How and How Not to Say Mass

Author: Fr. Deryck Hanshell


Volume 118, Number 3, Fall 1991


There can be little doubt that the revised Mass could do with some re- revision, and in a direction which some would find regressive but others soundly traditional. One cannot but advert incidentally to the possible shape of things to come, although they could only come by the definitive act of authority. Moreover, we must learn to walk before we can run. The aim of the following remarks, therefore, is to plot what seems to be the best way of doing things within the present paramaters.

We are told in the constitution on the sacred liturgy that the reformed rite should be marked by a "noble simplicity." That it is marked comparatively speaking by simplicity I don't think we could deny. In practice, however, is this generally speaking a noble simplicity? Where in art or in the theatre (or in ballet) a noble or a telling simplicity is achieved it is the result of a good deal of technical mastery. I should say then straight away that where the celebration of Mass fails in due degree to be impressive--to be "expressive" indeed of the mystery at its core-- where it thus fails the cause lies first of all in the lack of conscious and yet concealed art on the part of the celebrant.

This art is a twofold one: an art of the voice and an art of movement. The sphere of the word is prominent in the revised Mass, and where the vernacular is used, as it mostly is, it poses a special problem. For while using his native language with a proper awareness of its resources the priest has yet to divest it as it were of the "personal" or at least of the idiosyncratic. He is speaking and yet it is not he, but the "leitourgos," who speaks in the name of the Church and in the name of the Lord of the Church. His voice must be the conduit of that which speaks through him. Granted first of all that he has learned how to use his voice so as to be heard without shouting, as also to speak where it is suitable with a lowered voice and yet distinctly--granted this, he has yet to observe a certain remoteness, something at any rate far from the elocutionary. A degree of formality is called for that neither degenerates on the one hand into insensitiveness nor on the other into sing-song or the parsonic. The sermon, of course, is another matter. Volley and thunder can there have its place as well as the colloquial or the simply earnest; but from this we are here prescinding.

So much for the voice. The rest can be summed up in the word "movement." The "leitourgos" has a body with head, hands and feet, and he must know how to use the body that the spirit may be expressed through it. This is what the larger part of liturgy (for the priest) is about, and why it is an art. To convey this we must use the not altogether happy expression, "body language."

If we still have something to learn from what is improperly known as "the old rite"--and should rather be thought of as the previous edition of the western rite--we could also with advantage recall some of the comments to be fond in J. O'Connell's "The Celebration of Mass" (Burns, Oates and Washbourne). In the second volume, O'Connell has a chapter on liturgical gesture. He remarks to being with that the rubrics "constitute a very real spiritual discipline." He goes on to quote from the old rubric which says that the priest is to go to the altar "with eyes cast down, and with a dignified carriage, holding himself straight." To look around him indeed or to look glassily straight ahead will neither of them do. And as for holding himself properly, this is not only good for him personally but is part of the body language which should be spoken by one who realizes how great is his office and his privilege in the house of God, and that the eyes of the faithful are upon him. They too need to be stirred to devotion by the sort of deportment on the priest's part that reflects his inner attitude.

Of course, there is no such rubric now, and this prompts the question as to whether the omission of such detailed directives has been altogether wise. One result in the somewhat bare setting has been the introduction of procedures not altogether in keeping with the sacrality of the Mass. To say "good morning" to the congregation, who obediently reply "Good morning, Father," is not only to reduce things to the level of the classroom but betrays a misunderstanding of what the Mass is about. Mass is not just a social gathering. It is an ecclesial and cultic one. From first to last what it celebrates is the saving presence of God. The greeting proper to this is "The Lord be with you"--or one of its variations--with the reply (as it should be) "And with your spirit." "Good morning" is not only out of place but "de trop." Moreover, it precisely wrong-foots the priest in his relation to the people. It is not (dear) Father So-and-So who should be seen first of all but the priest, the "leitourgos," the instrument of Christ in His Church. As such the priest himself is anonymous. "Facing the people" is in no way meant to obscure this truth.

We left our celebrant, however, on the way to the altar. Immediately the question of what to do with the hands presents itself. One sees priests striding to the altar with their hands held stiffly to the side. But this simply looks wrong, for it is neither natural--when a man is walking he tends to swing his arms--nor is it apt for the role the priest is called upon to play. Indeed, we might almost say that the "natural" reverential gesture is for the hands to be held together palm to palm before the chest. At least they should be held there joined.

