Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. Loosely translated: “The norm of prayer governs the norm of belief; the norm of belief governs the norm of living.” Many priests nowadays (including myself) are asking, “What if there’s deficient lex in the orandi? Won’t that diminish the credendi and vivendi?”
I’ll summarize here the very many conversations I’ve had with numerous priests from across the country. These are faithful priests with a zeal for souls. Precisely because they are good shepherds, they’ve found themselves becoming increasingly bewildered and heartsick. Their pain now follows a predictable pattern. Their anguish and discouragement spikes on weekends, when they must offer Masses with their congregations. Why?
Let me offer some snapshots of the occasions for their grief, with the understanding that what I’m presenting here is a composite. It’s not a depiction of any one parish or of all parishes. To varying degrees, you may recognize in parishes you’ve seen what I’m about to describe. What’s most important is to move from the collected observations, gathered here under the heading of the fictional “Saint Typical’s,” and then onward to the proper conclusions. We’ll start with Saturday, the time of the Vigil Mass. The legal fiction behind this practice is rooted in passing reference to the ancient practice of the observance of sabbath starting at sunset. But what can this mean for people who have no practical observation of the sabbath in mind?
As many have admitted to me, Sunday has become “Get-Ready-for-Monday Day.” Wittingly or not, this view facilitates treating the Vigil Mass as the “Let’s-Just-Get-This-Over-With Mass.” Pastors in sunny climes and with many transplanted retirees tell me that their congregations demand that the Vigil Mass begin at 3:30 PM so that they can get an early start on cocktails and dinner. Sundays are reserved for golf, you see.
Sundays start with the early morning Mass, which is a variant of Saturday’s “Let’s-Just-Get-This-Over-With Mass.” Saturday evening Mass-goers (customers?) like to have music so that it “feels like a Sunday Mass.” The early Sunday morning crowd shares the “Let’s-Just-Get-This-Over-With” commitment of their Saturday counterparts, but they concede to Mass on Sunday so that it “feels like a Sunday Mass.” But these people have things to do (“That’s why we’re up early, Father!”) and so they ask for no music, or at least music kept to a minimum.
Masses throughout the rest of Sunday morning, over time, take on their own characteristics and patterns. A mid-morning Mass, I hear from many priests, often experiences the “Miraculous Multiplication of the Opening Hymn.” On this account, the congregation doubles in size from the starting notes of the hymn to its final verse. At these Masses, people are not actually late — but they’re not on time and they’re certainly not early. Assuredly, they’re not starting Mass composed, recollected, and prepared for contemplation or any form of “full, active and conscious participation” which we have long been assured constitute the indispensable and sufficient measure of all worship.
Later morning Masses are known among parish priests as the “Sleep-In-But-Not-Really Mass.” Attendees of these Masses are not early risers, but they also don’t plan to sleep in all day. After all, these people have things to do—Monday’s almost here! But they do want to sleep in, at least a little, so they come to the later morning Masses. At these Masses, the size of the congregation may grow as much as 80% between the last verse of the opening hymn and the end of the homily. Some folks try to be discreet about their tardy arrival, sneaking into the “Cry Room” off to the side, even though they have no small children with them. Perhaps they think that Father goes blind when he’s in the sanctuary and doesn’t notice that the Cry Room has become the venue for late arrivals and early departures? (Maybe these folks don’t know enough Latin to know what versus populum means?)
The early afternoon Mass, parish priests tell me, is for the “Other-Language Mass.” Most often this is Spanish, but, depending on the location, the language could be, say, Creole, Vietnamese, or Chinese. These Masses tend to be very well attended, compared with the English Masses. Per capita, however, the collections tend to be lower than average, thereby precluding the Other-Language Mass from being moved to a “prime” slot.
Then there’s the Sunday evening Mass, also known as the “Last-Chance Mass” or the “Oh-Look-at-the-Time! Where-Did-the-Day-Go? Mass,” usually offered at 5:30 or 7 PM. On college campuses, these Masses are variously known as the “Hangover Mass” or the “Sleeping-It-Off-All-Day Mass.” These Masses could begin as late as 9:30 or even 11 PM.
Based upon the “war stories” I’ve collected, I can assemble a synthetic yet accurate account of what my long-suffering brother priests have been experiencing every weekend for years. Father gets vested in the sacristy and heads towards the front vestibule, waiting for the first notes of the opening hymn. Very few people are in the pews, preparing to pray and worship. Instead, there is a stream of people rushing in to take a seat at the last possible moment, looking like high school kids trying to avoid being marked late for algebra class.
