Where the Soul of Christ Transforms the Soul of the World


Some years ago I attended the solemn profession of vows for a young nun. I remember the joy and excitement her family expressed in anticipating this day, and how far and at great expense they had come to share this moment. After the sign of the cross and the Pauline greeting, the celebrant fumbled with a sheaf of papers in his hands and said to the congregation something like, “I am not quite sure what I am doing but we’ll get through it . . . Ha, ha, ha.” Throughout the remainder of the Mass, he continued to interject jocular comments, comic asides, and references to an upcoming baseball game. The people naturally followed his lead with many rounds of applause, salvos of raucous laughter, and chimed-in answers to the priest’s rhetorical questions. The homily was sprinkled with one-liners and focused more on memories of the priest’s mother than on the meaning of religious profession or on the nun and her community there present. During the profession itself, a cellular phone rang, at which the priest quipped “Well, maybe that’s God, but we are going through with it anyway.”

My joy and excitement for this young woman’s definitive commitment was quickly replaced with disappointment and embarrassment. The solemnity and beauty of this moment—carefully crafted by the liturgy—was greatly diminished by the “presidential style” of the priest, which dominated the entire ceremony. In my judgment, these liturgical adaptations were clearly inappropriate to the situation, contrary to the liturgical norms of the church, and in striking contrast to the spiritual practice and culture of the community. The vertical dimension of the Mass, the sense of the sacred, participation in Paschal mystery, and the rhythm and movement of sacred ritual were swallowed up at the expense of the emphasis on the horizontal and on attempts at humor.

The Cult of Personality

 Incidents like this one raise a number of questions in the minds of the faithful. Why do some priests seem to be so informal and take so many liberties within the Mass, and others do not? Why do some priests seem to be very reverent in the celebration of Mass and give such care and attention to detail, and some do not? In the last 45 years or so there has been considerable discussion on every level and in virtually every community and parish about what constitutes “good liturgy.” Included in this would be the discussion of what is and what is not permitted by the Church with respect to the celebration of the Mass. Because considerable disagreement exists in answering that question, the liturgical experience between parishes is disparate. One priest commented that the current climate in the church today has turned everyone into a “theater critic.” The result has been polarization within many parishes on the questions on the liturgy that have in fact already been determined by the liturgical norms of the Church. Another effect has been a kind of “denominationalism” whereby people seek a parish where the liturgy is celebrated in one particular way or another. It would be a much simpler problem if it was only a matter of personal taste, but it is not. The issue goes far deeper; it goes the very theology of Mass and how that is essentially formative of the faith life, spirituality and moral life of the church and of the faithful.

I have undertaken some research and have had many discussions with my brother priests, liturgists, and members of the lay faithful about liturgical adaptations. My question has been this: What is the origin and history of the idea that any priest was free to make any changes in the Mass that he felt were indicated? These adaptations include the practice of freely composing the orations; changing the structure and content of the Eucharistic Prayer; omitting the Penitential Rite, the Gloria, the lavabo, and the Creed (where not indicated by established liturgical norms). When one priest was asked why he chose to make these omissions, he replied, “There are just too many words in the Mass.” Another answered, “If I wash my hands at Mass, it is disrespectful to the altar servers.”

Much of this controversy seems to center around the idea of presidential style in relation to the Church’s parameters for the celebration of Mass. Presidential style is how the priest-celebrant expresses his personality and spirituality, and—if he chooses—how he adapts the liturgy to the needs of the situation. Evidence suggests that prior to the liturgical renewal of Vatican II, the priest-celebrant was clearly discouraged from stamping his personality or personal techniques on the Mass. He simply was to follow the general instruction (rubrics) for celebrating Mass as closely as possible, and he was to do so with utmost care and reverence. It is also clear that the official liturgical documents promulgated by and subsequent to Vatican II supported this same idea; some of the literature on the subject did not.

Turn toward the People

In the period immediately following Vatican II, a large body of literature was written concerning the meaning and method of celebrating the Mass. Certain popular strains of thought indicated that the norms of the liturgy served only as guidelines and that the priest should adapt the liturgy to what he believed was indicated. To make the people feel welcome, and to encourage “participation,” the priest was urged to “make”  the Mass more horizontal in its theology, resulting in an imbalanced emphasis on the community rather than on the divine. Some of the literature of the time referred to the role of the priest in terms of a change from the celebrant to the presider—again emphasizing the centrality of the community over the centrality of the sacrifice and the Eucharist.

