Let the church say Amen

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Article Prayer and Sacraments
Father J. Glenn Murray, S.J. describes what a good liturgy means from an African American perspective.

Most Catholics are most Catholic when they attend Sunday Mass. The liturgy is the primary place to plug into the spirituality and traditions of the church. For that reason, Father J. Glenn Murray, S.J., has a big job to do. As director of the Office of Pastoral Liturgy for the Diocese of Cleveland, Murray's challenge is to see that Mass is celebrated properly and relevant to the congregation.

As an African American, Murray's personal experience and heritage is distinct from the majority of American Catholics. "I'm intensely Roman Catholic," Murray says. "I also totally love being black." Murray served as principal writer of Plenty Good Room: The Spirit and Truth of African American Catholic Worship, a 1990 document from the U.S. bishops' conference. A Jesuit for more than 30 years, Murray is a frequent speaker on liturgical and cultural topics.

When have you experienced great liturgy, and what made it great? 

One thing that has always made great liturgy is when people intentionally come together to give thanks and praise to God. I have had great experiences in the African American community because, by and large, in African American parishes people want to be there. People actually respond with some enthusiasm and passion.

Also, inevitably in black parishes someone says "Hello, who are you? Where are you from? What do you do?" When I first came to Cleveland, I went to a church that was considered one of the best liturgically. It was a completely white church, and no one spoke to me. I told people this later and they said, "Gosh, how racist." Actually, it had nothing to do with racism, it had everything to do with being stereotypically Roman Catholic. But in the African American community—and I know this is painting with broad strokes—someone always says hello. That makes me immediately more disposed to worshiping.

Where have you found good African American worship in the Catholic Church?

After I entered the Jesuits, I got involved with the National Black Catholic Seminarians Association. We would join black priests and black religious women for conferences and we'd have Masses where everyone wore beautiful vestments and there was incense and candles, and you'd have people stepping! At the Lamb of God, we sang Agnus Dei. But we'd also sing "This Little Light of Mine." It respected the form of the liturgy and also allowed us to bring who we were. I felt like I was in heaven.

Parishwise, St. Sabina's in Chicago, St. Bridget's in Los Angeles, and St. Augustine's in Washington, D.C. are notable places. But no one place has perfectly blended the genius of African American spirituality with the genius of the Roman rite. Several places have phenomenal music that's engaging, transfixing, transformative. Often I've been transformed at those religious experiences, but I'm not always sure it's Roman liturgy. I've also been in African American churches where it's really good Roman liturgy, but it almost seemed bloodless. So we're all on the way.

Did you grow up Catholic?

No. My father was a die-hard atheist and my mother was nominally Baptist. But because my father's family was AME—African Methodist Episcopal—my mom, sister, and I would occasionally go to services with them. As a little child I found the services unsettling—they were so highly emotive!

My parents sent me to Catholic school because it was considered the way out of the projects. I remember the first time I went to Mass—I thought, "This works." It was quiet, it was safe, and it was at a distance. Roman Catholic liturgy was an experience of a transcendent God, while the AME experience was of an immanent God who was with you in the struggle. I just didn't need God to be that intimate when I was 6.

When I was 10 I told my parents I wanted to be a Catholic. My AME-Baptist mother said, "You're already a Christian." My atheist father thought it was a phase—"Why not, I'm sure you'll grow out of it." So I became Catholic.

But in 1966, when the church started going through major changes in Philadelphia, I loathed it. One Jesuit at my high school knew a great deal about liturgy and explained to me why these changes were happening. It was about participating in the paschal mystery, about entering into the dying and rising of Christ. He said by entering into it, your life could not be the same. And he was right.

What does a liturgist actually do?

My task is to be the idealist. When Moses was leading the people of God out of the desert, these scouts ran ahead and came back saying, "I've seen the promised land and this is what it looks like!" It's the same in the church. As a liturgist, I think of myself as one of those scouts. I've seen the promised land, the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy. My task is to keep on saying, "Come on! Let's go! Here's the vision."