Watching the people come in, Father’s heart begins to sink. He sees people of all ages walking from the parking lot to the church, manically swiping on their phones as they get to the front door. Do they think (or, more likely, feel) that they need one last hit of dopamine in order to get through the Mass? “Did they turn off their phones before they got to the pew?” he wonders. He expects (rightly) that before Mass ends, he will know who did not.
Father wonders whether and how to raise the thorny problem of how people dress at Mass. He winces as he remembers all the straw man objections he was pelted with the last time he tried to address the issue. His wince tightens to a grimace as he recalls that his replies to the objections were met with sullen silence. A sampling:
Obj. 1: The Mass isn’t a fashion show, Father!
ad 1: Correct. It is not a fashion show, but it is a character show. Our principles, values and priorities can be revealed by the outward signs we give to convey our reverence for God and consideration towards our neighbor by the way we dress at Mass. Coming to Mass in a way that says to God, “I can do better, but prefer to give you merely this — on my terms alone” gives God the offering of Cain and not the sacrifice of Abel. At the same time, dressing in a manner that is neither distracting nor scandalous, but instead indicates a sense of occasion, is an opportunity for charity and edification on behalf of neighbor, as well as a visible acknowledgment of the presence of the divine.
Obj. 2: What? Are you saying that you want to go back to the bad old days when Sister Mary Exactica stood outside of the church with a ruler, measuring necklines and hemlines?
ad 2: If those times ever existed, I did not live through them; I doubt that anyone younger than me did either. And, if Sister Mary Exactica really did exist, she is almost certainly dead and begot no posterity. In any case, surely there must be some standards that we can all agree upon. How about this? “At the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, it benefits no one to know the color of the gemstone in your navel.” Could we at least agree on that?
Obj 3: You can’t have a rule for everything, Father!
ad 3: No, you can’t have a rule for everything — and I wouldn’t want to. In better times perhaps we could count on the virtue of prudence to guide the members of the congregation. Chesterton said, in effect, “If you don’t have a few big rules, you’re going to need a lot of little ones.” Based on the observations I’ve gathered from priests nationwide, could we at least agree to the following stipulations?
- No adult should come to Mass wearing a SpongeBob SquarePants t-shirt.
- No one at any age should come to Mass wearing a t-shirt celebrating the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, or Black Sabbath.
- No one at any age (but especially an adult) should come to Mass wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with: GIVE ‘EM THE FINGER!
- No one, having attained the age of reason, should come to Mass wearing costume rabbit ears on his head.
- Regarding footwear: If alternatives to flip-flops or shoes common to pole dancers are available, these are to be preferred.
Could we at least agree on these? And if not, why not?
Father notices various patterns of order and posture as families enter the church. Older couples enter at the same time, usually with the man opening the door for his wife. Families with small kids enter in bunches, in a constantly shifting swirl of parental effort to maintain physical and visual contact with each child.
Families with teens are especially interesting. The families with the most reluctant and sullen teens are almost always without a father. Depending on the weather, the teen boy will don gym shorts and flip-flops or faded jeans and bright sneakers. These are most often topped with a Marvel comics or sportsball t-shirt. The posture is always the same—head down, hair uncombed, hands stuffed in pockets.
The teen girl enters the church with a look of smoldering exasperation and resentment. She’ll be wearing faded and shredded jeans or brightly colored yoga pants. Unlike her brother, she will give considerable attention to her hair. The more sophisticated girl will arrange her hair to hide the ear buds she placed in her ears behind her mother’s back just before entering the church. This arrangement blocks out ambient noise so well that she doesn’t hear Father speak about her earbuds during the homily.
Although not as effective as earbuds, our young teen can make use of her hair alone to preserve herself from the intrusion of the Mass, or at least the homily. Father notices that the young teen (whose mother always places her in the third row, in direct line of the pulpit, for some reason) begins examining her hair for split ends just as he begins to preach. So all-consuming does she find this endeavor that she does not hear him speak from the pulpit referring to teen congregants who are more inclined to play with their hair rather than listen to the Word of God. Sometimes, Mom makes the connection and starts elbowing the young lady while pointing towards the pulpit. More often, Mom just sits there, vacant and glassy-eyed, as oblivious to her surroundings as her daughter is. In that case, Father can reliably expect both mother and daughter to extend just one hand to receive Holy Communion. Both are equally impassive and uncomprehending when told, “Use both hands, please.”
