What Is Good Liturgy?

Fr Pat ODonoghue takes us through some pastoral liturgical pointers…

I want to begin by placing my understanding of the Eucharistic liturgy in the context of the institution narrative of the Gospel of John.

‘They were at Supper…and he got up from table, removed his outer garment and, taking a towel, wrapped it round his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciple’s feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing’. (John 13:4-5)

Service is at the heart of the Eucharistic Liturgy and the example of Jesus sets up the model for our ritual life. Liturgy exists to serve the People of God and, except as an academic study, does not have life without their presence. All those called to service in the Eucharistic Liturgy should have a clear understanding of their role as servants. The celebrant, in particular, is called to lead by example giving life to the witness of Jesus who came ‘to serve and not to be served’. However the call to service does not remain within the confines of the Church building or the particular celebration. The words of dismissal should be ringing in our ears all week – ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’. The fruit of our response to that challenge during the week is an important component of ‘good liturgy’. When we have imitated the sacrifice of Christ by our compassion, generosity, sense of justice and overall selflessness then we truly have something to celebrate and much to give thanks for in our Eucharist. Justice and Eucharist are inextricably linked. Our concern for having all the Eucharistic gifts within the confines of the large corporal should be matched by our efforts to keep those who are on the margins of our community within the fold of our hearts too. When we come to receive the Body and Blood of Christ we are called, in the words of St. Augustine, ‘to become what we have received’, the Body of Christ. This responsibility to build up the Body of Christ is the challenge of all who gather to share in the Eucharist regardless of our particular role within the liturgy. The spirit of working together for the good of our community should be a mirror image of the spirit of co-operation that exists among those who contribute in their ministry to the public celebration of the Eucharist. In other words, principles, such as the awareness of others’ needs, the openness to others, the practice of charity and compassion, should be evident in the way we celebrate Eucharist together. Any other way is a ‘sham’. Jesus changed the meaning of ritual meals forever by giving his own Body and Blood as nourishment for all. We should be generous enough to allow others to benefit from that blessing as we in turn nourish the hearts of those we encounter throughout the week. We use the term the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to describe the Eucharist because that is what is at the core of our celebration – the challenge is to live it within and without the liturgy. When I find myself getting worked up about the details of a liturgy the words of Psalmist come to my mind.

‘Your justice I have proclaimed in the great assembly
Your lips I have not sealed you know it. O Lord.
You do no ask for sacrifice and offering but an open ear
You do not ask for holocaust and victim instead here am I’.

So to answer the question ‘What is good liturgy?’ we must start the journey of discovery from within. We must look at our own disposition towards the liturgy and those with whom we celebrate, regardless of our role, whether as celebrants, ministers of music, welcome, word or Eucharist or if we contribute in any other way to the preparation of the ritual by way of environment or practically as a sacristan. We are in this together whether we like it or not. When there are blocks or divisions then it is difficult for us to have the transparency to allow Christ shine through our words and actions. Regardless of our imperfections it is consoling to realise that despite our best efforts to the contrary Christ has his own unique way of penetrating our celebrations. Let’s not make it too hard for Him by placing our own egos in his path.


‘Less is more’ is a good principle when planning a liturgy. Simplicity and dignity are the hallmarks of a good celebration. ‘Decluttering’ will eliminate distraction and allow the message to get through.

Can you see the altar for the flowers?

Is that the celebrant’s chair?

How many banners are there up there?

Is the Ambo the place for all those pieces of paper?

Do I see the gifts already on the altar and we haven’t yet begun?

Was that introduction to the Word as long as the First Reading?

Did I not read those same notices in the parish bulletin?

I thought that homily ended at least three times?

Are they intercessions or mini homilies?

Is anxiety ever useful?

What are those capes the Ministers of the Eucharist are wearing?

Is that the Lector distributing Communion?

Did he not do the collection as well?

Is that organist ever going to let go of the last note?

Was that the third communion song?

Is he ever going to give the blessing?

How Good Liturgy Speaks To Today’s Parish

Good liturgy is about people working together. The basic requirement is communication. People notice when this breaks down. It’s a distraction they don’t need.

What structures either informal or formal are there in place to facilitate this interaction? Is there a liturgy group? Are all the various ministers invited to assemble in the sacristy for brief prayer before Mass? Is there a mechanism for dealing with miscommunication? Do the various ministers meet socially at any time?

Good liturgy happens when people prepare thoroughly. Prayer must be an important element of preparation or the liturgy is a choreographed show with all the bows in the right place. Ongoing training in their particular area for all the ministers ensures that their inherent skills are honed. The celebrant too needs to avail of resources and help in fulfilling his role.

Are all those engaged in the various ministries offered the opportunity to reflect together on their role? Is there in-service training – voice projection and scripture study for Lectors? Are Ministers of Welcome offered any advice on their role? Do the Ministers of Music avail of seminars/workshops offered at a Diocesan or National level? Are the Ministers of the Holy Communion who leave to bring communion to the housebound offered any training?

