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.
On the one hand, I have to thank Brother Joe for his injunction to priests to just stick to the words. I dislike improvisation for the same reasons he suggests.
On the other, if we're going to complain about the lack of poetry and sobriety in the current translation or practice of the Mass, well, it's nothing compared to what my father lost in watching the beauty and sobriety of the old liturgy be replaced by what Brother Joe calls the "good poetry" of the 1970 English translation of the Missal.
If you want poetry, it's hard to beat the grand dactylic hexameter, repeated 3 times, in the lines
Domine | non sum | dignus ut | intres sub | tectum | meum,
Sed tan-| tum dic| verb' et sa-| nabitur | anima |mea.
A Millennial who usually goes to the new Mass, but appreciates the Mass of Saint Gregory the Great.
Generally speaking I agree with the good Brother. The order and words of worship should be preserved. Where I disagree is what happens before the introductory blessing and the time after Communion.
The Mass is about worship and the the faith community. It is the only time the community comes together. Also, while it is not a party it is a celebration.
So I have no problem with before the opening blessing the priest welcoming everyone and inviting the congregation extending the right hand of fellowship and welcoming each other, especially those visiting.
After Communion and before the closing, I also have no problem with either announcement or a lay reflection on a subject or matter of general concern to the faith community.
Francis in the Exhortation “The Joy Of Love” says the Church is a family of families. The worship experience has to promote this notion in worship and in fellowship.
Thanks for this kind and helpful reflection. Those desiring more might consult Robert Hovda's "Strong, Loving, and Wise: Presiding at Liturgy," and the "Ceremonial of Bishops" for help with gesture. One small note, and I realize you only mentioned it by example, I think the Eucharistic Prayers should be allowed to speak for themselves; the post-institution narrative anamnesis already invokes the Holy Spirit upon the assembly (except in EP I, where it is only implicit).
As presiders, we sometimes forget that other leaders/ministers can give introductory comments: if long, before the liturgy properly begins, if brief, after the greeting. Announcements, again briefly, are permitted at the beginning of the Closing rites -- but permitted, not required. Any additions that are permissions should be questioned as to their necessity.
Again, thank you.
I appreciate this advice. As someone in the pews I am distracted (and not in a good way) by a presiding priest who can't resist playing the master of ceremonies role (e.g., "Good morning everyone"; "Have a good rest of your Sunday and 'Let's go Eagles!'"; and, the random add-ons to the Eucharistic Prayer). Although the constant annotations of the "New Mass" in the late 1960s/early 1970s was understandable, the persistence of some clergy a half century later to instruct those in the pews about the meaning of each part of the Liturgy is pedantic.
In principle, I totally disagree.
In the days of the apostles, Paul was pleased with a group he had evangelised when he described them as gathering on the day of the Lord, remaining faithful to the fellowship. the breaking of the bread and the prayers.
The attitude expressed here is so common and so rigid, where is there a vestige of belief in the Holy Spirit?
I agree to the extent that I am sick and tired of hearing the same bulletins from up the front as I have been getting when I am careless with the remote and leave the channel on when the news and commentary come on.
Aside from feeling that Brother Hoover is a bit schizophrenic on the topic, I get what he says. However, the current Mass translations are rigid, almost cold and impersonal for the English vernacular, and lack the poetic qualities which are important to ritual language. I used to attend years ago the children’s Mass at a former parish because it was the only Mass that made sense to me!
One thought that Brother does not make, at least I don’t think so. When pronouncing the words of the Mass, it is important to say them as if you mean them, as if you understand them, as if they are the key to the worship in which we participate. A rote recitation of the Mass is as lacking in ritual meaning as are those Masses filled with ad hoc commentary.
This is an idiotic commentary that leads us away from the bedrock virtues of Catholicism.
Your comment has no value unless you supply the reasons behind it.
I concur. Rather feminine as well.
From most of the comments above, I guess I’m pretty much alone and dense in not understanding the point of the Brother’s comment, for it seems to me he contradicts himself. For he seems to be saying respect the form of the Mass, and do not make yourself (the president) the focus of attention, but then he also seems to be saying it’s appropriate to acknowledge the moment — the time, place and participants. Maybe he was constrained by space, and couldn’t fully develop his thoughts. If so, I hope he gets a chance to explain himself more thoroughly, so those of us who couldn’t reconcile those opposing thoughts could better understand what he suggests.
