A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
Explaining the Mass During Mass
ROME, 9 JAN. 2007 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Are there possibilities for the celebrant to share more insights about what is taking place at different stages of the Mass, to facilitate better participation from the congregation? I pose this question because most times I observe that people seem to "go through the motions" during the Mass and many don't seem to "be connected" with what's happening during the different parts of the Eucharistic celebration. — M.F., Singapore
A: This point is covered by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), No. 31:
"It is also up to the priest, in the exercise of his office of presiding over the gathered assembly, to offer certain explanations that are foreseen in the rite itself. Where it is indicated in the rubrics, the celebrant is permitted to adapt them somewhat in order that they respond to the understanding of those participating. However, he should always take care to keep to the sense of the text given in the Missal and to express them succinctly. The presiding priest is also to direct the word of God and to impart the final blessing. In addition, he may give the faithful a very brief introduction to the Mass of the day (after the initial Greeting and before the Act of Penitence), to the Liturgy of the Word (before the readings), and to the Eucharistic Prayer (before the Preface), though never during the Eucharistic Prayer itself; he may also make concluding comments to the entire sacred action before the dismissal."
The GIRM thus suggests four moments when brief explanations or comments may be profitably inserted: at the beginning, before the readings, before the preface, and before the dismissal.
Ideally, explanations of the Mass would be best imparted through programs for the continual Christian formation of adults. But this is not feasible in most cases as relatively few Catholics have both the commitment and the time to avail of these programs.
Some priests, realizing that many of the rites and prayers were lost on the faithful, have sought to remedy the situation with brief explanations carried out on a cyclical basis.
For example, a priest who habitually celebrates Mass at the same time for basically the same congregation announces that besides his usual homily (perhaps shaving it by a couple of minutes), he will dedicate a few minutes each week to explain one or two particular points of the Mass.
Following this he uses one of the suggested moments to explain the meaning of the rite and the spiritual fruits that the Church desires us to harvest through active participation in its celebration and a deeper understanding of the exercise of the royal or common priesthood of the faithful.
Some longer rites and prayers may be explained piecemeal. For example, before the preface the priest could invite the people to be attentive to the different moments of the Eucharistic Prayer (preface, transitions, epiclesis, consecration, anamnesis, intercessions, etc.) and then explain one of these parts each week. A fairly complete explanation of the Mass can be given over two or three months, allowing for interruptions such as feasts and the celebration of sacraments during Mass.
Once completed, another cycle can be preached every few years as deemed pastorally necessary.
Although these explanations must necessarily be brief, several priests who have applied this method have commented that most parishioners responded positively and affirmed that it has helped them to understand and live the Mass in a deeper way. ZE07010928
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Follow-up: Explaining the Mass [1-23-2007]
After our reflections on explaining the Mass within Mass (Jan. 9) some readers asked if the homily could be used to explain some aspects.
While it is generally recommended that the homily be based on the readings, this is not an absolute rule. The homily may also occasionally focus on one of the liturgical prayers, such as the collect, from the feast or occasion being celebrated. Or it may even be used to explain other elements of doctrine, liturgical theology, and the meaning of the parts of the Mass.
If this can be integrated with the readings of the day, all the better. But this is not always possible. At the same time I would be hesitant to depart from the readings on a regular basis as this could weaken the faithful's understanding of the importance of God's Word within the overall structure of the celebration.
I personally prefer using the commentaries for such explanations. They are usually closer to the actual moment in which the rite being explained is to be carried out, and this is generally more effective.
Helping the faithful gain a deeper understanding of the Mass is a pastoral necessity. Decisions as to the best means (commentaries or homilies) to achieve that goal are also pastoral and may differ from place to place.
Several readers asked if there are any recommended resources to help people understand what is going on at Mass and the meaning of the various rites.
Although I do not know any source capable of answering all possible questions — if there were, my task would be a lot easier — I can recommend a couple of fairly recent books that would help both the inquiring layman and the priest in search of concise explanations.
Father Jeremy Driscoll's "What Happens at Mass" and Scott Hahn's "The Lamb's Supper" are both excellent and accessible introductions to the Mass that complement each other very well.
Another interesting, albeit more technical, source is Father Jovian Lang's "Dictionary of the Liturgy," which offers concise definitions and illustrations on a wide range of liturgical topics. ZE07012326
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