George Weigel has hopped into an ancient and unfortunately never-ending stream over at First Things with a column about priests ad-libbing at Mass:
Such self-discipline on the part of celebrants would also help eliminate the clericalism (and worse) involved when Father Freelance, well, free-lances. For in metaphorically thumbing his nose at the Council’s clear injunction (not to mention the rubrics in the Missal), Father Freelance is de facto asserting his own superiority over the liturgy. And in doing so, he is, whether he intends it or not, downgrading the congregation’s role in offering right worship to the Thrice-Holy God.
In a properly celebrated Mass, the vocalized dialogue of prayer between celebrant and congregation takes place in a linguistic rhythm established by the shared text of the Mass. And that rhythm is broken when, to take one example that’s grated on me recently, the celebrant announces the Gospel reading by saying, “The Good News of the Lord as proclaimed by Luke.” To which the expected response, “Glory to you, O Lord,” sounds clunky, whereas it neatly answers the prescribed announcement, “A reading from the holy Gospel according to ——.”
It may come as a surprise to Father Freelance, but after more than four decades of priest-celebrants trying to be Johnny Carson, Bob Barker, Alex Trebek, or whomever, this act is getting very old. Father, you’re just not very good at it. Your freelancing is often banal, even silly. Moreover, you demean us by suggesting that we, the congregation, can’t handle the sacral language of the liturgy, and that we have to be jollied into participation. In fact, if you listen carefully, you’ll discover that congregational responses drop off when you invite a response in your terms, not the liturgy’s.
We’ve had these conversations countless times before, but evidently the practice isn’t decreasing – although I’m fortunate in my diocese in that it doesn’t happen in any of the three or four parishes I frequent for Sunday Mass.
I’m sure Weigel’s piece will inspire the usual 24-hour cycle of impassioned Facebook discussions, so I’ll just toss this in. There are countless reasons that celebrants shouldn’t be ad-libbing and that parish liturgists and musicians shouldn’t be adding stuff either. I’ll just emphasize this one:
It’s not humble.
Yeah, since humility is the word of the hour, I’ll say it again.
Changing words in the liturgy? Adding to it? Being creative outside the permitted norms?
I was once part of a group involved in a Catholic thing. For several days we lived, worked and prayed together. The prayer was LifeTeen/Steubenvillish/Praise and Worship style, which meant that one fellow with a guitar determined the course of prayer. It was whatever the Spirit led him to say, sing or guide – that was the direction we were to go in.
And I thought, who are you?
Especially when, as Catholics, we had access to the Liturgy of the Hours and even simply daily Mass readings.
Why should one guy’s sense of what the Spirit was leading him to do determine the path for the rest of us?
See, this is why, over the centuries, the Catholic Church has developed an organic dynamic between creativity/enthusiasm and structure. When Catholics speak about the action of the Spirit among believers, and the action of the Spirit that Jesus promised, the first locus of that action is the Church. How does the Spirit lead us in prayer? First and foremost through the prayer of the Church, as it has evolved.
So it is with the Mass. When a celebrant and his team lead a congregation in the liturgy, this is what we have: hundreds of people from all over, coming out of as many unique personal experiences as there are people. Rejoicing, grieving, afraid, questioning, calm, sick, relieved, content, on the edge. They all come to Mass, and here’s what they deserve:
What the Church gives.
In the mystery and complexity of that, in the gathering of so many different souls under one roof, we trust that in this Sacrifice offered, all are met, all encounter the saving love of Christ. We trust. We give something unique to it – a homily, a type of music, an environment – but all of what we give is in service to Christ and his people through the Church and what the Church offers.
The minute – the second – a celebrant or other liturgical minister starts making stuff up, they have unleashed their egos. It is what liturgical ministers of all types must be constantly wary of – is my music a performance or in service to Christ? Is my homily actually about the Gospel or am I just meandering, spouting platitudes or convoluted philosophies? Is my style – my presiding style, my singing style, heck, my ushering style dominating the situation or in service to it? Even the simple act of stepping away from the ambo, microphone in hand and wafting down the center aisle for my homily…even if I’m just quoting the Catechism and you could sell my “orthodoxy” by the pound…what’s that action about? Am I drawing attention to myself or to God?
The dilemma, though, is that we the people have been spoiled over the past few decades. Get a priest who does what Weigel begs for and does so in a humble, unassuming manner affected so that the celebrant might stay out of the way of the people’s experience as much as possible, and the complaints begin: “Oh, he’s so cold.” “I prefer that priest who makes us laugh at Mass.” “It’s such a vibrant liturgy when Father X says it – he looks right at us, and smiles, and says his own prayers that we can all understand better.”
So there’s that battle, always.
But back to humility.
When a church leader positions himself, his opinions and priorities above what the Church offers, is that “humble?” Is it a service to the diverse People of God who come, seeking, thirsty and hungry to offer them your version that reflects your priorities? Whom, in that paradigm, are you calling them to focus on? Whom are you inviting them to trust?
In reality what happened was an unprecedented clericalization came on the scene. Now the priest – the “presider”, as they now prefer to call him – becomes the real point of reference for the whole liturgy. Everything depends on him. We have to see him, to respond to him, to be involved in what he is doing. His creativity sustains the whole thing. Not surprisingly, people try to reduce this new created role by assigning all kinds of liturgical functions to different individuals and entrusting the “creative” planning of the liturgy to groups of people who like to, and are supposed to, “make a contribution of their own.” Less and less is God in the picture.
-Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy
So I wrote all of this, all the while thinking, “Well, this is easy. Something we’ve talked about a zillion times before. But why again now? Sort of strange to rehash this right now with all that’s going on….”
And then I thought….wait. freelancing? Doing and saying things on your terms want with little mind for the depth and complexity of what’s given? Playing to a lowest common denominator? Disorienting and discombobulating your congregation in the process?