I have no doubt that the Sacred Liturgy is dear to the heart, and central in the expression of faith and the ministry of each one present, priests and seminarians. For me this has been so from as young as I can remember: the seeds of this awareness germinating in my consciousness well before I became a Catholic at the age of 26 and forming a strong impetus attracting me to full communion with the Church.

As I look back, my own life has been, under God’s grace, itself a story of personal evangelisation through the liturgy — through the impressions made on my consciousness by the liturgy in its various elements of rite in words and music, in architecture and the art that Christian worship has generated and embraced across the centuries.

So I ask your indulgence if a certain amount of personal reminiscence accompanies my subject.

I begin by attempting a working definition of what I understand to be the meaning of the word ‘evangelisation.’ I take it to be ‘the touching of hearts and minds by the gospel and person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in such a way as to initiate a process of faith and conversion, of interior transformation, through incorporation into the sacramental mystery of the Church, and in that body embarking upon the journey to its fulfilment in eternal life, in the Kingdom of the Father.’

Anglican Patrimony

I grew up and was educated in this city [Melbourne], and my faith was formed here in what I have always looked back upon as the best of what is now being described as the Anglican patrimony. It is that strand of Anglicanism which has always looked to its Catholic and pre-Reformation heritage. In recent times it is that expression of Anglicanism among clergy and laity who have appealed to the Holy Father for a place in the full communion of the Church, an appeal answered in the provision of the Ordinariates at present in formation.

Central to that Anglican patrimony, as I was formed by it, was a liturgy strongly scriptural in its expression — at its heart being the psalms, readings and canticles of the daily offices, an emphasis on Eucharistic worship and the sacraments, and a fine tradition of hymnody and sacred music. As a choir boy from the age of nine, and constantly as an older server, we were reminded that what we were doing in the liturgy was not for ourselves or the people’s enjoyment or benefit, but above all else was an offering of worship and praise to the one true God. Only the best and the most beautiful we could offer was good enough. In practice, for us as youngsters church on Sundays – and often two services – was as important and even as enjoyable as the other good things experienced in family, school and sport.

After matriculation I had a great experience few young Australians in 1957 were able to enjoy: a trip overseas, through Istanbul, Athens, Rome and then to London. The gap year before university went on to become seven years including five of theological study in England leading to Anglican ordination.

These studies took place against the background of the Second Vatican Council. Many of us were deeply immersed in following its progress, and the debates and the documents were avidly discussed by students and tutors. I have always held that finally it was the Council that made me a Catholic, not the least influence being Sacrosanctum Concilium. I was received into the Church just one month before the Council closed.

But for all the beneficial influences of that derivative and imitative Anglo-Catholic environment, it was the very question of the liturgy and its origins that raised the pivotal points around which unsettling doctrinal issues emerged.

Catholics at Mass

What eventually tipped the balance was a series of experiences during those years of the Council. The first was being frequently drawn on Saturday mornings, my only free opportunity, to the capitular Mass, as it was at that time, in Westminster Cathedral in London.

Observing ordinary Catholics at Mass, crowds of them coming and going freely on a weekday, kneeling in silence as this absorbing and mysterious focus of their worship unfolded before them – all this made a strong impression on me. Who were these people and where did they come from? They were not obliged to be in church on a Saturday morning. What drew them? What was happening that seemed to have such a power to engage them? In terms of their external activity they seemed to be doing no more than kneeling and looking. Yet they must have thought themselves to be part of something, participating in something, seemingly not of their making but focussed upon something beyond them. I had not experienced anything quite like this before.

Here I began to see that the Church’s liturgy is something received, as a tradition, that has at its heart a certain objectivity, and that it attracts because its focus is beyond the present, indeed a participation in the eternal.

‘Sacred Signs’

Then in 1961 a little book, just translated into English, came into my hands: Sacred Signs, by Romano Guardini. It had an effect on me well out of proportion to its slender size. Its German original was by then forty years old, and it served to introduce me to the Catholic liturgical movement. I was not to know then that its author had long been an influence on a priest who at that time was a professor of fundamental theology in Bonn, destined to become a bishop, and is Peter’s present successor.

Sacred Signs is a book about the building blocks, of familiar objects and actions, which constitute what Guardini called ‘the liturgical act.’ It led me to reflect further on that Catholic worship in Westminster Cathedral which I found so edifying and impressive in its piety and devotion. Was it an assembly engaged in corporate prayer, the great prayer of the whole Church united with the spiritual body of the Church present on earth and in heaven? Or was it an assembly of individuals engaged in their own private prayers and intentions, against which the Mass was a sort of backdrop?

