Thursday, 13 June 2013

Making Mass Holy Again

The Catechism tells us (CCC.1090) taking up the words of Vatican II, that at Mass we participate in the worship offered in heaven: "In the earthly liturgy we share in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle" (Sacrosanctum Concilium 8; Lumen Gentium 50). This must be so if the Risen Lord is Truly and Substantially Present in the Eucharistic species, for where God is, there is heaven. Many seem to overlook the fact we are not imitating the angels and saints at Mass: the Sanctus reminds us that we are “with the angels and saints” (Prefaces of the Mass). It is no wonder that to our Orthodox brethren the Mass is known as The Divine Liturgy.
If we truly believe in the Real Presence we cannot deny that when we are at Mass we are in heaven; that we are participating in the very worship of heaven. Our celebration of the liturgy (the ‘clothing’ of the Mass we might say) must therefore reflect the heavenly reality; it must provide an experience of the transcendent so that we can attain to an awareness of the numinous. Sadly, what has happened over the last few decades is that the liturgy has been bannalised and made to reflect the culture of man: hymns are sung to commonly known folk tunes; folk and rock instruments have become the background to words and gestures; altars are made from materials reflecting the local industry; informality wherein the celebrant insets himself into the congregation to preach and distribute Holy Communion is common. It has become so commonplace to make the Mass reflective of human culture rather than the worship offered by heaven that priests are asked to play pop songs at weddings and funerals. I have been asked for ‘The Wedding’ and ‘Everything I do, I do for you’ at weddings, and for ‘My Way’, ‘Wind Beneath my Wings’ and ‘Someday, We’ll Be Together’ at funerals. When asked I ask, gently, if they will be singing hymns at the reception. It immediately clicks with people that Church is for hymns, and the Club the place for pop music. None of the foregoing –informality of celebrants, pop tunes etc- are reflective of heaven, yet all too often it is informality and the ‘pop’ culture that we experience at Mass, many of us having lost sight of the fact that Holy Mass is heaven on earth. We need to restore the sense of the sacred, but this is decidedly hard when too many of our Bishops and liturgists have been formed in the informal, populist ways of the last forty years and are unable to think outside the box in which they were so rigidly formed. I dare here to suggest some very simple steps we can take to restore the sense of the sacred; to re-sacralise the liturgy and make Mass Holy again.
The first step is architectural. The barns of the last few decades, stripped of traditional Catholic imagery and with a sanctuary raised only by one step, should go. We need a building that raises one’s eyes to heaven by its height; a building where religious imagery of the angels and saints reminds us that we have left the world behind and entered heaven; a building where the sanctuary is raised by at least three steps to indicate the Holiness of the Triune God. We also need altars of marble or stone to reflect Christ our Rock. Today, even altars reflect man’s local culture: I have seen an altar the altar like scaffolding in a steelworks area, while in a seaside town a sea rock was flattened off on top to make the mensa. If this is not making the liturgy reflective of earth rather than heaven, I don’t know what is. Altar rails need not be restored if people are totally adverse to them, but they are at least helpful –in fact most valuable- in symbolically separating the world from the holy of holies and thus helping those in attendance to grasp the sacred nature of the sanctuary and what takes place there.
The second step is the celebration of Mass ad orientem. It is impossible not to ‘play to the audience’ when Mass is offered facing the people, because we naturally focus the mind on what the eyes see in order to make cognitive sense of what is seen.
The third step is use of music that is ‘other’ than pop tunes and songs, which reflect the popular culture of man, not heaven. Chant, as the music given to the world by the Church and as required by Vatican II, must be restored. It is ingenious to claim to be ‘a Vatican II man’ when the Council’s liturgical decrees are deliberately flouted or left unimplemented simply because one cannot think beyond the box in which one was formed. We ought not to sing at every moment, for that would be to omit the sacred silence necessary for good liturgy; that silence which reflects the Presence of God among us. As scripture says, “The Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him” (Habakkuk 2v20).
The fourth step is the deportment of the priest and his ministers. When altars are used as desks for Fathers spectacles, hymn book, bulletin, glass of water etc., we symbolically tell the people that the mensa is just another working surface and not the Altar of Sacrifice (an aside: notice how many people speak of the sanctuary as the altar? “Johnny is on the altar today”). Assisting Ministers (servers and deacons) should have the dignity of the Palace Guard, by which we do not mean ‘rigid’, but erect. Priests too must learn to conduct themselves with the same dignity and grace in both gesture and pace of movement, by which we do not want to see them effeminately prancing around but moving with the dignity of the soldier approaching his King to be knighted. Priests should also learn to utter the texts of the Mass prayerfully, not as though they were lecture notes. Ministerial attire also needs attention. Beautiful vestments for the priests are works of art which instruct, while servers should return to wearing the cassock and cotta rather than an alb –which is the undergarment of clergy vestments; albs are not attire in themselves.
Finally, reception of Holy Communion kneeling and on the tongue is the only way to symbolically inform those receiving that this is not common bread which we may take in our hands without thinking; nor is it a ticket we take to gain entry to the cinema. It is God Incarnate, the Lamb of God Sacrificed and Risen (Rev.5v6).  Reception in the mouth is not infantile but reminiscent of lovers where one places food in the mouth of the other in an intimate manner. Further, kneeling for Holy Communion was the only time many people got to touch the holy of holies. When we receive standing, none who are not ordained to it get to touch the sanctuary except the chosen few. Reception on the tongue while kneeling is a witness to the Real Presence, and gives us another meaning to the text of sacred scripture that “every knee shall bend and every tongue confess...” (Philip.2v10).

