Whose Mass Is It Anyway?

Whose Mass Is It Anyway?

A few years ago a priest supplied Mass at my own community one Sunday when the parish priest was away. Who presides at Mass usually does not make a great deal of difference to the celebration – except, perhaps, for the quality of the homily! The assembly knows what will happen next and what they are required to do or say. This occasion was different: the supply priest kept us all on our toes by making unusual and unexpected changes.

I recall three examples: telling the assembly to stand for the singing of the responsorial psalm (“because we always stand to sing hymns”), asking the reader to come forward for the intercessions immediately after the homily (she was expecting the Creed to come first) and telling one of the communion ministers to get the ciborium from the tabernacle (which was not parish practice and not necessary as sufficient hosts had been consecrated for everyone to receive communion from the table).

It was a very unsettling experience and created the impression that the presider’s attitude was: “I’m in charge here. What we do next and how we do it is for me to know and you to find out!”

Such an approach is incompatible with the nature of liturgy and who does it. Liturgy is public worship that is performed by ‘the the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and his members.” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy #7)

The assembly can only do its part if everyone knows what will happen next, what cues they will hear, what responses are appropriate and what posture will be assumed by the assembly at various points of the Mass.

It is not only celebrants who sometimes take ‘ownership’ of the liturgy inappropriately by making changes. At one Mass, the extraordinary minister of communion said “Receive the body of Christ” when presenting the host. This personal and no doubt well-intentioned change to the usual form of words narrowed the meaning to one aspect of the body of Christ alone – the real presence in the consecrated bread. The less specific “The body of Christ” also contains within it the understanding that through sharing communion we also become the body of Christ.

Another example changes altering the intended meaning is the common practice of presiders saying just before communion “Happy are we who are called to this supper”. The correct wording is “Happy are those who are called to his supper” which has a different meaning altogether. The first form is restrictive and exclusive because it applies only to those present at this gathering. The correct form of words looks beyond the here and now and places our celebration of the Eucharist into the context of the “one holy, catholic and apostolic Church” which transcends time and space.

Liturgical law and rubrics serve a very good purpose (and it is not to provide a role for liturgical vigilantes!). Changing the Order of Mass, altering the words of scripture or liturgical texts, inserting things that are not part of the rite, improvising gestures and postures are not wrong because they ‘break the rules’ but because such actions take away from the people of God the liturgy which “is their right and duty by reason of their baptism”. (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy #14)


Elizabeth Harrington