Sense and Nonsense: Whose Mass Is It?

A friend of mine went to Mass last fall at a University chapel on the campus of one of Virginia’s several state universities. Or at least he assumed it was a Catholic church when he went in. Looking about, he found no tabernacle, no crucifix, no statues, kneelers, or other usual signs of Catholic presence. After the priest got into his show, as it seemed (there may also have been dancing in the aisles), my friend quietly and abashedly asked the lady next to him, “Is this a Catholic church?” The lady replied, “I think so.”

I myself prefer not to concelebrate Mass with a priest who more or less makes up his own liturgy as he goes along, and I do not much like Masses with only minor violations. There is the priest at Sunday parish Mass who decides, for example, that his people do not need to recite the Creed, in spite of the fact that the Church instructions insist that this is “obligatory” and not really up to him. It is the people’s right, not the priest’s option. What such an often good priest seems to forget is that the people need and want to recite this Creed which summarizes, articulates, and elucidates for them what it is they believe. The Creed is rich in intellectual substance and is designed to appeal precisely to the intelligence of faith. It is the sign that what holds us together is also an understanding, that we are not mindless in our belief but are capable of stating what it is that we do hold.

The Church rubrics, of course, allow and at certain specific places encourage a certain variety on the part of the priest. The General Instructions to the Roman Missal can be found in English at the front of the big Sacramentary from which the priest reads Mass; the laity ought to read this document just to see what a priest is asked to do by the Church. Of the orations, the instructions say:

The period of silence will be richer and demand sufficient time so that the people can actually pray. Silence then becomes a real and meaningful part of the celebration. The brief, optional explanation of the invitatory structures the silence and helps people to be aware of the petitionary character of the opening prayer. If the priest uses his own words, the invitatory can be more concrete and effective.

But it is annoying when, in saying Mass with someone, you find him making up his own little varieties of the common prayers or fiddling with the order of celebration. At least recently, however, I have not run into anyone who made up his own consecration prayers, but I suppose that happens still to some extent. Usually you just have to guess whether the priest will genuflect or bow or bless where he should. What some priest will do, say, at the elevation of the host and chalice at Consecration, or after the doxology that ends the Canon, often produces comic results if you are trying to imitate him when he is not following the common practice.

In a recent talk to some Brazilian bishops on the liturgy, the Holy Father observed that

on occasion there have been noted illicit omissions or additions, rites invented outside the framework of established norms; postures of songs which are not conducive to faith or to a sense of the sacred…. Such initiatives, far from being linked with the liturgical reform as such, or with the books which have issued from it, are in direct contradiction to it, disfigure it and deprive the Christian people of the genuine treasures of the Liturgy of the Church. [L’Osservatore Romano, English ed., 9 April 1990]

As my friend told the priest after Mass at the Virginia university, the people who come to a church have a right to recognize the liturgy as at least Catholic.

A priest, including myself, will often say something like, “I have not yet had a chance to say ‘my’ Mass today.” Or, “I said ‘my’ Mass at 6:30 before breakfast.” This sort of talk is a perfectly acceptable and proper way of describing a priest’s relationship to his daily Mass. And yet, for any priest, the last thing in the world the Mass is, is “my” Mass. The priest should never give the impression that somehow his Mass is “his,” that he just sort of made up most of the important prayers and gestures, even his own explanation of what he is doing. He should not appear to be so independent of the pope and the bishops and the general rules in what he does at the altar that he seems to be a sort of private revelation in himself. The Mass is such an “awesome,” holy thing that, unless it falls within the meaning and structure given to it by Our Lord from the beginning through the Church, it would be simply madness to hint that what goes on there is of one’s own making.

The same General Instructions tell us what the Mass is:

The celebration of the Mass, the action of Christ and the people of God arrayed hierarchically, is for the universal and local Church as well as for each person the center of the whole Christian life. In the Mass we have the high point of the work that in Christ God accomplished to sanctify us and the high point of the worship that in adoring God through Christ, His Son, we offer to the Father.

No priest can read such sober lines and be anything but humble. No one is really “worthy” to celebrate such an action unless he can act and is permitted by the Church to act within the authority of Christ’s “Do this in memory of Me.” He acts, then, according to an authority not of his own making.

Some folks have taken to calling the priest the “president” of the assembly, a political image that seems rather too studied to me, even though we know Christ was called a “king.” This is what the General Instructions say about the priest:

Within the community of believers the presbyter is another (besides the bishop) who possesses the power of orders to offer sacrifice in the person of Christ. He therefore presides over the assembly and leads its prayer, proclaims the message of salvation, joins the people to himself in offering the sacrifice to the Father through Christ in the Spirit, gives them the bread of eternal life, and shares in it with them. At the eucharist he should, then, serve God and the people with dignity and humility; by his bearing and by the way he recites the words of the liturgy he should communicate to the faithful a sense of the living presence of Christ.

Again, one reads such words with great interior sobriety if one is a priest. A priest’s own talents, virtues, vices, oddities, accomplishments, quirks, and failures, whatever they are, are not why he is there at the altar. In the Roman Mass (Canon I), he too says, “Nobis quoque peccatoribus—to us too sinners that we be” and he strikes his own breast. The priest is there in a wholly representational manner, which includes all of these qualities of his own self, to be sure, but which, in its symbolism, efficacy, and reality is the action of Christ. The priest says, “This is my body” in Christ’s name.

The Mass is first of all a sacrifice. “The sacrificial nature of the Mass was solemnly proclaimed by the Council of Trent in agreement with the whole tradition of the Church,” the General Instructions affirm. To the same Brazilian bishops, John Paul II remarked:

It is clear that the Mass is something more than a feast of fraternal unity; it is much more than a meal among friends or a free supper for the poor. Nor is it a time for “celebrating” human dignity, and purely earthly accomplishments and hopes. It is the Sacrifice which makes Christ really present in the Sacrament.

Of course, the first part of the Mass is word. The priest is to speak of God. The Mass is a whole, word and sacrifice and communion. The priest must be very careful not to obscure the Mass from what it is by something he is.

“My dear brother Bishops,” the Pope told the Brazilian prelates,

The Liturgy is the authentic expression of the universal Church’s faith when it gives worship to God, in sanctifying and edifying the faithful. It is an activity which is directed towards the supernatural, and faith is the primary element in our supernatural life. That means that the Creed must always be at the foundation of the Liturgy, as a profession of a faith which is deeply felt, lived out, sung, and prayed.

The Mass exists continuously in this world, in the Church, as the proper way for us human beings to worship God, our first and last and most touching duty in this life. Everyone in his own way—pope, bishop, priest, man, woman, and child—can speak of “my Mass” precisely when he reaches to that “high point of worship that in adoring God through Christ, His Son, we offer to the Father.”


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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