Guardini was calling for an education in what he believed constituted true liturgy: the corporate act of a people consciously united as one in the worship of God, in which the very actions of those present – singing, standing, listening, making the sign of the cross, kneeling, and so on – was made in union with Christ’s sacrifice being offered by the priest. This is the liturgical act.

Experiment and Lament

Saving up my meagre allowance, a few months later in 1961 I spent a vacation in Germany, staying at two of the abbeys which were at the heart of the pre-war liturgical movement: Maria Laach and Beuron. In the great Romanesque church of Maria Laach I saw Mass facing the people and concelebration for the first time, then permitted there ad experimentum. By the time of my second visit in 1963, even before Sacrosanctum Concilium, the practice had in a very short time spread throughout Germany and France. I remember thinking at the time that things had begun already to set out in directions not foreseen by the originators of the liturgical movement.

Despite the high hopes and clear directions of the Council’s first document, so indebted to the liturgical movement, a sort of deluge of experiment and change had begun to flood across the Catholic landscape, an inundation which we have seen beginning to subside only in recent years.

What happened was a disappointment to many. Guardini’s insights and call for attention to the real nature of the liturgical act were swept aside until more recent times have revived interest in them, thanks in no small measure to the writings of Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI. Even in 1964, in a letter to the Third German Liturgical Conference in Maintz, Guardini came close to lament in posing the question of whether modern people in such a different world of sociological and ideological change – when even what it means to be human and a person are matters of debate – were any longer “capable of the liturgical act.”

It seems to me that Guardini’s question is one which still needs to be addressed. Certainly because of the factors he acknowledged, for the typical western citizen of our modern secular age , with its descent into practical atheism, the question has no meaning. All the secular world seeks is an undemanding collection of rituals on its own terms, relevant and meaningful, infinitely malleable, a cosy human experience of warmth and joviality, which affirms our sense of well-being, and whose sternest admonition to any sort of salvation is directed not against sin but against the imminent consequences of some impending disaster, such as of global warming.

The Liturgy Makes Us

Within the community of faith, however, in which people of today still listen to the good news of Jesus Christ, who know what they are saved from and saved for, our way forward in the work of evangelisation is to take a determined and confident stand of resistance against adapting the liturgy to the expectations and demands of our secularist culture.

What the Catholic Faith offers is something entirely different. It is I think denoted in Guardini’s understanding of the liturgical act: by its means we are taken up into an objective reality. Through engagement with the sacred signs we enter that world of sacred mysteries though which even now man can enter into communion with the living God. For a Christian, the liturgical act becomes a reality when we make our entire life a liturgy, glorifying Him who has called us out of darkness into His marvellous light.

To sum up, the liturgy achieves its purpose because it is unique, not because it is conformable to subjective expectations. We do not make the liturgy. The liturgy makes us. The liturgy does not attract or evangelise because it is like anything else in our experience. By being always itself it is always new.

Liturgical Evangelisation

A question I think we priests should keep in our minds is this: If a casual visitor, perhaps with little or no knowledge of Christianity, found him or herself at Mass in my church one Sunday, what lasting impression of what they had witnessed would they take away with them? Do we tend to underestimate the possible effects of divine grace as a result of any encounter with the Church, and especially a liturgical encounter. Such a casual encounter has been for many the beginning of a journey of faith. Would Mass in my parish be for someone the first intimation, a glimpse, of eternity?

For a story of liturgical evangelisation I like that oft-quoted one of the Russian embassy in the late 10th century which arrived in Constantinople on a fact-finding mission on behalf of Prince Vladimir of Kiev. Which religion would he adopt for his new nation? After attending the divine liturgy in the Great Church of Hagia Sophia, the ambassador reported, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth . . . we only know that God dwells there among men.” The story may not be historically true, but even if it is a later invention it testifies clearly to the understanding of the liturgy in the Eastern Church. At any rate at about that time Vladimir was baptized and the conversion of the Kievan Rus followed.

This understanding in East and West remains constant, at least as an ideal. I quote paragraph 1090 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which in turn is a statement from Sacrosanctum Concilium:

In the earthly liturgy we share in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle. With all the warriors of the heavenly army we sing a hymn of glory to the Lord; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ, until he, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with him in glory.{{1}}

I would like to pass on now to speak of some of the concrete aspects of the liturgy: its architectural setting, the furnishing of churches, and the rite of the Mass and its music — those outward aspects which act upon our senses and make the liturgy apt to evangelise and teach.

