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.