Of Many Things
Here’s an old chestnut I first heard as a novice: "He’s as confused as a Jesuit during Holy Week!" Ha ha. We Jesuits were supposed to be so addled about liturgical practices that the elaborate rituals of Holy Week were for us a mystery - and not the good kind of mystery.
There is at least a minuscule element of truth in this. A few months after I was ordained, I was celebrating Mass at our local Jesuit parish and was still worried about fouling up the rubrics. After proclaiming the Gospel and preaching a homily, I left the ambo, returned to the presider’s chair and promptly launched into the Prayers of the Faithful. Something about the open missalettes and confused faces told me that I had erred somehow. Presently it dawned on me that, more used to daily Masses, I had completely bypassed the Profession of Faith. At the end of the Mass I made a confession: "You’ll notice I skipped the Profession of Faith. This was not intended as a theological protest: I just forgot. And I do believe it." This Jesuit, at least, still had a lot to learn liturgically.
On the other hand, some of the most beautiful Masses I’ve ever attended have been in Jesuit churches. On the third hand, some of the finest liturgical scholars in the world today are members of the Society of Jesus.
Here endeth the defense of Jesuit liturgies.
I was thinking about this as I reread one of my favorite priestly how-to books: How Not to Say Mass (Paulist Press), by Dennis C. Smolarski, S.J. It’s a revised edition of a book first published in 1986. To this day, I can remember first stumbling across the book, in 1992, in the recreation room of a Jesuit community in Nairobi, Kenya. The title made me laugh aloud, and after a few pages I was hooked. A few minutes later, another member of the community passed by and asked what I was reading. When I told him the book’s title, he laughed, mentioned another priest in our community and whispered, "I think he’s read that book from cover to cover!"
The book is a fine compendium of dos and don’ts, offered in a light but firm style, enlightening for clergy and lay alike. For example, not a few priests would do well to read the entry on the top of page 80, which is headlined Do not clutter the altar with unnecessary ciboria and chalices (or sweaters and eyeglasses, as I once saw at a church in Philadelphia). I was happy that the publishers kept intact the book’s most memorable line, which follows the above dictum: Altars can sometimes look like awards tables at bowling banquets or vendors’ tables at pottery crafts shows. Likewise, the average Massgoer (and average priest for that matter) might be surprised to learn that giving a homily from the presider’s chair is not only permitted, it is encouraged by the author and a number of traditional documents on the liturgy.
I keep How Not to Say Mass on a shelf beside two other priestly how-to books: A Confessor’s Handbook, by Kurt Stasiak, O.S.B., and Preaching Better, by Bishop Kenneth Untener (both from Paulist Press). Both books use a friendly dos and don’ts format as well. Father Stasiak’s advice is a boon to any confessor. My favorite entry under Things to Avoid is Do not get lost in what you’re saying. Likewise, I like this dictum from Bishop Untener’s book on homiletics: Don’t be afraid to cut out some great material in order to stay focused on one thought.
Whenever I take the subway to the parish, I carry along one of these little paperbacks and never fail to discover something helpful. After only four years as a priest, I still feel fairly new at this and need all the advice I can get, especially when it comes to hearing confessions and preaching. And though I’m not an expert liturgist, at least I don’t knock things over (any longer, that is).
On the other hand, don’t ask me for any advice when Holy Week rolls around.