A “Say the Black” moment from a … Jesuit!

At Jesuit-run Amerika there is an unexpected article.   It – I’m not making this up – is a call for priests to stop making up prayers and doing their own thing during Mass.  No, really.  At a Jesuit publication.   Jesuits have been legendarily airy about liturgy.  The old adage, is “As lost as a Jesuit in Holy Week.”

Let’s have a look.

As you read, think “Say the Black, Do the Red”.

Dear priests who improvise at Mass: Please don’t.


Even if parts of the liturgical script have been changed (some of it quite tragically—when you lose good poetry you lose good theology), even if it is not as lovely anymore, even then: Adding more words will not make Mass “better.” If you cleanly speak the words as they

are, if you let them flow through you, the people in the pews may hear the Mass as they have never heard it before. The Mass will, in fact, become interesting and personal and new. You do not need to do more. It’s not about you.

I can get away with saying these things because I am a brother, not a priest. I am not a student of the exigencies, stringencies, flexibilities, the negotiables and non-negotiables of Mass-saying. I have no canonical agenda. I am an actor, a playwright and someone who sits in the pews watching priests who feel that to follow the script is to essentially slice their brains out of their body and hand it over to Holy Mother Church.

The point of the formula of the liturgy is not the formula of the liturgy. The po

int is to help you pray. The purpose of an actor’s text is not simply to speak the text. It is to give the audience an experience—an experience of a person on stage having a spontaneous reaction to fixed circumstances. Knowing the fixed blocking and the fixed words of the script can free an actor to be spontaneous; knowing the fixed formulas of the liturgy can liberate a priest to have an in-the-moment experience.


I recently watched a priest celebrate such a liturgy. He didn’t give opening remarks that showed how young at heart he was; that demonstrated he can speak to the children’s level. He reserved his personalism for the homily. For the prayers of the Mass, he just did the words. Routine, s

tructure, the same thing that is always said. This is what children want. And they were with him. The kids were engaged the whole way. You could tell. Children feel safe with structure. They like knowing what is coming next. Most of us do.

Structure does not shackle anyone, it frees them. In fact, freedom cannot even exist where there are there no boundaries. Free yoursel

ves, o priests, from thinking you have to re-create what does not need re-creating. Let the words do the work. Let the liturgy do the work. Trust your mere presence to do the work. You are enough.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Liberals, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000 and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. JustaSinner says:

    Is the Jesuit priest retiring? In end-stage hospice? Leaving the Order for a ministry at an SSPX chapel? So many questions…

  2. Orrrrr…. you could read the article and find the answers!

  3. APX says:

    He’s not a priest. He’s a brother.

  4. Benedict Joseph says:

    “…when you lose good poetry you lose good theology…”
    They just can’t help it. All reason has been lost. This is priceless…

  5. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    Holy cow…..could this be Bergoglio’s first miracle?

    I mean to be cheeky, not disrespectful. :P

  6. mlmc says:

    At first I was afraid this was in the ” broken clock is right twice a day” category-but it was much more. Glad to hear it! A glint of sunlight in dark times…

  7. Chris in Maryland 2 says:

    Dear A D R A:

    That is howling out loud hilarious!

    Thank you…a thousand times…for making me laugh!

  8. Dismas says:

    Did the Babylon Bee purchase Amerika!?

    Is this an April Fool’s issue?

    Has anybody checked if Susan had a heart attack?

  9. Dismas says:

    Oh, and a bonus:

    Would this stupendous prodigy constitute a miracle for Fr. Schall or Bp. Morlino?

  10. Josephus Corvus says:

    Wow! From a Jesuit! My first thought when I read the headline was that Fr. Z was writing under duress after a little waterboarding. Maybe an undercover Jesuit nabbed him and took him in one of those directions that he couldn’t photograph yesterday, but no….it’s true!

  11. millercr2 says:

    And then you have this from “The Faith Community of” St. Sabina, of the Archdiocese of Chicago, who doesn’t even call it Mass, has some semblance, but very much liturgical abuse abounds in this charade led by a Fr. Pfleger.