On the architectural level, many churches further emphasized this by removing the tabernacle from the sanctuary and placing the presider’s chair in the center axis of the church. Often, the choir was moved from the choir loft to the front of the church, or even to a central place behind the presider’s chair.

Literature from the late 1960s and 70s spoke of the priest moving away from a concern about following rubrics to a freer interpretation of the liturgical norms. Much was written of presidential style creating the environment and setting the tone for worship. In 1967, Fr. Robert Hovda wrote an article on style and presence in presiding. Hovda stated, “At no point will good style and presence weigh more heavily on the president than in proclaiming the Eucharistic Prayer” (qtd. in Pope Paul’s New Mass, Michael Davies, 155). Although Hovda treats voice, eye contact, gestures, and the presider’s setting the tone for the Mass, he never suggests ad-libbing. Another contemporary commentary on the liturgy is found in Liturgy in Transition by Herman Schmidt, published in 1971. The author writes, “The new liturgical books from Rome are necessary as a liturgical framework and source of inspiration. They should activate Christian creativity and the immense pluriformity of the Roman Catholic Church . . . ” (29). Exactly how the new liturgical books are to activate creativity and how that creativity is to be expressed is not discussed. This theme is taken up by another author in 1969 who wrote,

In the past, newly ordained priests were taught the personality of the priest should not break into the rite; he was to submerge himself in his role but never initiate a gesture or word which had not been legislated, certainly an expression of raging objectivism . . . greater attention will be given to the necessities and diversities of time and place . . . In contrast to the Tridentine reform which was simply a codification of medieval rubrics concerning the priest . . . (McDonnell, Killian, et al, The Crisis of Liturgical Reform, 91-92)

About the time same time, another monumental change was occurring: Instead of the ad orientum posture (toward the altar), priests assumed the versus populo position. Prior to Vatican II, Christ was clearly depicted as “presiding” over the Mass from the cross. He alone constantly faced the people. The priest faced the same direction as the people, offering the supreme prayer of the Church with and for them. The consequence of this change is manifest: Placing the celebrant in the center of the liturgical action and positioning him to face the people seems to have unintentionally invited some priests to see themselves as the center of the liturgy. In other churches, the presider’s chair is in the assembly area. The priest presides over the assembly from within it, blurring the roles of celebrant and congregation. But the documents of Vatican II intended none of these paradigm shifts to take place.

As We Believe, So We Worship

The clearest statement on unauthorized liturgical adaption may be found in the Code of Canon Law: “The liturgical books approved by the competent authority are to be faithfully observed in the celebration of the sacraments; therefore, no one on personal authority may add, remove, or change anything in them” (canon 846 §1). This statement echoes the instruction of the document Sacrosanctum Concilium of the Second Vatican Council. One universal is found in the official commentaries, general instructions, and the rubrics of the texts of the Missale Romanum (used prior to promulgating the new liturgical texts of the Second Vatican Council), the English-Latin Roman Missal of 1966, and the Sacramentary published in 1974: Nowhere is it stated that a priest may arbitrarily change fixed and invariable parts of the Mass where no real option exists.

Today, there is a strain of thought that thinks closely following the liturgical norms of the Church is unnecessarily rigid and compulsive. Some might conclude that this is done out of a motivation of fear instead of love. I take a much different approach.

One of the earliest and most long-lived liturgical axioms of the church is lex orandi, lex credendi. Loosely but accurately translated, it means how we worship shows what we believe. The Mass was instituted by Christ himself in the upper room on the night when he celebrated the Passover with his disciples. Christ gave the Mass to the apostles and therefore, to the Church. Over two thousand years, the Church has succeeded in preserving all of the essential elements of the Mass as liturgical act and sacrifice. True, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church has authored many changes in the Mass over the centuries. These have been made to accommodate the cultural and historical changes experienced by man throughout time. Nonetheless, in the same spirit, the Mass has retained its universal and transcendent properties, speaking to the deepest yearnings of the human heart and soul.

For this reason, it is essential that the Mass be celebrated according to the mind of the Church that has authored and preserved it to this day. By celebrating the Mass in a way that is faithful and congruent to the liturgical norms, the fullness of the meaning of the Mass is conveyed to the people each time. Therefore the people receive the true theology and spirituality of the liturgical and sacrificial act in an unadulterated way pure in matter and form. The Mass celebrated with reverence and deep faith invites all present to the same attitude of heart and mind.