Sacred Architecture

This city of Melbourne has many fine churches. The spires of St Patrick’s Cathedral were visible on the western skyline from my Anglican school. In the south I could see the Immaculate Conception, Hawthorn and to the left the dome of Our Lady of Victories, Camberwell. Closer to hand was the imposing chapel of Xavier College, and a few streets to the north the stately red brick with green dome of Sacred Heart, Kew.

They are all part of a continuous tradition, first brought to Australia with Christian settlement, and universal across centuries and continents. Our forbears took for granted that in designing a church they were making through its style and construction a deliberate and recognisable statement of faith, indicative of the building’s sacred purpose and of the worship which took place within it. They proclaimed that the faith was here and open for business.

I do not wish to echo the oft-heard laments about what has happened in the last fifty years to the design and appearance of Catholic churches built in that time, or in the reordering of older places of worship. We do learn from mistakes, and as with the celebration of worship so with sacred architecture, the times are now changing, I think, for the better. A renewed continuity is emerging, at least in some places overseas, marked not so much by a simple return to historical styles, but in the rejection of secular models and fashions in favour of contemporary approaches to the tradition.

In Australia we still face a longer haul. Some of the young priests and seminarians in this audience are sure to find themselves one day responsible for the building of a new church or the restoration of an old one. From my experience you will indeed be fortunate if you can engage an architect who has a real understanding of what a church is for, and who will not try to persuade you to accept a design in a currently fashionable style which will gain him favourable reviews in the professional journals. As in other areas of church art, the execution in technique and materials may be excellent, but unless the design is right, nothing will be right.

John Ninian Comper

By way of inspiration for your possible project of the future, I would like to introduce you to an English architect whom I suggest we might posthumously adopt as part of the Anglican patrimony. His long career began in the later days of the Victorian gothic revival and concluded on the eve of the Second Vatican Council. What is distinctive about John Ninian Comper is that for all his familiarity with historical styles in his earlier career, he came to see that the church building first and foremost exists to serve the purpose of the Christian liturgy.

Comper’s inspiration, unlike for instance the inspiration of the Catholic Pugin, was not to reproduce in the nineteenth century the style of the thirteenth, but to go to earlier formative periods to discover what a Christian church is really intended to be, as defined by the liturgy celebrated within it. In this he was really more genuinely ‘Catholic’ than Pugin, whose ideal was founded on the high Middle Ages, the so-called ‘age of faith.’ Comper distilled his basic principles from his examination of early Christian, Byzantine and Roman churches, and his study of the liturgical theology which produced them.

Simply, Comper approached the design of a church from the altar outwards. The altar he likened to the flame within the lamp – the lamp’s purpose is to protect and enhance the beauty and utility of the flame. The whole should be of such an effect as to draw a person instinctively to their knees, to silence before God.

‘What is a Church?’

Comper did not put much into writing, but his little book On the Atmosphere of a Church, published in 1947, has been reprinted in 2006 in an introduction to his life and work by Father Anthony Symondson, SJ, and an article in New Blackfriars in 2008 by Father Aidan Nichols OP indicates some contemporary Catholic interest in Comper’s relevance for today. I offer a few quotes. “What is a church?” Comper asks.

It is a building which enshrines the altar of Him who dwells not in temples made with hands and who yet has made there His Covenanted Presence on earth. It is the centre of Worship in every community of men who recognise Christ as the Pantokrator, the Almighty, the Ruler and Creator of all things; at its altar is pleaded the daily Sacrifice in complete union with the Church Triumphant in Heaven, of which He is the one and only Head, the High Priest for ever after the order of Melchisedech . . .

The church is the outward expression here on earth of that spiritual Church built of living stones, the Bride of Christ, Urbs beata Jerusalem, which stretches back to the foundation of the world and onwards to all eternity. With her Lord she lays claim to the whole of His Creation and to every philosophy and creed and work of man which His Holy Spirit has inspired. And so the temple here on earth, in different lands and in different shapes, in the East and in the West, has developed or added to itself fresh forms of beauty and, though it has suffered from iconoclasts and destroyers both within and without, . . . it has never broken with the past: it has never renounced its claim to continuity.

To enter therefore a Christian church is to enter none other than the House of God and the Gate of Heaven.

