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A Mess at Mass

I recently received a couple of apologetics inquiries that may not seem related on the surface, but that I believe are suggestive of a common problematic approach to the Mass. The first was about the propriety of Christmas pageants in church. The inquirer was very obviously put off by the common custom of small children acting out the Christmas story for the benefit of parishioners, and wanted to know if this kind of spectacle was appropriate in a church dedicated to the worship of God:

Could you please inform me as to whether or not plays should be performed in church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? That is, Christmas pageants by children. Jesus said, "My house is a house of prayer." Why then should we have plays in his Church? Where is the reverence for our Lord? Cutesy, warm-and-fuzzy feelings are not what it is about.

I am not a fan of Christmas pageants that take place during the liturgy itself. In my opinion, a Christmas pageant should either precede or follow the liturgy. Aside from that single caveat, I do not believe there is a problem with parish Christmas pageants per se.

As for the charge that Christmas pageants risk turning our houses of prayer into cutesy, warm-fuzzy preschool sing-alongs, perhaps we should remember that the modern custom of erecting Nativity scenes in church at Christmas came from St. Francis of Assisi, who once re-created the Christmas story with live actors and animals.

St. Francis was not trying to create a Hallmark moment, but to assist Christians in better entering into meditation on the meaning of Christmas. While it’s true that many people tend to treat Christmas pageants as a photo-op, they could also be used as an opportunity to think about what it means that God chose to enter human history as a baby, and that the redemption of the world began with a birth announcement.

My second inquirer was someone who was responding to a previous inquirer’s concern that there was way too much interaction with fellow congregants during the Mass being commanded by parishes in his area:

I hope people are aware that you not obligated to exchange the sign of peace with others if you are not comfortable with doing that. I normally bow my head, close my eyes, and offer an Our Father in silence. I do not hold hands during the Our Father since it is not an action that is contained in the rubrics for the Mass and, again, I am not comfortable with it.
Many of these actions have gotten out of hand, however, as the poster commented. I too prefer to keep it between "me and God," where I can put myself in the presence of God. The Latin Mass does that for me. Just my two cents on the subject.

While this person undoubtedly means well, and is obviously concerned about the proper celebration of the liturgy (which is a good thing in itself), I think there are a number of problematic issues bundled together here. Mass is not simply about “me and God,” and we do not put ourselves into the presence of God. God draws us to himself, and he usually does so through the mystical body of Christ—in other words, through his Church. That means that there is a communal aspect to the Mass.

That communal aspect to the Mass may be over-emphasized in some parishes, and congregants do have the latitude to adjust their participation accordingly. For example, it is perfectly fine to smile and nod during the sign of peace instead of handshaking and backslapping. But completely ignoring fellow congregants altogether cannot only be construed to be rude, but may also be theologically problematic (cf. Matt. 5:23-24, 1 John 4:20-21).

A sacramentary is not a cookbook

So, what is the common bond between these two questions? I believe the problem is that many Catholics seem to think that the eucharistic liturgy must be presented perfectly, as if it was a Broadway show, or even as if it was a military drill. Anything that appears to deviate in the slightest from the rubrics of the Mass is considered schmaltzy at best, and sinful at worst.

The common cry becomes “Why can’t priests just say the black and do the red?” (Meaning, pray the prayers of the liturgy printed in the black type, and perform the actions of the liturgy printed in red type.) But the sacramentary is not and was never intended to be a cookbook.

Think about it. With a cookbook, you look up a recipe, assemble your ingredients, prepare them according to the instructions, and an hour or so later, you may have an edible meal. If you do not follow the instructions given, then more likely than not your meal will be inedible.

The Mass, on the other hand, is an act of public worship. The sacramentary prescribes the prayers and actions of the liturgy and gives the order in which they are to occur. But the intent is not to create a personal masterpiece. The intent is to allow a community to enter into the common worship of the universal Church. Deviation from the rubrics is not so much forbidden because the Mass might “break”; it is forbidden because significant deviation from the prescribed ritual means that the community is not celebrating the Mass. They may be worshipping God, but they are not worshipping God along with the universal Church.

So, the rubrics are indeed important and serve a necessary purpose. But they are not an end in themselves. The rubrics of the Mass were made for man, not man for the rubrics.