We occasionally still hear some speak of ‘Holy Mass’, but I don’t think we often see it celebrated that way. It is time we did.


  1. T E Gullickson13 June 2013 at 11:15

    Thank you, Father!

    I think this is part of what me mean by the concept of "mutual enrichment". Very positive.

    1. Thank you, Father.

      I am most happy to receive and publish your comment. Indeed, I think mutual enrichment is a necessary 'order of the day', so to speak.

  2. Hello Father,

    Everything you say is so obvious yet so lost in our liturgy today. Why when we have such clarity and beauty do our bishops want us to be protestants?

    In Domino,


    1. Thank you for commenting.

      I'm not sure the Bishops want us to be Protestant,but that we do not see our liturgy has lost what was known to be distinctively Catholic. Sadly, this means we loose Catholic identity within and without our Faith community.

    2. Hello father,
      This is the exact reason we came to Catholicism. We could no longer accept the Methodist way of 'taking' communion, rather than receiving it as a great and holy gift. Kneeling and receiving on the tongue is a wonderful thing to do. I don't want to touch the body of our Lord with my unclean, unconsecrated hands. I think many catholics forget what an amazing thing the mass is. I am truly thankful that the Lord called me from Methodism into the Catholic church so I can experience the mass every week.
      God bless

    3. Thanks for the comment, Janine.

      You are a welcome member of the Catholic family! I suppose its not just that our hands are not consecrated (we probably commit more sins with the tongue than the hand!) but that it signifies how precious the Blessed Sacrament is and how awesome the Mass, as you have so rightly perceived.
      God bless you and yours always.

  3. Thank you for the desire and ways to restore Holiness to the Mass. One comment is that I do think that bringing back the alter rail is a priority. It physically separates us as mortal beings on this earth who are in anticipation of some day entering Heaven! There is a great beauty also in the procession as the gait is opened for the priests and servers to enter into the holy sanctuary and then the server comes back and closes it. Ad orientem is such a simple yet profound way to make even the ordinary form of the Mass elevated in its holiness. We are seeing more priests in Sioux Falls Diocese saying Mass this way and more wanting too. Some are hesitant because the Pope is not saying Mass this way or the local Bishop (even though he is accepting of it ) We as laity need to keep supporting them and educating those around us who do not understand the beauty and meaning behind it
    God Bless
    Dr.David Wachs SD USA

    1. Thank you very much for your comment.

      I agree, personally, that the altar rails ought to be restored as a priority and indeed, gates add a striking symbolic effect. I actually restored the altar rails in my parish, partly to distinguish the heavenly from the earthly in the liturgy; partly to make it possible to encourage reception kneeling. There are too many in the Catholic Church who cannot understand their significance and that, perhaps, is why they do not like them. If we can at least return to ad orientem posture, use Latin chant and distribute Holy Communion on the tongue, then perhaps the rails can wait.
      It is a shame that priests are afraid to use the rubrics which ditcate the ad orientem posture (even a scandal, perhaps) for while the Popes have not publicly offered Mass ad orientem, the private papal chapel was never re-ordered, so all Popes since Vatican II will have offered Mass ad orientem at least privately. Perhaps I will do a post on this in the future.

  4. Oh father if only there were more priests with this perspective! Thank you.


    1. Thank you for the comment.
      I'm sure more priests think this way but are simply afraid to speak out for fear of their reputation among their fellow clerics and the people.


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