In Defense of Fr. Talk-Show-Host (sort of)

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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26 comments

  1. Many thanks, Fritz, for this piece.

    It reminds me of the fact that we have moved away from an ex opere operato model to one where we realize that celebrating in our own tongue requires much more effort to make it work than the previous Tridentine Rite did.

    Father Talk-Show-Host has realized the problem, as you say. Where he has erred is in going over the top in his solution to it. We need balance. And we certainly need the human touch which you referred to.

    I don’t believe Father Talk-Show-Host thinks it’s all about him, except in rare instances. I do believe he thinks it’s all about them. His problem is that he somehow feels that the way of dealing with this issue is to be larger than life. If only he had studied some basic liturgical semiotics, he would realize that the science of perceptions, as applied to the liturgy, can help him enormously in his task of helping the liturgy to come alive for the people he is leading into celebration. He would realize that he alone does not have to make all the running, that there are other people and other symbols which will aid him in this task.

    And the task is to create a prayerful people. Not an all-singing, all-dancing people. Those who, whether through fear or incompetence or a simple lack of awareness, fight shy of this and prefer to cruise along on an anodyne autpilot are avoiding the issue. We need to find the balance which will make us truly human in celebration (one of my workshop topics) but also truly liturgical, respecting the form and tenor of the rite.

    Once again, thank you so much for raising this question.

  2. Totally agree with Paul. But, allow me to insert a real situation that may make this thread even more difficult.

    Deacon – try doing two weddings (english/spanish); three baptisms during the 12:30 PM Sunday spanish mass; plus two other english masses – preaching at each – english/spanish.

    Put on top of that all of the ordinary, usual demands of a week-end in a large parish (a couple of fundraisers; special recognition of a parish initiative); covering the local county hospital ER on Friday/Saturday nites.

    Put that all together and see if you can make clear sense at each liturgy, personalize it, capture the simplified liturgy incorporating scriptural images, etc. And you may have to do this while missing two hours of sleep Saturday nite because you had to do an anointing at the ER.

      1. Fritz

        The issue was probably more acute for the ritual context than it would be in the Sunday Mass context.

        PS: And now Jack has set forth the context for my comment above!

      2. In general we tend to approach problems from a psychological viewpoint attributing the problems to people and seeking psychological solutions, e.g. educating people, changing their beliefs, attitudes, behavior and even personalities.

        However the behavior of people is far more often determined by the social situation, i.e. similar people in the same situation will do the same thing. Therefore changing small aspects of the social situation can often promote great changes, not only in one person’s behavior but in many others.

        While changing the social situation often requires the cooperation of many and/or important people, that is often accomplished more easily than one thinks. People who would never change their minds, their attitudes, their behavior, and certainly not their personalities often easily change in response to a new situation. Often they will even agree to a new definition of the situation with little thought about its ultimate implications for their attitudes and behavior.

      3. Or it raises significant other questions – I happen to agree with the conciliar reforms. And if done right, can ask too much given some current pastoral situations, lack of trained personnel, etc.

  3. When baptism, weddings and funerals are integrated into the life of the parish, i.e. when parish members by virtue of their membership in the parish are encouraged to participate without an invitation from the family, then less explanation is necessary and over personalization of the liturgy can be diminished.

    In some local parishes baptisms within the context of the Lord’s Day Liturgy are encouraged. So everyone gets a general idea of what the baptismal rite is about, there is less a need to explain it, and less a need to personalize it.

    Weddings often take place on Saturdays, and many people who attend them likely decide the Wedding fulfills their “weekend” obligation. We ought to make it legal and encourage people of the parish to show up at weddings and make weddings as much a parish affair as a family affair. When people of the parish see fine models of liturgical weddings, they are more likely to choose those models for their own weddings rather than create “something” on their own

    The same applies to funerals. If people of the parish are encouraged to attend funerals, and if pastoral ministers encourage fine liturgical models there, then people are going to choose those models for their family funerals from the parish repertory.

