We are getting ever closer to an improved liturgy in the English-speaking world. The new Missal gives us a more dignified language that more closely reflects the Latin standard. The hippy-dippy rupturism of the past is finally giving way to a more settled and solemn appreciation of the intrinsic majesty of the Roman rite.
A new generation of celebrants is moving past the politicized agendas of the past toward embracing the true spirit of the liturgy. Maybe it hasn’t happened in your parish but the trend is clear: better music, better vestments, better postures and rubrics.
And yet, we all know that things are not what they should be. It is an interesting experiment to travel and attend Sunday Mass at a random parish. You might find wonderful things. Or you might find something else entirely. Having experienced many of the latter, and talking with many other people about their experiences, I here list the top five ways in which the presentation of the liturgy can ruin the liturgical experience.
1. Improvisation of the Liturgical Texts
The problem of celebrants who make up their own words on the spot, in hopes of making the liturgy more chatty and familiar, continues to be a serious annoyance. It is obviously illicit to do so. Celebrants are permitted to break to explain parts of the Mass or provide other special instructions. But they are not permitted to replace liturgical texts with something that they dreamed up on the spot.
This abuse is extremely disorienting and draws undue attention to the personality and personal views of the priest rather than to the theology and ritual prescribed by the Church. It is also ridiculously presumptuous for any one person to imagine that he has a better idea than the liturgical text formed from 2,000 years of tradition.
I have my own theory on why it is so common for celebrants to just make things up on the spot. The older Missal translation dating from 1970 and onward was so casual, chatty, and plain that it encouraged the priest to enter into this world of casual communication. The formality just wasn’t there to encourage a more sober, careful, and accurate presentation. Also, many improvisers just had a sense that the text needed fixing of some sort.
This has changed with the new Missal, and this is all to the good. The new translation is very dignified and requires careful focus. But the habit of riffing around on the prayers remains among many priests.
This is truly tragic for everyone sitting in the pews. If the texts can just be ignored, why shouldn’t the faithful themselves feel free to take what they want and otherwise discard core teachings of the faith? This whole practices encourages a general disrespect for the ritual and even the faith itself.
2. Politicized and Newsy Prayer of the Faithful
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says of the prayer of the faithful: “The intentions announced should be sober, be composed with a wise liberty and in few words, and they should be expressive of the prayer of the entire community.”
“Wise liberty” seems to be in short supply however. Sometimes these prayers seem like last month’s newspaper, calling to mind events that left the 48-hour news cycle long ago. Or they can seem subtly manipulative, trying to get us to think and believe things about the controversies of the day that are actually more in dispute than the prayer would indicate. A particular annoyance to me are the prayers that are crafted to straddle some kind of triangulating political position that has nothing to do with the liturgy or doctrine or morals.
Most parishes today use pre-printed prayers from private publishers. Some are better than others. The best ones are brief and stick to the formula: prayers for the Church, for public authorities and the salvation of the whole world, for those burdened, and for the local community. The worst ones lead the whole liturgy astray in very distracting ways.
3. Extended and Chatty Sign of the Peace
The rite of peace has a long tradition in the Roman Rite dating to the earliest centuries. It was mostly restricted to the clergy. There are arguments and disputes about whether extending it to the congregation is a revival of a lost tradition or an innovation. Regardless, this much we do know: it is not supposed to be a micro-social hour that encourages people to mill around as if at a cocktail party.
The Missal plainly says that the extension to the congregation is optional. The requirement of the rite is fulfilled in the sanctuary alone. Therefore, if there is an invitation to have the people offer a sign of peace, it should be short. The General Instruction says: “it is appropriate that each person, in a sober manner, offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest.”
But even this is vague. What is nearest? What if you are the only person in your section of the pew? Do you walk, wave, or just ignore people? And note that no rubric specifies the handshake as the appropriate gesture. We do that just because this is our cultural custom. But is the handshake really liturgical?
