The Power of Smells and Bells

Can Liturgy Evangelize?


An early 20th-century writer, a friend of G.K. Chesterton, recalled being at High Mass in the great cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and hearing an English lady saying in a stage whisper to her husband, “Isn’t it dreadful?” This was the 1900s, so she wasn’t referring to a liturgy of guitars and microphones and burlap banners, but to one of lace and birettas and mumbling and incense. In those days, earnest Protestant visitors to Catholic events rather enjoyed being shocked by what they saw as popish flummery and nonsense bordering on idolatry. It’s easy to sneer at such attitudes as mere prejudiced ignorance, but we still need to note that for all the glory of a great High Mass with all the trimmings, it does risk putting some people off. And it is certainly true to say that many—even most?—converts will admit that a very elaborate liturgy had little or nothing to do with their decision to join the Catholic church. Certainty of truth, recognition of the need for authority, acceptance of Scriptural realities, unity with an unbroken Tradition going all the way back to the apostles—all these are often cited, but the importance of “smells and bells” in the liturgy seems to be of minimal importance.

Having said that, liturgy is at the core of the Catholic Church. It is God’s work: where the veil of the Temple is torn in two and God is present on the altar. It is where he pitches his tent among us, where he is truly present, where his glory-cloud hovers. It ought to be almost heart-stopping. It ought to be a conversion experience for anyone wobbling on the edge of the Church.

Liturgy Speaks

Anyone who wanders into London’s Westminster Cathedral on an ordinary weekday at 5:30 p.m. tends to  linger. The glorious music of the choir, the glittering candles on the altar, the ringing of the sanctuary bell, echoed by the tolling of the great bell in the tower which rings out to tell London that the Consecration has occurred and that the Lord dwells among his people: It would be hard for anyone present to say, “Isn’t it dreadful?”

It ought to be possible to have glorious liturgy as a central part of our evangelization equipment. But we all know it often isn’t glorious. A potential convert who
drops into a Catholic church and finds a collection of elderly ladies at a dreary, rushed, mumbled, let’s-get-this-over-with Mass, or one accompanied by someone screeching silly songs into a microphone, may well decide simply to walk away. Then there are the banal liturgies aimed at making children feel entertained (they usually aren’t) or the ones where some lobby group has insisted on adding irritating new words to familiar hymns to make them “non-sexist” or producing a great list of politically correct slogans under the guise of petitions.

Can we evangelize using smells and bells? Yes, I think we can—but only with care. We can introduce friends and colleagues to a beautiful and dignified Mass—but we will need to be prepared to explain things they may find puzzling or even repellent. We should not assume that they will come to enjoy it if they go often enough, or that they will necessarily be touched and impressed by things we believe should touch and impress them. And they can surprise us. I know of converts whose first experiences of a Catholic Mass were of a very trite, ordinary parish Sunday gathering with indifferent music and silly hymns. But they were hugely impressed by things that had not particularly struck me: people saying the Creed aloud together, teenagers in denim jeans, the mix of ages and races and social backgrounds, the sheer numbers attending.

It is not hard not to see that, for example, the powerfully moving funeral Mass for Pope John Paul in St. Peter’s Square made a massive impact. The crowds did not come for the liturgy—they came to honor the passing of a great man, to show gratitude for an extraordinary life of service and witness, to claim a share in the faith that he upheld and taught. But the liturgy (even though the Sistine Chapel choir is, frankly, not the best) spoke powerfully, and so did the glorious Mass inaugurating Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy, with that chanted Gospel by the deacon from the Eastern rite, and the golden vestments and the pallium and the fisherman’s ring.

Proceed with Caution

There are some obvious pitfalls to evangelizing with liturgy. Bringing a non-Catholic to Mass is bound to have its complications. People often have their own worries: whether or not they should contribute to the collection, whether they can sit if kneeling somehow seems to be making a sign of commitment that they would rather not make at present, whether they have to say the responses. They might be baffled by something that we had never noticed before: servers bowing as they bring up the wine and water, or even the fact that the choir goes to Communion before everyone else (“Who on earth were
they?” I was once asked in a stage whisper, as a cluster of people hurried up the aisle). And it’s likely that this will be the one Mass where something that seems ghastly or comic happens, so we should be prepared for that: the priest who keeps blowing his nose or sings off-key or has funny mannerisms, the lengthy sermon about the state of the parish finances, the batty old lady who insists on trying to hand you a leaflet about a supposed visionary as you kneel in prayer.

Also, we need to accept that people have their own preferences. Some—and most of us, at some stage—love church services where there is glorious music. Some honestly just want a Mass that doesn’t take too long. Others loathe having to make too much contact with anyone else, so a handshake at the Sign of Peace is anathema, and being accosted with well-meaning chat and an invitation to coffee in the church hall sends them scurrying away. I remember a liturgy where I was revolted by the sight of a young man kissing birettas and handing them over to the clergy. It looked ridiculous and slightly horrid. I also remember a funeral Mass where towards the end a member of the family read aloud some poems and tributes to the deceased. I found this trite; others found it touching and beautiful.

