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 Certainly, the boredom is not helped by painfully out-of-date and unsingable music, maudlin’ and pedestrian translations of prayers, and homilies on everything but whatever might pique the interest of parishioners.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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Written by
Domenico Bettinelli
1 comment
  • As a priest who was a one-time psychology major in college, I can tell you that the versus populum position is fraught with psychological danger.

    A first-year psych student will be able to list dozens of clinical studies that demonstrate the effect of positive versus negative reinforcement given merely by body posture, nods, and smiles or frowns.  These studies clearly show that one can be manipulated unconsciously to repeat or to eliminate behaviors depending on said positive or negative reinforcement.

    Any priest who, in his preaching, makes eye contact with the folks in the pews (as we all must) will tell you of the inner tug he feels when he gets disapproving glares, yawns, bored looks or outright anger.  The priest is, after all, human and as such desires approval; this kind of negative reinforcement inspires the priest to modify his preaching to mollify their disapproval.  Positive reinforcement acts just the opposite way:  regardless of the message being preached, the priest who receives approving nods, smiles and the like is inspired to continue in the same vein.

    This is, of course, elementary; priests have to be steeled beforehand to withstand this unconscious manipulation of their preaching (unfortunately, in my own experience, this not a part of their preparation!)  But beyond the homily—as important as it is—should we not be aware that the same kinds of signals may triggger the same kinds of subconscious response vis-a-vis the style of presiding during the rest of the Mass?

    For my part, over the past four or five years I’ve become painfully aware of how distracting the versus populum orientation can be IF YOU ALLOW IT!  During the prayers (either at the altar or the chair), I orient my eyes either to a crucifix, a stained glass window at the rear of the church, or at a place just about twice the height of the people when they’re standing (if my eyes are even open).  This way I am less likely to fall victim to the subtle manipulation, and I’m more likely to actually be praying myself rather than trying to “please” the folks who are looking back at me.  Besides, it reminds me that I’m actually praying to GOD, not the people in the pews.

    Just my two cents’ worth….