For many years I have listened to the concerns of lay people who have been dissatisfied with the way Mass has been celebrated in their parish. Of course these concerns cover the broadest range of issues, from serious liturgical abuses to matters of mere personal preference. The more serious concerns were addressed by the Vatican’s liturgy office a couple years ago in a document entitled Redemptionis Sacramentum.
What I’d like to discuss here is my top ten list of lesser liturgical concerns. Taken in a vacuum, any one of these might not be worth turning into a federal case. However, the cumulative effect of these and similar matters does matter greatly. They take away from the assembly’s sense of reverence and awe, and they also unnecessarily distract the faithful, who are called to a ”full, conscious, and active participation” in the sacred liturgy.
(1) Thanking the “little people.”
Many priests feel obliged to thank everyone who played any sort of role in the liturgy, from the servers, readers, and choir, to the whole congregation. I know one priest who always says “thank you” every time the faithful responds “and also with you.”
I agree people should be affirmed. Take the altar servers on an annual field trip; give the lay ministers a nice Christmas present; take the choir out for dinner. But such affirmations are more appropriate outside of the sacred liturgy, where there is no danger of taking away from the essentially Christ-centered nature of the Mass.
(2) At least train the “little people.”
It seems that despite having less to do all the time, altar servers are generally more clueless than ever. That’s not primarily their fault, however. Rather, they often are not diligently trained over a period of time as is befitting of service on the altar.
I was at a Mass recently with a children’s choir in which the children weren’t singing. By the end of the recessional hymn, with the children not singing and most of the congregation jostling for position in the coffee and donut line, it seemed like I was the only one still singing. I had to resist the temptation to do my Elvis impersonation (“Thank you, thank you very much”) when the faithful remnant in church applauded when the song was over.
Anyway, the point is, we can have either many or few lay ministers at Mass. More isn’t necessarily better, especially if they don’t know what they’re doing.
(3) Stick with the script.
I don’t know what it is about just using the wording the Church provides. Of course we can run into real problems when the priest decides to make up the Eucharistic Prayer as he goes, or he blesses us in the name of the “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.” But even on lesser matters it can be irritating. Do we really have to have a “Gathering Hymn” and a “Sending Forth Hymn”? Is it really necessary to go through the Sacramentary with a fine-tooth comb to eliminate all the (gasp) masculine pronouns? (By the way, why is it we still use masculine pronouns for Satan? I guess the feminists are willing to let us keep that one.)
While one can never fully plumb the depths of the sacred mysteries that are celebrated in the Mass, it’s also nonetheless true that celebrating the Mass in accordance with liturgical norms is not rocket science. In fact, I’d gently suggest that reading the actual words provided by the Church is easier than changing them or even making them up as one goes along!
(4) Rehearse the adlibs.
There are, however, some places in the liturgy where the “presider” may incorporate his own formulations or adaptations. An example would be during the penitential rite. However, I’d strongly suggest to priests who are keen on taking advantage of these opportunities for creativity to prayerfully plan out these things before the Mass, as presumably they do for their homily.
Too often, the prayers made up on the fly that try to cleverly connect different aspects of the day’s liturgy end up being unintelligible and occasionally even heretical. And even when the priest pulls it off, it can easily focus more attention on him and his liturgical prowess than on Our Lord.
(5) Warming up the crowd.
We are gathering for the sacred liturgy, not a rock concert or nightclub act. We don’t need to be “warmed up” by means of a monologue or series of one-liners by the celebrant, or by engaging in “ice breakers” with other congregants.
A positive trend along these lines is that some parishes now require silence for a five or ten-minute period before Mass starts to allow people to recollect themselves. This sort of practice is far more helpful. (And, on a related point, some respectful silence after Mass isn’t a bad idea, either.)
(6) Literacy matters.
There is a deficiency in the American education system when it comes to reading, and you can see this each and every Sunday Mass. In our missalettes, it clearly says that at a certain point during the confiteor, we are to strike our breast. Later, during two lines of the Creed, we are to bow. It says this in black and white, without using big words. But apparently no one is paying attention.
Look around you. The evidence is there for all to see. Almost no one strikes their breast or bows at these appointed times, not even the priest.
(7) Create “no-fluff” zones.
We often hear about how poorly catechized Catholics are, and we often hear complaints about homilies that may (or may not) be entertaining, but provide little teaching. It seems to me that we should be able to kill two birds with one stone here and actually use the homily as a means of forming Catholics in the ABCs of the faith.
One suggestion: the homilist could take the readings and find where these passages are cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Then those paragraphs from the Catechism would form the substance of what he communicates during the homily. Heck, if he does that, he can keep the jokes!
(8) Odor of sanctity?
I can understand that those who are serving as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion would want to look and even smell their best when serving at the altar. Yet, so often I have received Our Lord from ministers who seemingly soaked their hands in cologne immediately before being called upon to distribute Communion. Especially for those of us who still receive on the tongue, this makes the august moment of receiving Our Lord unnecessarily unpleasant on the sensory level.
Some people jump Communion lines to avoid lay ministers. I don’t do that. However, I have been tempted to change lines to avoid the Jean Nate aftertaste.
(9) Bring back bells at St. Mary’s.
It’s not, strictly speaking, a violation of the rubric to forgo the use of bells at the consecration. Still, they may be used, and in fact incense may be used at the consecration as well. For more on this, see CUF’s Faith Fact on the subject.
It’s not like today’s altar servers are overworked (see above). But more importantly, a prime rationale for doing away with bells is because the faithful are so well formed liturgically that this practice is no longer needed. Given the decline in belief in the real presence and the general torpor of the congregation by the time the Eucharistic Prayer rolls around, a few bells may be helpful. On top of that, many mega-parishes are packed on Sunday, with a lot of parents ”multi-tasking” with fussy children as they try to follow the Mass. The bells would also help those of us in the vestibules, crying areas, and restrooms know that Our Lord is now fully present on the altar.
(10) I (don’t) wanna hold your hand.
I could never figure out the appeal of hand-holding during the Our Father. There’s nothing per se wrong with it, but the rite doesn’t require it. So it’s strange that some pastors so strongly encourage it, mentioning it each and every every week.
We never hear about the need to be in a state of grace to receive Communion, about the need to bow before receiving Communion (or during the Creed, as noted above). But in some parishes every week the parishioners are urged if not pressured to hold hands during the Our Father.
Why can’t we just call a moratorium on this? Those of us who don’t like to hold hands will be grateful, and some of those that do will likely hold hands anyway. Eventually this well-meaning yet trendy practice will die a natural death so long as pastors don’t keep it alive by artificial means.
Again, while these aren’t the worst things that can happen at the liturgy, they are a good cross-section of the the more run-of-the-mill annoyances that are still encountered with some frequency. If even these little things can be “fixed,” we’d be well on our way to more majestic, inspiring liturgies.
But in the meantime, let’s still do our part, through our own full, conscious, and active participation notwithstanding the distractions, to bear witness to the sublimity of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.