In general, this whole part of the Mass invites confusion and awkwardness, and no matter how much we try to solemnize it, it still has more of the feeling of a civic or social activity than a truly liturgical one. At best it is a distraction. At worst, it can result in hurt feelings and all around confusion.
4. Replacing Sung Propers with Something Else
Since the earliest centuries, the liturgy assigned particular scriptural texts to particular liturgical days. This happens at the entrance, the music between readings, the offertory, and the communion. The instructions are very clear: the assigned chant is to be sung. If something else was sung, the words were still said by the priest. And so it was in most countries from the 7th century until quite recently.
Today, the Mass propers are mostly replaced by something else, usually a hymn with words made up by some lyricist. Quite often the results have nothing to do with the liturgy at all. It’s actually remarkable when you think about it. Choirs busy themselves with replacing crucial parts of the liturgy. They just drop them completely. Mostly they do this with no awareness of what they are doing.
How many choirs know that their processional hymn is displacing the assigned entrance? How many know that there is a real antiphon assigned at the offertory and that it is not just a time for the choir to sing its favorite number? How many have read the repeated urgings in the General Instruction to sing the assigned chant or at least use the text in the official choir books rather than just choose a random song loosely based on the theme of the season?
To be sure, this is technically permissible to do, but, truly, this approach “cheats the faithful,” as the Vatican wrote in an instruction in 1969. The propers of the Mass are crucial. They are from scripture. Their Gregorian originals are stunningly evocative of the liturgical spirit and even define it. Even if sung in English or in choral style, the propers are part of the Mass. It should always be seen as regrettable when something else replaces them.
The General Instruction says “Nor is it lawful to replace the readings and Responsorial Psalm, which contain the Word of God, with other, non‐biblical texts.” That’s pretty definitive. But the same rationale should apply to the entrance, offertory, and communion chants as well.
Composed hymns with non-scriptural texts don’t need to be thrown out completely. They can be sung and always will be. But the real liturgical work of the choir is found in the Mass propers. That’s their primary responsibility. There are resources newly available that make it possible for any choir to do the right thing.
In the first millennium, instruments were not part of the sung Mass, but as time went on, the organ was gradually admitted. By the 17th and 18th centuries, whole orchestras were used in certain locations. Even today you can find places where orchestral Masses are used that include tympani and other percussion instruments.
Most likely, that is not the context in which percussion instruments are used in your parish.
Today we hear conga drums, trap sets, bongos, and other drums played not in the style of Monteverdi processions, or Masses by Haydn or Mozart. Instead we hear them just as we would hear them in a bar or dance hall.
They are used just as they are in the secular world: to keep a beat, to make the music groovy, to inspired us to kind of do a bit of a dance. That’s the association of percussion we have in our culture. It is not a sacred association. The association is entirely profane. There’s a role for that. But Church is not the place and Mass is not the time.
And keep in mind: the piano is a percussion instrument. It has been traditionally banned in Church because it has non-liturgical associations. In today’s anything-goes environment, it is tolerated even by the liturgical regulations. But it is always a regrettable choice. The whole point of liturgical music is to lift our eyes and hearts to heaven, not drag us down to the dance floor.
One final point on this matter: you will notice that many of the songs in the conventional songbooks for Mass today seem to long for a drum-set backup. That’s because their style is borrowed from commercial jingles, TV show theme songs, power ballads from the 1970s, and so on. I don’t entirely blame choirs who choose drums to help out to make this style make more sense. What really needs to change is the whole approach here. Liturgical music has several critical marks: it uses the liturgical text, it grows out of the chant tradition, and sends a cultural signal that this is a sacred action in a sacred place.
A liturgy in which all five errors are committed is going to look and feel very different from one in which all five errors are completely avoided. The former will be random and unhistorical. The latter will be…more like Catholic Mass. It really is up to the pastors, musicians, and leaders in a parish to permit the voice of the liturgy to speak and sing without being impeded by these interventions, which really serve to distract from the beautiful miracle before our eyes.