Archbp. Nichols (Westminster) on the priest’s role at Mass

From Zenit with my emphases and comments.

Archbishop Nichols on Priests and the Mass

“We Don Vestments to Minimize Our Personal Preferences”

LONDON, JUNE 25, 2011 ( Here is the text of a homily given by Archbishop Vincent Nichols at the Diocese of Westminster’s annual Celebration of Priesthood, held June 7.

The Gospel of our Mass today takes us into the heart of the relationship of Father and Son.   This is the wonder of our calling, the wonder of the mystery we minister: that we human beings are welcomed into the intimacy and love of Father and Son, which is the life of the Holy Spirit.

This mystery we enter most powerfully through our celebration of the Mass.  Here all is the gift of the Father. [If “all” is “gift”, then our challenge is to be actively receptive.] Here all is to the glory of the Father and the Son[and the Holy Spirit.  But the point is: it’s not about us, even though it is for us.] Here is our sharing in that glory, conscious that it is expressed in and through the self-sacrificing love of the cross.

In the light and depth of this great mystery I would like to reflect on our priestly part in the celebration of the Mass. [A qualitatively different priesthood from that of the baptized.] I want to do so with a directness and immediacy for, when it comes to Liturgy, we are living in a sensitive and creative time. This is a time in which the Church is asking us to recover some of the richness and depth of our liturgical heritage and, at the same time, always to ensure that the Liturgy is the sign and good at that.  Among us priests Liturgy easily becomes a point of contention.  It should not be so.

Today we use the text of the new English translation.  It symbolises so much.  We are sharply aware of the newness of the words we are using.  We need to concentrate on them.  We need a fresh approach in contrast to long-formed habits and familiarity[Hmmm.  We need a better approach to the language, perhaps.  Isn’t repetition the essence of ritual?  I think he is driving at the point that a corrected translation will give us more to work with.]

I would like to reflect on our part in all this and offer you my convictions. Thereby I hope I might help to shape your responses.  I can but try.
There are four key points that shape my reflection, all in the context of the Gospel truth we have heard. They are, fundamentally, matters of the heart, of our disposition. As such they can shape what we do. We do well to examine what lies in our hearts.

1. My first conviction is this: Liturgy is never my own possession, or my creation.  It is something we are given, from the Father.  Therefore my own tastes, my own preferences, my own personality, my own view of ecclesiology, are marginal, of little importance, when it comes to the celebration of the Mass. [This is surely correct.] We don vestments to minimise our personal preferences, not to express or emphasise them. [Good point.] Liturgy is not ours. It is never to be used as a form of self-expression.  Indeed the opposite is the truth. Within the diocese, when the priests of a parish change there should be clear continuity in the manner in which Mass is celebrated. [I am sure he doesn’t mean that abuses should be perpetuated simply because they were going on.  Continuity is provided by saying the black words and doing the red words of the Roman Rite, which has two forms.  Continuity also embraces more than what parish X has been doing for Y number of years.] The Mass is the action of the Church.  That’s what matters, not my opinion.  I once heard that Blessed Pope John Paul never commented on a Mass he had celebrated.  It’s the Mass.  My task is to be faithful. [Exactly.]

2.    My second point flows from this: the Liturgy forms us, not us the Liturgy.  The words of the Mass form our faith and our prayer.  They are better than my spontaneous creativity.  At Mass my place is very clear: I am an instrument in the hand of the Lord.  I am not a conductor, still less a composer.  Ordained into the person of Christ the Head, I am just an instrumental cause of this great mystery.  This is so important.  My celebration of the Mass each morning shapes my heart for the day ahead.  At Mass I am the Lord’s instrument just as I hope to be in the day that follows.  In all the events of the day, in the decisions I make, the words I speak, my greatest, safest hope is that the Lord will use me and that I, personally, will not get in His way.  We are servants of the Liturgy through which God opens to us His saving life.

3.      My third conviction is this: our part is to offer the Mass as a service to the people. In doing so we make choices and judgements about how aspects of the Mass are to be done. In doing this we must always have upper most in our minds that the heart of Liturgy is the people’s encounter with the Lord. Everything about the Liturgy is to serve this purpose. So in the choices we make, which give a particular tone to the Liturgy, our positive criterion should be: will this serve the encounter of the people with the Lord? Of course, things old and new can serve. Our choices though are shaped both by the instruction of the Church in its norms and guidance and by our duty to serve our people.

It seems to me that one thing above all is needed for this precious, transforming encounter with the Lord to take place in: space, space which allows for the movement of the heart to the Lord and of Him to us. At Mass we need space – spaces of silence, spaces for the quiet recollection of the people, both before and during Mass. [Surely after Mass as well.] So, the fashion of our celebration of the Mass should never be dominating or overpowering of those taking part. It should be well judged, respectful of its congregation, sensitive to their spiritual needs.

In my view one quality enhances this sense of divinely filled space in which we worship God: it is the beauty of the Liturgy and its reverence.  A beautiful, cared for church is the best preparation we can provide. I was recently reminded of the words of Cardinal Hume: that our churches are not simply buildings in which we worship the Lord, but buildings with which we worship Him. I thank you for all your efforts in this important regard.  The church as an arena of beauty for the Lord is, it seems to me, always a springboard of a vibrant parish.

