Letters | What Not to Do at Mass

I thought they all had been safely buried in my subconscious but Michael Peppard’s dotCommonweal post “Starving in the Pews” (October 7) unexpectedly released a torrent of liturgical annoyances that have always bothered me. Being a priest-preacher for more than sixty years—most of those years active, some as a passive pew-sitter during illnesses, and now as retired weekend help at various parishes—I have been exposed to a variety of experiences that have made my tolerance for bad or indifferent preaching or poor liturgy quite strained. I need to get things off my chest, so allow me to present my short arrgh! list.

A basic peeve: you would think this is obvious but some parishes still have inadequate microphone systems. There are dead zones in some parts of the church, where people can’t hear clearly or at all. These days state-of-the-art systems are a requisite.

The Mass should have its own integrity and the whole experience should stay on message. Ideally the hymns and music should reflect the readings and homily. “Danny Boy” (yes, I’ve heard it) at the end of Mass subverts even the most well-messaged homily and worship.

Don’t make announcements at the end of Mass. Please, don’t. Yet even some very progressive parishes I have served do. It simply upends the liturgy, breaks the spell. Say all went well: good music, good lectoring, a stirring homily, and a send-off hymn—and then it’s all shattered by the reading of a dozen announcements. Why have bulletins? People today are literate. I learned as a pastor to cut off all announcements, urging the people to take home the bulletin. After missing some good stuff—plus having some terrific timely things in it—people learned to do so. There are some exceptions when an announcement is appropriate but this should be very seldom. Yes, close off the liturgy with a song, not commercials.

Allied with this, do not allow solicitations or recruiting. I know the Rosary-Altar or Men’s Guild (noble organizations) need members, but to end Mass with announcements and an appeal once more dissipates the liturgical experience. It’s like giving a magnificent lecture only to be followed by some clown who tells some really funny jokes. The audience leaves laughing and not many will remember the talk.

It’s amazing no one does this, but train and re-train the lectors. Lectors range from the terrible few to the majority of the merely good to some select excellent proclaimers who do so with clarity, meaning, and intelligence. The last of these are rare. The thing is that the pastor is so happy to have volunteers that even if they can’t read all that well, they’re in. But so many do read poorly, with no sense of pause, meaning, and understanding. They read too rapidly. Clearly there’s no evidence that they understand what they’re proclaiming. Some can’t be heard. Others drop words or consonants. There should be ongoing training with mentors recording them at church and helping them to improve. You would think that such a vital thing as proclaiming God’s word at Sunday Mass would be top priority. It is not even bottom priority. It is no priority at all. And it shows.

Get rid of the missalettes. Save a few large-print ones in the vestibule for the hard-of-hearing, but that’s it. The congregation is there to listen to the proclamation, not proofread the Scripture. Can you imagine going to a Broadway play with the script in hand and having your head buried in its pages all during the performance? Can you imagine the dynamics of the sets, the lights, the music, and the actors all bypassed? Why do we encourage a congregation to read along with Jack and Jill instead of what we proclaim at the end: “The word of the Lord”? I have even presided at parishes where the lector actually tells the audience where to find what he or she is about to read to them. By that admission, one sees oneself as a reader, not a proclaimer.

As far as music goes, there is much admiration for the cantors and choirs who give of their time and talent to praise God. There is, however, as I have discovered over the years, often a thin line between enhancement and entertainment. While some hymns are carefully thought out and much music is appropriate, too often they both slip into television hype. I’ve been in parishes where the closing hymn is a rallying, over-the-top crescendo with the musician or singer’s final trills practically begging for applause. And it happens. At every Mass the congregation, Sunday after Sunday, applauds the choir or folk group at the end. They don’t applaud the ushers or altar servers or lectors, and not even the celebrant who may have given a stirring homily. The applause for grandstanding music that suffocates the Mass is misplaced. There are times when applause is called for, but they should be few and far between.

As for us celebrant-preachers, things are not always our fault. For example, in spite of the “in deference to the sacred liturgy, please turn off all cell phones” warning, now and then they do ring. People don’t realize how much that throws you off, breaks the rhythm, the mood, the concentration. I recall that during a recent homily of mine, cell phones went off three times, two of which obviously belonged to a person hard of hearing: the rings were extremely loud. Cell phones and smartphones have reached the status of addiction. Surveys show that the average person consults his or her gadget 221 times a day—that’s about every 6.5 minutes. We feel emotionally naked without them. We suffer withdrawal if we don’t have them. Hey, who knows if the president or the pope may be calling? Can’t keep either waiting.

I see people using them or looking at their phones as they come into church and whip them out as soon as they hit the vestibule to leave. Sadly I see priests—usually the younger ones—glued to them as they wait in the sacristy for Mass to begin. Part of our spiritual heritage is to center ourselves before an important encounter. Clear the mind. Cleanse the heart. Be open to the Spirit. But no more! Our attention is subverted 24/7. Entering the sacred liturgy with a distracted mind is not ideal any more than entering the highway with one is.

For the strong of heart, I have a solution. (Usually the start of Lent is a good time to propose it.) For our parish, we propose, let’s make an effort—yes, a Lenten effort if that helps the motivation—to leave our phones and gadgets in the car. Let’s be known as the parish that does that. Your and my Lenten goal will be to achieve that and to encourage others to do the same. Leave your cell phone in the car. Just as some families have rightfully banned all cell phones from the dinner table, we will ban them from church. Leave them in your car. Give them a rest. Give yourselves over to sacred space with receptive minds and hearts.

A few more curmudgeonly grumbles: Give the bulletins out after Mass, as people are leaving. They should not serve as casual reading during the Mass. And, for heaven’s sake, do the dishes after the guests have gone. I don’t know of any other civilization that has you to dinner and makes you sit while the hosts bring over the basin and water and do the dishes before they serve dessert. Yet that is what often happens at the eucharistic banquet. The celebrant or deacon is doing the dishes while you wait for dismissal. And God help the congregation if it gets a priest or deacon afflicted with the “theology of the crumb” and you sit there impatiently while he vigorously scours and wipes and rewipes every vessel lest a little bit of Jesus is left over.

And, of course, improve the preaching. The most common faults I find are too little preparation, too many points, and material of interests to scholars and Egyptologists, but not to where people are on their spiritual journey. If you build words that speak to their world, they will come—but the fact is, in spite of the grandiose official words of general councils and episcopal statements, no one really cares. No one monitors parish preaching, replacing preachers (no matter how nice they are) whose second-language English is difficult to understand or removing those who belittle or offend or simply preach non-nourishing platitudes. After all, there’s a priest shortage and bishops, happy to have warm bodies, are not going to scrutinize preaching too closely even if it ranks as almost the number-one reason why people leave.

The Mass should be a whole. From the greeting at the beginning to the closing hymn at the end. No detours, however interesting or entertaining.

Way back, Jack Shea succinctly summed up the experience of going to church this way:

Gather the folk.
Tell the story.
Break the Bread.
Share the experience.

To which I would add:

Keep it focused.
Keep it clean.
Keep it sacred.

 

Fr. William J. Bausch
Freehold, N.J.

 

Published in the December 16, 2016 issue: 
Also by this author
A Shameful Alliance

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