A Homely Reminder of How Rote Ritual Is

Even as Lawrence Hoffman’s Beyond the Text more than twenty-five years ago prodded liturgical historians and theologians to abandon a naïve approach to the “meaning” and “impact” of liturgy simply (plainly?) residing in the words of the ritual books, a monthly pastoral commitment of mine yesterday occasioned my marveling anew (and confirming for me, again) how much of what people do in liturgy is rote repetition, that is, activity that they cannot even recall or reproduce if asked to do so out of the context of their usual practice. Ugh! I’ll stop trying to theorize on the front end and just give you my vignette from my regular volunteer-chaplain service in an area prison:

This fall I responded to a new request to celebrate Mass monthly in one of the prison’s highly restricted units, whose few Roman Catholic inmates benefit from the generous weekly Communion Service provided by two (permanent) deacons. Each of the three times we’ve celebrated thus far together, both the “insiders” and deacons have utilized a laminated card containing the revised/current English translation of the people’s “parts” (responses, Gloria, Creed, Holy, etc.). But the company that produced that worship aid, it turns out, failed to include the “Lamb of God.” Last month, as we (totaling six, around a table) reached the Fraction Rite I asked the deacon to go ahead and lead all in reciting the Lamb of God. For my part, I wanted to say inaudibly the priest’s prayers for dropping the fragment of the host in the chalice and then my “private prayer” in preparation for communion. The deacon, a man of at least my fifty-something years, stared at me, bewildered. So I said, “Please, go ahead and say the Lamb of God, while I do my stuff for the Fraction Rite.” Neither he nor the other deacon nor the three other men opened their mouths. So, I started, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world….“ Nobody joined in. I was dumbfounded. “Okay, well let’s find it on that card there,” I said. That’s when I discovered the publisher failed to include it. So, I said, “Well, you know, the Lamb of God, right? Just go ahead and say it with me.” … Deer-in-the-headlights.

Now, I readily acknowledge that my approach to presiding is to keep all stage directions minimal, especially when people have the directions and content available in print for them. But what bemused me a month ago was how neither deacon could simply chime in with one of the most basic of the assembly’s prayers at that point in the Communion Rite (and one, I might add, that had not undergone one word of alteration, that I can recall, in the new translation). But the story goes on …

Yesterday, we assembled again for the December occasion of our Mass in that unit together. Things went along nicely, with the men proclaiming the readings by passing around a copy of Give Us This Day (nod and wink to Liturgical Press’s successful missive). When we reached the Preparation of the Table, I proceeded with the prayers inaudibly (the first option in the Missal), at which the deacon began reciting, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins …” A bit amazed, I turned to him—who must have been anxious about his role in leading that prayer and, clearly uncertain as to what point in the Liturgy of the Eucharist it functions—and asked that we save it for a bit later. He seemed more lost than ever. When we got to the Fraction Rite, I said, “Okay, let’s say the Lamb of God.” Silence on the part of all (I sympathetically imagine the deacons and other three men felt insecure, due to my stage directing); so I picked up one of the other deacon’s laminated cards (he being to the right of right-handed me), at which point he reminded me that the prayer wasn’t on it. I replied, “Oh yeah, right, but please go ahead and lead it, while I do my silent prayers.” He just stared at me.

I readily admit I’m a twenty-plus-years veteran classroom teacher who can be overly magisterial in leading a session, even a session that happens to be the Mass. But having now been together three times this fall, I’d say we six guys all seem, to my experience, to be pretty comfortable (lots of joking) with each other. So my interpretation of this repeated phenomenon—this inability of middle-aged Roman Catholics to recite the Lamb of God “on cue”—has confirmed my ever-growing conviction for the extent to which those of us passionately committed to academic and pastoral service to the church’s liturgy need to analyze the rites beyond the text—to invoke the entire argument of Lawrence Hoffman’s 1987 book thus entitled.

So much of the analysis of liturgy remains focused on the words in the books or even the words recited or repeated in assemblies, and this with an uncritical, unarticulated assumption that the discursive content of those texts impact/shape the ideas or imaginations of most of the participants. The individual performances and ongoing practices of a rite/ritual/liturgy are so much more and most often a matter of non-discursive, semiotic (if you will) patterns (starting with where people consistently choose to sit … those five or six men in that prison unit always sit in the same spots around that table, e.g.). If men who’ve been participating in the Mass in English for more than forty years cannot come up with the Lamb of God, how much can we assume about the impact of the words in the liturgy for most people most of the time?