On the subject of hands O'Connell cannot be improved upon:

"In general, when the hands are not in use during a ceremony they are to be held joined before the breast--a position of reverence and dignity. If one hand only is in use, the other, if the priest be at the altar, is placed palm downwards on the table, unless it is to be placed on the book or on the foot of the chalice. If the priest be not at the altar, or when he signs himself, it is placed on the chest just below the breast. It must not be held suspended in mid-air nor hanging at the side."

In reciting the collect and the prayers of the Mass in general, and not least the canon or Eucharistic prayer, two positions of the hands when not otherwise engaged may be recommended. One is to hold them from the elbows upward with palms facing inward and preferably not beyond the width of the shoulders. The other is to hold them forward with palms upward. In either case the elbows should be tucked in as in rowing, and the fingers held straight together and not curling. To extend the arms widely is lacking in poise and generally tends to sagging. The arms should be opened within these limits and again in a measured fashion and without jerking at the words, "The Lord be with you." It is perhaps a pity that there is no directive to part the hands slightly and rejoin them at "Let us pray." It just removes a suspicion of woodenness, but as being judged semi- Tridentine, it would, no doubt, merit a semi-anathema.

In general, the order of Mass as we now have it, is to be seen as a modification of the previous order and not as something "new." As was earlier suggested, the revised Mass is a later edition of the same western Mass (in its Roman form). The tendency has been to highlight where the present Mass differs from what went before, while minimizing what remains unchanged. We need to reverse this tendency. In emphasizing the present rite's continuity with the previous one, such details as the use of the chalice veil should not be ignored. And this, of course, heightens that reverence for the material adjuncts of the Mass, which is by no means to be deplored even if it was overdone in the past. If others than the priest handle these things they should be aware of their privilege. Nor should trendy variations on the traditional style of vestments--such as wearing the stole outside the chasuble--be indulged in.

In going through the Mass the following points might be adverted to:

1. To begin with we have to question the more or less regular custom of opening the Mass with "a few words." Ordinarily these are rarely if ever called for. Even at a wedding or a funeral it is surely unnecessary to explain to the people why they are there. It is for the sermon or homily to do any commenting that may be called for. As an alternative, a well- prepared introduction on some point in the Mass is, however, acceptable. Exceptionally a congregation may be swelled by those for whom the Mass is a quite new experience. An explanation of what it is all about and of why things proceed as they do could then be offered, but it would seem better to do this at greater length before the Mass begins. Once begun, it should be allowed to speak for itself.

Besides not overloading the Mass with talk there is also a deeper principle at stake. It is what in the first place the Mass is about. In the name of the reform there has been a tendency to equate the "theme" of the Mass with the theme to be derived from the readings. This is a misunderstanding of the nature of the Mass, in which the liturgy of the word leads up to and is subordinate to the liturgy of the sacrifice. In every Mass there is properly speaking one theme and one theme alone: the theme of the paschal mystery, of the death and resurrection of Christ. To bury this under excess verbiage unrelated to this theme is in some sort to keep Christ buried in the tomb.

2. "The Penitential Rite." To strike the breast three times at the mea culpa or its English equivalent in the "Confiteor," instead of just once (if at all), by no means offends against the caveat concerning duplication of elements in the rite. To suppose so is to confuse categories. It is a matter of expressiveness, whether verbal or kinetic or both, as with "mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa." Likewise limiting the ringing of the bell to a single stroke at the consecration of the host and of the chalice, instead of the full three strokes each time, is to fail to understand the role that these things play. In no way do the rubrics here exclude what was formerly thought to be proper. As is often the case now they merely indicate in general what is to be done and so are open to a minimalist interpretation.

3. "At the Altar." When at the beginning and end of the Mass the celebrant kisses the altar, he should lay his hands on it. Not to do so is ungainly. Before the gospel, however, he should bow deeply while saying the prayer, and here he holds his hands in front of him in the praying position. When, as in the prayer after the preparation of the elements, he bends over the altar, he touches it with the tips of his fingers, both hands being held straight and together. So the old rubrics directed and this cannot, of course, be enforced, but it is still the best way to do it.