The note of a church should be, not that of novelty, but of eternity. Like the Liturgy celebrated within it, the measure of its greatness will be the measure in which it succeeds in eliminating time and producing the atmosphere of the heavenly worship. This is the characteristic of the earliest art of the Church, in liturgy in architecture and in plastic decoration, and it is the tradition of all subsequent ages. The Church took over what is eternal in the Jewish and Greek temples, adapting and perfecting it to her use, developing and adding to it in unbroken sequence, and evolving new forms, some which came to stay and some which needed correction . . . just as no moment is perfect, so no reform is perfect, for it will always go a little too far.

In architecture, the . . . handmaid of liturgy . . . no beautiful style should be excluded. But the plan, the ‘layout’, of the church must first be in accord with the requirements of the liturgy and the particular needs of those who worship within it, and the imagery must express the balanced measure of the Faith; and for guidance in both we must look to tradition. There is no need to apologise for doing so in architecture, any more than in music, unless we need apologise for the guidance of tradition in the interpretation of the New Testament and the creeds of the Church. There are those who do so apologise, and for them tradition in the arts has naturally no appeal. They are consistent; since modernism in art is the natural expression of modernism in doctrine, and it is quite true they are both the expression of the age, but of one side of it only. Rome has condemned modernist doctrine but has not yet condemned its expression in art. The attraction of the modernistic is still too strong.

Fifty years after Comper wrote those words things seemed not to have changed, as witness the erection of the “Jubilee Church” in Rome in the year 2000, considered to be the epitome of the twentieth century international modernist style, a space constructed without any seeming understanding or accommodation for what is supposed to take place within it. For its opening, the story goes, a sanctuary crucifix had to be borrowed from a neighbouring parish.

Church Furnishings

Turning to the matter of church furnishings, let us look only at the most important, the altar, as found in the average Australian parish church. Among the examples that might come to your minds, how well does the design, construction and consequent appearance reflect the Church’s understanding that the altar should be for the worshipping community the primary symbol of Christ, that sacred table of the Lord’s sacrifice, the action central to its sacramental life, the earthly counterpart of the heavenly altar to which our offering is conveyed by the hands of angels?

Certainly there are altars, old and new, where obvious care has been taken to ensure a proper dignity and some sense of beauty in construction and ornament. But still there are others, trivial and flimsy, of cheap or contrived materials and as unadorned as on Good Friday, clearly functional rather than reflective of their high symbolic character. In some places the altar facing the people stands in poor comparison to the surviving high altar beyond it, inviting speculation as to what might indeed be some contrast in belief in regard to what was celebrated on the earlier and now on the later.

The Texts of the Liturgy

With the present adoption of the new English translation of the editio tertia of the Missale Romanum of 1970, we are at last correcting a certain disjunction between the lex credendi and the lex orandi, which has obviously rich consequences for the liturgy as an instrument of evangelisation. Now we shall pray more closely as we believe, and be inspired to believe more deeply as we pray.

The process of introduction is providing us with the opportunity of a richer liturgical catechesis. Among priests I must say I have noticed the seriousness with which many of us are re-examining our liturgical praxis, the ars celebrandi. Together with our people we are at a moment of adjustment, of realignment of attitudes and understandings of the liturgy. I would like to think that we are moving beyond the seeking of novelty and that era of misconceived creativity, and of preoccupation with the gathered community as the focus of celebration.

The four years since Summorum Pontificum have surely had some part to play in this rethinking, coming to terms with the fact that there is a continuity in the Roman Rite manifest by its expression in two forms. For the record, I welcome Pope Benedict’s initiative and his teaching in affirming the equal worth of the usus antiquior.

I retain that long memory of its part in my movement to the Church, and of having witnessed at the time how the reforms of the Council drew the Novus Ordo from the old, in continuity with our liturgical heritage. I have frequently celebrated it over the years and with requests from the faithful celebrate it now in a regular Missa Cantata in my cathedral parish, even as I devote my energies to the main task of making the Ordinary Form, with all its advantages of the vernacular and more free now of the abuses to which it was widely subjected over painful years, a richer expression of the perennial tradition of Catholic worship for today.

Our parish schools

We often speak of our parish schools as affording opportunities for evangelisation, for placing the faith before an increasing number of non-practising families and the rising proportion, in many places, of non-Catholic students. We have an awareness, not yet to the point of agreeing how to address it, of the danger of a secular counter-evangelisation taking place in many of our schools as a consequence of its effect on modern families.

Over several years, the bishops of the dioceses of NSW and the ACT have been working with our parish clergy and school principals to make more secure and evident the Catholic identity and character of our schools. Just one area in which I think we have much work to do is that of the celebration of the liturgy in school communities.

