The View from the Pew Part I
Last week, I wrote a column with some observations that I’ve had over the years from
presiding at Masses about the various things that I see as a priest. If you’ re reading this,
odds are you go to Mass too, and have a different view than I do and have seen many
things over the years.
So much of what we do as Catholics is part of a routine ritual; we learn as children what
to do, and what happens at Mass. Some experience changes too as the liturgy does
change over the years; most notably after the Second Vatican Council, but even more
recently the wording of some of the prayers.Diving into the Mass is something we do in seminary over a whole semester in a course, and how Mass is celebrated is dictated by our universal Church. Specifically in different parts of the world, there may be variations in how Mass is celebrated by the
decree of a bishop in a diocese or bishops of a country. Specifically in our country, the
Bishops of the United States (after having it approved by the Vatican) have what is
known as the “General Instruction of the Roman Missal.” This covers over many
paragraphs and pages, the outline of the Mass and how it is to be celebrated. You can
read the whole thing if you like online: http://www.usccb.org/prayer and worship/the
mass/general instruction of the roman missal/.
However, in this column and in coming weeks, I’d like to do a series on the liturgy,
because I really think that as things become routine for us, sometimes, we don’t think
about them as much as we should. For instance why do we genuflect here, bow there,
say, or make the Sign of the Cross at this point or say “ on some days and not
others? I certainly won’t be able to cover everything in this small space, but hopefully it’ll
help you think a little bit more about liturgy and why we celebrate Mass as we do.
That will come in future columns. Before we even get into the Mass, I’d like to take the
time to talk about what goes into choosing the Mass, and how each priest is to celebrate
it in terms of what we do that is a little unique, and what the Church asks us to do.
Let’s start in the beginning, before Mass begins.
The Church gives us a universal calendar with seasons and feasts. This is divided into
Ordinary Time, Advent, Lent, the Triduum, and the Easter Season.
Within this calendar are unique feasts as well. The re are solemnities which are days of
the highest rank signifying a major event such as Assumption, Christmas, the Birth of
John the Baptist, The Feast of Saint Peter and Paul, etc. These also include all
Sundays. On these days, there is no wiggle room in terms of what Mass is chosen. The
priest celebrates that feast without exception. A few days are obligatory holy days
where all Catholics are asked to come to Mass; most are non obligatory. Then there are feast days of saints. Some feast days are “obligatory”to celebrate for the priest meaning they are celebrated unless there is a strong reason not to have the Mass for the saint that day as deemed by the priest, such as a unique occasion where the readings would be changed to fit the needs of that Mass. Then there are optional memorials the priest can celebrate too, perhaps of a lesser known saint. We also have
regular days formerly called “ferial Mass” days or “free” days. These are days with no
specific saint named.
The priest though can offer special Masses too. And in that big book on the altar that is
often half the size of an altar server holding it, there are all sorts of unique Masses
Masses for justice and peace, for a good harvest, for our country, for the Holy Spirit.
The Church understands past oral situations are all over in our parishes so gives us lots
Telling the priest what to do in all of this is what’s called an “ The Ordo is a little
book we get once a year that lays out every day’s Mass, what prayers are to be said,
and if there’s nothing specific, suggested prayers to be used at Mass. It also tells us
what colors to use.
Minnesotan’s of my age and older may remember the Weather Ball from Northwestern
National Banks. Each color on said ball had a meaning of what weather was ahead. The
same is true for the vestments we use. Green is symbolic of spring and hope representing new life; red the blood of martyrs and fire and the Holy Spirit; white the holiness, righteousness and the resurrection; purple that of penance and sorrow for sin; blue for the Blessed Virgin Mary; rose a color of joy worn as we near the great feasts of Christmas and Easter; and black which is still an option symbolizing death which can be worn at funerals or on All Soul’s Day. Gold may also be added to the white for the big feast days. Typically white is worn also at funerals and wedding Masses.
The priest’s vestment is called a chasuble. It’s only used at Masses. For other liturgical
functions, we wear what’s called a cope and resembles a cape, or an alb with a stole.
Now that the priest knows what to do as he leaves the sacristy, how is the priest to
celebrate Mass? Well on that, there are guidelines too. You can read them yourself, but
in a nutshell the Roman Missal has many parts in red writing meaning we don’t read
that part out loud, but look at it and know then what to do at that point, e.g., “he
bows…he speaks these words carefully…he elevates the host.” We had a whole class
on how to be a deacon and then another on how to pray/say/offer the Mass.
Each priest is also a little unique; we are individuals. And the liturgy allows us some
leeway. For instance, how I offer Mass is different than Fr. Paul Jarvis who was different
then Fr. Tom Hill who was different than Fr. Frank Roach. I have my own homiletic style
that I’ve adopted I feel comfortable with; I research the readings, find a relevant story,
try to make a few points (without putting folks to sleep) and “land the plane” with a
conclusion. Jesus uses parables a lot, and my favorite homilist at seminary frequently
used stories too. The priest has discretion in terms of how to select the Eucharistic
Prayer (more on those in a coming article) and we will slightly differ too in how we pray
different parts of the Mass. As the saying goes you can’t please everyone” and I’ve found
that true too; I’ve had people say nice things and also had criticisms over the
years (some quite helpful actually, though a few coming from someone who might not
know the liturgy or just not like my particular presiding style) but go with what my liturgy
professor told me to do, and have found my comfort in how I offer Mass as a priest. I’ve
changed too over the years trying to be attentive to pace (not too fast but also not as
slow like the DMV sloths from “Zootopia”), and try to be attentive to people’s hearing as
well. Admittedly my most relaxing and peaceful Masses are alone (and this week I’m
offering Mass somewhere in the Rocky Mountains short homily guaranteed!) because
the priest also has to be a conductor too he has to be aware of the servers if they need
direction, the lector if they need a little guidance, the pace of the liturgy, wondering if
there’s enough hosts for Communion, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I love offering Mass with
the People of God, but alone you can be a little more relaxed. Mass can be offered
anywhere you have a priest, bread and wine so alone or with a large congregation.
As you can see, there’s a lot here to take in, and we haven’t even gotten to the Mass
itself yet. I’ll just c lose by reiterating what a joy it is to be a priest and be a servant
leader in Christ’s Church. Seeing the community come together each week, actively
participate and grow closer to God and one another is so uplifting. Hopefully in coming
weeks this space will help you to think about what goes into Mass and why it’s so
important, but also that why we do what we do and when we do it also has a whole lot
of thought that goes into it. Believe me the Church has a reason for everything, and it all
boils down to helping us grow closer to God.
Have a blessed week ahead!
Download a PDF copy of this post here