4. "The Gloria." At the first words of the "Gloria" there is no rubric prescribing any action on the part of the celebrant. Rarely, however, at this point does he not do something with his hands, if only to continue to hold them before his chest. To let them hang at the sides would indeed be grotesque. In the sort of future revision of the rubrics that seems to be called for--one in the direction of greater detail and precision--it might serve to recall what previously obtained here: "Standing at the middle of the altar, with his hands at shoulder height, and joing his hands and bowing his head a little," etc. Rightly or wrongly and mostly unwittingly many have gone on doing just this.

5. "The Collect." After the priest has said "Let us pray," all are invited to spend a short time in silent prayer. I think myself a definite but short pause is indicated, and that the pause is meant for recollection in the first place. It is not as if the theme of the prayer has been announced beforehand, as is the case with the Good Friday intercessions. Silence in the Mass in general tends to distract when nothing is going on during it. It is when something is being done, as at the offertory, that silence can enhance the action. To extend the application of this principle does not, of course, lie with the individual.

At present in a bare rubric when the celebrant recites the collect or the other "orationes" he is directed to extend his hands and no more. Nothing is said about rejoining them at the conclusion, "through our Lord, Jesus Christ" etc., although this seems a natural and consonant piece of body language. The ending certainly looks awkward otherwise. Nothing either is said about bowing slightly at the holy Name or at the mention of our Lady or the saints specially commemorated: a devout custom surely and one that was never meant to have been discontinued, though it largely has been as the best of traditons are like to be if they are not reinforced.

6. "The Gospel." At the words "The Lord be with you," it should be noted that there is no rubric enjoining the extending of the hands. It was explicitly stated in the previous rite that the hands should be kept joined. They have enough to do with the signing of the book, etc., and this "Dominus vobiscum" is not so much a greeting as a calling to attention. In both rites the procedure is the same, only the thumb not being mentioned now in the rubrics.

7. "The Creed." Again nothing to accompany the first words of the Creed is prescribed; and here the same could apply as at the beginning of the "Gloria." The priest would do well to bow his head at the holy Name, while the old rubrics directed that he do so at the word "Deum," God. Be it noted, however, that I say this, as in other like cases, not to encourage going beyond what is at present laid down but to raise the question rather as to whether the line has been always well drawn. Such matters are not and never have been determined once and for all. We should be concerned about them, however, because it is possible to err by defect no less than by excess. Moreover, what may seem good to a panel of experts concerned very much with theory may not turn out so well in practice. In the Creed this is notably exemplified. Formerly all knelt at the "Et incarnatus est." Why not reserve this, the pundits thought, for the two feasts of the Incarnation, Christmas and the Annunciation, and have a lesser observance, namely bowing, for ordinary occasions? We see the result. How often does anybody do anything? If these things matter it is hard to see why kneeling on all occasions has not been re-established.

A further thought suggests itself here. With the celebrant standing at the reading desk or ambo and facing the people, his bowing at "Et incarnatus est" (when he does so) is not something that visibly impresses the congregation. If he with the servers, however, were to stand for the Creed at the center in front of and facing the altar, their bowing--and making a good thing of it--would plainly be seen by the people and prompt some of them at least to do likewise.

8. "The Offertory." Three or four points may here be noted. There is no obligation to recite the prayers out loud. Two of them in any case are marked to be said secreto. This means not in a low voice but silently.

According to the rubrics the paten and the chalice when they are offered should be raised "aliquantulum," "just a little," above the altar. It is interesting to note how many priests follow in fact the old rubrics without for the most part realizing this. They raise the paten to chest height and the chalice to eye height (in the latter case such was the "practice" at least). It seems that the present directives reflect a compromise between two schools of thought. One has been for abolishing the offertory or at least for reducing it to the function of setting aside the elements from common use. The other school evidently fought to preserve the idea of offering, oblation. So we still have the word "offerimus" for both the host and the chalice, but the gesture is minimal, "aliquantulum," and scarcely conveys the notion of offering. As things stand they are not perhaps satisfactory although half a loaf is better than none.

Most of us are not born liturgists and need to be trained and directed in the art. There is a right way to handle the chalice and a wrong way. One holds a glass of wine by the stem and not by the cup or bowl. In handling the chalice, therefore, the right hand should take hold of the stem while the left supports the base, and so it should be raised.

In bowing and saying (silently) the prayer "In spiritu humilitatis" let the priest remember to lay his joined hands on the altar (that is, preferably). It is not such a deep bow as when he says the "Munda cor meum" before reading the gospel.