Eventually, the bells begin to chime. Mass is about to begin. Cue the music! People with true expertise have already written more and better than I ever could about music at Mass. Here I will restrict myself to a few observations.
Parish Masses seem oriented towards a “customer-satisfaction” model. A few unstated principles seem to be at work, leading to a way of proceeding, which, if it were ever to be articulated, might run like this:
- You can’t please everyone.
- You should try to please as many people as possible, if for no other reason than to avoid complaints—and few goods are of greater value than avoiding customer complaints.
- With liturgical music, the best way to please as many people as possible is to offer “something for everyone.” If the parish has only one Mass, don’t be surprised if the music is played at various times by organ, piano, and guitar, even within the same Mass. If the parish has multiple Masses on a weekend, then various Masses might respectively become known for featuring one instrument to the near-exclusion of all others.
- No Mass should have “too much” music of any one kind—especially if that music tends towards “the traditional,” doubly so if the mode of music is chant or if the lyrics are in Latin. A Mass might have a fine organist and schola. These could begin the Mass with the proper antiphon chanted in Latin. But the Latin and the chant must be “balanced” (that is, “paid for”) by a vernacular penitential rite, Gloria, and Creed. The Sanctus and the Agnus Dei might be chanted in Latin, but these must be paid for by a vernacular rendition of the Lord’s Prayer, followed by an especially gustatory arrangement of “Table of Plenty” as a Communion hymn.
If there are enough Masses at the parish, the “something for everyone” paradigm can take a variety of forms. A guitarist might be confident that the congregation needs to believe in the Real Presence… of his guitar. Consequently, he strums his guitar with an intensity that could merit the admiration of Kirk Lee Hammett (lead guitarist of Metallica).
Tempered by the maxim, “not too much” of any one thing, the guitarist might “accompany” the organist in generating a unique version of the Gloria. The result is a kind of liturgical mash up, mixing elements of “Dueling Banjos” with “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.” There’s less of a clash of wills and skills if the “something for everyone” paradigm takes form at a Mass with both organ and piano. Both are keyboard instruments, so that helps; often the same musician plays both, so we’re less likely to have clashing symbols.
Even so, the “diversity is our strength” axiom can be found in this hybrid form of the “something for everyone” paradigm. The first half of a hybrid Mass may have organ music that is dignified—religious even, if not quite sacred. The second half of the Mass is given over to piano music, all seemingly drawn from the same source: “Mass—the Effeminate High School Musical.” The songs (not hymns) are of the “Jesus-Is-My-Girlfriend” variety, with lyrics not unlike these:
Oh, oh, Jesus!
OOH, OOH, OOH!
What would I do
Throughout, Father notices little congregational singing, and, in his weaker moments, wonders whether there is any congregational praying either. Regardless of the style, paradigm, quality of music or abilities of musicians/singers at any given Mass, Father knows that all parish Masses have one thing in common. The congregation takes the recessional hymn as the musical cue that, “This thing is over with—let’s get outta here!” A non-trivial percentage of the congregation stampedes the exits at the first notes of the final hymn. They move with a sense of purpose and urgency that they did not evidence when they entered the church.
Father wonders, “Where are they going in such a hurry? How much time are they saving by not waiting out the hymn? Why do they continue to leave early even when I’ve repeatedly implored them from the pulpit not to? Maybe they’re all late for kidney dialysis? Unlikely. Are they all surgeons rushing off to save lives? Also unlikely. Are they all undercover law enforcement summoned to an emergent life-and-death situation? Doubtful, and surely not every week. Maybe I should ask them next time to take a moment to let me know where they are going and why? If they are facing regularly-scheduled crises, wouldn’t they want me to know so that I could pray for them?”
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s focus first on two elements of the typical parish weekend Masses. One I will treat briefly. The other I will treat in more detail because it is a great source of heartache for priests.
A significant problem area for typical parish Masses is silence. Most if not all congregations using the Novus Ordo rites have no idea that silence is called for in the authorized liturgical texts. (A search for the word “silence” in the latest edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal yields 22 instances—but to no avail.) In contrast, the rites of the Usus Antiquior seamlessly integrate silence, rather than treating it as an awkward disruption or a gratuitous and quite-dispensable option, but that is another story for another time.