Although I really don't think of myself this way, part of my job also is to be prophetic, to remind people of who they were.

When African American Catholics first tried to do some cultural adaptation in the liturgy, they turned to the black Protestant church, especially for music. How did that work? 

It drives me crazy when someone says to me, "Oh, you must have been Baptist." No! I'm black! There's this religious experience that transcends all denominations. And a part of being a black American is music. I would almost rank it in the top one. So in an attempt to wed African American religious experience with Roman Catholic rite, we go right to music!

I do get concerned when it seems music is imposed on the rite. Instead of saying, "How can we make the rite come alive musically?" it's often, "We've got this great piece of music; when can we use it?" For me, that's the wrong starting point. We are coming to do this action—Mass—that has its own rhythm, integrity, meaning, and power. We need to take the genius of who we are—our music, our style of praying, all of that—and make this rite come alive.

How do you decide whether certain music is appropriate? 

Someone may instinctively know which music to use. But my question is: Do you know what the rite is asking for? Do you know what the song is about? Of course, the black community, since we were forced on these shores, has taken what other people do, adapted it, and given it new meaning.

That gets to the idea of inculturation in the church.

Vatican II came along and said that no one culture is better than any other; they've all got strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, Christ, the gospel, and liturgy can all be at home in any culture. For instance, before Pope John Paul II went to Korea, he spent two weeks learning how to say Mass in Korean. They told him, "It's too hard, so say the Mass in Latin." And he said, no, the people speak Korean!

Inculturation, as interpreted by the Second Vatican Council, means that a dialogue is going on between each culture and the gospel. In that dialogue, a culture can be transformed in the light of the gospel. Light can burn out what is weak or superstitious in a culture, but light can also show what is wonderful and good. And what is good and wonderful can benefit the whole church.

Before that clarification, people around the world were thinking that inculturation meant that whatever we do in our culture is wonderful and can find a place in the church. The church said no, not everything. For example, in the black community we might want to put 300 choir members and a giant Steinway concert grand piano next to the altar. Is that a good thing? Just because we do it doesn't mean that it's good!

Is 300 choir members a bad thing? 

Not necessarily. I've seen where it helps us. When it does, I'm all for it! But as a liturgist I have to ask, where's our focus? Is it on this choir and that Steinway, or on what we do at this altar?

What if people need that music to make them feel more connected?

Here's a fundamental problem. Do we come to get something, or do we come to do something? Literature on the black religious experience says people went into the fields, wherever they could, to praise and thank God. They went to do something, and in the doing they came away changed. My fear is that we don't go to do, we go to get. "When I get that good music and that good preaching, I can make it for another week." That's not true to our African roots, and it's the opposite of what Roman liturgy's doing.

Does God care why we come, as long as we come? Should we put that much emphasis on the why? 

Yes. Because God sent Jesus. And when you look at Jesus' life, it's marked by continual praising and thanking God. It seems to me that's what God wants us to do.

Here's a true story. I was walking around one day trying to get my energy up for a talk I was about to give, and a black lady was standing at a bus stop. I said, "Good morning, how are you?" And she said, "Honey, let me tell you." And inside I was saying, "Oh please don't. You're just supposed to say fine." But I asked, "So how are you?" And she said, "Honey, I'm blessed."

Then she said, "You know why I'm blessed? God woke me up this morning and put me in my right mind. God smiled on me."

And then she burst into song: "What a mighty God we serve / What a mighty God we serve / Angels bow before him / Heaven and earth adore him / What a mighty God we serve." I said Amen, and she said, "Oh no, honey. Join me!" And so the two of us stood there singing, praising God, thanking God.

What that elderly black woman knew is the heart of being black, the heart of being a Christian—an attitude of gratitude. She did not start with, "I need this, I want that;" she started by saying, "I'm blessed!" She understood what God was doing for her.

When we gather on Sunday, it's always to praise and thank God. I'm not sure we remember that. That doesn't mean that later we can't say, "Ooh honey, we need you." That's legit.

