Worship, Memory and You

This morning at NLM Peter Kwasniewski makes some points about liturgy and memory, memorization, which are quite good… so good that I have made them myself in the past.  Here is a good bit:

This requirement [for priests who say the Extraordinary Form, Usus Antiquior] of memorization, far from being a mere guarantee of efficiency, has its own profound value: it is one more way in which the ancient liturgy demands that the celebrant “put on the mind of Christ” — or better, enter His Heart — by means of “knowing by heart” certain prayers of the Church that mold him into the image of their sentiments.

Prayers run the risk of remaining external to the celebrant as long as they are merely written in the Missal, because their location is an external book. Memorized prayers, on the other hand, are already internal(ized) and, as such, are more available as a wellspring of piety within. The heart has become the book, the living book from which the Mass is celebrated.

The same must be said for catechism and children (or adult converts).  I have related in the past how at a hospital I was confronted by a woman whose father was dying.  She was very angry at God and everyone else.  “Why would a God make us just to wind up like this!”, was the essence of her anger and sorrow.  I asked her, “Why did God make you?”  She calmed down and gave the precise Baltimore Catechism answer, which then helped her to deal with her father’s death.

Once you have it inside then it is yours.

I have also often opined that priests should memorize at least one set of texts for a Mass, perhaps a Votive of the Blessed Virgin: there might come a day when you, in hiding, have no books, etc.

Have a look at Peter’s thoughts.  There is a lot to discuss.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. bombcar says:

    This, this right here is why the preponderance of missals (especially among the congregants at the EF) is *not* necessarily a good thing – we should be striving to participate in Mass such that we have it memorized; so much so that the only reason to glance at the missals would be to read the collects for the day. After all, the *canon* stays the same from day-to-day; even the 4 Eucharistic Prayers in the OF aren’t hard to memorize (I suspect many Catholics could get through EP 2 without much assistance or prompting).

    And for me, at least, the temptation is always there to go read other parts of the missal, English or Latin, when I should be instead making myself present to God.

  2. lmgilbert says:

    For at least one sainted archbishop memorization of the prayers of the Mass was a requirement for his priests:

    “When St. Anthony Claret was sent to Santiago, Cuba as its archbishop, he found a clergy woefully corrupt and ignorant. In a passage my wife and I read just last evening, here is his account of his dealings with one priest whom he found living in concubinage and with children: ‘I ordered him to the seminary for instruction, and that he might be detached from his evil live . . . At the conference where, in the presence of the other priests, I examined him on the Mass, all witnessed his ignorance (excused on the grounds of ‘faulty memory’) of even the prayers of the Ordinary. If he forgets the Mass prayers, what is he likely to remember?'”

    From the The Life of St. Anthony Claret by Fanchon Royer, (Rockford:Tan Books, 1985), 154

  3. APX says:


    The Missal helps when one is bombarded by distractions throughout the Canon. Since I started attending Mass according to the Missal of Divine Worship more frequently, I have come to a better memorization of the Canon (since I can actually hear it), but my downfall comes during Low Mass at the Ordinariate when making the responses since the English translation of the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar are slightly different from the unofficial translation in my hand missal. Don’t get me started on the Confiteor. I wish we could just have one standard English Confiteor for all Missals. I’m up to four (five if you count the OF one in Latin) different confiteors to memorize.

    I find it rather annoying when priests have to rely on the missal for the Ecce Agnus Dei. I would love to behold the lamb of God…if you’d turn around.

  4. acardnal says:

    Pope St John Paul II reminded us of the necessity of memorization, which had been
    de-emphasized in certain circles, in his Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi Tradendae, #55:

    “At a time when, in non-religious teaching in certain countries, more and more complaints are being made about the unfortunate consequences of disregarding the human faculty of memory, should we not attempt to put this faculty back into use in an intelligent and even an original way in catechesis, all the more since the celebration or “memorial” of the great events of the history of salvation require a precise knowledge of them? A certain memorization of the words of Jesus, of important Bible passages, of the Ten Commandments, of the formulas of profession of the faith, of the liturgical texts, of the essential prayers, of key doctrinal ideas, etc., far from being opposed to the dignity of young Christians, or constituting an obstacle to personal dialogue with the Lord, is a real need, as the synod fathers forcefully recalled. We must be realists. The blossoms, if we may call them that, of faith and piety do not grow in the desert places of a memory – less catechesis. “

  5. QuietContemplative says:

    I have noticed I consistently have greater difficulty remembering things if I know I have easy access to it on my smartphone. While physical books clearly do not have that steep an effect, it shows that knowing the information is easily accessible can actually cause us to subconsciously disregard the importance of remembering it. Arguably, this could also cause a degrading of the overall importance we attach to something…

  6. Imrahil says:

    While physical books clearly do not have that steep an effect

    Ah, don’t say that. It’s just that we’ve stopped to consider their effect because we don’t know the difference.

    But in the Middle Ages, it was an almost usual thing for the educated faithful man to know the entire Bible by heart. (St. Thomas actually discusses whether this is a requirement for Holy Orders, and while he does answer “no”, his answer clearly shows a “but it would still be fine if he did” undertone.)

    Who knows so much still, after Gutenberg invented the printing press?

    Who can still answer what 1.3*2.6 is without recourse to a calculator, or at least paper and pencil, now the calculator has been invented, and admitted for School use? Who, in fact, from the very young generation can do it on paper (which we still learnt in school)?