Many great scholars have written about the vital role of silence in Catholic worship. I need not recapitulate their good work here. Rather I will summarize here the enforced absence of silence, or, perhaps better said, the program of non-silence typical of parish settings. Likewise, I will note the confused panic that ensues when silence is somehow wedged into the proceedings.
I’ve worked in radio for years and know that for broadcasters the unforgivable sin is silence, also known as “dead air.” Many priests tell me that their experience of parish Masses, in terms of silence, is like broadcast radio. There must be either talking or music at all times, and there must not be silence. Even silence that is obviously fitting and explicitly called for in the rites receives an anxious and spasmodic response, as if someone in the junior high drama club missed his cue and failed to speak his line onstage.
Father says, “Brethren, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us first call to mind our sins.” Now, get this—the priest then actually puts his head down and closes his eyes, and intends to call to mind his sins, just as he asked everyone else to do. Can you believe it? The deacon at Father’s right surely can’t believe it, for as soon as the priest falls silent, the deacon blurts: “YOU WERE SENT TO HEAL THE CONTRITE—LORD HAVE MERCY!”
After Mass, when Father explains to the deacon that he actually wants time (and silence) to do what the rite calls him and everyone else to do, something that just a moment before he’d asked everyone to join him in doing—the deacon seems mystified. He’s never heard of such a thing; he didn’t know that such a thing was possible. And he struggles to articulate his concern that taking time in silence might detract from the momentum of keeping things moving.
Other enforcers of the anti-silence come from two different sources, with two very different modes of operation, but contributing to the same net effect, namely, that at Mass one must expect and accept constant sound and one must not ever expect or desire silence. The greatest enforcer of the anti-silence is the parish Masses’ Army of Occupation, namely, the musicians. At most parish Masses, you can be sure that if no one is speaking, then a musician is thrumming an instrument, or a cantor is working the microphone.
Whereas a deacon responds to silence with an involuntary reflex to insert words immediately, priests nationwide tell me that parish musicians reject and resist silence as a matter of principle. Apparently, they see it as both a spiritual and a corporal work of mercy to “protect” congregations from any experience of silence.
The third force against silence are the parishioners’ cell phones. Whereas the musicians are the Army of Occupation against silence, cell phones are the irregular militia, the guerrilla snipers enforcing the anti-silence. Unpredictable, erratic, yet capable of destruction out of all proportion to their numbers, cell phones are the great morale-crushers of those priests who wish for a decorous silence at Mass. And like guerrilla warriors in armed conflict, the cell phone partisans are nearly impossible to eliminate.
Warning signs at each entry to the parish church, impassioned entreaties before Mass, homiletic exhortations, weekly reminders in the parish bulletin — all these are for naught. Even the brief silence of a pregnant pause during a homily is not safe from the anti-silence guerrilla warfare of the cell phones.
Consider this: the deacon reflexively rather than deliberately steps on (and over) Father’s call for silence, but he does so with a sense of necessity and inevitability. The musicians take a principled (albeit erroneous) stand against silence. And the cell phone guerrillas? Do they not care that an entire homily can be derailed by the jaunty little tune chirping from a phone? Are they unmoved when they see that Father has been interrupted so many times in so brief a span that he loses his place in the Eucharistic prayer and has to start over? I won’t say that they don’t care because I don’t know that. Experience shows that Father may and should reasonably infer that the cell phone guerrillas do not think—which is indicative of a larger problem.
What if people did think beforehand about what is done at Mass and why it is done? What if people prepared for each Mass with prayer and study? What if they arranged their lives so that they could arrive at Mass early and stay late? Isn’t it more likely that such people would silence their phones before entering church? Isn’t it more likely that thoughtful people rather than thoughtless ones actually have the Faith and will therefore act accordingly?
Now let’s turn to the element of Mass that causes the greatest heartache for so many priests each weekend, namely, the way that people receive Holy Communion. Again, the literature on this topic is quite extensive. Even a cursory survey would be impossible. Instead, I will ask you to put yourself in Father’s place. Imagine that it’s Friday. The weekend is finally here! Time to celebrate! But not so for Father. Friday means that he must ready himself for another round of weekend Masses at Saint Typical’s. As he steels himself for the weekend, he recalls what he saw last week:
- The young man who put out just one hand to receive Holy Communion—because he held a 7-11 Big Gulp in the other.
