Seminarian Summers Williams delves into liturgy

(Editor’s note: During the summers, seminarians for the Diocese of Jackson work in ministry or continue their studies. This year, seminarians wrote reflections on their summer assignments. Mississippi Catholic will feature a couple of reflections in each of the next few issues.)
By Aaron Williams
For the past three summers, I have participated in the summer session of the Liturgical Institute at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake near Chicago, Ill., in order to pursue a masters of arts degree in liturgy (MAL). For six weeks each summer, I join a class of about 30 students made up of priests and laypersons. Each summer session is broken in four courses relating to the topic of liturgy –ranging from issues of sacramental theology, liturgical history and more practical issues such as church architecture and decor.
This summer, I was enrolled in a survey course on the development of certain issues in sacramental theology which considered each issue from the lens of papal and conciliar documents from as early as the ancient Roman Church to Pope Francis. Another course considered the sacraments of marriage and holy orders with a particular emphasis on what actually occurs to the Christian who receives either of these sacraments and how that affects their role in the church.
Likewise, a third course considered the history of the liturgical calendar and particularly its usage in the Liturgy of the Hours – or the daily prayer of priests and vowed religious. Finally, there was a course that considered the particular role that beauty and symbol plays in the liturgy and how it is that the signs used in the liturgy are meant to draw us all to a deeper awareness of God who, to use St. Augustine’s terminology, is beauty itself – “Late have I loved you, O beauty so ancient and so new” (The Confessions).
It is my hope that one day I may bring home to our diocese the information I have gained from these courses – not to become a sort of “traffic cop” or “terrorist” (as liturgists have become accustomed to being named), but to share with the people of our diocese the beauty and depth of the relationship the Lord is attempting to share with them in the liturgy. It seems that there are today two camps of people in regards to the understanding of the rites of the church.

Seminary offers liturgical podcast
As part of his studies, Williams is composing settings for the sung offices of the Liturgy of the Hours based on the original Latin texts. Notre Dame Seminary will produce a weekly podcast of the compositions.
Every day priests across the world pray the liturgy of the hours, but this practice is open to anyone. In the past and in many monasteries today, much of the liturgy of the hours was sung. catch the podcast online at

On one side, there are those who see the regulations of the liturgical rites as heavy-handed impositions from some distant and disconnected authority in Italy—who doesn’t comprehend the needs of the people in rural Mississippi. On the other hand, some people see the “rubrics” (referring to the red text in the rites books) as a strict rule book for the public acts of the church.
It is my hope that by bringing people to further understand the reasons why the Church asks us to celebrate the liturgy a certain way and how that way is designed to bring us all closer to God and to one another, we can get past this divisive mentality and instead focus on truth. After all, Christ did not command his Apostles to do away with formal worship, or to create a binding law for all their prayers.
He desired worship in “spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). In other words, our public worship (“liturgy”) should find its genesis deep within our own hearts and spiritual encounter with the Lord, but also be expressive of what the Church as a whole believes and teaches about God and our relationship with him. There is an old saying in the Church: Legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi (the law of praying establishes the law of believing). In other words, the way we pray and worship God points to and forms what we believe about him.
The fathers of the Second Vatican Council understood this. In the first published document of the Council they write, “The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10). Nearly a century before the Council ever met, a Benedictine monk at the monastery of Solesmes in France, Dom Prosper Gueranger, called for the lay faithful to “actively participate” in the liturgy.
This phrase has become the calling card of the modern understanding of the liturgy – but it is a phrase that is often misunderstood. Gueranger, and those that came after him (St. Pius X, St. John XXIII, Blessed Paul V, St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI) were not talking about a “busy” participation in the liturgical life of the church – but a participation where the faithful actually know what they are doing and how they are participating.
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with lay people reading or serving at Mass – this should be encouraged. But, what is even more important is that the reader at Mass understand the words of Scripture, or better yet, that the average person in the pew understand and believe that what they are participating in is not of this world, but of and from God. As Pope Francis said, “To celebrate the liturgy is to have this availability to enter into the mystery of God, to entrust ourselves to this mystery. We would do well today to ask the Lord to give each of us this sense of the sacred.”
It is a great honor to study liturgy for the Diocese of Jackson alongside my normal seminary courses. I thank all those, especially Bishop Joseph Kopacz, who have made this possible by their prayers and their charitable gifts to the diocese, as well as Mary Woodward, the chancellor and director of the Office of Worship and Liturgy in our diocese, for her support and encouragement.
(Aaron Williams is a third year theologian studying at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, LA. Aaron, and his classmates Nick Adam and Mark Shoffner, will be ordained transitional deacons for our diocese in the spring.)