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Breaking Bad Liturgical Habits

George Weigel wrote this column in January for ‘the other’ NCR that recently piqued my liturgical antennae.

He has good points and bad, mixed together in an acerbic style that is by now pretty well known. It got me thinking about my own version, offered in contraposition and in complementarity, based especially on some of the “liturgical abuses” I have witnessed in Rome, as well as some of the “best practices”.

It has happened on occasion, even here in Rome, that I have been accused of being a true liturgist – in the sense of the old joke about the difference between terrorists and liturgists. I offer these as suggestions merely, humbly, and invite, as always, critique and commentary.

Some of the basic points I agree with Weigel are these:

“there is no “reform of the reform” to be found in lace surplices, narrow fiddleback chasubles and massive candles.”

Another great sage of liturgical aesthetic, the clock from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, put it this way: “If it ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it!” We are as done with Baroque as we are with orange shag carpeting and felt banners, thank God. Let us not idealize one period of the past at the expense of the entirety of Tradition, and the need for ongoing aggiornamento. Ecclesia semper purificanda, after all.

“Catholics who embrace the truth of Catholic faith do not enjoy clericalism.”

Clericalism is a systemic and personal sin that ought to be rigorously avoided and rooted out of ecclesial structures like the cancer that it is… but, that is a topic for another post.

“Music directors and pastors: As a general rule, sing all the verses of a processional or recessional hymn.”

Weigel seems to conflate his personal musical taste with some objective sense of quality, and goes on to express this rather rudely and without perspective – Compared to the angelic chorus, even the best of Palestrina, Bach, and Mozart, would sound like a ‘treacly confection’. That aside, this is one way we can remember we have left chronos and entered kairos.

I would just add that songs should be singable, for the most part, though there is room for a reflection or meditative hymn, it would be a tragedy if the entire liturgy were converted into a concert given by professional choirs in polyphonic chant that is impossible to follow without expert training. It is not without reason, and this is one of them, that more than one cardinal expressed to us while visiting Notre Dame that the Triduum liturgy there was done better than in Rome!

“Sacred space [sanctuary] is different from other space; the inside of the church is different from the narthex.”

True… but how many churches do not have adequate narthex space? Most I would say. At St. Brendan the Navigator in Bothell, WA, there is an excellent example of good use of narthex and sanctuary/nave in the same building.

He also offers a few points that I disagree, or would attenuate

“Celebrants (not ‘presiders’)”

Weigel channels Ratzinger when he insists that presider be called celebrant. The problem is simple, though. The entire assembly celebrates the Eucharist, but only the bishop (or presbyter-delegate) presides. This language goes back much further than that of “celebrant”, and we can see the title in Justin Martyr, before presbyters are even allowed to take on the role.

“Extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist are vastly overused in U.S. parishes, a practice that risks of signaling that the Mass is a matter of the self-worshipping community celebrating and feeding itself.”

There may be some parishes where extraordinary ministers of communion are overused, but when I see hundreds upon hundreds of communion ministers at St. Peter’s here in Rome, whether priests, deacons, or extraordinary, it is hard to say that anywhere else overuses them. Most use what they need. And there is no connection between having too many communion ministers and making the mass a self-worshipping act. This is a nonsensical and unsupported assertion.

“no one outside of those in holy orders should “bless” in a liturgical context”

This is a matter under the authority of the local bishop, as legislator and liturgist of his diocese. Offering a blessing at communion, especially to those not in full communion, but who desire it, is a significant practice that should not be lost.

“And while we’re on the subject of the congregation, might we all reconsider our vesture at Sunday Mass?”

Absolutely. The entire assembly, at least those fully initiated with Baptism, Confirmation, and admission to the Eucharist, should be vested in albs, the white baptismal garment. Can you imagine the effect, if all the initiated were actually vested?

Bad habits in Rome

When in Rome, do as I want to do.

The cynical observer, or the realist, will tell you that the Romans do pretty much whatever they want. But when you come to Rome, observe the official practice, and the actual practices, and try not to impose your practice from Milan, Seattle, or London upon the community here. Observe and adapt.

At the same time, just because (some) Romans do it does not make it right. Here are a few observed practices of which I am wary:

Communion from the tabernacle during the liturgy.

The ideal situation is that each Eucharist should consecrate enough bread and wine for all those present, and maybe just enough for the sick and homebound. Ideal is not always pastorally possible. However, here, you can frequently see only one host consecrated, for the presider, and then everyone else served from the tabernacle.

Communion under one kind only.

While minimally sufficient, it should normally be under both species, or it lacks the fullness of the sacramental sign. Further, it is the choice of the communicant to receive on the tongue or in the hand. The latter is more ancient, the former is canonically the norm here in Italy. I have addressed these points here and here.

Confessions during the liturgy.

It is one thing in a giant basilica where you have mass in some side chapel, and confessions going on a football field away in another part of the building. Quite another when the 18th century wooden confessional is cozied up so close to the pews in the parish church that you can hear the penitent while you are sitting in reflective silence after the homily. When the liturgy begins, no other sacrament or devotion should be happening in the sanctuary, unless it is a part of the liturgy.

Many altars, many breads, no body.

One of the beautiful tragedies, or tragically beautiful moments, is if you go to St. Peter’s early in the morning (this happens rarely for me), and you see dozens of priests at dozens of altars all offering the Mass, separately, and with at most one assistant. It is easy to think of all the places in the world where people go days, weeks, or months without access to the Eucharistic liturgy. But it also begs the question, why not concelebrate? Why not have one mass, so that the few morning pilgrims could all join as well? Is a liturgy without the presence of the Church even a liturgy, or a private devotion of the presbyter?

Excessive Concelebrating.

I never thought I would agree with the Lefebvrists on much beyond the basic dogmas of the faith. But they have a certain point here, though for different reasons. Imagine a liturgy with twenty people. Fifteen are vested and concelebrating, and five are in ‘plainclothes’ and simply celebrating. Is it really necessary to have so many concelebrants? A priest may feel obligated to celebrate the Eucharist every day, and this is a worthy thing, but he need not do so vested every time, especially in such a scenario. There could be the presider, a deacon, and as many concelebrants as needed for communion, or for a preacher, etc. With occasional exceptions, less is more.

We stand for prayer, not for announcements.

The most elegant remedy to this I have seen is that the Prayer after Communion be offered at the end of the Communion procession, rather than at the beginning fo the concluding rites. That is, remain standing (or kneeling, or sitting, as the local case may be) for the entire communion procession, and as soon as everyone has received, the presider offers the communion prayer. Only then do we sit in silence (or with meditative hymn) for the post-communion reflection. Then, while still seated, any announcements can be made.

Christmas and Easter.

Midnight Mass is at Midnight. Not 10pm. Even if the pope does it. Then, you can still use the midnight readings, just do not call it midnight mass! At Easter, do not do as the Romans did last year…. At the Vigil, the lights came on entirely too early. Actually overheard behind me  “Well, that rather destroys the effect, doesn’t it?” or variations, from more than one voice. Let the service of light continue as long as it can, the readings can mostly be done in darkness, with only the paschal candle to light the ambo.


1 Comment

  1. lydiagaelach says:

    excellent AJ!

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