Sorry, I meant to say “presider” not “president” — Apple hates me...
Sorry, I meant to say “presider” not “president” — Apple hates me...
Sorry, I meant to say “presider” not “president” — Apple hates me...
I appreciate most of your comments Brother Joe but I could not disagree more. While structure is relaxing, it typically disengages folks to the point of daydreaming and thinking of what’s next in there busy and attention seeking day. Just look around in a typical mass, a majority of folks in the pews are completely tuned out showing no engagement. While our great history of the liturgy may take a hit due to improvisation, getting more people in the pews to openly engage with a laugh in this world of disparity is more relevant to Jesus’ teaching in my opinion.
We have dichotomous priests who either regurgitate the mass or that improvise sometimes including a tap into his closing remarks. If you attend both, it is so incredible what one does to the parish and the community. I pray everyone can see this type of priest as it is the path to saving our church.
I agree with you Dan. Not so much Joe. I grew up in a sterile church with Latin the language of the liturgy. It seems to me that Bro Joe is looking for that same separate, prayerful individual prayer that he can pray while the liturgical prayers are rotely and mechanically read by the priest. I doubt that the early church didn't really use the language of the people to engage them in a communal celebration. That is the the type of prayer that literally engages the congregation with current words from the heart that address each of the various parts of the mass and encapsulates them in meaningful way to the congregation whom is being addressed and prayed with, communally. Otherwise the words can be less poetic and more numbing for both congregant and presider. It is the spirit of the ritual that is important, not the letter. Intent not form. I learned that while attending a Jesuit University in Los Angeles (Loyola Marymount University) as an undegraduate engineering student. It was at masses held at this university where i had a Catholic born again experience and accepted the faith of my parents and ancestors as my own, because of the wonderful improvising that the Priests there brought to the liturgies. Very meaningful, inviting, spiritual, deepening of faith. I felt more of a participant than a audience. For me, depending of course from where the presider is coming from, improvisation can be very meaningful and inviting into the communal celebration, rather than for one's individual prayer time. The need for Community is what what sparked the early followers of The Way to gather in the first place, in addition of course to following Jesus encouragement for his disciples to share meals in memory of him.
Really, let the individual priest do whatever he cares to. He is the leader. He is the connector. I have never attended a mass when the celebrant's personal flourishes distracted or -- as appears to be the case with Brother Joe -- annoyed me.
To that, we might add, well, that depends, there are some off the wall priests out there, for sure; howerver, WE really are at our worst when we try to "out Protestant" the Protestants. "Doing your own thing" is what THEY do, not what Catholics do.
I agree with Bro. Joe, although I think he still allows for more improv than I would. Priests who improvise draw attention to themselves instead of drawing attention to Christ. They might as well announce to the assembly, "I know better than you what's good for you liturgically." It's a new clerical paternalism, if you ask me.
In 1948 I was a first grader at a Catholic school that was right across the street from the church. Every school day began with Mass at 8:00 a.m. in that church. Many of the kids who had made their first Communion in the second grade fasted and brought a "sack breakfast" that they were allowed by the sisters to eat quietly during the first class period. The Mass was in Latin. But we understood that it was a solemn prayer and we listened intently, not understanding the words but understanding the most important meanings, which haven't changed. I'm happy that the whole Mass is now in the vernacular, but I wouldn't change that childhood experience for anything. Learning self discipline and polite listening are lessons that seem to have been lost.
Well, Elizabeth, the whole Mass is not in the vernacular any more in the State of Oregon. According to both Dioceses, we are now co-mingling English and Latin. I put up with if for a month or so and am so disgusted with this travesty, that I will not go to Mass. Most people in the pews do not understand Latin and stand in silence as the Choir and those who love the Latin again, recite and sing. This was not openly announced in the Church and seemingly 'came in through the back door'. I am a convert (since 1985) and have recently come to deplore the clericalism of too much oversight to the point or ridiculousness. I am a simple person with a simple faith and don't believe adding Latin to the Mass now or at any time will "make it more sacred" as stated by our Archbishop Alexander Sample of the Archdiocese of Portland.
