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Reflections On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly) | James V. Schall, S. J. | June 13, 2005


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Every time I am at a Mass on Sunday or a Solemnity where, contrary to the rules, the Creed is omitted, I wonder why. The Creed is that part of the Mass wherein we, individually and as a congregation, affirm out loud what, in essence, we hold to be true about the Godhead. We need to hear, affirm, and think about this Credo, as it is called; the Church needs to hear that it is affirmed.

I asked a friend of mine about this omission of the Creed. He told me of a parishioner he knew who noticed the same thing. He asked his pastor about it. The pastor told him that it was omitted because the Creed was "divisive!"

Now, the life of Christ itself was divisive. This division is what happened when He dwelt amongst us. "Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, nay; but rather division" (Luke, 12:51). The Trinity, the subject matter of the Creed, is divisive. Jews and Muslims, among others, reject it. There is practically no point of what we believe or know that is not "divisive" to someone. The logic of this dubious principle — skip what is "divisive" — is to believe and proclaim precisely nothing as the essence of our faith. Is nothingness what satisfies empty minds? Another friend told me that many of the younger priests he knew do not wear vestments at private Masses. I have even heard of Mass in swimsuits. There is no warrant for this shedding of proper liturgical garb, except perhaps in the failure of bishops and superiors to insist on the normal rules of the Church. Too much bother, I guess.

Often these days, I find petition prayers after the Creed to last longer than the Canon of the Mass itself, with seemingly interminable lists of things to pray for, not infrequently of dubious political or moral import. Quite often the petitions merely repeat what is already in the Canon, itself is also in the vernacular. Why pray for the Pope in petition prayers when we pray for him in the Canon?

What happens at the amazingly poorly named "kiss of peace" is too amusing to recount. No aspect of the current Mass is more inappropriately placed. It distracts us from what is going on at Communion at the very moment we ought not to be so distracted. I believe at the Brompton Oratory in London it is placed elsewhere. Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, in The Spirit of the Liturgy, praises the Church of Zaire for placing it before the Presentation of the Gifts. He adds that this placing "would be desirable for the whole Roman Rite, insofar as the sign of peace is something we want to retain" (p. 170). That is, we may not want to retain it.

The kneeling, standing, sitting, bowing, genuflecting aspects of Mass and Communion are up for grabs and cause all sorts of needless controversy. No two parishes or dioceses seem to be exactly the same or even think they should be. When we visit a new parish we often have that bewildered look about what is going to happen next. The old suspicions seem borne out in practice, that if you change one thing, on the grounds that it could be "otherwise," then everything connected with it will be changed. I sometimes wonder whether every parish will not end up having its own liturgy, sort of like the reformation.

If there is anything clear in the later Eucharistic documents of John Paul II, the Roman and National Liturgical Commissions, and Benedict XVI, it is that each priest should say Mass every day, even if he has to do so alone, and, unless ill or infirm, properly vested.

What is even more clear is that, granted cultural variety, the Liturgy is not up for grabs so that we can refashion it to suit our tastes in either doctrine, wording, or movement. It is not the private property of priest or bishop. Benedict XVI recently said to the Roman clergy assembled in St. John Lateran, "we are not sent to proclaim ourselves or our personal opinions, but the mystery of Christ and, in him, the measure of true humanism" (L’Osservatore Romano, May 18, 2005).






This admonition, which is really a kind of charter of freedom from the reigning mood of recurrent adaption, is no doubt aimed at the "actor priests." Josef Cardinal Ratzinger has often remarked that today the priest must, like John the Baptist, "decrease." The show is not about him. He is not there to call attention to himself, expound his own ideas, or entertain the people, a temptation almost endemic, as Ratzinger also indicates, to "turning the altar around."

The Mass is not a staged drama at which we applaud the talent of the performers. There really is room for quiet and awe. The priest is there to do what the Church asks in the way the Church asks. Both of these criteria are set down in official documents and are easy to understand by almost anyone who takes the trouble to read them.

