All the sanctuary’s a stage

All the sanctuary’s a stage

Rich Leonardi, in a post on a visit to his wife’s childhood parish, recounts the style with which the associate pastor (AP) celebrated the Mass, and I think it so perfectly sums up what I’ve often said about the abuses possible in Mass celebrated in vernacular facing the people: that the priest is tempted to make himself the center of attention and to become a performer, not a mediator.

The entire liturgy was celebrated in an emotive, confessional, ad-libbed style by AP (who incidentally attended the parish school at the same time my wife was a student there.) For example, AP gave his deacon an emphatic bear hug behind the altar during the sign of peace, as if to say, “I love you, man.” And when you’re that emotionally-invested in what you’re doing, the words of the Mass just aren’t enough. Not only should they be changed frequently, but gestures are crucial. Hands should be waved over the sacred vessels. The Eucharist should be thrust toward the Assembly during the Consecration. “This is the Body of Christ ... given up for you!”

I’m not saying that a Mass in English facing the people can’t be reverent, but that the temptation otherwise is very strong. Too often a priest sees all those bored faces looking at him, as if to plead, “Please stop the boredom!” Certainly, the boredom is not helped by painfully out-of-date and unsingable music, maudlin’ and pedestrian translations of prayers, and homilies on everything but whatever might pique the interest of parishioners.

Apart from the theological reasons for ad orientem, the practical result is that the priest is no longer distracted by the congregation’s reactions for good or for ill and can concentrate on the liturgical action. He can concentrate on addressing the real audience for his prayers (God the Father) and not the people in the pews.

That seems to be the crux of the problem. Parishioners want to “get” something out of Mass, rather than put into it what is necessary, i.e. worship of the Lord and an offering of themselves in union with Christ’s sacrifice. And for the priest, could the emphasis on performance for the people be a sign that deep down this is all just playing?

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