Thank you for this commentary Brother Hoover. At 73 years old, I have seem egregious violations of the sacred liturgy and I have seem celebrants/presiders mumble through the prayers of the Mass like they are constructing widgets in an assembly line. I encourage you to disregard the quibblings posted here as response. The truth is that priests need to "put on Christ" when they put on their Mass vestments and play the role the best they can. If they do, there is no need or room for personality. The Mass is not entertainment. Bored Mass-goers are those people Saint Paul said want to be fed milk and not solid food (1Cor 3:2).
So we can replace you all with robots
So we can replace you all with robots
So we can replace you all with robots
So we can replace you all with robots
Many agree that the current version of the Mass is not the best, and it needs changes, but at this point there are a few obvious changes (maybe corrections is a better word) that should be made, First, there is the phrase “for us MEN and for our salvation” . I will never understand how that got in (or were they just thinking of some priests as a special category which might need extra help).
Another one is in the Our Father which is included in the Mass. Even Pope Francis now agrees that it is wrong to say “and lead us not into temptation”. It makes no sense that we have to plead to God to stop doing the devil’s work. For many years, my choice has been “leave us not in temptation” which blends in and does not confuse those nearby who might hear me.
The other big one is the demand that we repeat at every Mass that we have once again committed very serious sins. I especially pity the poor people who attend daily Mass and have to claim every 24 hours that they have to once again been guilty of one or more mortal sins.
As for priests who ad lib, there is nothing wrong, in my opinion, if a few words are spoken before or after the Mass itself. Provided, of course, that the comments have nothing to do with baseball or football or the like. (add a Smiley here if wish).
Agree ("like") and adding anecdote here - rather than say "...for us MEN and our salvation..." our wonderful priest simply omitted the MEN to say, "...and for US and our salvation..."
There are actors and directors who exhibit the pretension and presumption to alter Shakespeare's texts and musicians who think they can embellish Beethoven. When you're working with a classic, it takes hubris to think that you can improve it. Think about that before you decide to monkey with it.
Brother Joe seems to be having a debate with himself. As a pew-dweller, I am often appalled by what would seem to be the presider's lack of preparation. The now not-so-new (20111) translation is, on the whole, terrible; but if it has any advantage at all, it is this: it requires the presider to be familiar with the text before he tries to pronounce the words for the benefit of the assembly. All too often, it seems that the priest-presider is seeing the text for the first time as he attempts to pray it at Mass. If the presider thinks, as I do, that the translation is often unintelligible, even if prayed/read well, then he ought not change it on the fly, but should come to the celebration with a better, easier to say, easier to hear, translation; I recommend, prefer and always hope to hear (but seldom do) the one from 1998. As a rule, the best spontaneity at liturgy is planned.
If he says "Bless these gifts" (the bread and wine) and then adds "and these gifts" (the people) he IS improvising non-sensically at a crucial moment of the Mass because the bread and wine represent the offering of ourselves, and he shouldn't do it! Why this exception, Brother Joe? Of course the presider should not be a robot, but he should let the impossible-to-beat prayers of the Church flow through him and read them as if he believes them with all his heart, without his own "and also"!
Stick to the script, it is important for the people who come to sleep or say their rosary, and don't want to be disturbed by anything meaningful. First of all, once we get into the "mass" we are speaking about the rote Catholic liturgy with its stale rubrics and meaningless gestures. Why not go back to Latin if it is just a recital? I would not go so far as to substitute coke and potato chips for the bread and wine, but somehow what is needed now is someway to bring the believing community together (the act of Cristos) and to nuture one another through the shared word and the Eucharist (the common drink and bread of the people). The traditional liturgy provides a template, but beyond that it is ho-hum, it is drama poorly done and poetry that has gone stale. The professional liturgists, usually allied with canon lawyers who barely made it through divinity school, use liturgy to camouflage their lack of pastoral instinct, and their clerical superiority. They are really all about the restoration of the church to its previous 19th century glory and power. Pope Francis has indicated that much of the rot is connected to the culture of clericalism that defines liturgy as the property of the ordained, rather than the prayer of the people. Stick to the words if you are into magic, but there are far better magical acts on America's Got Talent. But when you start on this path, liturgy leads to clergy leads to clericalism etc. it just opens a barrel of worms. Better to stick to the words.