9. "The Altar," etc. In "The Feast of Faith," Cardinal Ratzinger reminds us that "the strongly felt community character of the Eucharistic celebration," with the priest facing the people, expresses only "one aspect of the Eucharist. The danger is that it can make the congregation into a closed circle...but the community does not carry on a dialogue with itself; it is engaged in a common journey towards a returning Lord." How then to integrate the congregational orientation with the traditional "Godward" one? One thing we might do, the Cardinal suggests, is to restore the cross, presumably a hanging one between priest and people, to its central position before the eyes of all, so that it is not to each other but to the cross and to all that it symbolizes that all are invited to look. One would add that for the priest in any case it is very necessary to be, and to be seen to be, concentrating on what is being done "on" the altar. If his eyes are not on the cross or on the missal they should be, for example, on the consecrated host and chalice. Even in the dialogue before the preface they should not be on the people. The "oeillades," apt to be attempted here, are as out of place as they are usually self-conscious. Indeed, the last thing one would want is the compere's manner with his audience. The priest has no audience. His relation with the congregation is not that sort of thing at all. In inviting them to "lift up their hearts" he is directing them well away from himself. The better he ordinarily keeps his eyes lowered the more effective will be his looking and stretching his arms towards them on the one occasion when he should do so, namely at the words, "The peace of the Lord be with you always." Even so, he should not look at the people but a little "over" their heads, and thereby be seeming to look at each one of them but without the misplaced "magnetism" of the star performer.

A few points of detail may now suffice. For the Eucharistic prayer the voice may well be somewhat lowered until the doxology at the end is reached. While directing the action, the words of the canon are also subordinate to it, and they are familiar from repetition. At the heart of the Mass something "happens." It also helps if the words of consecration are spoken slowly but not in any heightened way. Resuming the previous pace afterwards provides as well variety and contrast and helps to hold the attention.

In all of the four usual canons the sign of the cross is made over the "oblata." There is an art in performing this. It should not be made streakily and haphazardly but in a moderate fashion so that the transverse movement does not exceed the limits of the "oblata" themselves. And the fingers should be held straight and together.

At the consecration, the celebrant should remember to bow slightly when reciting the dominical words. (In the Roman canon he will have previously raised his eyes at the words "looking up to heaven.")

Here the rubric which directs the paten to be placed at the center in front of the chalice has given rise to a regrettable habit. Too often the priest raises the paten and then lifts the host off it for the elevation. Something about this gesture recalls a polite tea party. One is almost surprised when the little finger is not also raised. Surely the traditional way of doing things is preferable. Let the host or chalice be raised with both hands above the head. It is to be clearly seen and adored. The rubric here could clearly do with revision. The nonchalant habit of raising host or chalice with one hand should also be deprecated.

A further abuse has also crept in. It is one thing to place the missal in front on the altar instead of at the side, but now priests have taken to placing the missal on the corporal, and in order to do so even displacing the "oblata." Any idea of the point of using the corporal does not seem to have occurred to them, and this whether or not there is an altar stone containing relics beneath it. Could liturgical uncouthness go further?

Since the nonchalant habit of raising host or chalice with one hand is to be deprecated, at (in the present version) "This is the Lamb of God, the sacred host should be held up in the right hand (for right-handed people) while the other hand either holds the paten beneath or itself is held beneath with the palm open.

In giving communion the host should be raised a little before being placed in the hand or on the tongue of the recipient.

It is always an abuse to distribute the consecrated hosts to the people before the priest has made his own communion. The idea is that all should communicate together and it is a mistaken one. The Church is hierarchic and not populist, and the leading role of the priest reflects the headship of Christ. Nor should the sacred hosts or the chalice be handed round among the congregation. It is for the priest or at least the Eucharistic ministers to distribute communion.

Care should be taken to genuflect if the ciborium has been taken from the tabernacle and when it is placed on the altar, both before and after the giving of communion. Not only is this good for the devotion of the priest but also for that of the people.

Finally, and once again, let the priest be a priest. The blessing at the end of Mass is a "blessing," the Church's blessing bestowed by the ordained minister who alone can do so, and the people have a right to receive this. It is an abuse to deprive them of this. It is also a strange denial of the priest's privilege and obligation. Let us hear no more then of "May almighty God bless us"...however well intentioned this may be.

For the blessing, the left hand should be placed on the breat while the right makes the sign, on the downward stroke carving as it were with the little finger. There is a still better way of doing this but not perhaps within the present parameters.