As a deacon, I do not normally preside at liturgies. My work is more along the lines of stage manager or lackey. But this past weekend I had occasion to preside at a baptism and a wedding on the same day, which prompted me to think a bit about the demands that the reformed liturgical rites place on those who preside at them.

I am among those who criticize celebrants who feel compelled to adopt a folksy/chatty demeanor, complete with jokes and instructional monologues that offer penetrating glances into the blindingly obvious. But this weekend, particularly as I sought to guide the assembly through the rich and rather complex symbolic vocabulary of the rite of baptism, I found myself tempted to blather on at length so that they would have some idea of why we began at the church door, moved to the nave for the liturgy of the word, then to the font, and finally to the altar; or why we use two sorts of oil, what the role of godparents is, and how water symbolizes both purification and dying and rising with Christ. I grouped a lot of this commentary into the homily, but some of it did bleed into other parts of the liturgy, since I didn’t want to over-burden the homily.

I might have been able to presume that the parents had been previously instructed in all this, but clearly this was not the case with everyone present, so it seemed incumbent upon me to offer some commentary if they were to be a worshiping assembly and not simply baffled spectators. And, at least as I read the documents of Vatican II, one of the goals of the reform was precisely to effect that shift from spectators to assembly (which is simply the English translation of ekklesia).

The wedding was a bit easier, in part because the rite of marriage is very simple (even if weddings are not). But even here I felt a temptation to deviate from the authorized text when addressing the couple, since they were former students whom I knew fairly well and it seemed strange to read a script to them rather than speak to them as I normally would. For the most part I resisted this — keeping my more personal remarks for the homily — but I felt the temptation. Should I adopt a tone of voice that was “natural” or one that conveys the supernatural significance of the occasion? There is a lot of spontaneous natural joy at a wedding. How can I best channel this into the supernatural joy that should also accompany the sacrament?

Sometimes I hear the liturgical reforms described as “simplifying” our rites. In a sense, of course, this is true. In addition to the simplification of the rites themselves, it will always be easier to pray in one’s native tongue. But in another sense the reforms have made the role of presiders more complicated, more demanding. The very fact of the use of the vernacular seems to presume that those who preside at liturgies will engage the congregation in a way that one could not be expected to do in Latin. Indeed, the simplification of the rites implies that the various ritual elements should stand out with a certain clarity and not simply appear as an undifferentiated mass of “sacrality.” They seem to be there in order to signify clearly. But in a culture that has grown symbolically tone deaf, particularly to Christian symbols, how much help do we need to give them?

The difficult challenge is to pursue this engagement and to make the rite comprehensible without losing a sense of transcendence and mystery. It struck me this weekend that this is a lot to ask. So it is not surprising that some chose either the path of complete disengagement — celebrating the rites as if they had never been reformed — or the path of an über-folksy style that engages people, but at the cost of turning the liturgy into (to quote Aidan Kavanagh) a Kiwanas Club meeting with hymns.

So while I am not ready to concede that Father Talk-Show-Host has the right solution, I will say that he has the right problem. That is, given the nature of the liturgical reforms, we are called to do justice to both the natural and the supernatural, nature and grace, the ordinary and the extraordinary.The task then is to meet people on the level of the natural and draw them into the mystery of God’s grace. This is a lot to ask, and it is inevitable that we will all fail to some degree. At that point I take comfort in knowing that I am merely an instrumental cause of grace, firmly grasped in the steady hand of God.

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