Interesting to see so many men on this discussion. The undermining of, shall we say, poetic language goes (and we might say elevated language as well, or non pedestrian, which is what we've been offered sometimes - but some of you IP lawyers might look into copyright implications of some of these translations and RCC Inc, as I call it, actually getting ROYALTIES for some of this pablum) somewhat at least, to the continual push to feminize (and that is not to suggest we keep women in their place) the Roman Rite, especially through language. Lofted language is eschewed as elitist, so our bishops, in their infinite wisdom, have given us this mish mash, which is as bland as it is indecipherable for some; the one saving grace is that it IS more accurate. Improvising may be some persons' remedy or answer to some of that (but often not).
Men DON'T like the current Roman Rite, they just don't and the relegation of the priest to some sort of glorified altar boy (girl?) or, for some commenting here, glad handing personality at our "celebration" is making men turn off, often without really knowing why. Maybe a better understanding of what Mass really IS, would be a start towards some better outcomes, and not just disappointed people with varied expectations of what that "Sunday" in the pew experience should be. I can say what it IS NOT: it is not the glad handing Father friendly led "celebration" of our selves in our wonderfulness. AND - why do we have PRIESTS? - we don't need priests for that sort of gathering. So, for the edification of some:
Reading through the comments, I do see a couple of themes, one would be, sans our true "Catholicity" (which some, evidently, are not the beneficiaries of, probably by accident of the present era in which they were born, or place) people long for what they perceive as "more meaning" - something more viceral, and so they seek to mimic what Protestants do, which is ALL about the experience of the "receiver" in the pew or lawn chair, whatever the case may be. I am reminded of one G.K. Chesterton's quote about Christianity as not being "tried and found wanting," but not being tried, and we might easily say that about Catholicism in the modern age, vis-a-vis the liturgies thatto which at least some are exposed.
As an attendee of the liturgies of the Catholic East, I can attest to the idea that this same sort of angst towards liturgy does not exist, and those liturgies have been fixed for hundreds of years. There are no "children's" Masses, what for? Toddlers recieve communion and have been confirmed. The mindset of the West is that of bored intellects over-analyzing and compartmentalizing everything, and that has spilled over into our liturgies and people are, understandably, reacting and mostly negatively. Does not mean everything is bad, but too much is "up for grabs."
Please don't believe you speak for men. You simply do not.
I DO speak for men, but just SOME...... we could certainly discuss how many. I happen to be a man who knows what many men (certainly I make no claims here as far as unanimity, not even a majority) have been thinking about the present day Roman Liturgy. Many "vote" with their feet. Quite a few seek out alternatives, TLMs, Byzantine, etc. I am simply giving a "real world" 'where I live' report. Sorry if that rattles you.
The other factor that really jumped out was the sheer percentage of men vs women commenting. This is unusual per the "America" site, and so you can extract from that whatever you'd like. I don't think it is merely coincidence. Have a great day!!
Thank you very much for your articule brother. I am a priest and I have never liked to improvise. I listen to many priests improvising greetings, prayers etc ... and sometimes I thought if I'm too rigid ... I've always thought exactly how you wrote in your article and I was very happy to read it. thank you.
As one of my Jesuit brothers said when we were in Theology at Cambridge, "Jesus said 'Do this in memory of me, not do this better than me.'"
Ooops! In my rush I totally messed up the punctuation. That comment should be as follows:
As one of my Jesuit brothers said when we were in Theology at Cambridge, "Jesus said 'Do this in memory of me,' not 'do this better than me.'"
Joseph, Ahh, but he didn't say "repeat after me"! or, "follow this rubric". He was inviting his apostles, disciples, and all who would follow Him to share in this sacred meal. He would always be there, present to us in a special way. We could become what we eat and be part of his body, as we receive His body. The meaning is what is so very important!! Not necessarily the exact words. and Jesus did not write the sacred rites. the Church based them on His teachings. They are not perfect, as how can the finite describe the infinite. we do our best.... but the intent and spirit are what are most important. A true living faith,
I completely agree with this article with one exception: I appreciate when the priest adds "sisters and brothers" (yes, in that order) which for me reads as the tiniest token of acknowledgment of the Church's sinful patriarchy and sexism.