4.    My fourth and final point follows: whenever the Liturgy of the Church, the celebration of the Mass, truly enters our heart and soul, then the result is a vibrant sense of mission. When we meet the Lord in all His love for us, then we are ready to respond, especially in the care we give to the poorest and those most in need, those closest to the Heart of our Saviour.  [Interiorly active receptivity within the church leads to ourward expression outside the church.] Our Diocesan ‘Conversation in Caritas’, about the social outreach of our parishes, has a Eucharistic centre. I thank you for your participation in it.  A profound celebration of the Mass inexorably gives rise to a practical expression of compassion and willing service.  It just is so.

My brothers, I am conscious of the length of these words and their strained character as a homily.  But these are important matters, now, in the months ahead, in our hearts.

In the Mass all that we receive is a gift of the Father.  It is never ours to use or shape as we please.  In the Mass all is to the glory of the Son.  In this we are no more than instruments, humble and delighted to play our part.  [It is true that the priest is an instrument, rather, the agent through whom God is working.  But the priest does speak in the first person.  This is my Body… I absolve you…. There is a strong identification between the priest and the Priest/Victim.] In the Mass all is for the sake of our people: [And the priest’s own sake, too.] that they may encounter the one true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent.  In the Mass we who know Him also know that we are in this world to serve its humanity in His name, until He comes again. These are the hallmarks of our Liturgy, the measures against which we can test our hearts, our intentions and our actions.

Among us let there be a humble, joyful service of the Lord. [Do I hear an “Amen!”?] Let us accept with joy the search for a renewal in our celebration of the Mass guided solely by the Church and let our own faith and prayer be tutored daily by what is asked of us.  Amen.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Ezra says:

    It is never to be used as a form of self-expression.

    Yet in the Archdiocese of Westminster, a Pride Weekend Mass is being celebrated with the agreement of diocesan authorities. Perhaps Archbishop Nichols could send the local ordinary a copy of these fine words.

  2. Mike says:

    How I wish my pastor would read and then heed these words. I pray.

  3. mike cliffson says:

    What can a layman say!
    I heard a priest and theologian’s radio broadcast (in Spanish,Radio Maria, from his sick-bed, he’d been unable to say mass for many months, and had prepared it all in his head, most moving)one point among many was how when a priest says mass the mass is for the whole world, tho he be physically alone, and how the world would change, nosedive, should there be nowhere a priest left to say mass.

  4. asperges says:

    Let’s welcome his insight into liturgy and hope it is put into practice. He has not been very enthusiastic about Summorum Pontificum so far. I cannot see how in the context of what he says he can discount the importance of the EF.

  5. rollingrj says:

    These words should not only echo in the hearts of those in the ministerial priesthood, but also in the laity who fulfill liturgical duties. Even when we are mindful of “saying the black, doing the red,” we still have to be transparent. If we don’t let Christ shine, something is wrong with what we do.

  6. shane says:

    “He has not been very enthusiastic about Summorum Pontificum so far.”

    He also opposes teaching the Old Mass in seminaries.

  7. muckemdanno says:

    In the Mass all that we receive is a gift of the Father. It is never ours to use or shape as we please. In the Mass all is to the glory of the Son.

    This seems backwards to me. It is no wonder that the Abp does not care to implement the traditional mass.

    The mass is offered by Our Lord to glorify God the Father, isn’t it? And isn’t what we receive at mass (the Eucharist) the gift that the Son gives to us?

    My third conviction is this: our part is to offer the Mass as a service to the people.

    Again, no wonder he doesn’t like the traditional mass. The priest should offer the mass to God, not to the people.

    But, under the Novus Ordo, the sacrificial nature of the mass is no longer taught, even by the bishops of the Church. [You may be misinformed about this.]

  8. Father K says:

    Maybe JPII should have (to Archbishop Marini)!

  9. Genna says:

    Fine words. He has yet to receive his red hat.
    Unfortunately, his actions as pastoral shepherd seem a little contradictory, vis. his support of Masses in London specifically for the LGBT community (lauded by Queering the Church), telling objectors to “hold their tongues”; his response to a question about gay marriage “who knows what’s down the road”; his fight against one of the best Catholic schools in the country known for its orthodoxy of Catholic formation; his education department’s support of and collaboration with the government over sex education for very young children which propounds equivalence of sexual practices against the Church’s teaching.

  10. Annie says:

    Fine words butter no parsnips.

  11. Sixupman says:

    Forked tongue?

  12. Legisperitus says:

    The liturgy never serves us until we make ourselves its servants.

  13. Andy Milam says:


    Spot on mate. Spot on…

  14. Centristian says:

    “But, under the Novus Ordo, the sacrificial nature of the mass is no longer taught, even by the bishops of the Church.”


    Yes it is. You can’t just make charges like that. Read the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

  15. Stephen D says:

    Sounds uncharacteristically traditional. If this is what the prospect of a red hat does, perhaps he should be deprived until he sorts out the gay masses and those priests who support them, protests vigorously about the un-Christian sex education provided to our innocents, tells the media that gay weddings are never, ever going to happen in Catholic Churches at any point in the future, insists on Catholic religious education worthy of the name etc.etc. etc. (I hope that someone in the Vatican reads these comments).

  16. Son of Trypho says:

    The bit starting with “The Liturgy is not ours…” in section 1. gives away his views on the EF – I read that he is thinking that the EF is a form of personal expression on the part of a priest (and hence divisive) and that it shouldn’t be brought in contrary to existing practices in a parish when a new priest takes over.

    This is also backed up by his views in section 3. with the bit about the positive criterion – if he understands that a positive criterion is a liturgical language which is understood by the laity then you can also consider that he would be reluctant to introduce Latin.

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