Timothy O’Malley, Ph.D. is director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and an Associate Professional Specialist in the Department of Theology. He researches liturgical and sacramental theology and catechesis and is a 2004 (B.A.) and 2006 (M.T.S.) graduate of the University of Notre Dame.
Your book’s title, Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love, mentions two seemingly unrelated words: liturgy and self-giving love. What’s the connection?
Many people, when they hear the word “liturgy,” think about something boring. But liturgy is not this — at least, it’s not supposed to be. Liturgy is a word meaning “God’s public work upon the Church.” It is the public prayer of the Church in which humanity receives infinite love, so that infinite love can be offered as a return gift. So, liturgy evangelizes the world not because it is an act of proselytizing; it evangelizes because in my little corner of South Bend, at my parish Christ the King, total love comes to dwell among us. And through this gift of love, of God’s very presence among us, we become “capacitated” to give this love away to the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned — all those on the margins. In liturgical prayer, God comes to give the fullness of love, and we are invited to offer our own small gift of love in return through our very bodies.
What kind of power do rituals have in Mass? Why is it set in such a way, and why do people have such different opinions of Mass?
Among Westerners, there is an assumption that what is really informative is teaching new worldviews. We think that the only knowledge that really matters is that gained through intellectual pursuit. The Mass, on the other hand, offers another way of knowing. Certainly, the Mass involves our intellect as we contemplate the words that are spoken at every Mass. But, the weekly participation every week at Mass actually forms us in certain habits, ways of relating to God that become part of us. We come to know also through love. So, a lot of people think that the Mass is boring. They think it’s the same from week to week, and what’s really needed is something new. But, the Catholic claim is deeper than this: We come to know and experience God through doing the same motions again and again. It’s how God saves us as human beings!
How did your personal experiences influence you to choose theology as your academic field — and why liturgy?
My study of liturgy actually began with a class that I took my senior year at Notre Dame with Professor Maxwell Johnson. In his course, I learned that Christianity is not reducible simply to ideas. One can also study the history and theology of the practices of worship that have formed Christians throughout the centuries. In some ways, I began to see liturgy as the very heart of theology: through the practice of ritual worship, we can come to know who God is.