This week, on 16 June, Abbot Paul Gunter OSB will celebrate a significant anniversary, marking 50 years since his first Holy Communion, 50 years in which the Church’s liturgy has both sustained and surprised him, shaping and deeply enriching his life and faith.

Appointed last year as the 11th Abbot of Douai Abbey at Upper Wolverhampton—the Benedictine congregation he first joined in 1985—Abbot Paul also serves as Secretary of the Department for Christian Life and Worship to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, a position he has held since 2012.

In Melbourne to present at the Archdiocese’s annual Clergy Conference, which is taking place from 13 to 16 June, he joined us for a wide-ranging conversation about—among other things—the roots of his deep love for the liturgy, the intrinsic relationship between the liturgy and the Church’s mission, and how a Benedictine understanding of hospitality might guide us in welcoming people back to Mass after COVID.

A ‘particularly Catholic’ upbringing

Growing up in a Catholic family, Abbot Paul spent his early years in Wolverhampton—a ‘particularly Catholic’ industrial town in the West Midlands of England, sometimes referred to as Roma Parva (or ‘little Rome’). ‘I do not recall a time when I did not want to be a priest,’ he says.

At boarding school, he found himself in an environment where he ‘lived and breathed a liturgical life’, studying both music and Latin. Then, when he was 14, his family moved to Stratford-upon-Avon. Perhaps best known as Shakespeare’s home town, it is also a Benedictine parish, owned by Douai Abbey. It was his first contact with the Benedictines.

Clearly they made an impression on him, and in 1985, he took vows as a Benedictine monk, going on to study for the priesthood at Heythrop College at the University of London. Ordained to the priesthood in 1991, he spent a decade in parishes as an assistant priest and parish priest, before arriving in Rome in 2002, where he undertook his License and Doctorate in Sacred Liturgy at the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy at Sant’Anselmo all’Aventino, global headquarters of the Benedictine Order.

Completing his doctorate in 2006, he remained in Rome as a professor for another 10 years. During this time, he also served for five years as a consultor of the Office of the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff and took up his role as Secretary of the Department for Christian Life and Worship.

On returning to England, though, he was delighted to take up the role of parish priest again, this time at Our Lady and St Joseph Parish in Alcester, Warwickshire, before being elected as Abbot of Douai Abbey in May last year.

The art of celebrating

When he spoke to us, Abbot Paul was looking forward to gathering with fellow priests at the conference and to sharing his insights on the ars celebrandi—the ‘art of celebrating’ the Mass—and, more specifically, on Pope Francis’ 2022 apostolic letter on the liturgy, Desiderio Desideravi.

‘A clergy conference is always a fraternal occasion,’ he says. ‘It’s an opportunity for priests to be drawn together to consider the subjects that matter to their lives and ministry.’

At first glance, the ‘art of celebrating’ might seem to be only about how priests say Mass, but ‘it’s about so much more than that,’ he says. ‘It’s about how priests draw life from the mysteries they celebrate, and communicate their hope to the holy people of God, who are nourished by the Church’s liturgical life and sacraments.’

In his conference presentation, he hopes to convey this deeper sense of the ars celebrandi, particularly through his discussion of Desiderio Desideravi, an ‘absolutely up-to-date’ document on the liturgical formation of the people of God, addressed to bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated men and women, and the lay faithful.

So our concern isn’t just how priests say Mass but about how we [priests] present a liturgical formation of the people of God, starting with ourselves.

He also hopes to have ‘a truly fraternal dialogue on the issues we face, so that we are able to consider Christ’s way of working as communion; so that that we’re able to consider “What is liturgy?”; so that we’re able to … recognise the liturgy as God’s work, in which we participate and in which we cooperate.’

As well as considering the style of our celebrations, he’s keen to focus on how we might ‘foster an encounter with Christ through the celebration of the liturgy … so that we can really ... put a strobe light, if you like, on what is the most important thing we do.’

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Abbot Paul Gunter in conversation with his brother priests in Melbourne.

A Church rejuvenated by astonishment

Quoting the Rule of St Benedict—‘Prefer nothing to the love of Christ’ (ch. 4)—he observes that nowhere does Christ communicate his love to us so obviously as in the liturgy, ‘where he gives us himself.’ It is by ‘putting Christ at the centre, and Christ at the centre of the liturgy,’ he says, ‘that we’re able to focus on how to communicate him’—a task that affects ‘all of us’.

