Breaking Bad Liturgical Habits

The long-awaited introduction of the new translation of the Roman Missal on November 27, the First Sunday of Advent, offers the Church in the Anglosphere an opportunity to reflect on the riches of the liturgy, its biblical vocabulary, and its virtually inexhaustible storehouse of images. Much of that vocabulary, and a great many of those images, were lost under the “dynamic equivalence” theory of translation; they have now been restored under the “formal equivalence” method of translating. Over the next years and decades, the Catholic Church will be reminded of just what a treasure-house of wonders the liturgy is.

At the same time, the “changes in the words” offer the Church a golden opportunity to confront, and then break, some bad liturgical habits that have accumulated, like unlovely barnacles on the barque of Peter, over the past several decades.

For example:

1. Holy Mass should never begin with a greeting or an injunction that is not in the Roman Missal. The first words the congregation hears from the celebrant should be the liturgical words of greeting prescribed in the sacramentary. At Masses where there is no sung entrance hymn, the admonition “please stand” should never be heard; if the priest-celebrant (or lector) recites the Entrance Antiphon in an audible voice before processing to the altar, everyone will get the message that Mass has begun, and will stand without being told to do so.

2. Far too many lectors, including many of the best, begin the responsorial psalm inappropriately, saying, “The responsorial psalm is….” – and then reciting the antiphon to the psalm, which is not “the responsorial psalm” but its antiphon. The phrase “The responsorial psalm is…” should thus be put under the ban. Forty-plus years into the liturgical renewal, there is no need to do anything except intone or recite the antiphon that begins the responsorial psalm: by now, the congregation surely knows that their next task is to repeat the antiphon, either in song or by recitation.

3. Fully aware that I shall be accused by some of crankiness bordering on misanthropy, let me repeat a point made in this space before: the exchange of peace is not meant to be the occasion for a chat with the neighbors, but for the greetings of those closest to us in church with a simple, evangelical salutation: “the peace of the Lord be with you;” “peace be with you;” “the peace of Christ.” The longer conversations can be saved for the narthex or vestibule (not “gathering space”).

4. The communion antiphon, typically linked to the Gospel of the day, is just as typically AWOL at Mass. If it is not sung by the choir, it should be recited prior to the distribution of Holy Communion, not afterwards, as if it were some sort of afterthought.

5. Then there is silence. The rubrics prescribe various periods of silent reflection at Mass, particularly after the reception of Holy Communion, so that the “still, small voice” of 1 Kings 19.12 (butchered by the New American Bible into “tiny whispering sound”) might be heard. This is not a matter of doing something differently just to do something differently; it is a recognition that, in the liturgy, God speaks to us through silence as well as through vocal prayer and Scripture. Reintroducing periods of silence into the liturgy will require explanation from the pulpit; but while priests and deacons are explaining the “new words,” why not explain why the Church chooses silence over words at some points in its worship?

The re-sacralization of the English used in the liturgy affords all of us an opportunity to ponder just what it is we are doing at Holy Mass: we are participating, here and now, in the liturgy of angels and saints that goes on constantly around the Throne of Grace, where the Holy Trinity lives in a communion of radical self-gift and receptivity. This is, in short, serious business, even as it is joyful business. We should do it well, as the grace of God has empowered us to do it well.

George Weigel

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George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • kar1

    I reside in Pennsylvania. There is also another habit that has been going on here for many years now. That is the raising of hands in the air at the same time as the priest does after consecration when he says “We lift up our hearts”. My understanding is that this if for the priest only and he is lifting up the church to God on his behalf and on behalf of the people of his church. Those in the pews should be standing with their hands as if in prayer, not raising them in the air. Then the people either keep their hands raised through the entire Our Father or they join hands with those around them as if joining in prayer at a prayer meeting. Some keep them to their side while joined while still others join hands and raise them in the air again. I heard of a visiting priest from Africa who gave a homily recently on the subject at a church in Reading Pa I believe, where he told the parishioners that this wasn’t part of the Mass and that people shouldn’t be doing it. Good for him. Why aren’t more priest instructing their parishioners against doing this?

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