewise, the Gospel Acclamation is included in every Mass, but is not always ‘Alleluia’.  Templates unfortunately homogenise the diverse elements of liturgy.  While some elements of the Mass are unvarying (for example, the Holy), others may be chosen from a selection provided (e.g. the Eucharistic Prayer and Memorial Acclamation).  Some elements, such as the Entrance and Communion Antiphons, may be omitted under certain circumstances.  Some content is given in the Sacramentary or Lectionary, while other material may be freely composed, for example, the invocations in the 3rd form of the Penitential Act, the Universal Prayer, and the Homily.  Some templates attempt to indicate the nuances of liturgical form, for example, by capitalising essential unvarying elements, tabulating options, italicising that which may be omitted, but frequently templates appear to suggest that all aspects of the Mass are equally fixed and equally significant in every celebration. 

Furthermore, templates produced locally may incorporate practices particular to one parish alongside universal norms, and since most Catholics learn liturgy through experience rather than academic study, the impression is given that the local variations are essential aspects of the Mass. Including local variations in a template may helpfully reflect the capabilities of the parish’s priest and people.  However, if templates formed under one parish priest, accommodating the availability and skills of one set of liturgical ministers persist unrevised while ministers change, this can do an injustice to the Mass.  For example, readers who have always read the Psalm and Gospel Acclamation may not welcome a capable cantor available to sing these parts of the Mass even though singing the Psalm and Gospel Acclamation is good liturgical practice. 

The template for worship may not be written down, but established by doing it repeatedly.  While our church is being rebuilt, I have witnessed ministers trying to transfer their modus operandi unaltered from a Catholic church to a building not designed for Catholic worship, thus obstructing and interrupting the flow of liturgy by attempting to ‘do things as we’ve always done’.  The template has become tyrannical.  Using service sheets from past occasions as templates for future similar celebrations, can be very unhelpful if auto-correction leads to odd typos, not least if a Replace All function replaces a name like Chris which occurs in other contexts throughout the Mass. 

Where templates conceal valid liturgical flexibility and make no distinction between universal norms and local adaptations, their usefulness in liturgy planning is limited.  However, in order not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, it is important to note that templates are important for liturgy planning because they simplify worship sufficiently to enable even those people who never read liturgical documents to contribute to liturgy planning.  Templates demystify liturgy, enabling even rarely practising Catholics to make suggestions suitable for family funerals and weddings (for example, see www.liturgyoffice.org.uk/Resources/Marriage/Preparation/index.shtml), and templates help parish secretaries who may not be Catholic to support such families and prepare service sheets.  In well-resourced parishes, taking the time to agree a template to standardise liturgical practice can unite participants and worship leaders who are knowledgeable about liturgy but interpret it differently.  For example, in parishes run by religious orders where many different priests celebrate Mass, agreeing one template for worship establishes a familiar routine within which lay ministers and the assembly feel comfortable to pray day by day and week by week without having to remember how each priest’s presiding style varies. 

Repetition is a defining feature of Catholic worship.  Service formats and contents are given, provided, inherited, not innovated.  The familiar shape and content of the service forms a template to guide good liturgy preparation, providing the template doesn’t become tyrannical!  To avoid this, review liturgical practices and any written templates to ensure these clearly distinguish between aspects celebrated in common with the universal Church and additional local variations or omissions.  When time permits, explore the documents which explain why Catholics do what we do in worship, including the governing document of post-conciliar worship, Sacrosanctum Concilium.  Liturgical musicians (not only composers) will find helpful the Roman Missal: Guide for Composers (romanmissal.org.uk/Home/Music/Composing-Music).  The General Instruction of the Roman Missal and Celebrating the Mass are of interest to both ministers and members of the assembly, and Paul Turner’s commentary, Let Us Pray, outlines how best to put these rubrics into practice. 

Reproduced from Issue 360, Volume 43, Number 1 of Music and Liturgy, June 2017, by kind permission of the Society of Saint Gregory https://www.ssg.org.uk/

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