Dear priests who improvise at Mass: Please don’t.
O priests, who improv prayers at Mass! Who give opening monologues to start the show! Who deliver closing arguments before the dismissal! Who make meaningful statements in between the “Lord have mercy’s”! (Lord, when we are not our best selves, when others do not receive the totality of all that we could be.... Lord have mercy.)
O priests who feel the need to make Mass personal or interesting or more spiritual than it appears on the surface to be. Who suddenly put the sign of peace at a different part of the Mass or change up in some fashion the standing and kneeling and sitting. Who do not want to appear as cold, officious church functionaries just rattling off words handed to them by a hyper-literal worship committee in some cold cellar of the Vatican. O priests, trust yourselves!
Trust that you are interesting and personal and spiritual as you are. Trust that the energy you exude, your presence, your physicality, your posture, your voice is spiritual enough. Trust that, and just say the words! Do the gestures! They are enough! It is like the old actor’s maxim: “Don’t just do something, stand there!”
O priests, who improv prayers at Mass! Who give opening monologues to start the show! Who deliver closing arguments before the dismissal!
Even if parts of the liturgical script have been changed (some of it quite tragically—when you lose good poetry you lose good theology), even if it is not as lovely anymore, even then: Adding more words will not make Mass “better.” If you cleanly speak the words as they are, if you let them flow through you, the people in the pews may hear the Mass as they have never heard it before. The Mass will, in fact, become interesting and personal and new. You do not need to do more. It’s not about you.
I can get away with saying these things because I am a brother, not a priest. I am not a student of the exigencies, stringencies, flexibilities, the negotiables and non-negotiables of Mass-saying. I have no canonical agenda. I am an actor, a playwright and someone who sits in the pews watching priests who feel that to follow the script is to essentially slice their brains out of their body and hand it over to Holy Mother Church.
The point of the formula of the liturgy is not the formula of the liturgy. The point is to help you pray. The purpose of an actor’s text is not simply to speak the text. It is to give the audience an experience—an experience of a person on stage having a spontaneous reaction to fixed circumstances. Knowing the fixed blocking and the fixed words of the script can free an actor to be spontaneous; knowing the fixed formulas of the liturgy can liberate a priest to have an in-the-moment experience.
The point of the formula of the liturgy is not the formula of the liturgy. The point is to help you pray.
To be sure, sometimes you can do those things—write outside the lines. You can oppose what I just said. Make comments during Mass. Something falls and you acknowledge it; an altar server yawns dramatically, a baby cries with some kind of perfect timing, respond! Be human! A priest I know, a respected wisdom figure, during a chapel Mass, after holding his hands over the bread and wine and reciting “Make holy these gifts,” then gestured to our small congregation, saying: “and these gifts.” It was one of those quiet stunning moments. This guy, the way he was and who he was, he could bring it off. Liturgy is not a science. If prayer were to become math, God help us all.
So yes, if in some inspired moment at Mass you let go with something beautiful or funny or timely—unforced, not cloying, not ingratiating—fine. Pay attention. Live within the context. Don’t be rote and unaware. My novice master often opened Mass with a short disquisition about the saint of the day. He was a good storyteller. I learned about saints I knew nothing about. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. If he had folded it into the homily, it would have been too long. The beginning of Mass was the right place. (The formula even invites this moment of improvisation, noting that the priest “may very briefly introduce the faithful to the Mass of the day” after the sign of the cross and the greeting and before the penitential act.) Novice masters who are educating young Jesuits into a life in the church are completely allowed to deliver an opening disquisition on a saint. It’s O.K. Our small group always gathered around the altar during the consecration. It was nice; it fit the circumstances.
If, for instance, during the opening moments of a funeral for a high school sophomore you only “say the words”—if you don’t make some acknowledgment to the student’s family and friends of the tragedy in front of you—then there is fair evidence that you are some kind of monster.
Free yourselves, o priests, from thinking you have to re-create what does not need re-creating.
But even then, even then! For most of the Mass, just saying the words, letting the spirit ride through the text can be enough. Let people grieve through the contours of the liturgy.
A congregation can tell the difference between reverence and rigidity. They know if you are celebrating Mass with healthy piety or if you are worshipping a fierce Roman god called “Rubric.” A rubric is, in short, the methods of the Mass, the guidebook. This pagan worship of Rubric, this rigidity is, sometimes, literally, being rigid; focusing more on the proper and mechanical raising of the hands than on what the raising of the hands are doing. Rigidity is tension. If you are tense, we in the congregation will become tense. Mass will suddenly become all about you. We will take into ourselves the stress in your body. It will flow out into the sanctuary. And if you breathe, O priest, we will breathe. Your peace will become our peace.
Even at a children’s Mass you can “just say the words.” Yes, a regular Sunday children’s Mass, the very temple of improvised prayers and gestures! Even here you can follow the text and the text alone and get away with it! You won’t come off as distant and unfeeling.
I recently watched a priest celebrate such a liturgy. He didn’t give opening remarks that showed how young at heart he was; that demonstrated he can speak to the children’s level. He reserved his personalism for the homily. For the prayers of the Mass, he just did the words. Routine, structure, the same thing that is always said. This is what children want. And they were with him. The kids were engaged the whole way. You could tell. Children feel safe with structure. They like knowing what is coming next. Most of us do.
Structure does not shackle anyone, it frees them. In fact, freedom cannot even exist where there are there no boundaries. Free yourselves, o priests, from thinking you have to re-create what does not need re-creating. Let the words do the work. Let the liturgy do the work. Trust your mere presence to do the work. You are enough.
This piece has been updated.