How Long Should Mass Last? - 24th August 2014

At a seminar I was conducting to assist teachers in preparing school liturgies, a participant asked me: “How long should Mass go for?”

That of course is a very difficult question to answer and the response, if one is possible or advisable, depends on several factors.

I explained to the group that rather than starting their preparation with a total time frame in mind, they need to remember that the Mass is not simply made up of a whole lot of ritual elements strung together: there is a structure, balance and flow to the liturgy that need to be respected and retained.

The Mass consists of two central elements – the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Introductory Rites prepares the assembly for worship and the Blessing and Dismissal conclude the celebration. The Preparation of the Altar and Procession of Gifts and is a low-key bridging rite between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

The time spent on each part of the liturgy must reflect this structure: the two central elements need to occupy the greatest, and approximately equal, amounts of time, with the other parts being much shorter by comparison.

It makes no sense, for example, to include every element of the Introductory Rites given in the Missal plus added extras such as a lengthy welcome by the commentator and explanation of the readings of the day so that they last a good fifteen minutes, and then celebrate a Liturgy of the Word with the psalm and Gospel acclamation spoken instead of sung, no times of silence, a very brief homily and hurried Prayer of the Faithful. It is completely out of proportion and suggests that the word of God is of lesser importance than the gathering and introduction of the Mass.

Just as bad is the situation where the Liturgy of the Eucharist is celebrated with no sung responses, the shortest Eucharistic Prayer, communion under one kind only and ministers distributing communion at the back of the church “to save time”. Then after communion come lengthy announcements, an appeal for St Vincent de Paul volunteers, a Thank You to all who helped with the liturgy, presentation of certificates for those who were confirmed, etc, etc. I am sure many of you have experienced something like this.

These extraneous elements detract from the mysteries we have just celebrated and take on a sense of importance which they do not have. Most of them could happen at another time and place and leave the period set aside for worship for just that – a time when the community gathers to be Church and offer its sacrifice of thanks and praise to God, not to be informed or cajoled.

I am not suggesting that presiders at liturgy should pander to the needs of our consumer-driven and time-conscious culture. In fact, when the liturgy engages and involves the assembly, not many of them will be checking their watches! But we ignore the time constraints on people today at our peril.

As with most things in liturgy and in life, it is a matter of balance.


Elizabeth Harrington