This is the cover of the Archdiocese of Portland Liturgical Handbook.
This is the cover of the Archdiocese of Portland Liturgical Handbook.

Catholics in the pews of western Oregon churches are seeing reforms meant to make Mass even more reverent.

Six months after it was issued by Archbishop Alexander Sample, the Archdiocese of Portland Liturgical Handbook has begun to infuse the prayer life at more than 120 parishes.

“The archbishop is seeking an elevated sacred liturgy that brings our minds into a higher realm,” said Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Worship.

Msgr. O’Connor said some liturgical changes Catholics made after the Second Vatican Council went right while others went wrong. Those that were off the mark have dampened the sense of mystery, he explained, expressing hope that the handbook will bring mystery back.

“The book is the vision of the church,” he said. “It’s all the current stuff, up to date.”

‘A tool of unity’

Msgr. O’Connor, who prepared the 385-page handbook, calls it “a tool of unity” so that Mass does not look substantially different in different parishes.

Mass should reflect the belief of the whole church, not “private inclination or arbitrary choice,” the handbook says. “The priest must remember that he is the servant of the Sacred Liturgy and that he

himself is not permitted, on his own initiative, to add, to remove, or to change anything in the celebration of Mass.”

Most of the book simply collects policies and norms that everyone already is following.

“Most parishes are doing what they should,” Msgr. O’Connor said. 

But in a few cases, and for some parishes, changes are required. Shifts include having churches open at least part of each day for public prayer, replacing Communion services with Liturgy of the Hours, ending practically obligatory handholding during the Our Father, avoiding liturgical dance, and averting overly long and loud sessions for the sign of peace. The handbook calls on Catholics to keep Sundays free for quiet and meditation.

The handbook is not only a statement of law, but is intended as a practical guide and even an inspiration, Archbishop Sample said in an introductory letter. 

Based on Vatican II

In addition to many particulars, the book offers theological bases for why the liturgy is the way it is.

The most-cited documents come from the Second Vatican Council, which in the mid-1960s called for worshippers to be participants in Mass, not spectators. The handbook also relies on the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the universal church’s liturgical guide revised under Pope Benedict XVI.

Another frequently cited document is “Redemptionis Sacramentum,” St. John Paul II’s 2004 instruction on matters to observe and avoid when celebrating the Eucharist.

“The entire celebration should be planned in such a way that it leads to a conscious, active, and full participation of the faithful both in body and in mind,” the handbook says, calling for “a participation burning with faith, hope, and charity, of the sort which is desired by the Church and demanded by the very nature of the celebration.”

‘Innate splendor’

In general, liturgical action is to reflect the “innate splendor” of the Eucharist, the handbook says. The policies and norms often use the phrase “noble simplicity.”

The book calls for “ample flexibility” in liturgy, but warns that “the power of the liturgical celebrations does not consist in frequently altering the rites, but in probing more deeply the word of God and the mystery being celebrated.”

The handbook recommends silence as well as singing, saying God is manifest in both. It also urges quiet in the church before and after Mass. That’s out of general respect for the Blessed Sacrament and so those at prayer are not disturbed.

Music, the book says, should serve the needs of the liturgy, not entertain or draw attention to the music or musicians.

Organ and chant have pride of place in liturgical music, the handbook says, while recognizing other music and instruments, including stringed instruments. All music should have “expressive beauty.” 

Since people who speak many languages gather for worship, the handbook recommends Latin for some parts of Mass — like the Pater Noster and Agnus Dei — reminding readers that Vatican II made this suggestion. 

Clarifying practice

The book clarifies where there might be confusion.

For example, the sign of respect given when passing the Blessed Sacrament is a genuflection. A bow of the head is suggested in the United States when about to receive Communion.

One section of the book examines popular piety, calling it “a living reality in and of the Church, ‘a treasure of the People of God.’” However, the handbook points out dangers in pious devotions, including a utilitarian approach to prayer, shirking the saving significance of the resurrection and scant reference to Scripture.

