by Monica Migliorino Miller, Ph.D.
[Originally published in the August/Sept. 2010 issue of The Homiletic and Pastoral Review and posted here by permission of the author]
Serious changes are about to take place that will affect the way Catholics in English speaking countries celebrate Mass. These changes have to do with the actual translation of the prayers of the Mass itself—a translation more faithful to the original Latin and intended to infuse the Liturgy with a spiritual solemnity and organic connectedness to the history of the Roman Rite. Before I continue with the subject of this article I think that it needs to be said: the Novus Ordo, at least as it is celebrated in English-speaking countries, is in need of serious reform.
It is fair to say, that while there exists something called the “Roman Rite,” in practice the Roman Rite is a non-entity. At the practical level, the Rite is treated as a general template that is more or less followed by the celebrant and the congregation. There exists such a wide-range of personal liturgical styles, literally from one parish to the next, even from one priest to the next, that the Roman Rite, as such, doesn’t exist. The Roman Rite-general template-is the “order of the Mass” in terms of the Opening prayers, Kyrie, the Gloria, the readings, the homily and so forth. Many priests, liturgists and laypeople believe that as long as this order is respected, all that is required for a proper celebration of the Roman Rite has been fulfilled.
This article does not intend to take issue with the Novus Ordo. The author may certainly be called “a Vatican II Catholic.” I accept the New Rite, though I sympathize with those many Catholics who prefer the Old Latin Rite or what is commonly called the Tridentine Rite. Nonetheless, we need to take a very long, very hard and very honest look at the way the Novus Ordo is celebrated. Many years ago I wrote an article for the Homiletic and Pastoral Review entitled “The Models of the Mass.” In that piece I discussed what continues to be a problem, namely the imposition of the priest-celebrant’s own personal style on the public prayer of the Church. It is not only a matter of the priest whose personality dominates the Liturgy, but even more egregious, the priest who tailors the Mass to reflect his own theological opinions and quirks. This imposition reduces the universal prayer of the Church to the priest’s own private possession that he may, on his own authority, manipulate to reflect his personal bias. Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium (The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) taught that the regulation of the Liturgy depended upon the authority of the Church—that is the Apostolic See, the local, bishop or various kinds of bishops’ conferences. “Therefore, no other person, not even a priest, may add, remove or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.” This is may be the most ignored teaching of Vatican II.
I am not going to spend time here reciting the litany of liturgical horrors that the Novus Ordo has been subjected to since Vatican II. They are far-reaching, they are vast, they are everywhere. For the purposes of our discussion, this article is focused on perfecting the Mass that is already celebrated more or less with respect to the rubrics and not Masses corrupted by serious liturgical abuses.
The Versus Populum Debate
In his well-known book, Spirit of the Liturgy, Benedict XVI discussed the problem of the Mass stamped with the priest’s personality. The Holy Father traces this cult of personality to the common post-Vatican II practice of the priest celebrating Mass “versus populum”— namely the priest facing the people. The Pope very clearly articulates the negative liturgical consequences of this Mass style. The “versus populum” position emphasizes the Mass as a meal and suppresses the Mass as a sacrifice, a liturgy in which the priest “presider” becomes the focus and center of the ritual in a kind of new post-Vatican II clericalism. In addition, the congregation becomes a circle closed upon itself, rather than a people, including the priest, who face God together in an act of worship. Benedict XVI leaves no doubt that he favors the “ad orientum” position of the priest and the people—in other words— that the priest and the congregation together face the altar, perhaps even “face east” in liturgical worship.
I believe the Holy Father would like to mandate the “ad orientum” or what is also called the “ad Deum” position as a way to instantly reform liturgical practice in the Roman Rite. With this liturgical gesture, coupled with the re-introduction of kneeling for Communion, nearly all abuses affecting the Church’s worship would be swept away.
However, while we hope for and wait for a formal and official reformation of the Liturgy, there are quite a few things that a worshipping community can do right now that will instantly improve the Sunday Mass . The items that I discuss below can be implemented immediately without a “moto proprio” from the Pope, without a bishops’ conference mandating changes. My hope is that this article will be duplicated, sent out, reprinted, given away and copies distributed far and wide to priests and Catholic lay people everywhere. With it I hope to provoke, thought, debate, and discussion on what constitutes “good liturgy.” I hope to influence priests and regular Mass-goers and perhaps even bring about a change in the whole way we think about and conduct Sunday Mass services. What is at stake is the very quality of the worship that we as a Church offer to God.
I call these items “The Twelve Ways”—in other words, the twelve ways that next Sunday the Mass, celebrated in your local parish, can be elevated and perfected—in short, made a more beautiful act of liturgical worship. These “Twelve Ways” are certainly not an exhaustive list. Many who read this article may wonder why I neglected certain issues. Certainly, this list could be longer. But making the list longer is not the goal. The goal here is to at least begin a discussion of liturgical issues that could instantly lead to better Catholic worship.
The First Way—The Mass is Ritual Prayer
The first item on the list has to do with a foundational principle. This principle in some ways governs all the subsequent points that will be discussed. As Catholics we need to rediscover the very nature of liturgical worship. We need to again appreciate that the Mass is a ritual. As ritual prayer, as a divine ceremony, it is meant to take the participant into another world. Every gesture, every step has a meaning that is designed to draw the worshipper into the mysteries of God. The rite itself should lift the worshipper out of the ordinary. A real shift of dimension ought to be facilitated by ritual worship. In short—we leave behind the profane world and enter a sacred realm. This means that nothing should intrude into the rite of worship that is in any way banal, vapid, insipid, frivolous, pedestrian or silly. Whatever is casual, informal, or sloppy has no place in divine worship. Unfortunately, in many cases, these are the very things that characterize Sunday liturgy.
We need to re-discover that the Mass is real prayer—thus as prayer and as ritual, the ceremony of the Mass should be seamless. The Mass should be celebrated from the opening song to the recessional hymn as a seamless unbroken rite. The 2000 year-old spiritual tradition of the Church teaches that when a Christian enters private prayer, distractions are to be fought, distractions are to be overcome—they are not to be encouraged, they are not to be deliberately indulged. Anything that diverts attention away from a prayerful focus on God and unity with God is to be avoided. This important spiritual principle applied to private prayer, also applies most certainly to the universal, public prayer of the Church. Whatever disrupts the seamless flow of the divine liturgy must be excluded. This will be discussed further in the Second Way.
The Second Way—Eliminate Folksy Remarks
Very frequently Masses begin with a greeting from the priest such as “Good morning, I hope you are all having a good day.” This “good morning” usually comes right after the Sign of the Cross. Thus, the opening hymn has been sung, the Sign of the Cross made and then the ritual prayer of the Church veers off course by the intrusion of non-liturgical jargon. Nothing sets the tone of banality more than such useless and liturgically irrelevant vocabulary. The Introductory Rites of the Mass are to prepare the worshipper to enter into God’s presence. Folksy greetings and other sorts of welcomes very subtly draw attention away from God and shifts it to the priest and the congregation. I have even been to masses where, not only is the liturgical action tainted by this particular banality, but priests add such comments as: “And how about those Packers—weren’t they somethin’ last night?” Sorry, but such remarks have absolutely no place in a sacred rite of worship. Always be mindful that the Mass is ritual prayer.