The dangers of rubricism

What can happen when the rubrics of the Mass are turned into an end, instead of as a means to worship? Here are a few of the dangers:

Judgmentalism. When we attend Mass and see that others are not acting according to our expectations, there is a danger that we can judge them unfairly. For example, if the parish decides to host a Christmas pageant (whether or not a eucharistic liturgy will also occur as part of the planned program) there is a temptation to dismiss it as “cutesy” and “warm and fuzzy.” That, in turn, can blind us to centuries-old precedents that were not created merely out of sentiment but for serious religious purposes.

Isolation. Then there is the problem of assuming that any interaction among congregants during the Mass is to be frowned upon, and assuming instead that congregants should not acknowledge each other at all during public worship. Taken to an extreme, this creates a bunch of individuals who happen to be in the same building at the same time, rather than a community worshipping God together as one body in Christ. In fact, it is a common motif to complaints about the liturgy that there is altogether too much congregational involvement in the liturgy, which brings us to the next danger.

Passivity. In reaction to what can sometimes be an over-emphasis on communal participation in the Mass, some Catholics claim that “active participation” has been misunderstood. Rather than considering “active participation” to mean laity involved in speaking or singing the prayers of the liturgy, in union with the priest, we are told that “active participation” instead means to be silent and unite ourselves with the liturgy “in our hearts.” Sometimes this admonition is glazed with pious assurances that this is how the Virgin Mary prayed at the foot of the cross.

While there is certainly nothing wrong with praying silently at Mass, and while there is much to commend interior offerings of oneself in union with Christ on the cross, the fact is that the Church provides for the laity to do more during Mass. This is yet another facet of Catholic life that is not either/or but both/and. We can pray silently and give the congregational responses the Church asks us to give. We can offer ourselves in union with Christ on the cross, and serve at Mass as a lector or extraordinary minister of holy Communion.

Making a mess

At World Youth Day last year, Pope Francis is reported to have told a group of pilgrims that he wanted them to go out and make a mess:

I want to tell you something. What is it that I expect as a consequence of World Youth Day? I want a mess. We knew that in Rio [de Janeiro] there would be great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses! . . . I want to see the Church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools, or structures. Because these need to get out!

The Pope did not exactly define what kind of mess he wanted to see, but I have been thinking about his words lately when looking around at Mass at the parish I attend.

A typical American Catholic parish

The parish I attend is probably pretty standard for a parish church in the United States that was renovated sometime in the late-’70s or early-’80s. The architecture is not aesthetically appealing—which is a polite way of saying that it is ugly, no question. The church looks like a concrete rotunda from the outside. From the parking lot, the building looks like it would be better suited to a public library than to a place for public worship.

On the inside though, effort has been made to make the sanctuary look more traditional. For example, statues are scattered throughout, and in such a way that parishioners can pause to pray before them on the way into or out of Mass. This past Sunday I was both touched and somewhat amused to see that the statue of Our Lady of Grace had dollar bills tucked between her fingers, undoubtedly symbolizing someone’s prayer for financial solvency.

The pastor has been busy with making the altar area look a bit more traditional as well. The free-floating crucifix was moved so that it was positioned directly over the altar. Lighting was added to make it easier for both those on the altar area to serve and for congregants to observe. It is still no one’s idea of a truly traditional Catholic altar configuration, but the results are both attractive and more in line with the rubrics for sacred space. And yet there are still more than a dozen EMHCs who troop up into the altar area to collect Communion for distribution during each Sunday Mass.

I have also noticed interesting habits of parishioners during the liturgy. More women are wearing veils and other headcoverings—with slacks, even sometimes with jeans, and while serving as lectors or EMHCs. Some parishioners kneel down to receive the host—and then receive the precious blood from the chalice while standing. There is a lot of chatter that goes on after Mass, but some congregants will gather for a rosary in front of the statue of the Virgin and others will make “pilgrimages” from statue to statue to visit with their favorite saints.

In other words, there is genuine concern for a proper celebration of the Mass, there is desire to return to ancient customs of the faith—but without any expectation that all must conform to an ironclad vision of how everyone “must” conduct themselves at Mass. There is a certain amount of “mess,” with old customs and modern practices side by side, but I can honestly say that I have not seen a single incident of true irreverence.

Churches are not museums

In his book, God Is Near Us, Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI made this observation about the danger of turning the liturgy into an artifact, instead of a living expression of the worship of God by the faithful:

There is a great danger today of our churches becoming museums and suffering the fate of museums: If they are not locked, they are looted. They are no longer alive. The measure of life in the Church, the measure of her inner openness, will be seen in that she will be able to keep her doors open, because she is a praying Church. I ask you therefore from the heart, let us make a new start at this. Let us again recollect that the Church is always alive, that within her evermore the Lord comes to meet us (p. 90).

