If it is worth doing, it is worth doing well. I am referring to our celebration of the Mass. It is certainly worth doing! The Eucharist is the source and summit of our Catholic faith (Lumen Gentium, 11). We know when to stand and when to kneel. We know the responses. Do we do them out of habit or do we do it with meaning and depth? (For explanations on what we do at Mass and why check out my article “The Roman Catholic Mass Explained”, including the short videos at the end, and/or the videos of a series of presentations I did, Uncovering the Treasures of the Mass.)
What makes the Mass so important? To answer that question, Fr. Paul Turner quotes from the Second Vatican Council document, Sacrosanctum Concilium paragraph 10, “the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the church is directed; it is also the source from which all its power flows” (Ars Celebrandi: Celebrating and Concelebrating Mass. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press. 2021, page ix). The liturgy of the Mass is where we come together to praise God. It is the place where we hear God’s Word and celebrating the Eucharist so that we can go out into the world and live our faith as Jesus teaches.
It is important to celebrate Mass well for the way we pray reveals what we believe (in Latin this is expressed as lex orandi, lex credeni.) I do my best to celebrate Mass properly but it is not for me alone to decide how to celebrate Mass. As Catholics we have the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, to teach us how we celebrate Mass. I have read it a couple of times. Of course, I was also taught how to say Mass in the seminary. This does not mean I am perfect in the way I celebrate Mass. I want to make sure I don’t become sloppy.
This is why I just finished reading Fr. Paul Turner’s new book, Ars Celebrandi. It is a book written specifically for priests to reflect on how they celebrate. It provides clear reference to General Instruction of the Roman Missal, as well as other documents on the liturgy. That said, this book is not about teaching priests how to say Mass. It assumes the reader already knows how to say Mass. This book is a tool for reflection to help priests not just say Mass but to pray it well. I never want to become complacent in the way I preside.
The book is entitled “Ars Celebrandi,” which means “the art of celebrating.” Fr. Turner writes, “It implies that presiding over the liturgy takes more than following instructions. It requires a style” (2). There is a caution to be mentioned when we refer to “style.” It is not about me doing Mass my way. It is about putting our whole selves into the Mass. Fr. Turner cites Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, “The primary way to foster the participation of the People of God in the sacred rite is the proper celebration of the rite itself. The ars celebrandi is the best way to ensure their actuosa participatio. The ars celebrandi is the fruit of faithful adherence to the liturgical norms in all their richness” (Fr. Turner, 3).
This is true for both the priest and the people. Both need to have some understanding of what we do and why to properly celebrate the Mass and receive all that it offers us. That being said, Fr. Turner cites the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) document, Sing to the Lord (paragraph 18), “No other single factor affects the Liturgy as much as the attitude, style, and bearing of the priest celebrant” (6). I want to pray the Mass well so that you pray well and receive the full fruits of the Mass.
With regards to style, we need to consider the culture we live in but not to reinvent the Mass. We consider the culture to help us bring alive what the Mass offers us. We must also realize that for a priest to celebrate the Mass well, he needs to have a “strong personal prayer life, a habit of thanksgiving, making sacrifices, and serving the people” (Fr. Turner, 8). “Style” is not simply a matter of what the priest likes. As Fr. Turner writes, “A good ars celebrandi weighs his own preferences against those of the people of God” (30).
We need to engage ourselves in the prayers said at Mass. Some priests will use one Eucharistic Prayer almost exclusively. I like to use a variety of the Eucharistic Prayers to help us think about what we are hearing. If we use the same one over and over, is the priest really thinking about what he is saying and are the people truly listening. The use of different Eucharistic Prayers can encourage us to listen to what is different and reflect on what we hear. The priest does not need to invent new Eucharistic Prayers or add to what is already within the Eucharistic Prayers. The Roman Missal already includes several Eucharistic Prayers written with different focuses.
A good priest sets an example of attentiveness for the people. When the readings are read by the lector, the priest needs to give his attention to the words read by the lector (see Fr. Turner, 37). A good priest has already looked at the readings to prepare his homily but still listens, open to something “that had no struck him before” (Fr. Turner, 37). I can attest to times as recently as this weekend when I was stuck during Mass by something in one of the readings that I hadn’t thought of during my homily preparation.
A good priest participates in the music. This is not to say the priest leads the music just as he doesn’t read all the readings (see Fr. Turner, 39). The musicians lead the music but the priest’s participation in the music helps show that the music is not just an add-on or time filler. The music is an important part of the Mass.
A good priest does not just read the prayers provided in the Roman Missal. A good priest uses the words provided but speaks them, not just reading aloud but from the heart (see Fr. Turner, 41).
A good priest (or deacon) recognizes the importance of the homily and spends time throughout the whole week reflecting on the readings in a prayerful spirit. This requires the priest to have a personal prayer life (see Fr. Turner, 52).
A good priest relies on other ministers to do their part so that he can do his own part well. If a priest tries to do everything himself, he may do it but does he do it well (see Fr. Turner, 63)? This includes all liturgical ministers such as lectors, musicians, greeters/ushers, etc. but here I am especially aware during the Coronavirus pandemic how it is different for me to preside at Mass without altar servers. We don’t have altar servers just to give the children something to do. They serve a real purpose. I pray for the day when we have altar servers again.
A good priest does not rush through the liturgy. Here, Fr. Turner provides two examples of the priest giving the people time to position themselves. The first is at the end of the Holy, Holy, Holy acclamation. The people have been standing during the preface to the Eucharistic Prayer. Now, it is time for them to kneel. The good priest waits for them to kneel before continuing. Likewise, after the great Amen at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest waits for the people to stand before beginning the Lord’s Prayer.
For those who participate in the Masses I preside at, I hope and pray that the way I preside helps them enter into the fullness of what we celebrate in the Mass. Please pray for me and for all priests to preside not according to their personal preferences or your personal preferences. Please pray that all priests preside in a way that leads us to embrace the treasures of the Mass.