    Baptism, weddings, and funerals are both family and parish celebrations. If we have strong parish models and strong parish participation, the tailoring to the needs of families will not dominate the liturgy. If parish ministers are only ministering to the family, they can be easily replaced by a lot of competing businesses in our society (as we are already seeing in the case of marriages).

    1. Jack and Fritz – my example was to indicate that, even in a very organized and well planned liturgical/sacramental parish, you can be confronted on any given week-end with the “other” parish – folks/families that demand or require sacraments outside of the normal parish liturgies; or sacrament numbers that can not be fitted into a parish week-end liturgy or weddings/funerals in which the presider knows that most of the participants are non catholic or non practicing catholics requiring a different approach. Unfortunately, the 1998 revision would have been of great assistance in many of these circumstances – not EF vs. OF; not putting latin as the “literal” guide; but instead putting pastoral liturgy in all of its manifestations into a good liturgy book.

  4. One way to avoid the confusion between two different oils is to employ the permission granted to omit the anointing with the oil of catechumens and to use the alternative prayer with the laying on of hands. Since infants are not catechumens by any stretch of the imagination it is apparent that this anointing is a holdover from the time in which there was only a one size fits all rite of baptism.

    Didn’t the baptism follow immediately after Mass to make clearer the connection between baptism and Eucharist? Oh, I forgot for a moment that there are still places in the US where baptisms are celebrated on a Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon. Is it any wonder that many families still do not grasp baptism as a rite of initiation connected to confirmation and eucharist, but still think of it as more like a get of limbo free card.

    1. Some of our baptisms are at Mass, some are after Mass on Sundays, some are on Saturday, depending on the needs of the families. I tend to not do the baptisms after Mass on Sundays because that is a time for me to spend with my own family. I see no need to be dogmatic about when the baptisms occur.

  5. The role of commentator is sometimes used, but it isn’t the priest or deacon doing it. At the Easter Vigil at St. Peter’s in Rome, a commentator explains certain things during the liturgy in various languages. I don’t particularly care for that, but it is an option. But with that said, at baptisms in particular I will comment about the use of the oils and the lighting of the candle, but only very briefly (and in the south with our mixed marriages, etc the majority of visitors for baptisms and weddings, not to mention funerals are not Catholic and thus I feel compelled to be more descriptive).
    But you are right, when celebrating the EF forms of these, I have no compulsion to explain things hoping the booklets provided will be sufficient for those participating.
    With the Sacred Chrism, I briefly indicate its connection to Confirmation later and if a boy is being baptized, I say God willing, it will be used to anoint his hands when he his ordained a priest.

  6. One remarkable thing in this thread is the view of the priest acting and deciding on his own.

    Real actors and talk show hosts benefit from all sorts of performance education, from rehearsal with directors, from a variety of coaches, and from the responses of critics, reviewers, and even fans.

    Our priests are under trained for their jobs and they do not have much available in the way of competent feedback. Worse, they seem to think that they can get away with whatever they want and refuse to heed criticism.

    Why do priests put so little effort into rehearsal or detailed planning, even for Triduum? Why is there no felt need among RC priests of liturgy coaches and presiding workshops? Is it just ego? Is it a lingering sense of ex opere operato? Is it a lack of self-awareness or self-criticism? Is it apathy?

    The Mass is at least as complicated as Macbeth in performance and has a text which is multi-layered. Professional actors returning to the Scottish Play, still spend two weeks of full days in rehearsal, is not the liturgy worthy of similar effort?

    How many run-throughs do seminarians each do in their how to say Mass classes? As many as four?

    How many priests do you know of who have taken any sort of professional critique or training of their liturgical performance skills?

    So much of the problem with liturgy in US RC parishes can be traced back to a priestly and liturgical minister attitude that seems to assume that familiarity breeds expertise. It is not so, and that would be obvious if each priest had to watch parallel videos of himself presiding and of the congregation at the same time. Just about any discussion of such a video with repeated questioning of why do you do it that way and can you think of a more effective approach could lead to great improvement.

