Presiding at the Liturgy of the Word: The second in the Lent-Easter series on 'Good Liturgy'
There is a saying, “Well begun is half done.” Liturgical celebrations are among the places where that saying is especially true. What follows is one presider’s and teacher’s reflection on the first half of the liturgy of the Mass, from before the entrance procession to the end of the Prayer of the Faithful. The basic principle here is that the role of the priest-presider or celebrant of the Eucharist is to serve and encourage the prayer of the assembly that God has gathered in a particular place, so that they can give praise to God and grow in their response to the gift of Christ in word and sacrament.
The tone of the liturgy is set by the presider at the very beginning. After some comment on the history, theology and spirituality of the Liturgy of the Word, I will turn to some dos and don’ts of presiding and conclude with some reflections on preaching.
A Very Brief History
As far as we can tell, during the first four centuries A.D. the Liturgy of the Word began with a liturgical greeting by the president of the assemby; then came the readings—and that was about it. St. Justin Martyr (writing about mid-second- century Rome) tells us that on Sundays “the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as much as there is time for. Then, when the reader has finished, the one presiding, provides, in a discourse, admonition and exhortation to imitate these excellent things. Then we all stand up together and say prayers....”
In some of the early church communities, as many as four or five readings were proclaimed. By the Middle Ages, the Western church, with some rare exceptions, used two readings: one from the Gospels and another from Paul or some other New Testament book. There have always been biblical chants (mostly psalms) interspersed among the readings. As the chants became more elaborate, the texts were abbreviated, so that very few verses were sung. Another medieval development, probably an expansion of the alleluia verse, was the sequence hymn sung on special occasions—for example, “Sion, Praise your Savior” on Corpus Christi, “Dies Irae” at Masses for the Dead and “Praise the Paschal Victim” on Easter. The Gospel was traditionally chanted by a deacon. This is, as the General Instruction of the Roman Missal says, a ministerial, not a presidential function in the liturgy (No. 59). The Nicene Creed became a regular part of the Sunday Eucharist in the 10th century, imported from the Greek East. The Prayer of the Faithful disappeared after the beginning of the fifth century but has been restored in the post-Vatican II rite.
Theology and Spirituality
With what theology and spirituality can the presider approach this combination of rites that we call the Liturgy of the Word? A few principles from the General Instruction can help. First, the entrance rites should “ensure that the faithful who come together as one establish communion and dispose themselves properly to God’s word and to celebrate the Eucharist worthily” (No. 46). Second, the instruction emphasizes that in the proclamation of the word, God is speaking: Christ himself is present in our midst (Nos. 29, 55).
There are two spiritual implications that might inform the presider’s approach to these basic aspects of the first part of the Mass: humility and reverence. If presiders are not awe-struck by the fact that Christ is really present in his word and that God is actually speaking to us, how can we expect anyone else to appreciate God’s word as the most fundamental source of our faith? So the presider’s task is to exercise a kind of enthusiastic humility (if that’s not too much of an oxymoron) during the Liturgy of the Word. Second, the instruction also affirms the presence of Christ in the midst of the gathered assembly (No. 27). This implies that the presider needs to show reverence not only for the liturgy but also for his fellow members of the body of Christ, for whose leadership he has been called. The presider’s role during the entrance rites and the Liturgy of the Word is a rather modest one. He leads by listening. The priest has a very delicate role in the liturgy: he represents Christ to the assembly (which is the body of Christ), and he represents the body of Christ to God. In a sense, he is the quintessential middleman.
Pitfalls and Good Practices in Presiding
There are both opportunities and pitfalls for presiders, right from the beginning of the entrance rite to the end of the intercessions. The entire celebration can start off on the wrong foot when a cantor or commentator begins with something like, “Good morning; let’s all stand and greet our celebrant, Father Jim, with the hymn....” I think (I hope) that everyone knows that the point of the opening song is not to greet the presider, but to gather the assembly to praise God and to hear God’s word. The liturgical scholar Ralph Keifer pointed out some time ago that there is an irony about the post-Vatican II liturgy. While today’s liturgy balances the role of the priest and the assembly theologically, it seems to give more emphasis to the personality of the priest and so reverses that balance ritually. Given the danger that the liturgy can so easily be mistaken for entertainment (instead of a communal response to God’s invitation), the presider needs to be very careful not to make himself the center of attention. There are several ways this can happen. The priest might add “Good morning” to the ritual greeting “The Lord be with you.” I have heard priests respond, “Thank you” to the people’s “And also with you.” Or the priest can act as if he were host of the gathering in his introduction to the celebration: “I’m so happy you can be here today.” I’ve heard even visiting priests do that. It is not for nothing that some have suggested that we have merely substituted a new, more informal, clericalism for the old one.
The Sacramentary and General Instruction allow for the priest to offer a “very brief” introduction to the liturgy of the day in his own words immediately after the greeting (Instruction, No. 124). How is a new clericalism to be avoided here? One help is to think of this introduction as exhortation rather than information. It is not meant to be a summary or preview of the homily but a means of helping the assembly to praise God, to recognize their need for forgiveness and to hear God’s word. I should also mention the practice of adding phrases like “My brothers and sisters, the Lord be with you.” During the course I teach to future priests on liturgical presiding, I ask, “How do those added words improve on what the church is offering in the liturgy?” I rarely hear a good answer. This is not liturgical nitpicking so much as a way to point out that the liturgy is a common possession of the people of God, not the property of the priest, however well-meaning he may be.