I have welcomed the move away from all-of-school celebrations of Mass, such as those at the beginning and end of school years, in favour of special assemblies that incorporate other forms of prayer. During term time I favour the integration of smaller class groups, after suitable classroom catechesis and preparation, into the parish’s regular weekday Masses. It is more enriching for the children to participate in the Mass as something not merely their own, but rather to contribute to what is the act of worship of all present.

I have found that RE and class teachers welcome guidance in preparing children to participate in parish celebrations, rather than in ‘designing’ separate celebrations of their own. In the past children’s Masses, often with their own chosen “themes” and marked by a certain casualness, had become prime examples of the subjectification of the liturgy, treated somewhat as if it were another classroom activity.

While schools are a proper place for liturgical preparation and catechesis, I welcome the integration of children within the full liturgical life of the parish, at the altar of the parish church, and in consciousness of the Sunday Mass as the heart and centre of the Christian’s week.

Beauty and Liturgy

My final remarks concern the place of beauty in the liturgical celebration. One could draw inspiration from the psalmist’s exhortation to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, a text I can remember enscrolled over many a chancel arch, and note the perennial association of beauty with the liturgy from Old Testament precedents onwards across the Christian centuries. Suffice it to quote Pope Benedict from his Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis:

The relationship between creed and worship is evidenced in a particular way by the rich theological and liturgical character of beauty. Like the rest of Christian revelation, the liturgy is inherently linked to beauty: it is veritatis splendor. The liturgy is a radiant expression of the paschal mystery, in which Christ draws us to himself and calls us to communion.{{2}}

The Holy Father goes on to remark that this is no mere aestheticism: beauty concerns God, aesthetics is about the subjective experience of the beautiful. Christ is beautiful in His Passion even though humanly speaking he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. Pope Benedict continues:

The beauty of the liturgy is part of this mystery; it is the sublime expression of God’s glory, a glimpse of heaven on earth . . . it is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action . . . Care is needed if the liturgical action is to reflect its innate splendour.{{3}}

Many in this audience might agree that there is generally an unfavourable comparison in the pursuit of beauty evident in the liturgy and its setting between earlier generations of the Church in Australia and in more recent times. The heritage of our churches and their surviving furnishings, and our knowledge of the music once performed in worship, at least until the middle of the last century, is evidence that there was a general belief that the liturgy should be made beautiful and an effort to make it so across the various arts.

We have to admit that in more recent times we have succumbed to the ugliness that accompanies so much of contemporary life, that we have allowed even the liturgy to be affected by that mediocrity and disdain of excellence that marks much of our national character. An area of particular contestation is that of the music heard in our churches. Most parishes have great difficulty in obtaining competent and willing musicians, and the funds to pay for the implementation of a better standard in accord with the Church’s expectations.

Some encouragement has emerged of the introduction of the new English texts and the emphasis on singing – no matter how simply to chant melodies – the parts of the Mass which belong to the people. We have a providential opportunity, recognised in the encouragement given by the bishops through our National Liturgical Commission, to make something of a transformation of the quality of liturgical music in this country. It’s a gradual process, requiring pastors and musicians to try and educate and win people to something better, in such improvements as reducing the number of extraneous hymn and song compositions sung during Mass and replacing them with chants based on the proper biblical texts of the entrance and communion which are an integral part of each Mass formula in the Missal.

There is also evidence that a better conceived and delivered liturgical formation for future priests is bearing fruit in a renewed ‘liturgical literacy’ – a proper competence in the ars celebrandi – as an important qualification for ordination. Many priests have a better recognition of the importance of an appropriate quality in the design and materials of vestments and altar ornaments, and are more prepared to devote time to their own preparation and that of servers, lectors and musicians for the liturgical celebration.


Everything that pertains to the renewal of the sacred liturgy is at the heart of what the Church is striving for in the work of the New Evangelisation. The reform of the reform, in which many priests now have a deep interest, is about much more than simple ritual reforms. It ultimately is about a reinvigoration of a deeply Catholic liturgical spirit within ourselves and our parish worship, as a means to the conversion, sanctification and salvation of the whole society in which the Church is immersed.

Most Rev Geoffrey Jarrett is the fifth Bishop of Lismore and former Chairman of the ACCC, from 1995 to 1999. He delivered this homily at the Solemn Vespers which opened the 2010 International Conference.

[[1]]Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Sacrosanctum concilium, 8; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1090.[[1]]

[[2]]Benedict XVI, Sacramentum caritatis, 35.[[2]]

[[3]]Benedict XVI, Sacramentum caritatis, 35.[[3]]