  7. Teachers and parents are always tempted to explain, but there are times when we should let a symbol speak for itself. For example, does anyone stop all proceedings to explain why we fire three volleys and play taps at a military funeral?

    1. Excellent point, Brigid. And there is certainly the opportunity to learn such things on your own, such as Dr. Edward Sri’s current book and catechetical program on the Biblical Walk Through the Mass. Of course, that doesn’t help those who find themselves in a Catholic church on a rare occasion as cited by Fritz, above. But then again, when I attended a Jewish wedding I neither expected, nor received, a running commentary.

    2. I am reminded of a time years ago when my mother attended the Easter Vigil at a parish where I was associate and experienced baptism by immersion for the first time. After seeing the elect helped into the font by godparents who held tight to hands and arms to keep them from slipping, and then helping them out with huge dry towels, the first thing she said to me at the reception was, “All my life I’ve been a Catholic, and I finally understand what it means to be a godparent.” I think we have trouble trusting that the Rites speak in ways much deeper than words we might say.

      1. Fr. Lou, that is powerful imagery and I hadn’t thought of it that way before. The catechesis though comes after the experience which is normally called “mystygogia.” The only problem with that apart from neophytes who do return later to discuss their experience of the Easter Vigil, is that most don’t have any opportunity for reflection on what the rites are meant to signify because they may not even come back to Mass for some time, let alone a mystygogic experience.
        Just as an aside, in terms of slipping, I’m very concerned about that, not just for those being baptized, or godparents assisting in a dangerous zone, but also for myself as I approach 58 years old and bones that are more brittle. I’m also concerned about lawsuits in our litigious society in the USA when the Church allows for something that can be dangerous to the safe environment of members. Let’s face it, godparents assisting a person to be baptized even if it is pouring a small amount of water over the head of the person at the traditional smaller baptismal font has the same symbolism albeit not at exaggerated. But with that said, I’m not opposed to immersion as long as I have a choice not to do it.

      2. When making liturgical decisions, it is liturgical principles which need to govern, not related but non-focal considerations. These other considerations need to be subordinated to finding the best ways to serve the community through the liturgy.

        AJM here seems not to be as much interested in rich and effective liturgy as in the administrative worries for an institution.

        He has reasonable concerns from that point of view, but keeping the focus in the right place means living with small possibilities of accidents and the even smaller possibilities of legal action if all involved are really members of a faith community. The administrator might be involved in selecting surfaces before construction which are more stable than slippery for walking, but should not dominate the decision about the liturgical space and furnishings.

        As for those who will not be back to hear the mystagogia, that is their loss, not some omission of the presider which has to be provided where it is inappropriate to the liturgy. The entire Easter Season is the time for mystagogia for the regular members of the community, not just the neophytes. It is an entirely appropriate seasonal homiletic theme every four years or so.

  8. “Our priests are under trained for their jobs and they do not have much available in the way of competent feedback.”

    Probably more to the point is that many clergy will not accept competent input from lay people. Their brother priests are already engaged by their own weekend sacraments–and when was the last time you saw a priest in the assembly? The guy who was my pastor in grad school decided to sit in the assembly a number of times when the resident priest was presiding to get the “view from the pew” and to assess how he could improve his skills as a preacher and presider. And to just worship, I guess.

    As for the specific example of “welcoming” baptism families at the door of the church, well … If you receive families in the body of the church and get them settled in, you’ve already accomplished what the rite expects. My parish is fortunate to have a lounge plus a sizable narthex. For RCIA these get used. For infant baptisms outside of Mass, hardly ever. It makes little sense to go through the motions of the rite when the “welcome” has already taken place.

    Agreement with Jack’s suggestion not to anoint with oil of catechumens. It confused one pastor of twenty years I knew. He insisted I was wrong for handing him the chrism for the post-baptismal anointing. “Not until confirmation,” I was cautioned.