For a long time, following publication of the General Catechism and the Code of Canon Law, I have thought what the Vatican especially needs to do is to establish a universal popular Missal, an editio typica, on which all others everywhere in the Church are based. We need to get rid of the leaflet missals, burn them all like Luther, I believe, is said to have wanted to do to Aristotle. Each person in every parish should have his own Missal, which should not be changed every month, or year. The same Missal that we took to Mass at twenty should still be used at seventy. It is a great comfort to die with the same Missal we have used all our lives. I do recognize that many of the current English translations, especially of the collects, range from atrocious to vapid in comparison to the old Latin originals.

Each language group should have a common Missal, easily purchased in expensive or inexpensive versions. On one side is the official Latin text, the same in all missals; on the opposite page the corresponding vernacular — whether German, Greek, Arabic, English, French, Spanish, whatever — in exact translation. Nothing is wrong with old and familiar translations. The rubrics about what the priest should do and wear should be quite clear in the text and easily known by the reader. Latin should be used once in a while, if not often. The translation is right there. Everyone has what is being said or sung right there in front of him.

I know there are theories that want to take away any reading or prayer tools (i.e., rosaries or Missals) from the faithful so that they are completely beholden to whatever the celebrant (I dislike that word) comes up with. The Mass is absorbing, but only when it is what it is supposed to be. If I have to worry about whether it is orthodox or proper, I cannot follow it with attention. With no authentic text before them, people do not know what is supposed to happen. Today the Missal should be seen both as itself a prayer book, as it is, and as instruction and information about what is supposed to happen.

The laity have a right to (it’s in Canon Law) and should avail themselves of the duty to inform bishops, and the Holy See, when what is laid down is not observed. How can they do this if they do not authentically know what is supposed to be going on? They should know that the clergy are bound to the same rules that they are reading about in the Missal. It is also their Mass in the sense that neither the clergy or they make it up by themselves but both observe the same rite.

Even the slightest changes in wording and gesture usually imply a veering in thinking or understanding, even in doctrine. C. S. Lewis pointed out that we cannot say liturgical prayers together if the celebrant or other minister is making up the words as he goes along. The Mass words are very precise, very much expressive of a definite, well thought out understanding of who the Father is, who Christ is, what this sacrifice of the Mass is about in each of its details. Moreover, there is absolutely nothing wrong with reading what is also being said. In fact, it is often a help in praying the Mass, both because rarely in the average church are the acoustics and pronunciations clear enough for everyone to hear and because understanding takes constant repetition and attention.

"The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law," Benedict XVI remarked at an earlier Mass, also in St. John Lateran. "On the contrary: the Pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism" (L’Osservatore Romano, May 11, 2005). This spirit, of course, is what we should follow with regard to the Mass. We are a literate and intelligent people. Our faith is a faith also directed to intellect. We should not only know what the Mass is supposed to be because we too can read what it is intended to be, but we should witness what it is when we attend it.

"The authority of the Pope is not unlimited," Josef Ratzinger wrote in The Spirit of the Liturgy; "it is at the service of Sacred Tradition. Still less is any kind of general ‘freedom’ of manufacture, degenerating into spontaneous improvisation, compatible with the essence of faith and liturgy. The greatness of the liturgy depends — we shall have to repeat this frequently — on its unspontaneity" (p. 166). That is a worthy conclusion to what I want to say here — "the greatness of the liturgy depends on its unspontaneity." It is unfortunate that we have to repeat this reminder so frequently.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

Cardinal Ratzinger on Liturgical Music | By Michael J. Miller
Foreword to U.M. Lang's Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer |
By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Worshipping at the Feet of the Lord: Pope Benedict XVI and the Liturgy
| By Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
Rite and Liturgy | Denis Crouan, S.T.D.
• Interview with Thomas J. Nash, author of Worthy Is The Lamb: The Biblical Roots of the Mass
• The Mass of Vatican II | By Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.



Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Read more of his essays on his website.



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