An Interview with Jason McFarland, PhD

by Gordon Nary



Gordon: When were your appointed Assurant Director at’ the Centre for Liturgy and Lecturer in Liturgical Studies and Sacramental Theology in the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy at Australian Catholic University and what subjects do you teach?


Jason: I came to ACU in July of 2016 as Assistant Director of the newly-established ACU Centre for Liturgy as well as Lecturer (which is equivalent to Assistant Professor rank in the USA) in Liturgical Studies and Sacramental Theology within the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy. The Centre’s work focuses on providing specialist expertise, teaching, research, and formation in liturgical studies, sacramental theology, and the sacred arts. Its offerings deliberately intermingle rigorous academic research and education with more pastoral formation and training, in order to meet the vast array of needs within the Catholic Church in Australia. We are endorsed by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, which helps to establish our credibility in dioceses throughout the country. As part of the Faculty, I teach undergraduate units on liturgy and sacraments, as well as more focused post-graduate units, such as Sacraments of Initiation and Sacraments and Sacramentality. Prior to my work at ACU, I taught liturgical studies as a lecturer at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and as an Assistant Professor at St Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.



Gordon: How has the Second Vatican Council influenced your work?


Jason:: The insights of the Council pervade my work in all of its aspects. Most important for me, however, is the Council’s insight that the Church must face the realities of society and culture with respect and a willingness to engage in conversation. The Holy Spirit works in the world, and thus so too does humanity’s encounter with God happen within and through it.


Pastors, liturgists, and scholars are still working out the implications of the liturgical renewal and reform given impetus by the Council. The crucial insight for the Church’s worship is that for the liturgy to work as it should, it must communicate the Paschal Mystery in a way comprehensible to the faithful in a variety of contexts. The liturgy is not simply a divine ordinance, as such, but an inspired human response to humankind’s encounter of the holy.


Gordon: Please provide an overview of your courses on liturgy, sacramental theology, and the sacred arts.


Jason:: ACU offers a variety of undergraduate units in theology, including some on liturgy and sacraments. In the postgraduate space, we offer a Graduate Certificate in Theological Studies (Liturgy), where students undertake classes in Foundations in Liturgy, Sacraments of Initiation, Celebrating Feasts and Seasons, and Liturgical Music. For the Graduate Diploma, students can broaden their study to Biblical Studies and Theology units as well. We also offer a Master of Theology Studies (Liturgy), which broadens the scope of academic inquiry with units such as Marriage and Orders, Liturgical Theology, Ritual Studies, Liturgical Inculturation, etc. The Faculty offers the Master’s and PhD degrees in theology, with strict admission standards, which can be tailored to focus on liturgy, sacramental theology, and/or the sacred arts. Information on all of our programs can be found here: http://www.acu.edu.au/1089724.


Gordon: You have travelled extensively. Where are some of the most interesting placed that you have visited and some of the more\e interesting people that you have met?


Jason: I did a lot of travel when I was working for the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. I was the Assistant Editor at ICEL from 2005-2012. We travelled to many English-speaking countries that are members of ICEL, such as India, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and the USA. It was fascinating and heartening to see how the Church operates in different cultural contexts. My favourite places, though, are in China and Southeast Asia. Visiting a Miao ethnic minority village in Guizhou Province (China) was a highlight among all of my travels. Individuals do not stand out so much as do the warmth and hospitality offered by everyone I met. Bagan in Myanmar (Burma) is also a highlight. As in China, it was fascinating to immerse oneself (as far as that is possible as an outsider) in cultures whose foundations are completely different from my own Western culture.


Gordon: Please share with our readers your experience in working in China with the Peace Corps.


Jason: From 2012-15, I left my American life behind and worked in China as a Peace Corps Volunteer and TEFL Technical Trainer (2012-14) and private school English teacher (2014-15). As a Volunteer, I worked at Zunyi Normal College (Guizhou). In China, Peace Corps Volunteers work as university English teachers in the underserved provinces of Guizhou, Sichuan, Chongqing, and Gansu. It was a life-changing experience and one that I would do again. The three-pronged goal of Peace Corps service is, first, to provide a service the host country needs, i.e., providing university English teachers in places where it is difficult to recruit native-speaker teachers. The second goal is to broaden the understanding on the part of Chinese people of American culture, and, third, to broaden the understanding on the part of American people of Chinese culture. This last goal is something that happens for Volunteers throughout their service, but it is ongoing as Volunteers reenter their lives in the USA. The Peace Corps has now been in China for twenty-five years, and has made a positive impact on relations between the USA and China, and, even more importantly, has had immeasurable positive effects on university students in Western China. After my service, I also worked for a summer as a TEFL trainer for new volunteer trainees. I have to say that, without a doubt, my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, as well as my Chinese students and colleagues, are the most interesting people I have met in my travels. Many are now lifelong friends.


Gordon: What is your perception of the increased Vatican relations with China?


Jason: Having lived in China and having some experience of Catholic worship there, I have mixed views on the matter. It is certainly a positive step for the Vatican to do everything within its power to normalize relations with the Chinese hierarchy. Dialogue can and should bear fruit, but the dialogue is not at all the same thing as compromising on the essentiality of religious freedom.


Gordon: What inspired you to write Announcing the Feast: The Entrance Song in the Mass of the Roman Rite?


Jason: When I began my postgraduate studies in the liturgy at The Catholic University of America, I had previously been studying music. It made sense to focus on a musical dimension of the liturgy when it came to writing my PhD dissertation. Faculty mentors at CUA also saw the connection, so encouraged me to proceed in that direction. The book is a version of my dissertation, with some amendments and elaborations for a broader market. I see the antiphons of the liturgy as still-to-be-mined gems of theological insight. While they were once common in our worship, they are today mostly eclipsed by other musical forms. On the one hand, this is as it should be, since ancient chant cannot always function well in present-day worship. On the other hand, the antiphons can and should guide our musical selections and compositions today. In a nutshell, this is the point of the entire book, but with a couple of hundred pages of rigorous musicological, historical, theological and liturgical scholarship to back it up!


Gordon: You are also a classical singer and conductor, amateur food writer/chef, and TEFL trainer/teacher. When and how do you make time

to pursue these talents and interests?


Jason: My duties at ACU take up most of my time these days, but it is crucial for a happy life to take time for hobbies. Luckily, music is part of my work in the Centre for Liturgy. I am also a member of the Sydney Philharmonia Chamber Singers. We perform throughout the year at the Sydney Opera House and other venues. I still dabble in Chinese cooking (particularly the cuisines of Sichuan and Guizhou) when I have time. I got heavily into cooking while I was living in China. The vast Chinese population in Sydney makes this hobby possible—every ingredient you could desire is to be found in Chinatown. I hope to get back into food writing in the near future, but I am still waiting for that spark of inspiration that might make it a viable side career. I do not engage in TEFL these days and have mostly left that behind in China, though the teaching methods I learned there have proven invaluable to my university teaching in Australia.


Gordon: Thank you for this insightful interview!


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