One section examines liturgies celebrated when an archbishop is present, a handy help for pastors. Such celebrations are to avoid “empty show, pomp and unnecessary expense,” but should make it clear that the people of God “are called to rise to their baptismal dignity in Christ.”

Celebrations of the Triduum are highly encouraged as the moments when “the greatest mysteries of the Redemption are celebrated.” The rites are covered in detail. The norm for Holy Thursday is that both males and females can have their feet washed in a ceremony commemorating Jesus’ act of loving service.

The Easter vigil, liturgy par excellence, is not to begin before nightfall since it is a service of waiting through the darkness for the coming of the Lord who is light.

Even anniversary blessings and Quinceañeras are covered.

One section examines the extraordinary form, the Mass as it existed in Latin before 1970. Pope Benedict encouraged bishops to make the extraordinary form available to Catholics and a handful of parishes in western Oregon do so.

‘Liturgy is alive’

Before publication, Msgr. O’Connor sent sections of the handbook out for review by liturgists and everyday Catholics.

Every priest received a copy. Msgr. O’Connor has been leading workshops and retreats to explain it all.

Meanwhile, he has received calls from around the world. Dioceses and everyday Catholics across the United States and in Japan, Australia, England and the Philippines want a look. The liturgical handbook appears to be the most comprehensive in the United States.

The book is available in print, as a PDF or on Kindle. The PDF version is free.

Msgr. O’Connor hopes Catholics read the book. The first five chapters, he said, are designed as a kind of retreat so people can understand that liturgy is not an artifact of the past, but an encounter with God.

“Liturgy is alive,” Msgr. O’Connor said. “It is Christ’s work in his church. It is not static.”

The reception

The reception the handbook is receiving in parishes is not yet entirely clear. The Sentinel called seven pastors for comment. Three did not call back and one said he would offer no comment. The three who did speak on the record appreciate the book.

“It’s a game-changer. It’s great,” said Father Mark Bentz, pastor of St. Alice Parish in Springfield. Having all the teachings of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and local teachings in one place saves him from hunting all over when it’s time to plan a rite, train lectors or guide liturgical musicians.

Father Bentz said the book has helped him grow in understanding. For example, he made sure all the vessels that hold holy Communion are made of precious metal.

“The church has done these things for centuries for a reason,” he said. “It makes sense. The Body and Blood of Jesus are the most priceless treasures we have. We want to show the most reverence possible.”

Father Bentz thinks the overall lesson of the liturgical handbook is just that: “What is the very best to give to the Lord? What we use, how ministers dress, the music we use, how we prepare, gestures, how you walk, what we do — it all reflects what we believe.”

Father Bentz said the book will help prevent disparate practices in western Oregon’s Catholic churches. “What is authentic variety? And what is innovation by a particular priest? The latter is not something we want.”

Father Joseph Hung Nguyen, administrator of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Cottage Grove, is a former engineer and programmer. He thinks it’s important to go by the book and so it’s good to have one. He consults the new liturgical handbook every day.

“It’s a wonderful document,” said Father Nguyen. “I use it as the backbone to keep myself in line with the church and the liturgical practice of the church.”

His parishioners have welcomed the guidance, he says. He knows other Catholics, fans of now-forbidden Communion services, who have dismissed the entire book because of that one teaching. For his part, Father Nguyen likes the psalm-based Liturgy of the Hours as a substitute, the same kind of prayer said by monks and nuns. “Maybe everyone will learn to love that,” he said.

Father Ron Nelson, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Eugene, said the book has been helpful.

He used it to rein in off-the-mark liturgical practices with extraordinary ministers of holy Communion. “The book makes it clear it’s not just my opinion,” Father Nelson said. “It’s helpful to show people that this is the teaching of the church. The archdiocese is not being authoritarian; they are offering a helpful guide.”

Father Nelson learned from the book that he should not set out relics for veneration without authenticating paperwork. He also got tips on keeping sacramental records. Most of all, he said, the handbook will safeguard the prayer life of the church.

“I like to have a reverent liturgy so the people have a sense of the holiness of God, a sense of awe and wonder,” he explained. “It disposes the person to be more open to having God touch them.”