Written By Michelle Arnold










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13 comments

  1. Manue Reply

    I have to say with all due respect to the response to the sign of peace, I can see clearly the so-called sign of peace is not something that is either to be encouraged or done for the most part. It should be just between you and God, this false sense of “community” is what is the problem. Too many people take the church for granted thinking the mass is just something where you come to socalize and hear the latest gossip. Too often has been my experience before and even sadly during mass, some people, especially the older women tend to gab and be a distraction to their fellow parishoner. For example, I politely turn down the sign of peace because I do not care to do it, but I have had the occasions of disrespectful people who were simply deliberatley themselves rude, by poking me or putting their hand on my shoulder and other such nonsense. This is a great disrespect to the intent of why the sign of peace itself is permitted, but I vow never to do it, because I clearly see too many liberties and abuses and clergy who simply just don’t care how their parishoners act during mass. Now I am not saying one has to be the moral police for people, I am saying that the clergy and bishops need to step up to plate and make a set of guidlines of how to conduct oneself during the sign of peace, I myself personally will not ever do it, I do not care if anyone thinks I am rude for it. I am there to worship my God not man. I am not missing anything or the point of this. I mean what I say and say what I mean. This is why I do go ocassionally to the tradtional latin mass where available, because at least there is some sense of order.

    1. Belinda Albright Reply

      The priests don’t want to offend parishioners…they might stop attending Mass. So we have to put up with offensive behavior. People talking during Mass…talking through praying of the Rosary before Mass. When a priest interrupts your praying ….while you are kneeling..before Mass…I suppose he would not see anything wrong with disruptive talking during Mass.
      I agree with the false sense of community that is displayed during the sign of peace.

    2. Petrolius Reply

      I’m not sure how the sign of peace forms a “false sense of ‘community.'” When you join the Church, you don’t just join yourself, solo, to God, you become a cell in His mystical body on earth. YOU are not the Church, and I am not the Church. WE are the Church, together, all of us, people who you like, people you don’t, and people who gab at Mass. I suppose politely refusing to engage your fellow parishioners isn’t awful (if it’s indeed done politely), but whatever happened to “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me”? Eve if I don’t know someone from Adam, or know them and don’t like them, looking them sincerely in the eye and wishing them peace could be the difference between a good day and a lousy one for them. And if you’re concerned about people gabbing, perhaps you could smile and shake their hand week after week, and perhaps talk to them kindly after Mass, until you’ve established a relationship where you’re comfortable speaking about chatting during Mass? We don’t change people by shunning or ignoring them, but by engaging them. Just a thought.

  2. Belinda Albright Reply

    It is important for our children to have their plays. Whether it is the reenactment of Christ’s birth or some other play. I do not agree with these events taking place on the altar nor the preparatory rehearsals. These events should be held in the religious education class rooms or other more appropriate locations in the Church. The altar where Jesus is present in the tabernacle is never appropriate for any activity other than Holy Mass. It is no wonder adults and children come to Mass and hold conversations as if they were in the comfort of their living room. There is a lack of reverence in our Churches. I have to wonder what Jesus would say about the disrespect and irreverent behavior that is displayed in His House. Jesus spent much time with the children but not on the altar. Approval of this behavior offers explanation for the deterioration of proper use of God’s Churches.

  3. Patricia Tsang Reply

    I absolutely do not object to the peace greeting, especially when the priest tells us “let us now offer each other the sign of peace.” I look forward to this greeting because other than these few moments of connecting with a fellow congregant, Catholics don’t normally get together after mass. Why is this simple greeting disdained by some? I certainly do not feel I am showing any irreverence to the sacrifice of the mass by giving my fellow congregant a handshake or a warm smile uttering “peace be with you.” God wants me to love my neighbor. Those who only have time for God during mass are showing arrogance and acting like the pharisees that Christ called out for being hypocrites who just loved adhering strictly to religious laws but had no qualms about hurting other human beings, such as giving them the cold shoulder in not returning a simple greeting at mass! I imagine if I walked into church to attend Sunday mass in dirty ragged attire, God would still be by my side, unlike these “religious” people who would probably get up and sit elsewhere.

    1. Betty Cunningham-Canfield Reply

      I agree with Patricia about the sign of peace. There are people out there that are alone and the only contact of the week may be the few hand shakes they get at Mass! Why not be pleasant for one minute of one day of the week. Besides aren’t we supposed to think of others as we would Jesus?