Okay, please, if you’re still reading, dear colleagues, go easy on me here!!!! Perhaps my pastoral failure lies in my desire as a presider not to usurp the people’s parts (in this case, that’s why I wanted them to say the Lamb of God while, as the Missal instructs, I do my part inaudibly). But I’ve told my tale to invite a discussion, if desired, about the challenge of serving the liturgy (in all its rites) beyond the text, that is, mindful of how much people do not “hear” or “think about” or “take from” in the words of the rituals. I realize, readily, that the church’s liturgy is a matter of both word and gesture/action. I guess I’m inviting you to pause with me just to be mindful of the extent to which ritual really is rote (with a big bow to such social scientists as Catherine Bell (RIP), Adam Seligman, Bruce Kapferer, et al.). And, indulgent full disclosure: It’s this line of inquiry I wish to pursue in my next book project (and have already started to attempt in published articles on the communion procession, the rite or marriage, etc.).


  1. Aside from you more theoretical question of how what was going on related to the textual vs. non-verbal elements of liturgy, my mind is still reeling at the idea that not even the deacon could come up with the Agnus Dei. Is it possible that because it is not used in the usual communion service they somehow could not make the shift to the celebration of Mass? If you had begun with the first couple of words, do you think they could have chimed in? Can they make the other responses without consulting the card?

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #1:
      Thank you for the careful reflection, Fritz. Yes, I do think one of the factors in this ritual awkwardness could well be due to the fact that in that particular context (wish I could underline there!) the deacons and men are accustomed most Saturdays to having a communion service, which would not include the Lamb of God (as there’s no fraction rite, the Communion Rite of SCAP and the like have no Lamb of God). But that line of inquiry, I think, serves to support my theoretical appreciation for how greatly context shapes the “text” of an actual assembly’s liturgy. I find myself, the older I get and the more I observe, quite taken with how minimally people (including so many priests and deacons) understand the basic movements of the liturgy (whether the Mass or other rites), such that people in isolated instances during the Mass don’t know what to say or do. Really, I’m struggling to articulate all this and so should not ramble too much here. I guess it points to the emphasis some liturgical theologians were placing on “primary symbols” of the liturgy back in the 1980s and early 1990s, an effort (as I understood it) to help people pray with and through the liturgy’s symbolism, to help them understand and practice the bits and parts and words as part of a greater whole (e.g. the entire movement of the Communion Rite, including the fraction, in the Mass). Anyway, my thanks to you and all posting responses here for pondering this a bit with me.

  2. I encountered something similar this morning. I was visiting a different parish this morning, and during the Offertory, the music finished just as the Preparation of the Altar began. So the priest recited the “Blessed are you…” prayer aloud……and pockets of the congregation began to stand, rather than at “Pray, brethren (brothers and sisters…”.

    Again, I don’t attend this parish normally (if I am not subbing on an organ bench somewhere, I now attend a Byzantine parish), so I don’t know if they are just not accustomed to hearing the Offertory prayers done aloud. Although, the principal celebrant did ALL the preparation prayers aloud, not just the 2 “Blessed are you”‘s…

  3. Could all this surprising silence be a manifestation not of a fundamental problem of ritual but of the still-recent dislocation that people experienced with the new translation of the Missal? It takes a long time for people to internalize changes. In the meantime, what they’ve learned is that they don’t know what they know, so to speak. A lot of people who used to be dead sure of where they were got dislocated by the new translation. I’ve seen it. In larger gatherings, they murmur or fall silent. Do that often enough and it creates a global uncertainty such that even when something hasn’t changed they are no longer sure of themselves. They’ve switched to paper.

  4. Piggy backing on Rita’s comment, I wonder if the dislocation is particularly acute here because it’s the only spot (I think) in the Mass where there is no verbal cue from the presider to respond to. The assembly just has to start.

    There is also a well known phenomenon where a group can recite a text together (the Creed is the example I know of) but not individually, and perhaps this is at play, too.

  5. I know this is almost certainly a stretch, but maybe he’s not used to *saying* it, instead of *singing* it.

    Long after the new translation hit, I found myself falling back to the old words for the preface dialogue, whenever I found myself at a liturgy where it was being spoken. In my parish, we always chant it, and for quite a while, I had successfully made the switch when it was chanted, but kept getting it wrong when it wasn’t.