    1. I’ve sat in the congregation while on vacation in many places and have found myself so critical of what’s happening to the point of distraction. I think this is the inherent flaw of our time in terms of trying to look for the perfect liturgy and when it is not discovered one can’t pray as one ought. I’m all in favor of Liturgies that are beautiful and done by the book. There’s little room for critique when that occurs and one can then just complain about the looks of the priests and the content of his homily not to mention the sound of his voice and the tenor of his singing.

    2. I think the ritualized welcoming at the door of the church serves the purpose, well, ritualizing the welcome. I see no reason to omit or underplay it just because the people have been welcomed in a non-ritual way. If one asks where it makes the most sense to conduct a ritual of welcoming someone into the Church, the door of the church building seems an obvious answer. I also think it helps people stay engaged with the ritual to keep them moving around. Of course, if inform people are present for whom this movement would be a hardship, I’ll do this welcoming with the people already situated in the pews.

      On the anointing with the oil of catechumens, it seems to me that these anointings have quite different meanings which can be pretty easily explained to the assembly — though of course this gets us back to the problem of having to explain things.

      1. I think what I’d suggest as an improvement is to welcome families in the parish center or rectory, then move to the church. My objection isn’t to movement–as a liturgist I embrace the notion. We don’t utilize it often enough.

        My intent wasn’t clear: the ritual should be meaningful and sensible for the people involved. Otherwise, the presider is relying on magicalism to a degree: mindlessly saying the black and doing the red with no connection to the ordinary situation.

        I don’t think there’s anything wrong with amending long-standing parish customs for the cause of better liturgy.

        As for the oil of catechumens, there might be something laudable for the priest or deacon to visit the home of a newborn infant and anoint at that time. It establishes a pastoral and ritual connection beyond the perception of the cleric as a dispenser of the sacrament. The prayer given is a petition for strength, and would seem to speak for itself without explanation.

  9. The oil is intended for those who have been received into the order of catechumens. How does an infant or anyone not yet possessing the age of reason enter this order? Rituals should not only make good sense, but should clearly communicate what they are signifying.
    We all should know that Post-baptismal anointing with Sacred Chrism would have been perceived as what we now call confirmation until, in the West, the latter began to be thought of as a distinct sacrament reserved to the bishop. We all should know the theological havoc that ensued from that.

    1. A couple of (potentially pedantic) points:

      1) Historically speaking, at least, the prebaptismal anointing was not associated with membership in an order of catechumens but had a variety of meanings. In Syria it was sometimes associated with the gift of the Holy Spirit, healing and identification with the Messiah Jesus (see The Acts of Thomas, chs. 27, 121, 132). In the Apostolic Tradition and in the Mystagogical Catecheses of Cyril of Jerusalem it seems to have had an exorcistic purpose, as it does in the current rite of infant baptism.

      2) Any anomalies with the idea of “infant catechumens” would also seem to be present in the practice of infant baptism.

      3) In Rome at least there were two anointings after baptism, only the second of which seems to have been associated with he bishop. Lots of ink has been spilled over why there were two and how they were understood, without as far as I know any consensus emerging. Oddly, in the case of those baptized as infants we have retained the dual post-baptismal anointings, but not in the case of those baptized as adults.

  10. An excellent post. In relation to the extra demands made by celebrating in the vernacular, I presume I’m not the first to wonder if some of the more problematic issues in the new translation – e.g. “dewfall” – arise precisely because every Latin word is being translated. When the authors of the Vatican II missal added the dewfall image to EP II from an old Gallic missal, they “got away with it” precisely because the text was in Latin, a language no longer spoken. It wouldn’t jar on the ears of those who don’t use Latin as a natural language; it might even sound good in the Latin! But once the text is translated into a living language, the awkwardness is immediately apparent.
    Another good reason for the most crucial issue now being the revision of Liturgicam Authenticam.

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