      1. Sylvia Joseph Reply

        You are right, some of these comments are being said about older people, I take that as being offense, I am an older lady and convert of 60 years, my husband and I were the first cup bearers in our church in 1979, and EMC`S we go to church every week unless you are very sick our motto for our selves and our three children were if you are to sick or to tired even though you may have worked all night you do not go out of the house.He was one of the most and best Christian that everyone we know and as for myself being married 57 years before God took him to Heaven to live 2 years and three weeks ago he survived God each and every day of his life and went through Catholic school and college serving as an altar server even while on the front lines of Korea for 18 months, so get off your high and mighty and think the handshake of PEACE is not needed, if you want to go back to the Latin Mass where the children does not understand then go no matter how far you have to travel.God says love and show compassion to everyone,and that means acknowledge those around you.If you want to be alone sit alone and put that grouchy look on your face if someone turns to take your hand.Our church has been through many changes with different priest and church buildings, it is apparent that you do not know Latin is not taught in the seminary and has not been for many years, my beloved Husband could recite the Mass in Latin until the day he died and offered to help one if our priest learn the language and he said he never would,so you see you have priest that have been priest for 30 plus years and does not feel things need to go back where people will be confused.We have a gathering space outside of our church, and people will chat or rush in and out of Mass.It appears you people do not know your bible it states Judge not, praise God for our Great Pope and Jesus said let all little children come unto me.We have a CHRISTMAS payment in January and no one is behind the Altar.These children learn how Mary and Joseph struggled.If you people are so UN sociable find somewhere else to go or build your own sanctuary.I so happen to bee watching the Catholic channel today Even tho I watched Mass went to Mass and feel like I have every right to say peace of Christ be with you, and to those close friends around me GOD Bless you I love you, no one knows how the squeeze of the hands helps my heart after spending the week alone, I pray all of you that has issues can see this and please I have seen more young people giggling and talking than the older people.if you are disturbed, move but do not criticize people when you do not know what the person has to whisper to the one along her or his side. I keep saying where has COMPASSION GONE.May God Bless each if you and we all are there because we want to give that small amount of time to God.Keep me in your prayers please

  4. Clare Reply

    I disagree with that there is a danger of rubricism. We have come too far the other way. Ever read Sacrosactum Concilium? It says during Lent there should be no organ solos and the organ should only be used to support the people. It also says we should sing chant. Where is that? The extent of rubricism is zero in most churches. Mass is about us as a congregation praying together in the True Presence. It is not about who we are sitting next to. We can do our greeting before and after Mass outside the church. This is also the point of ad orientem Mass. The priest prays with us, not to us. He offers our prayers to God in Persona Christi, not Mr.Performer. We need to truly follow the Vatican II documents and they are not being followed.

  5. Kathryn Steward-Wilks Reply

    Jesus loves little children and wants us to be like children.As for the plays,they could be done in the parish hall or as suggested,in religious ed class rooms.I believe Jesus would be present to watch the little ones perform for Him.Personally,I could also live without the sign of peace,however,Jesus has said that we are to love our neighbors.If we can’t take a few minutes to extend a hand and greeting to those around us at mass,what does that say about how we treat our neighbors outside of mass?

  6. elias attea Reply

    church broke cannon law 1917 of St Puis X change it 1983 and abortion doubled that year need i say more

  7. Mary Frances Reply

    You mentioned cook books. When the ingredients are at hand I use them precisely. That seldom happens, so I proceed with what is at hand and the result is as is and we enjoy the results.

  8. Paul Joseph-Michael Reply

    The dangers of rubricism??? “Dangers”? It was these very rubrics that kept true Catholic Church respected. Maybe hated by some, but still respected. It was this Church – full of rubrics – that converted almost half of the world.

  9. Michael Thomas Reply

    I agree with Pope Emeritus Benedict regarding his statement of the danger of churches becoming museums. I remember before I converted I was envious of the Catholic faithful that could go into the sanctuary at any time day or night and be in the presence of God, the angels, and the saints. That they had an external place from home to find peace for prayer, reflection, and meditation. It was one of the multitude of reasons I had for converting. But sadly now I often find the doors locked. Once when I was having an especially hard time, I stood at the outside wall of the church nearest to the tabernacle to pray, wishing I, instead, could be in the warm embrace of our mother church. Having been a Protestant, I fear that the Church is trending toward the same secular errors that drove me to it in the first place and that the Church is becoming a one day/ one hour a week exercise rather than an ongoing interaction with the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant.

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