Good liturgy is participative. There are two levels of participation, active and passive, and we should experience both in liturgy. We are active when we fully engage in word, gesture and song with each other. We are passive when we listen, reflect and absorb.

Does the celebrant invite active participation by his tone of voice or in his body language? Are people encouraged to sing the music of the Mass? Are their visual aids to participation? Are there times of silence and reflection built into the liturgy? Is there pacing or is it all go?

Good liturgy is sensual. When people gather to prepare a liturgy they usually begin with the readings. We have five senses after all.

When you consider last sundays Mass can you tick all the sensual boxes? How can we improve the experience of taste in our celebrations? Are we attentive to the use of gesture in our liturgies? Could the liturgical space be improved by way of colour, fabric or artefact?

Good liturgy is inclusive. This means that it should be accessible to those who are present. This has implications for communities where there are people with disabilities. The question of language is important. Inclusion of the ‘new Irish is important. The range of people visibly engaged in ministries speaks volumes.

How are people welcomed to liturgy? What efforts are made to involve those with disabilities? Is there an opportunity to hear the voice of all who gather? Is the parish run by a cabal or clique?

Good liturgy is natural. When things are forced or imported artificially people are turned off. Let people be themselves accent and all. Models belong on catwalks. Less is more.

Are we ashamed sometimes of letting ordinary people take key positions in our celebrations? Do we make people cringe by our condescension or pranks? Easter bunnies come to mind.

Good liturgy is simple. If the ritual is followed in its simplicity without additions it will speak to people in its directness. Look at what the rite asks us to do.

Do we overload the liturgy with extras? Do we upset the order of the liturgy for novelty? Are there so many layers of grandeur in our celebrations that we mask the person of Christ, the Servant King? Do we make things too complicated for people? Do we understand the liturgy?


Key moments in people’s lives which are celebrated liturgically offer significant pastoral opportunities in our communities. Our celebrations of funerals in particular strike me as occasions when we can really bring the compassion, love and healing of Christ alive. We need to have structures in place to help families prepare for the funeral liturgy while acknowledging that they are grieving, in shock, racked with remorse or some other emotional state. They can be unreasonable, threatened, vulnerable, compliant or unengaged with the liturgical process. As one who deals with grief on a regular basis priests might ensure that they are up to date in their skills in this area. There is nothing like a personal experience of death to awaken your own senses and emotions and these can be powerful tools in understanding where people are when death enters their lives. In Dublin we have been encouraging the development of Funeral Teams to help priests in busy parishes where there might be over 200 funerals every year. Death is inevitable so let’s be ready with literature, music recordings and human resources to make these people feel the love of Christ pouring into their hearts as they say goodbye to someone in their lives who they love.

Funeral K.I.Vs
Make sure the Church is warm and inviting.
Don’t rush people.
Have soft music playing as people arrive. (For example the liturgical music CD “Songs of Farewell”)
Ask some local people to hold two candles at the door as the body is brought to the Church.
Learn a little about the person and try to match their story with the Scripture.
If someone wants to speak don’t leave it to the end of Mass.
Hang around until all the sympathisers have left.
Set up a team around you for funeral ministry.
Deal with all requests sensitively – that does not mean saying ‘yes’ to everything.
Develop a diplomatic style of dealing with unreasonable people.
Try to remember how you felt when someone you loved passed away.

Baptisms are another ‘kettle of fish’. You need a team to prepare the families and to help on the day. The best group are peers who have been there before but recently. If this is a second or subsequent child then there has to be something new for them by way of preparation. Why not visit the house and look at photographs of the last one or review the video and cringe? They won’t want to go back to Baptism ‘Junior Infants’. On the day try to honour the various stages and movements. Explain for the umpteenth time the meaning of everything. It is a special day for this family. Use oil generously – let it stink the place even if it ruins the christening robe. Let the water rite have meaning and not just a minimal drop followed quickly by the towel.

Wedding ceremonies can be a challenge. You might need help in planning the liturgy. Train married couples who will talk the candidates through the whole thing. You can just bring everything together at the rehearsal. Give them a copy of our Liturgy Resource Centres The Wedding Album to help them choose their music. Try to get the best man to warm up the people in the Church – it will be practice for his speech later. This might break the ice and improve participation. Suggest to the couple that they put stand, sit and kneel directives in the booklet.

Shape each one to suit the liturgical time or season. Explore the luminous mysteries of the rosary in October with music, prayer and images. Tell the story of Lourdes with prayer and pictures.Crowds come for St Blaise, ashes and to kiss the cross on Good Friday. Don’t neglect the sense of touch. The feet of Jesus in the Pro-Cathedral are worn down by rubbing on a daily basis