In the thread about irreverent worship about two weeks ago, Rita Ferrone said:

I found it difficult. I am an extrovert. Yet I do need and want a few minutes of quiet before Mass in order to settle down and become centered after the hectic drive there. Some quiet helps me to prepare to celebrate, and to let go of distractions I may have come in carrying with me. It’s a precious luxury to have a few moments of un-programmed quiet in a beautiful, sacred space, to become present to my own thoughts, and present to what the Spirit may be leading me to hear inwardly at this time. I love to listen to the prelude too — forget that when everybody is talking. It’s like a theater before the curtain.

It was suggested to me that I ought to elaborate my response to her into a separate thread. Here it is.

I said that I’d like to explore what lies behind what Rita says, as well as tackling the comments of others, and went on to say that surely it ought to be the function of the introductory rites to achieve the quietening down and focusing that Rita is looking for, rather than a private period of silence “before we all start”. It seems to me that the transition from the personal to the communal is something that needs to take place within the rite, not outside it.

This is the crux of the matter. The dichotomy we are faced with is this: a need to “gear ourselves up” to celebrate (truly celebrate) together v. a need to recollect ourselves so that we may focus on the word that will be proclaimed and truly receive it; and so questions we need to ask include “How can we achieve both of those?”, “Do they both need to achieved on the same occasion?”, “Can they be sequential, and if so in which order?”, and “Are there other ways of getting into the celebration, apart from these two?”.

Further questions include these: “Do we actually realize that the rite is a communal act, something that we do together and experience together?” “Can quiet, private recollection beforehand be in a sense a denial of that?” “Could it be better if we all recollected and focused ourselves together as part of the introductory rites?”

I find in fact that the “healthiest” (in the sense of “balanced”) parishes I come across are those where there is a variety of things that happen “before the bell”. Here are a few examples:

1) Silence in the church. Nothing is happening. No one is moving. Many people are kneeling. Anyone talking to anyone else is likely to be be told “Please be quiet. You’re interrupting my [sic] prayer.” This is the classic case of a number of individuals who are “doing their own thing” simultaneously. They all happen to be in the building together, and they all have the rite in view; but they have not all realized that the rite has already begun and the assembly has already been gathering for quite some time. For me, the challenge is to provide such a time of recollection, but perhaps at a different point in the rite, rather than “before” it starts.

I can feel introverts squirming as they read this. My father would have been one of them. He used to talk about “my” Mass, and the grace that “I” get out of it. I never discussed this with him, but if I had, I would have asked him to think instead about “our” Mass, and to contemplate what might be good ways of ensuring that everyone else got grace from the Mass, even if he didn’t himself.

2) Three minutes before the starting time, the cantor does a brief (one-minute) warm-up, preparing the assembly to celebrate, followed by silence for reflection. This practice annoys some people beyond belief ― yes, the introverts, but particularly those who don’t like music and singing in the liturgy. And yet it is an act of courtesy to the assembly. 99% of the time we fail to prepare the assembly to celebrate. This means we are treating them as passive spectators instead of active participants. To participate actively, you need to know what is going on. The brief “warm-up” (a better expression than “rehearsal”, which can imply an overemphasis on performance or a “teaching” environment”) tries to give people a simple way-in to the celebration by running through one or more of the items that will be sung during the liturgy, ensuring that there will be some familiarity when they actually encounter that singing later on.

There are two principal ways of ending the warm-up: either (a) inviting the people into a minute or two of silent recollection before the entrance procession, or (b) timing the warm-up so that the last thing to be run through is in fact the new entrance chant/song/refrain/hymn/etc that is going to be started immediately while it is fresh in people’s minds.

3) The presiding priest or pastor is out in the nave greeting people and catching up with them. He is finding out “where they are”, what their concerns are, what they have brought with them. This will assist him in pitching his presiding style at the right level, and will affect the kind of homily he will preach. Two or three minutes before starting-time, he disappears into the sacristy to vest. In some churches, this is the point at which the cantor will then do the warm-up.

4) The choir is quietly singing a Taizé or similar gathering chant. People coming into the chant are drawn into it, singing or humming along with it, or sit/kneel quietly “in the midst” of it. This is frequently met with in a true gathering rite, where not only does the music begin five or even ten minutes before the “starting time” and create an atmosphere of prayer, but there is no entrance procession as such. Anyone who needs to get to their place goes there quietly and unobtrusively when they are ready/when they are vested. Frequently in this scenario, the priest is already sitting, vested, in his chair, visible leading the people into prayer as the community gathers. He does not disappear into the sacristy only to process out again, but simply stands up when the next phase of the celebration is to begin.

5) Several minutes before Mass, the schola is singing a Gregorian introit or the choir is singing a polyphonic introit. When the bell goes, an entrance processional hymn begins.

6) The reverse sequence: a processional hymn, which may begin before the procession emerges, followed by a Gregorian or polyphonic introit, the latter being sung while the altar is being incensed.

7) In many churches, you can find the choir/schola/ensemble rehearsing, much too late, what they are going to be singing during Mass ― much too late because the time before the service is a time of preparation to celebrate, not one of learning/ironing out mistakes. Sometimes, it’s not the singers who are rehearsing but the organist, or the organist and cantor. If rehearsal in the church is a necessity, it should end a good twenty minutes to half an hour before the advertised starting time. Otherwise it’s a little bit like getting dressed in public. All the underpinning and adjusting should take place out of sight, not in public when people are already present.

8) An instrumental prelude. This can fulfil the same sort of function as the gathering chant: slowing/quietening people down, creating an atmosphere of prayer, perhaps familiarising people with something they will sing later on (some organists are able to improvise successfully on the psalm response or some other assembly music).

9) Perhaps a combination of more than one of the above. For example, a considerable number of parishes now have a gathering chant during the few minutes before the bell, and then move to an entrance hymn when the procession begins. Or the cantor’s warm-up may take place five or even ten minutes before the service “begins”, followed by a minute’s silence and then the gathering chant. Or many other possibilities.

The thing about nearly all of them, and many others too, is that they are equally valid ways of moving into the celebration, with the possible exception of (7) unless that has been deliberately designed as a familiarization process for the assembly. There is no “right or wrong”, or “only this is correct”. GIRM is only concerned with what happens after the bell. It does not give any clues as to how the assembly gathers and prepares itself to worship, primarily because those drafting it could not, and cannot, imagine anything other than scenario (1) above.

I do accept that some people are extrovert and some introvert, but the point is that liturgy is a communal activity, not a simultaneous occurrence of individual activities; and so even those who are more introverted need to let go of their personal needs and enter into the rite. That does not mean that those who are more extroverted can ignore the needs of those who are not. The answer lies in a realization that a diverse community is assembling to celebrate, and that we need to think carefully about what is the best way of enabling that to happen, the best way of drawing everyone in. If we get it wrong, the entire celebration is off to a bad start, sometimes such a bad start that things never recover. I firmly believe that what happens in those opening minutes is “make or break”, and that a decline in attendance may be largely attributable to getting it wrong at this early point in the rite. People easily switch off if they are not quickly engaged in what is happening.

If we can tune in to our assemblies, and use our imagination, we will realize that the process of gathering together to celebrate can be infinitely variable and yet infinitely sanctifying.

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