Because the Eucharist is the “source and summit of our faith,” it is important that it be celebrated in a manner that conveys exactly what it means. One of the great gifts of the Ordinary Form of Mass is the beauty of its noble simplicity. This noble simplicity, among its many values, has the power to teach the faith so clearly and so well. The symbols and gestures of the ritual actions of the Mass properly used draw the whole person in to the transcendent reality of the death and Resurrection of Christ. Seen in this light, the Mass is like a great symphony; to remove or add so much as one note only serves to diminish its balance, its beauty, and its meaning. For this reason the Mass should not be manipulated whether intentionally or unintentionally. The people for whom the Mass was intended should receive its meaning as conceived.

Where Heaven Meets Earth

We live in a world today where so many people struggle to connect with the spiritual part of their person. With the technology of the present moment, silence is almost impossible to find anywhere in the world. Where do people perceive—let alone experience—the sacred in their worlds? Often, I think, our tendency is to allow our personal culture to inform our faith, rather than the other way around. There is a strong tendency today to import the elements of business, entertainment, noise, excitement, and a general banality into the sacramental experience. Many believe that what they are looking for in the Mass is its entertainment value or its brevity. I imagine some priests succumb to this trend by trying to entertain and amuse. But what they fail to understand is that what man is really looking for is intimacy with God. The Mass provides the perfect environment for this.

The uniquely human way to deepen and prolong experience is ritual. The act of ritual frees the mind and soul from the particulars of the moment and allows them to travel ever deeper into the meaning of the experience. If the ritual is continually changed or inoculated with extraneous or inappropriate actions, the entire deepening of sacred experience is lost. When the mind is concerned with what will happen next—or what can it do to top that—the transcendent is replaced with what is, in the end, purely secular, pedestrian, and ordinary.

The Mass is the great gift of Christ himself as a lasting presence and memorial, the ultimate sacred experience. It is a place where heaven and earth are joined and where time is transcended for the ultimately transcendent. It is where the Word of God is spoken in word and spoken in silence. It is where salvation history is remembered and lived. It is where the soul is fed by the body and blood of Christ. These possibilities should not be denied anyone in an effort to be hip, to entertain, or—worse—to showboat.

For the Life of the World

It is important for a priest to remember what priest means. A priest is one who offers sacrifice. In the common priesthood of the baptized, one offers the sacrifice of his life, the sacrifice of worship, and the many sacrifices that are part of being a Catholic. The ordained priest, in addition to these, offers the most holy sacrifice of the Mass for the salvation of souls and the greater glory of God. It is the sacrifice of the Mass that makes him a priest. As I look at my priesthood, I believe the most important thing that I do—the reason that I am a priest—is to celebrate the Mass. The Mass is that foundational experience of what it is to be a Catholic, the place where the soul is nourished by the word of God and the Eucharist. It is where a person is inspired and emboldened to carry the faith into the world and live it to the fullest. Christ has given his holy people this supreme gift of himself. Our mother the Church has been given the awesome responsibility to preserve this gift in its entirety and to share it always. Because of the tremendous power and influence of the Mass in the life of the church and of the individual, it must be preserved in its full integrity. It must be celebrated in a way that expresses its purest and fullest meaning. It must be celebrated with utmost love, reverence, and diligence. It must be celebrated in the way intended by its Author, because nothing is too good for God.

The people of God have every right to experience the Mass the way it is intended by the Church, pure and unadulterated. They have every right to the fullness of faith and truth the Mass imparts without any manipulation, no matter how well-intentioned. They have every right to the purity of ritual, reverence, sacredness, and awe that will lift them heavenward and give them the strength, hope, and peace they so deeply need. The Mass should never be reduced to mere entertainment or amusement or to a place that emphasizes human accomplishment.

Now, perhaps more than ever, the people of our world are weary and need to drink deeply of what will refresh, nourish, and inspire them. They need the liturgy given to them by their Savior and their Church for their salvation and the salvation of the world. The Mass celebrated well will accomplish what Christ intended: to transform the lives of its participants, who will in turn transform the life of the world. The result of the Mass not celebrated well we have already seen.

Posted in the sacristies of many churches are words that I have always held close to my heart: “Remember, priest of God, celebrate this Mass as if it were your first time, as if it were your last time, as if it were your only time.”


Rev. William Dillard is pastor of St. John the Evangelist parish in San Diego. He also serves as spiritual director for the Office of Clergy for the Diocese of San Diego.

This article appeared in Volume 21 Number 6.