    [Spoiler: It’s 3.38. The I guess easiest way is seeing that it’s 1.3^2 *2, having memorized that 13^2 = 169 and then adjusting the commas to get 1.3^2 = 1.69, 1.69*2 is about 1.7*2= 3.4 and then we’ll have to deduct 0.01*2. I still can do that. I had a teacher who demanded it at school. Whether this has to do with the fact that this teacher is an SSPX adherent I do not know.]

    That seems to be a thing men just happen to do, whether now with our modern inventions or a long time ago with that time’s inventions.

  7. rdb says:

    I can recall so many instances of being called to the bed of a dying person and having the family say, He or she “hasn’t responded to us for hours.”. Then I lean in close and begin to pray the Our Father and the Hail Mary only to see the person mouth the words along with me. It is one reason why I have always encouraged parents to pray the rosary with their children on a daily basis.

  8. Uxixu says:

    Excellent point on memorization and I had the same experience with the server responses. I only used the card for learning outside of Mass, never in it and I usually always serve Monday Low Mass and pray Lauds, Vespers, and Compline in the breviary and always looked forward to Tuesday morning Lauds where Psalm 42 is recited and eventually realized I had the entire Psalm memorized, including the priest’s parts at the beginning of the Mass (and quite habitually roll into a Gloria, as well).

    With regular recitation, I also came to look forward to my favorite Psalms through the week (Psalm 100 Wednesday Morning, Psalm 129 De Profundis on Vespers of Wednesday, Psalm 136 Vespers on Thursday, etc) and also realized quite clearly why the Breviary was required to be recited in Latin: it helped my Latin immensely with immersion, which is the best way for humans to learn fluency in language.

  9. JustaSinner says:

    Ah yes, the Baltimore Catechism…why did God make us? Who is God? Awesome! BTW Fr.Z, I love when you use the artwork from the BC book…nostalgia, indeed!
    Also, am I out of touch for still thinking that God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost? Some things, like Communion on the tongue, Altar rails and Altar boys just are too ingrained.

  10. It’s practically impossible for those of us in the pews to memorize the ordinary of the Novus Ordo Mass because there are so many zillions of options the priest can choose for each part of the Mass. And until we got the new translation of the Missal, only a few square inches of all that acreage of the English translation was worth memorizing.

    Which is unfortunate, because it’s the things we memorize that come to our aid when our powers are at their lowest ebb.

  11. Phil_NL says:

    This also applies to translations – and the need to get them right in one go.

    For example, the Dutch language is mainly spoken in the Netherlands, and the Flemish part of Belgium. It’s one language, but the syntax and vocabulary in Flanders is slightly different at times (e.g. words that are barely used in one region might be common in the other, Flemish borrows some constructions from French).
    Because of this, and no doubt because of separate bishop conferences, the translation of the Our Father in the vernacular differed between the regions – up to roughly a year ago. Due to those differences, memorization was a problem with kids in the border regions, or those that moved between the countries. Awkward, but limited in scope.
    About a year ago, the bishops decided to go for a uniformed version – different from what either region used. And now millions of Catholics have problems properly memorizing the very prayer Christ gave us.

    If you want things memorized, best keep them the same. Forever.

  12. Andrew says:

    S. Jerome: ep. LX: ad Heliodorum:

    [Nepotianus presbyter] lectioneque assidua et meditatione diuturna, pectus suum, bibliothecam fecerat Christi.

    (Nepotianus presbyter, by tireless reading and prolonged meditation, had turned his heart into a library of Christ.)

  13. Marion Ancilla Mariae says:

    I usually just listen to the readings, without following along in the Sunday guide. Except when doing that isn’t working.

    We have readers at Sunday Mass who are from many different backgrounds, and for some of whom English is a second language, learned not as children in U.S. schools, but as adults.
    Or they may be people from the U.S., but with strong cultural differences in pronunciation. Consequently, at times the accents and intonations I’m hearing are extremely different from what I’m used to hearing, and I have difficulty understanding (this sometimes happens to me on the phone, also, with customer service reps who are outsourced internationally.)

    Of course, we’re all familiar with the texts, but there are always phrases and even sentences that need refreshing. With some of these readers, there can be a lag time in my understanding as my brain hears unfamiliar sounds, registers that it can’t understand, and then sorts through the various possibilities as to the words being enunciated; I’m taking the time to make a conscious effort to process what I’m hearing. Meanwhile the reader has gone on to the next line, and I’ve missed what he or she said.

    So, following along in the Sunday guide is the way to make sure I can keep up, and not miss anything.

  14. pelerin says:

    Phil NL – I had no idea that there were several versions of the Our Father in Belgium. How complicated for the faithful.

    Many years ago I borrowed a French Missal and learnt the Our Father in French when it still used ‘vous’ for ‘you’. In 1966 ‘you’ became ‘tu’ and ‘pain quotidien’ became ‘pain de ce jour’ altering the cadence somewhat. Now I understand that on December 3rd there is to be yet another change in the French version when ‘ne nous soumets pas a la tentation’ will become’ ne nous laisse pas entrer en tentation.’ I will have learnt three versions in my lifetime and will not find it easy to adjust to the third version the next time I attend Mass in France after the change as the second version is ingrained in my memory. Interestingly our ‘lead us not into temptation’ does not have exactly the same meaning as either of the two French translations and yet seems nearer to ‘ne nos inducas in tentationem.’

  15. jaykay says:

    Bombcar: “so much so that the only reason to glance at the missals would be to read the collects for the day.”

    Well, the Epistle and Gospel also. And the Offertory, Secret and Post-communion too, surely. But, in my unfortunately all-too-infrequent attendances at the E.F., I do tend to lay down the Missal after the Preface and just…

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