And liturgy is not everything: A convert who found herself in a Lefebvrist church told me how a vague sense of discomfort led her to ask questions and finally to a discovery of the facts. She had been discouraged from doing this by people insisting that all that mattered was a particular form of the liturgy. “It took me quite a while to realize that they were wrong on quite a lot of things: I had a strong sense of it all not being quite right, but they didn’t like my asking questions.”

God’s Work—Not Ours

Pope Benedict has written and spoken a great deal about the liturgy, and indeed he sees it as central: He has noted that the crisis through which the Church has been passing in recent years has been, to no small extent, a crisis of liturgy. He particularly stresses that the liturgy is not our work—it is God’s work, and we are at his service. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he gave a number of significant lectures on liturgy, noting, among other things, that celebrating Mass ad orientem (i.e., with the priest facing the altar) emphasized the reality that all involved—priest and people alike—are facing God, turning to the Lord. He also emphasized the dangers of turning a Mass into a performance, an opportunity for people to show their talents—for example with dancing or other displays—and commented that whenever the Mass was interrupted for applause, it was generally a sign that something was wrong with the whole approach to liturgy. (Here was the
voice of someone who endured a number of silly liturgies
of this type.)

The Mass should be numinous; it is our connection with heaven. The liturgy must be allowed to speak—or, better, sing—for itself. We must, and here Ratzinger is speaking again, allow ourselves to be “wounded” by beauty. Some of the most glorious music known to man has been written for the celebration of Mass: Byrd, Mozart, Palestrina. Above all is the ancient chant that goes back to our Jewish roots and to the worship in the synagogue: Gregorian chant, which is a glorious part of the Church’s heritage and should—as Vatican II stated—have a cherished place in the liturgy. Today Gregorian chant is increasingly popular and is used for meditation, for calming children, or for quiet enjoyment when working or resting—but is too rarely heard in the average Catholic parish church! That must change and is changing.

The potential for Gregorian chant and a glorious liturgy to touch hearts and souls, and to bring conversions, must be huge. How do we help? How can we assist? We need to have a spirit of service. We do not own the liturgy; it is a gift to be shared. When we introduce people to it, we should not have a self-satisfied attitude: “Now, you’re going to enjoy this!” We should not take a superior approach and feel that we are introducing people to mysteries that we understand and they do not (“Now just follow me and do as I do” can sound patronizing and bossy even if it is meant to be kind). The liturgy has its own glory: The men who experienced a Byzantine liturgy wrote that they did not know if they were in heaven or on earth. Liturgy has the possibility to transport us into another world, into union with God that speaks to our souls, heals us, and uplifts us.

Non Nobis, Domine

So, what are the practicalities for today’s lay evangelist of using beautiful liturgy and smells and bells? We might put together some ideas:

  • Some churches with a strong musical tradition listthe music that is being sung at the main Mass onSunday—this is an opportunity to bring someone along to hear a particularly fine piece or the work of a famous composer.
  • Think about the Church’s year and the accompanying liturgies. The Easter Vigil with its dramatic lightingof the Easter fire and blessing of baptismal water is full of rich symbolism: the darkness as we gather, the glowing fire, the chants of “Lumen Christi!” as the great candle is brought into the church. The Maundy Thursday Mass, with the traditional washing of feet, is also awesomely beautiful and moving, and something to which an interested friend could be taken, especially in a great cathedral.
  • Casual information can be passed on about a church, especially in a city center, that has a beautiful liturgy, with a mention that one can just wander in, no need to feel that there is a fixed seating plan or requirement to do anything in particular.
  • We should acquire, by our own study and reading, a quiet ability to answer questions—however odd—that arise concerning the liturgy. (With information on a surprisingly wide range of arcane things, catholic.com is a good place to start.)
  • We should involve ourselves in helping to foster good liturgy in every way we can, recognizing that we are living at a time of change, when some of the trite and silly stuff that erupted in the 1970s is giving way to a more authentic understanding of what liturgy could and should be. The “reform of the reform” is not just for the experts—it is about ordinary people joining choirs and learning good music, about altar servers being properly trained, about children and young people being adequately instructed in First Communion and confirmation classes, about good decisions being made in Catholic groups and organizations when arranging the celebration of Mass. The era of the coffee-table Mass is passing—let’s help it to go.
  • We could think about processions, Benediction, or the quiet beauty of a church where adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is taking place. These are opportunities for people to experience Catholic worship and veneration of the Eucharist outside of Mass, where wafts of incense surround something quite obviously valued as being of priceless worth.
  • And, naturally, we need to think about our own attitudes in church, our sense of reverence, of respect for others at prayer, of attentiveness to the huge reality of what is taking place at the altar. Devotion does not mean an elaborate show of piety: If we have brought along a friend or colleague, our quiet sincerity should start from within, with our own prayer-life; that will enable the other person to share in what is going on and understand how important it is. 

The Church in her wisdom gives us a structured liturgy: It is meant to be giving the greatest possible glory to God and in doing so drawing more and more souls to him. It is God’s gift to us, and we should seek his wisdom in understanding how we can introduce people to it and use it as an instrument of evangelization. Smells and bells can definitely work.


Joanna Bogle is an author, broadcaster, and journalist living in London with her husband, a lawyer. Her most recent book is English Catholic...

This article appeared in Volume 21 Number 6.