By: Dan McHale '21
If you were to survey Pope St. John XXIII seminarians on who their favorite professor is, undoubtedly Monsignor James Mongelluzzo would be near or at the top of that list. A native of Waterbury, Connecticut and a priest of the Diocese of Worcester, Msgr. Mongelluzzo holds advanced degrees in Sacred Liturgy from Weston Jesuit School of Theology and the University of Notre Dame. Currently, he is Director of Liturgy and Homiletics at PSJS. He has previously served as Associate Director for Liturgical and Spiritual Formation at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, and was the seventh rector at the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Worcester, MA. On weekends for the past 23 years, he has celebrated Mass at Our Lady of the Lake in Leominster, MA.
Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing the longtime teacher and mentor to seminarians about his recently published book, Understanding the Liturgy: A Guide to How Catholics Worship.
Dan: Firstly, Monsignor, I want to congratulate you on the publication of your book. How did this project get started?
MM: Thank you, Dan. I was teaching an online liturgy course during the summer of 2017 for the Boston College School of Theology and Crossroads Program. The program offers courses for adult faith formation. We could never find a book that suited the course. After changing the course book a number of times, Crossroads leadership said, "Why don't you write one?" I said, “I'll never have the time; it's impossible!" They said, "Try it." So, I did! It took me a whole summer to write, and I had really good editors who gave me lots of support and helpful feedback. So that's the origins of the book, which is part of a six-book series called The Adult Faith Formation Library published by Twenty-Third Publications.
Dan: Although this is your first book, you have written a doctoral dissertation. Unlike your dissertation, however, this book is designed for a general readership. Is it harder to write for an academic audience, or for a general audience?
MM: For me, writing for a wider audience is a bigger challenge. When you want something to reach a more inclusive readership, you need to be clear, use the terminology everyone understands and make the content attractive. Writing a dissertation is for a narrower audience who are specialists in your field. Because they know the field, you can presume knowledge of technical terminology and background information.
The publisher’s limit for the book was four chapters, 20 pages per chapter and reflection questions at the end of each chapter. When writing these questions, I had to think of questions that parishioners would ask, for example, questions about liturgical practices they experience at Mass or baptism, the liturgical calendar, liturgical symbols or liturgical ministries. I included lots of basic information that would help people appreciate at a deeper level, what God is doing for them in a liturgical rite and how they respond to God during the rite. There’s so much about liturgy that I could have included in the book, but I selected what I hoped might be most helpful to adults in Catholic parishes.
Dan: In your book, you frequently cite the Vatican II document called the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, particularly its declaration that "full, conscious and active participation" is necessary for the faithful at Mass. Why do you feel this is so essential?
MM: I referred to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy a lot because it’s the Second Vatican Council’s vision statement for the entire liturgical life of the Church. It sets the standards for all the official liturgical developments we have been experiencing over the past fifty-six years. It’s like a “blueprint” or “master plan” for shaping all components of liturgical rites and liturgical catechesis. If you understand the Constitution, the meaning of today’s liturgical rites comes into clearer focus.
I gave a lot of emphasis in the book to full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations because it’s one of the key principles in the Constitution on the Liturgy. The Constitution says that, in all liturgical rites, full, conscious and active participation by all the faithful is to be considered above all else. The Constitution envisions all liturgical rites as actions of Christ and the members of his Body the Church. This means people are not to be spectators but participants with Christ who has conjoined his people to himself in his own perpetual liturgy of praise and intercession before God. We actualize this in liturgical rites through the various ministerial roles of the clergy and laity, prayerful words, singing, actions and silence. In other words, full, conscious and active participation is a major constituent of the very nature of the liturgy.
Dan: The book's primary focus is, of course, on liturgy. However, it is also a lesson in Church history and etymology. Why do you feel the Church's past, as well as the origins of words, are important for our understanding of sacred liturgy?
MM: It’s like when I first went to Italy, to meet with my relatives. I saw where my ancestors came from and how they lived. I observed the way they decorated their homes, how they interacted with each other, how they ordered the rhythm of daily lives and how food and family were the big priorities. I realized that I had come in contact with my roots. In understanding my family history, I better understood myself. The same is true when we explore the history of our Church’s liturgical practices. When we discover our liturgical roots, we better understand today’s liturgical practices.
I learned how important word etymology is when I wrote my doctoral dissertation. My area of specialization is in the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. I did the dissertation on the prayers called minor and major exorcisms. The Church prays these prayers over catechumens while they are making their way through the catechumenate, which is a conversion process. I wanted to find out from the words in these prayers what the Church asks catechumens to turn away from, what the Church asks them to embrace and what kind of help Church asks God to give them in order to do this. I did word etymologies on the principal words in these prayers to answer these questions. I learned that opening up a word is like entering a room. When you enter a room, you experience a sense of discovery because there are many components that make the room what it is, shape, color, furniture, art, etc. All these components communicate meaning. It’s the same with words.
Dan: A recent Pew survey claimed that nearly 70% of U.S. Catholics do not believe in the real presence in the Eucharist. How does understanding the liturgy fit in to our attempts at catechesis to overcome this problem?
MM: I believe that a big part of the problem is the lack of catechesis, not only on the meaning of real presence in the consecrated Bread and Wine but also on the entire celebration of the Eucharist that brings about Christ’s real presence and in how to live Eucharist centered lives. I believe parish leadership needs to take the initiative to provide this catechesis for people. For example, the parish bulletin and the parish website are ideal settings for on-going liturgical catechesis. During the liturgical year, there are Sundays when the lectionary passages provide the opportunity to preach about the Eucharist like Holy Thursday or the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ. In year C, Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse in the gospel of John is divided up over five consecutive weeks. Also, weekly Holy Hours with Eucharistic Adoration can include a brief reflection on the meaning of the Eucharist. A Lenten series can be devoted to Eucharistic catechesis. Discussion groups can be centered on Bishop Robert Barron’s talks on the Eucharist. These are available in his website or on YouTube. However, I believe the most effective Eucharistic catechesis is the celebration of the Eucharist itself. When the Eucharist is celebrated prayerfully, reverently and unhurriedly, participants are drawn into the very mystery of Christ’s Eucharistic presence. They learn the meaning of the Eucharist through their own experience.
Dan: Finally, how can this book benefit Pope St. John XXIII seminarians once they are out in the field as parochial vicars or pastors of their own parishes?
MM: I'm glad to hear that question. The book is designed for parish adult faith formation. Individuals can read it on their own. Or, the book can be used for group discussion over a four-week period. The book has four chapters of about 20 pages. Each chapter is designed to be read in one sitting. There are discussion questions at the end of each chapter. The book can also be helpful for parish liturgy committees in learning liturgy basics. Parish liturgical ministers might find the book helpful to explore the meaning of the liturgy in which they hold an important place.
Dan: Thank you for your time, Monsignor. And a special thanks to you for writing such a clear, concise and helpful book on liturgy.
MM: Thank you, Dan. See you in class on Saturday.
If you are interested in purchasing copies of Monsignor Mongelluzzo's book for yourself or for your parish, they can be found on the Twenty-Third Publications website at www.twentythirdpublications.com/unlinegutoho.html or by typing the number 1627854177 into the search bar on Amazon.com.