- The gentleman who dropped a Host on the floor and, without missing a beat, said, “Oops! Can I get another one?”
- The smiling woman Father had never met before, who sticks out one hand to receive Holy Communion, while with the other hand she thrusts a pyx under his nose, saying, “I’ll take four please—it’s for my ministry!”
- And Father knows that after every Mass, he will have to get down on his hands and knees to look for consecrated Hosts under the pews and stuck between the pages of hymnals.
Despite every effort he has made, congregants give Father no reason to believe that this week will be better than last week.
Tying together the strands I’ve laid out here, I see that what many priests no longer believe is that most of their congregations have the Faith. Of the minor and diminishing percentage of the baptized who still come to Mass regularly, only the smallest sliver come to confession even once a year. Fewer still avail themselves of frequent confessions. How can the Faith grow in such soil?
Arriving late, leaving early, eschewing silence, indifferent or resistant to the Church’s musical treasures, dressed for the beach or the gym, thoughtless about silencing phones, receiving Holy Communion with the most casual indifference—this is how my brother priests describe the great majority of their congregants. Yes, these people do show up. Yes, they do drop an envelope in the basket. And there is surely a drive to get one’s Liturgical Participation Trophy before racing toward the exit. But this is not the Faith prayed, believed, and lived. What priests see instead is a lifeless routine unworthy of God and man, seemingly impervious to correction. Demographically and financially, this simulacrum of Catholic worship cannot be sustained. It has no future because it does not hand on the Faith, and therefore it deserves to have no future. We will make no progress unless we admit these painful truths.
Mark Twain once said, “Everyone complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Rather than just complaining at the Masses at Saint Typical’s, can I offer any hopeful and helpful alternatives? Yes.
Let’s start with an awkward admission: The Masses at Saint Typical’s have been on autopilot for a very long time. No one is really in charge; no one thinks about what’s done there or why. Things just happen, and as long as the collection is taken up, Holy Communion is distributed, and it doesn’t take too long, no one really thinks about how Mass is conducted and how it ought to be conducted.
A few illustrations:
- The lector removes the Lectionary from the stand so that the deacon can place the Book of the Gospels there—even when there is no Book of the Gospels and no deacon.
- During Covid restrictions, when congregations in some states couldn’t exceed 40 persons, even though a priest and deacon were present, the parish secretary scheduled two Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. In effect, 10 percent of the people present would be distributing Holy Communion.
- After encountering hostility to silence, Father downloads the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, and does a search for the word “silence.” He gets 22 hits. Showing the text to his staff they say, “But if we do it that way, we’d have to change everything!”
None of the horrors I described in this essay are actually called for by the GIRM. In each case, thoughtless practices crept in and sank roots. They persist because just about everyone at Saint Typical’s has allowed the Mass to be reduced to a thoughtless routine. When no one teaches the truth, no one learns the truth; when no one teaches right action, no one acts rightly.
At the outset, I spoke of Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. The only way forward that I can see is to restore the lex to the orandi. While it’s laudable that some stalwarts still come to Mass, letting them sleepwalk through the “Autopilot Ordo” I’ve described above doesn’t serve them well. Pastors can start with a close reading of the GIRM, followed by a profound examination of conscience. Then they need to walk their staff through the What, the How, and above all, the Why of the Mass. Faithful liturgy can’t be seen as one of Father’s “quirks.” Obedience to liturgical norms is not simply an “option.” Pastors will have to undergo conversion in order to lead others to conversion. Congregations need to be reformed, informed, and formed. This is going to take time, and lots of repetition. Souls are at stake, and the honor of God demands that we do this.
Meanwhile, please pray for these good priests I know, and others like them. They love Christ and have a zeal for souls. Sometimes their grief and discouragement threaten to drown them. Please pray too that they may find a faithful remnant who hunger to know, love and serve Christ, Who gives Himself in the Gospel and the sacraments.
Author: Fr. Robert McTeigue, S.J., formerly a professor of philosophy and theology, is a broadcaster and author. He is host & producer of “The Catholic Current” via The Station of the Cross Media Network. His most recent book, Christendom Lost and Found: Meditations for a Post-Post Christian Era, is from Ignatius Press. His broadcast and written work can be found at heraldofthegospel.org.