Since the introduction of the new liturgical texts this past November, I’ve attended Mass in Australia, California, New York, Rome, Washington, and Phoenix, and in none of these venues have I detected any of the calamities confidently predicted by opponents of the new texts. Not only has there been no visible distress over “consubstantial”; the People of God seem to have rather quickly and painlessly adjusted to the changes, so that, three months into the process, it’s a rare “And also with you” that escapes the lips of an unthinking congregant. In fact, most of the people who’ve spoken to me about the changes have applauded them.
Things are not-quite-the-same with priests.
One implicit purpose of the new translations, with their deliberate recovery of a sacral vocabulary and their adoption of a more formal literary rhythm, was to discipline the tendency of priests to turn the Mass into an expression of the celebrant’s personality. The difficulties some priests have had with adjusting to the changes suggests that this tendency was, in fact, a real problem in implementing the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Prominent Catholic psychologist Paul Vitz once wrote of this as a problem of “clerical narcissism,” and while the phrase undoubtedly stings, there’s something to it—something that needs correcting.
At Mass in the cathedral church of a major American city recently, I ran headlong into the problem in a rather striking way. The celebrant in question seemed not to understand that the invitation to the penitential rite is now prescribed, and not a matter for personal chattiness. Having failed to set up the Missal properly before Mass, he nattered on about his difficulty with “new books” while searching for the Collect of the day. He belted out those parts of the Offertory that the Missal prescribes as being said “quietly.” He rearranged several phrases in Eucharistic Prayer II to his liking. And he prefaced the Prayer after Communion with another voluble commentary on the difficulty of finding the right page.
I’m sure the priest in question is not a wicked or ill-intentioned man; he doubtless imagines that he’s making the Mass more user-friendly by taking liberties with the Missal. But, objectively speaking, he’s a prime example of clerical vanity: a man who imagines that his chirpy personality is the key to what Vatican II called the people’s “full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations.” It was neither the time nor the place to challenge this essentially narcissistic assumption after Mass. But had I the opportunity, I would have told this priest, in as kind a way as I could manage, that what he deemed helpful was in fact distracting; that what he thought user-friendly was silly and offensive (as it seemed based on the notion that a congregation of adults would be amused by such shenanigans); and that what he intended as an aid to prayer was in fact an obstacle to prayer and reflection.
Bad habits built up over decades are as hard to break in liturgy as they are in any other facet of life. So it will take awhile for the nobility of the new Mass texts to elicit a similar nobility of manner from celebrants who have acquired bad habits over the years. But as Lent is an appropriate time for addressing bad habits, here’s a suggestion for all priest-celebrants: make a Lenten resolution—This Lent, I will do the red and read the black. Period.
In the Missal, rubrical instructions are in red; the words to be spoken by the celebrant are in black. Priests who simply “do the red and read the black” for the six weeks of Lent will have gone a long way toward breaking bad habits that have become default positions. They will also, I predict, garner a lot of thanks from their congregants, most of whom are quite uninterested in celebrants acting like talk-show hosts.
The point, as always, is not liturgical prissiness. The point is to celebrate the sacred liturgy so that it’s experienced as the participation in the heavenly liturgy that it is.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.