Can you talk more about the genius of African American people?

African Americans—those who weren't raised Catholic—know what full, conscious, active participation means. Most African Americans raised Catholic do what Catholics do: "We're not supposed to engage; we're supposed to watch."

African Americans think bodies are good! You can use your body to give praise to God, and that is something sorely needed in Roman liturgy.

But we're not just as we used to be. I love that we call ourselves African Americans. Unfortunately, it seems we've become far more American than African. We're an extremely powerful cultural force and I'm not sure we're very reflective about that.

How are African Americans more American than African?

Certainly there's a greater stress on the individual, on individual rights. When I was a kid, we talked about "our" rights. Now it's I, I, me, me. That's American individualism gone amok. A major concern of mine is African Americans who pick their churches and explain by saying, "I go to this church because it feeds me." There's two things going on: I consume, and it's about me. What about God? That is not who we are. It is a betrayal of who we are.

But isn't it easier for it to be about God when liturgy is done well?

Yes, trust me. I've gone places and thought, "What are you doing? You're hindering our encountering the living God!" Those who minister liturgically are there to help us encounter the living God. And if they've not prepared their homily or if they have no passion, we have to work twice as hard. We shouldn't have to do that. As the liturgical minister, you should be pulling us into the experience of the living God.

Doesn't church shopping usually come from having had too many such experiences?

I hate saying this, but sometimes I'm astounded anyone goes to Mass. Our diocese has, I think, 243 parishes. As head of the liturgy office, I want to be able in seven years to say there are 10 places in this diocese doing liturgy very well.

What if you live in the other 233?

Hey, I can only do what I can. I've tried to do things that benefit all the parishes, but it doesn't work. For liturgy to really change, one needs to work very closely with a parish. If I want 10 places, I need to work with 10 places.

What are the greatest obstacles?

Priests who are not converted to full, conscious, active participation. Some believe you just do it and it works, and it doesn't matter if you're engaged or not. And theologically that's correct; god is going to save us regardless. But it'd be really helpful if you communicated that!

There's a great line in the Second Vatican Council's Constitution of Sacred Liturgy: "The pastors of souls are to be zealous for the liturgy and patient with their people." I think we've had extremely patient priests for 37 years, but very few are zealous. I love the Roman rite. I'm zealous for it, and I know that makes a difference.

When my nephew Justin was 8, he said, "Wow, I didn't understand anything you were saying or doing but I was really into it." What he did understand was that this group of people was doing something that was a matter of life and death for them. We priests have the primary responsibility for making liturgy what it's meant to be.

Do you think the Catholic Church is welcoming to African American youth?

African American youth have the same difficulty as other American youth have, and that is they've grown up being entertained. And we're not good at entertaining. So young people now go to the mega-churches where they're being wonderfully entertained. Here's my difficulty: I can't be true to myself or the Roman rite and say, now we're going to entertain. I can't do it; I won't do it.

So how do you engage people without entertaining them?

I've been asked to preside and preach at high schools, and I'll only do it if I can come there first and talk about liturgy—what liturgy's about and what's expected of them—that if you throw yourself into it, it can be very moving. I find it makes a difference. I want to engage them. But I also want to challenge them. This isn't entertainment.

What makes black preaching so unique?

Black preaching always starts with the experience of the people, then asks if there's a word from the Lord that speaks to the situation, and then names God's grace in the midst of it. It's not an easy form of preaching. Though it can be taught, it is better caught by listening. The black church never forgot that preaching is really about stories. That's what Jesus did—he told concrete stories.

We are not afraid in the black community to talk about anything. You can tell God anything and everything. Because God cares about us and our lives. I don't find anything in the Roman rite that goes against that part of the black religious experience. My fear is that we Catholics don't know what the Roman rite is all about, so we miss how welcoming it is to us and to our experience. 

This article appeared in the August 2002 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 67 No. 8, pages 20-23).