Volume 118, Number 3, Fall 1991
HOW AND HOW NOT TO SAY MASS
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
DERYCK HANSHELL, S.J.