The mission of the Church is intrinsically linked to its liturgical life, he says, and ‘liturgical formation is the key to making the nuts and bolts of the liturgy accessible, so people can draw missionary impulse and inspire missionary endeavour with and from the liturgy.

‘If you think about it, the liturgy is our shop window,’ he says, noting that a person’s most basic encounter with Catholicism will often be when they first come to Mass.

‘That is the most direct access, isn’t it. It’s built from there. It’s going to be a while before they join anything—subscribe to a parish or knock on the presbytery door—but the first foray, the first encounter, is at Mass.

For this reason, he says, the Sunday celebration must ‘be missionary of impulse, because it’s offering to the Christian community the possibility of being formed by the Eucharist.

From Sunday to Sunday, the Word of the Risen Lord illuminates our existence—it has to—and that affects how we preach what we preach. And it also builds communion.

Parishes can’t be truly missionary, he says, ‘if the people aren’t in communion; if the priests don’t celebrate that communion’—a responsibility that they share with the bishop. Through these ‘God-given relationships, harnessed and developed, you experience that fraternal communion, that ability to share, to develop, to rejuvenate—from a hospitality of service, from that ability to be surprised.’

Abbot Paul believes we must retrieve the ability to be astounded by the liturgy.

None of it surprises us any more, and yet, in fact, from Sunday to Sunday, the bread broken is energy; it’s food, and it’s not an it; it’s a person, Jesus Christ, sustaining us to announce the Gospel, from which the missionary impulse of parishes—the authenticity of a rejuvenated life—will make the Church ever-young, because the Church is celebrating Christ.

Central to this sense of astonishment—and to the missionary impulse it feeds—is the intimacy of relationship with Christ that we experience in the liturgy.

‘If we find friendship beautiful—and I do, for one; I love my friends, and I’m utterly energised by them—should we not expect to be astonished at the beauty of the liturgy?

‘And the liturgy is worthy of our being astonished, not only because it is beautiful and should be beautiful; it is pointing to Eucharistic amazement, because the liturgy is the best experience this side of heaven of Jesus Christ, with whom we will spend eternity.’

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Abbot Paul Gunter.

Abbot Paul—himself an accomplished organist—acknowledges that music is an ‘instrinsic element’ of the beauty we experience in the liturgy. But he believes that care needs to be taken with every aspect of our liturgical life.

‘Let’s not forget the readings,’ he says. ‘It’s extraordinary debilitating when the readings are not well pronounced, when the gospel isn’t well proclaimed, when the homily isn’t up to the task. Because there are two tables at Mass: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. They complement each other.

If we are not amazed by the Word, how are we going to be amazed with the Blessed Sacrament? The Liturgy of the Word is not a warm-up act for the Liturgy of the Eucharist; they complement each other.

God is present in both, he says, so when care is taken with every part of the liturgy, ‘people are brought into a vivid liturgical life’—one that begins with the genuine engagement of priests in the liturgy.

‘That’s what I’m wanting to enliven, wanting to encourage, wanting to draw enthusiasm for, so that the people are enthused in God’s gift to them, which is his liturgical life … the gift of himself.’

True hospitality makes space

Discussing the reticence of some people to return to Mass after COVID, Abbot Paul acknowledges that people first have to feel safe, ‘but we, of course, have to—in the best Benedictine sense—practise hospitality.

It’s not just about the ministry of welcome; it’s much more profound than that. It’s about being a people of hospitality. Hospitality makes space. It doesn’t just give people a hymn book and say there’s coffee after Mass. It’s got a wisdom that fits the time … It really has everything to say about transforming how we relate to one another, how we shun selfishness, and how we encourage inclusiveness.

Drawing on his own Benedictine tradition, he says a number of factors are at work in drawing people into community: ‘You’re looking at prayer, obedience, humility and hospitality. You can’t be hospitable if it’s all about me.’

He is deeply grateful for the warm welcome and hospitality he himself has received since arriving in Melbourne. ‘Where we are made welcome,’ he says, ‘we behold the Word of God made flesh.’