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Foundational Social Ritual Practices of Parish Life
Eating, Worshipping, and Hanging Out Together
By Michael J. McCallion
Reviewed by Rev. Stephen S. Wilbricht
Liturgical theologians are quite skilled at using the well-known axiom lex orandi, lex credendi, which in very simplistic terms means “prayer forms belief.” This is one of the key reasons that the Second Vatican Council’s call for “full, conscious, and active” participation is so important. If we are going to learn to live out the true Christian spirit in daily life, then we must first learn it from our liturgical gatherings.
Foundational Social Ritual Practices of Parish Life is both thoroughly theological as well as profoundly sociological in nature. Michael J. McCallion’s basic thesis is that the work of evangelization should not rely upon the transmission of dogma and catechesis but rather upon social gathering. More specifically, he believes that parish communities ought to offer opportunities to gather around food. As the author writes in the foreword: “We suggest, foundationally speaking, therefore, that parish staff and parishioners alike sink efforts into building large kitchens and having weekly meals together to which the whole parish as well as seekers are invited to simply be with one another, hang-out together” (iix-ix).
One would be sadly mistaken to envision the book’s contents as either providing menus for potlucks or blueprints for industrial kitchens. Instead, McCallion builds a very complex sociological case, largely based on the thought of Emile Durkheim, as to why socializing is so very important in our modern world. Even though Americans regularly talk about the value of community, they tend to overlook what is necessary to make true community a reality. Tradition and memory are the heart of the matter for community, and both of these undergird what Christianity is about as well. However, what is valued by most Americans is something quite different, namely, individualism, suburbanization, and upward social mobility.
The book is comprised of six chapters. The introductory material of chapter one paints a picture of the plight of the parish in the modern world, while simultaneously holding out great hope for what parish life might become in the future. Chapter two is the densest of the six, where McCallion offers a thorough exploration of various dimensions of Durkheim’s theory of social connectedness. Chapter three argues that the formation of “special purpose groups” ought to be the approach to building parish community. In keeping with the liturgical axiom lex orandi, lex credendi, the author writes “Feeling before thinking is the path toward greater social connectedness. The parish can offer such opportunities for feeling before thinking” (69). Chapter four turns to the attitudes of lay parish employees and challenges them to discover their primary social outlets within the realm of the parish, so as to truly help in constructing community. Chapter five serves as the centerpiece of the book, where McCallion provides solid evidence suggesting that food helps to build and maintain social connectedness. “Eating is sharing and sharing is connecting and once connections begin sparks of solidarity shoot in directions never thought of” (123). Finally, the book’s concluding chapter examines many of the important rituals of the Sunday Eucharist, with special attention paid to the need for ritual familiarity rather than emphasis on creativity and novelty. For example, McCallion promotes the need for members of the parish to learn a song that they can sing together by heart.
As a liturgical theologian, one of the most significant features of this book for me is the author’s call for the need for more research to be done on the principle of active participation. McCallion writes: “But what exactly does ‘active’ mean or ‘participate’ mean? What does an ‘active’ parishioner look like? What does a parishioner who is fully and consciously participating look like?” (105). He suggests that answers to these questions will not be found in lectures on liturgy, but rather in the ritual doing. As he writes: “Sacredness is not inherently permanent in any object. No, sacredness must be added over and over again by collective human doing” (107). We still have much to learn on the principle of “full, conscious, and active” participation.
At a moment when parish leaders are strategizing how to fill churches again after the ravaging plight of the COVID-19 pandemic, Foundational Social Ritual Practices of Parish Life is particularly timely. Its appearance also corresponds to the call by the Catholic bishops of the United States for a Eucharistic revival over the next several years. This book suggests that such renewal will not succeed by inviting people to attend programs for education and catechesis. Rather, what is needed is the opportunity to simply gather and experience social connection. McCallion argues convincingly that the Catholic Church has precisely what Americans are hungering for: “an awakening story that reveals to them the importance of relationships and the social ritual practices needed for those relationships to flourish” (181). Anyone who is interested in the rejuvenation of Catholic parish life would benefit from reading this book.
Rev. Stephen S. Wilbricht is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Stonehill College and is the author of several articles in publications such as Worship, The Living Light, Assembly and many others.
Foundational Social Ritual Practises of Parish Life: Eating, Worshipping and Hanging Out Together is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem.