ASK FATHER: Commentator during Mass

Howard CosellFrom a reader…


Our local Ordinary Form parish has started having “teaching” Masses on Sunday. They have a lector explain everything as it is happening during the Mass. As a catechist I know people need to learn about the Mass; however…It is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass! Is there any Church document or canon law permitting, directing or forbidding such things? I am concerned for this parish has a long history of liturgical abuses, among other unorthodox activities. Thank you in advance for your help Father Zuhlsdorf.
God bless you.

It is a laudable goal to teach people about what happens during the Holy Mass.

Yet, … one has to wonder if doing the teaching during the Mass is the best way to do so.

By way of an analogy, what would be the benefit to having a lecturer on stage during a performance of Macbeth (errrr, “the Scottish Play”) explaining, “Here’s where Malcolm’s men cut down Birnam forest to use as cover as they marched up Dunsinane hill against Macbeth, fulfilling the prophecy of the third apparition in Act 4, Scene 1.”

Having a bit of an explanation before Mass, and being available after Mass if folks have questions would be a more didactically appropriate way of teaching about Holy Mass than mucking up the liturgy itself with sidebars and running commentary.  I believe that is what Romano Guardini did for his flock and those little pre-Mass lessons became a book.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal does make provision for a commentator, stating (in art. 105),

“The commentator, who, if appropriate, provides the faithful briefly with explanations and exhortations so as to direct their attention to the celebration and ensure that they are better disposed for understanding it. The commentator’s remarks should be thoroughly prepared and notable for their restraint. In performing this function the commentator stands in a suitable place within sight of the faithful, but not at the ambo.”

So, the commentator, if needed, is to make brief clarifying statements.  I think they should mostly be of an informational nature, e.g. “Today’s second collection is being taken up for the heating fund.” or “Please silence your cell phones before Holy Mass begins.” or “This being the Solemnity of the Annunciation, all are asked to kneel when the choir sings the ‘Et Incarnatus‘ during the Creed.”

I sincerely doubt the Legislator envisioned the commentator being a sort of Howard Cosell/Pat Summerall dyad (“Father’s wearing a green chasuble today, looks like we’ve entered Ordinary Time again.” “Interesting point, Howard, ‘ordinary’ time isn’t meant to mean common time or normal time, but rather the weeks that are counted, or ordered…” I did that once for the TV broadcast of a magnificent Pontifical Mass at the Shrine in Washington DC, but we were not in the sanctuary or audible in the Basilica!

I might make an exception for Vin Scully.

Nor would Shinichiro Ohta and Kenji Fukui of Iron Chef be a good model for the commentator, as entertaining as the thought might be.  Get your imaginations around that!

If this parish has a history of liturgical abuse and unorthodox activity, the best course of action may be to take one’s worship (and checkbook) elsewhere.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. As someone who Lectors in the Novus ordo …. NO! BLOODY HELL NO!!!!!! Smells like the False Spirit of Vatican II is here. Ugh.

  2. RJ Sciurus says:

    I dunno, I kinda like the idea of Howard Cosell, during the consecration screaming, “DOWN GOES FATHER! DOWN GOES FATHER!!!”

  3. Sliwka says:

    If saying Mass in the vernacular was meant to foster an understanding, why does it need real time explanation? This type of thing was done at the Easter Vigil at my parish church and it really took me out of the transcendent moments.

  4. Andrew says:

    This could be done in good taste: sort of like watching golf on television with the commentator whispering softly: “the altar server is reaching for the water: for this, father will use a soft towel to wipe his hands: watch for the quick turn of the upper body as he paces back to his previous position …” Then a second commentator comes in: “I notice that father prefers to wear black shoes with a solid leather heal: it gives him great control in his movements.”

  5. John Nolan says:

    On the rare occasions that the BBC televised a papal Mass there was a commentator (usually Bishop Agnellus Andrew) who ‘voiced-over’ the Latin words with the horrible and now obsolete ICEL ‘translation’. Thankfully this is no longer done; when Benedict XVI visited in 2010 the commentary was discreet and the Pope was not interrupted.

  6. Giuseppe says:

    This is appropriate for a DVD with a voice over, but not in the sanctuary. A DVD is the perfect tool to do this.

  7. Nun2OCDS says:

    Perhaps this is a good idea that wasn’t planned well. The parish has a history of liturgical abuse. Perhaps this was seen as a way of educating the faithful not only on the various prayers of the Mass but also on the” whys” and “hows” it should be done. A well formed/educated parish is good. NO? Could it be but the prelude to a brighter more liturgically correct offering of the holy sacrifice. Let us pray it is.

  8. Peter in Canberra says:

    The ‘commentator’ goes further back than we might initially think – the instruction of Pius XII that set out the four degrees of participation at low Mass – see Admittedly that was in the context of a vernacular commentator for a Latin liturgy.

    I can’t recall if this is also straight out of the ‘play book’ that accompanied Sacrosantam concilium (it is in my copy of the documents but I can’t put my hand on it right now).

  9. Papabile says:

    It even predates Pius XII, and the best I can tell was mentioned by the SCR for the first time in 1932 in the context of dialogue mass customs.

    Initially, it was as always a Priest vested in Carrick, surplices, and stole. One of the main roles was to read, in the vernacular, the Epistle and gospel while the celebrant read it at the altar. You still see this custom in Europe in the EF.

  10. Bob B. says:

    After the principal forbade me from teaching my classes to altar serve (and to “actively” learn the Mass), I asked if I couldn’t record the Mass instead. No, learning the Mass was allowed from this principal!
    In this instance, it might be an idea to record the Mass and put the commentary in afterward. Then the DVDs could be made available after Mass.

  11. psalm51 says:

    Our parish does this once every year or so on a weeknight. It is meant for the religious education students and their familes. It is hands down one of the best attended events of the year. People are hungry to learn. Our priest does the commentary himself. He does not comment during the Eucharistic prayer or consecration. He takes questions afterward. I wouldnt want it done very week though….

  12. Gail F says:

    I’ve heard of this in several places and I’ve seen a video of one of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal doing one for teens — I was coming back to the Church myself then, and I learned a lot. The priest explained what was going on, what the priest prays silently during Mass, etc. I think it’s a great idea as a special learning event. But for Sunday Mass? Maybe once, depending on the parish’s circumstances… but not every week!

  13. Fr Sean Coyle says:

    Here in the Philippines we’re plagued with ‘commentators’ telling the people when to sit, stand and kneel as if adults, many who attend Mass every day, were pre-schoolers. I’ve often heard ‘commentators’ saying ‘Please stand’ after the Consecration before the priest can say ‘The Mystery of faith’. (People stand here after the Consecration, something I don’t like or quite understand. But that’s what the bishops have told us to do.]

    When I am fully responsible for a Mass, meaning not supplying for someone else, I don’t have any ‘commentator’. I may allow one if the ‘commentator’ does what the GIRM allow him or her to do – it’s usually a woman – read a brief prepared introduction to the reading, ie, one sentence or at the most two.

    ‘Commentators’ are used here not to teach or explain but to tell people what to do when they don’t need to be told. The Mass doesn’t need to be, nor should it be, explained during its celebration.

    I’ve been opposed to the death penalty since my childhood but at times I’ve been tempted to make an exception in the case of ‘commentators’.

  14. gramma10 says:

    Yes psalm 51
    Most people have no clue of what goes on in the mass. Well once a year may be a little far apart! I think that once every 3 – 6 months is a great idea on a week night.
    Plus get the cds of The Mass Explained by Fr. Larry Richards and Scott Hahn has good ones on the mass.
    I would like a “play by play” once in awhile. A good visual.

  15. Clinton R. says:

    Giuseppe says: “This is appropriate for a DVD with a voice over, but not in the sanctuary. A DVD is the perfect tool to do this.”

    I second this. A DVD would be a much better way to instruct the faithful on the parts of the Mass than to do it during the actual Mass. I have been at Masses where the priest has offered a running commentary on his actions during the Consecration and it detracts from what the Mass is. The Mass is the solemn and Holy offering of the Body and Blood of Christ for our good and the good of the Holy Church. All things have their place, but Holy Mass is not the time or place for play by play or joke telling, which is a whole story on to itself.

  16. fishonthehill says:

    Fr Coyle took the words out of my mouth… the same thing occurs at Phillipino Masses here in Brooklyn… I thought it was just a carryover from the beginning of the council (from the old country)that was simply never eliminated. I feel your pain! Probably some of the most devoted people yet this annoying commentator… in Masses celebrated in both Tagalog and English!

  17. danidunn says:

    I pity the people who have to sit through it. I can’t watch EWTN coverage of Papal Masses because of the constant need of people to offer a running commentary.

    But, I agree, unless the commentary was done by Vin Scully: “It’s a mere moment in a man’s life between the All-Star Game and an old timer’s game.” So, go to confession!

  18. WYMiriam says:

    Fr. Coyle, I am so glad to hear you say that about commentators at Holy Mass in the Philippines. It drove me bonkers when a Philippino priest we had in this US diocese would instruct us when to sit and stand, just exactly as if we were pre-schoolers, as you say. Once wouldn’t be so bad. At every single Mass . . . . overkill.

    I’m glad to hear that it wasn’t just that one priest’s personal quirky way of doing things, but . . . I’m awfully glad I don’t have to listen to it anymore. There’s another bit of “instructions” I can’t abide to replace it, and I don’t know which I hate more: that sort of totally unneccesary “commentary” from the Philippines (which isn’t commentary at all) or listening to our current priest say things like, “I invite us to kneel . . . . ” At least he may be more amenable to changing, once I figure out a charitable way to tell him we already know we are supposed to do that, thanks, you’ve told us many times now already! :-)

    I appreciate priests, I really do . . . and I try to remember to pray for them often. They have to put up with the likes of me, and that can’t be easy.

  19. New Sister says:

    Oh no, what a painful memory this recalls… we had a “charismatic” chaplain take over in Afghanistan who tried to get this narration practice going. I think his assistant had downloaded the script from the internet (maybe it was a neocatechumenal thing?). Words fail me here, but it was, to say the least, unbearable, obnoxious, an offense to one’s senses… It means having to hear things like, “please stand to welcome Our presider to Our mass”. And yes, it was accompanied by other drama [everyone raising their hand in the air to bestow a blessing on departing members] and “sing a new church” type music – bleh!
    Sorry, but I say no, no, and NO to this narration thing.

  20. +JMJ+ says:

    Our Parish does this about once a year for our high school youth group. However, the priest provides the explanation himself, and it’s a very brief explanation. Most of it takes place before and after the Mass.

  21. Gerard Plourde says:

    On the whole, I fuly agree with Fr. Coyle’s remarks that a commentator is unnecessary. However if, as the questioner states, the parish has a history of litugical abuse the pastor may be trying to provide catechesis to his wayward flock. He may have found that the only way to do this is through the admittedly poor method of using a commentator. If this is the case, let’s pray that his effort bears fruit and the period of catechesis is short.

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