    Watch and cringe the “service” videos at:

  12. arcillajohn says:

    @millercr2 I honestly feel like I’ve sinned watching that. What kind of horror is going on their? nothing even close to catholicism. I couldn’t even tell from their website. There is most definitely a high altar begging to be used. This is SOOOO cringe.

  13. Aquinas Gal says:

    Very refreshing! Especially this week when a guest priest at Sunday Mass put in his own remarks during the reading of the Gospel! Just read it, Fathers, just read it!

  14. Legisperitus says:

    This reminded me of one of my favorite quotations about boundaries, from Abp. Sheen:

    “In the midst of a great sea there was an island with a great wall, a high wall. On that island lived children, who sang, danced, and played. One day some men came to the island with a rowboat. They called themselves ‘liberators’ and said to the children, ‘Who put up these walls? Who built up these barriers? Can you not see that they are restraining your freedom and your liberty? Tear them down. Be free.’ The children tore down the walls. Now if you go back, you will find all the children huddled together in the center of the island, afraid to sing, afraid to play, afraid to dance, afraid of falling into the sea!”

  15. bobbird says:

    This struck me: “He didn’t give opening remarks that showed how young at heart he was; that demonstrated he can speak to the children’s level. He reserved his personalism for the homily.” How many times have we had 3-4 sermons per Mass? An introductory at the end of the Processional Hymn, which might include a reference to the weather and an invitation to introduce yourself to the persons around you; then another for when children are excused for “Children’s Liturgy” — aka “Crafti-chism Class”; then the actual homily, occasionally done from the ambo but often wandering about in front of the altar or sitting down; then, the horrible, endless Announcements, which no matter what the length, are preceded with this quote: “Just a few announcements.” And, there are often several, “And finally …”, which is followed by “And lastly …” and yet another and another. And, as a man stumbles towards an Oasis of water in the desert, there is the “Dismissal Homily”. It is these “personal touches”, not the liturgy, that can make a Mass boring and create a feeling of “When can I get outta here?”

  16. Joe in Canada says:

    Don’t forget “How Not to Say Mass” by Fr Dennis Smolarski SJ

  17. mibethda says:

    While it may be fair to say that Brother Joe Hoover, S.J. is unique among the staff of America, he is not a totally rare bird in the Order. In addition to the few remnants of the old Jesuits such as Fr. Fessio, you might take a look at Jesuit High in Tampa (my prep school’s old nemesis) which recently replaced a depressingly modern (1960 or 70’s) chapel with a new and much larger chapel in the classical style designed by Duncan Stroik – as this website noted a few months ago when a Traditional Latin Mass was scheduled there. If you check out their website for the images of the recent Holy Week services, you will find a very beautiful and traditional liturgy offered by young priests – not all Jesuits these days are “lost in Holy Week.”

  18. Tim says:

    aurum in luto

  19. JustaSinner says:

    Father, the answers confuse even more. He’s a brother, not a priest. Is that a final stage, or a transition to priest? He makes valud points, especially for a Jesuit!

  20. We had a “Say the Black” moment at the Sacred Music Workshop in St. Louis this past weekend. We were practicing for that evening’s (Saturday) Compline, specifically the Confiteor. “Confiteor Deo omnipotenti…” etc. Then, “…cogitatione, verbo, et opere: percutit sibi pectus mea culpa, mea culpa…” I petered out after “opere”, because I didn’t recognize the words, but some people kept going. The priest who was directing us said, “No, it means this,” as he struck his breast. It was hilarious! Someone asked if it wasn’t supposed to be in red (it was; our booklets weren’t perfectly proofread), and it reminded me about the “Eye of the Tiber” story about the color-blind priest.

  21. JMody says:

    “Structure does not shackle anyone, it frees them”
    I had the great privilege to attend a service academy, and recall quite vividly the day I finally understood this. One wintry morning I grudgingly looked outside to see a uniform flag which would tell me which coat I was supposed to wear to be “in uniform” — a very structured environment indeed — and suddenly it felt as if snow or ice or glass shards were all over me inside the room. I was so completely constrained that I was free of every mundane worry there is, I had only to work and excel.
    Would that Mass could be so structured (and without sappy show-tune music).

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