This leads to a larger issue: Is there a legitimate variety of liturgical styles? The answer is, quite simply, yes. The presider’s style of introducing the liturgy may well differ in an African-American, an “Anglo” and a Latino assembly, since these varied groups may well need different approaches in order to gather in praise and be prepared to listen to the word of God. At the same time we need to be wary of a simplistic equation of formality with a cold manner or stiffness. It seems to me that the best presiders combine respect for the assembly and ritual formality with great warmth and engagement—what I like to call “high-church-with-a-heart.”
Let us turn to the penitential rite. The third form of the rite, which combines acclamations directed to Christ with the response “Lord [Christ], have mercy,” has become the clear favorite in our celebrations. The priest (or deacon or cantor) may use the acclamations printed in the Sacramentary or others. Note, however, that when the directions say “using these or similar words,” they mean that what is improvised should follow the form and intent of the examples given. First of all, then, these are acclamations addressed not to the persons of the Trinity but to Christ; second, they do not focus on our sins but on Christ and his activity (“You came to call sinners”). It is also good to remember that the rite of sprinkling is recommended on Sundays (especially in the Easter season) as a way of remembering our baptism.
“Glory to God in the Highest” is a hymn that we sing every Sunday except in the seasons of Lent and Advent. It is the nature of a hymn to be sung. Many of our congregations have difficulty with singing, and sometimes this difficulty is exacerbated by the reluctance of their priests to sing. We certainly need to take much more seriously in our seminary education the training of priests to sing. The “Glory to God” is followed by the opening prayer, which brings a close to the entrance rites. This is one of the places where the General Instruction’s re-emphasis on silence is important. The priest says, “Let us pray.” This invitation refers to the silence in which all who are gathered offer up their prayer. The technical name for what follows is “collect”; it sums up or collects the silent prayers of the assembled.
Can it be said that presiders do not need to be active during the proclamation of the word? It is clear that reading the Scriptures is a ministerial, not a presidential role. The presider is to cede the reading of the Gospel to a deacon or to a concelebrating priest, if there is one. I sympathize with priests who are going to preach and want to read the Gospel so that they can give it their own emphasis, but this value does not outrank the importance of respecting the liturgy as a combination of coordinated roles imaging the body of Christ.
On the other hand, even when the presider is not speaking, he should be an active hearer of the word. If the presider does not have his eyes on the reader or otherwise show that he is listening attentively, the rest of the assembly receives a subtle but nonetheless clear signal that it is not important for them to listen either. What would change in our liturgies if we all believed that the word of God is a matter of life and death? After all, it is.
Proclaiming the Word
There are four ways in which we respond to the proclamation of God’s word: the homily, the Creed, the Prayer of the Faithful, and the eucharistic prayer and Communion. Preaching is obviously the most important thing presiders do during the Liturgy of the Word. Presuming the presider’s strong and living faith, I offer here only three points on something that deserves a much longer reflection. First, it is important to remember that the liturgical homily is a way to connect a particular assembly’s experience with God’s living word. Second, this means that the preacher must have a good “feel” for each assembly. He is not merely offering an exegesis or explanation of the Scriptures—although that prior work needs to be done in his office and in his prayer. Third, there is no substitute for being an interesting person. Preachers need to read (fiction, non-fiction and poetry); they need to go to movies and concerts and watch television; they need to listen to music of many sorts. In other words, they need to be thoroughly engaged both in reflection on Scripture and theology and in the culture in which they live. They should have something significant to say.
On Sundays and major feast days we proclaim the Creed. The newest edition of the texts for the Mass gives the option of using either the Nicene or the (much shorter) Apostles’ Creed. Creeds are not so much a series of statements giving information about God as they are a way of expressing the grammar of faith and a means of praise. (We also need good and relatively easy melodies so that the creeds can be sung more often.)
The final element in the Liturgy of the Word is the Prayer of the Faithful. Once again, the presider’s role is modest but significant. He introduces the petitions by an invitation to pray. (Note that the invitation is not itself a prayer.) As mentioned earlier with regard to reading the Gospel, Roman Catholic liturgy is a “team sport” and calls for a reader, cantor or deacon to read the petitions. The presider then concludes the prayer by speaking a formula, examples of which are given in “Appendix 1” of the Sacramentary. Published sets of original prayers composed with the readings of the Lectionary in mind may also be useful.
Together With Christ
I have been using the word “presider” in addition to the General Instruction’s terms, “priest” or “priest celebrant.” I have adopted this terminology deliberately. In a real sense, the entire assembly is the celebrant of the liturgy together with Christ, whose Spirit calls it into being. The presider’s role is both critical and limited. He is given the noble task of symbolizing the community’s unity and calling it to worship the Lord of all. That is no small grace, but a wonderful privilege.
The revised edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal provides us all, clergy and laypeople alike, with a golden opportunity to reflect on the importance of carefully preparing and engaging in our eucharistic celebrations. May that reflection deepen our worship and response to the God who never ceases to call us to deeper and richer life.