    It would be different for a daily mass crowd, but I could imagine that someone who normally only celebrates the Eucharist on Sundays might never speak the Lamb of God, and the rote memory wouldn’t be built up when it’s spoken.

    Another possibility: the confusion that comes from ritual structures that are similar, but not the same. If they’ve been used to Communion services at the prison, the Mass could throw their rote instincts for a loop. When it comes to that kind of habit, completely different structures might throw them off less.

  6. Please, don’t be too hard on the Deacon.

    A quick visit to many parishes will reveal such a wide variety of versions of the “Deacon at Mass” one quickly wonders if the Priests have ever even referred to that portion of the GIRM … and suddenly your simple request flies full in the face of what he is “permitted-to-do” in his parish ministry.

    In how many parishes is the Deacon relegated to being only a reader-of-the-Gospel and then a silent uber-server-with-a-sash?

    Fr. Minimal walks by himself in the procession, greeting the people from the Missal on the altar, doesn’t use the proper prayer at the blessing before the Gospel, rarely lets the Deacon do a homily, has lay readers do the Universal Prayer, walks up to an altar fully prepared before Mass by the sacristans, never permits communion under both species, has too many emHC’s and expects the Deacon to not serve, purifies the vessels himself. Fr. Minimal also regularly gives the “offer the sign of peace” announcement (followed by the fake “Oh, sorry”) and also says the dismissal with the same apology.

    Fr. Minimal never uses incense, and so his Deacons don’t have a clue about its use. He also won’t permit them to touch or even look at the Missal … and please, don’t sing … anything … the Gospel in particular. It is, after all, Fr. Minimal’s show and don’t forget he is in charge.

    Is it an excuse for not knowing the parts of the liturgy? No. But I wonder how many times that Deacon has been called upon to lead the Agnus Dei … or the Form III Penitential Act … or “Bow down for the blassing” … or… or … or …

    The flip side to this is, when you have a Deacon who is in full tune with the liturgy, Fr. Minimal considers him a threat.

    Is it lack of training for the Deacon? Maybe … but more than often it is simply conditioning by presiders who want the Deacon out of their way or would prefer that he is simply not there and treat him accordingly.

    …. “have mercy on us … grant us peace”

    1. @Don Donaldson – comment #6:
      Your taking the scenario I’d related as an opportunity for us also to reflect on the unequaled power the presiding priest exercises in any given Mass is, for me at least, a welcomed further consideration. In your post I get a vivid sense of how demoralizing you find the priest-presider’s usurping of the deacon’s role. Myself, I recall be riveted to a computer screen back in the spring of 2004 as I read the Vatican’s instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum (the practical follow-up to the 2003 encyclical on the Holy Eucharist). I read that document as straining mightily to correct all the ways a priest-presider can hijack the liturgy and make it “his show” (if you don’t mind my building on the gist of your post, above). A lot of the “abuses” (the term repeatedly used in the English version of the Instruction), to my reading, amounted to priest-presiders not understanding their role and, really, the symbolism of the liturgy–not least of the primary symbols being the actual people, assembled and in their respective roles, themselves. Myself, I do not agree with the clericalism I find the Instruction exuding (that would be another long post), but I note the document here as an indication of how lost in “master of ceremonies” or “talk show host” type of presiding the liturgy often had and has become since the 1970s. And, yes, I realize that that sort of behavior counted among the motivations for the Vatican’s revised English translation and so forth. My interest/concern is with helping people identify and so be able to discuss the types of power being negotiated in this ongoing reform of the liturgy.

  7. When the Lamb of God is sung (as in all parishes with accompanists and cantors), it is the musicians who do the leading so the people can all join in. But in Masses in which it is not sung, it is the priest who has to lead it. I know of no provision for anyone other than a priest to lead a “recited” Lamb of God. Of course the deacons were silent, they had never been asked to lead that prayer and were not at all sure they could. We should not expect individuals to join in prayers except insofar as they have become accustomed to do so according to the ritual.

  8. I think Comment #5 is right on.

    On the odd occasion that we have a celebrant that recites the preface dialogue (it is sung at 99% of Masses here), I almost always hear “It is right to give Him…err.. just.”

    If you’re only used to singing things (like a Deacon that doesn’t go to daily Mass might be) it might not come naturally to recite them.

  9. I would go farther here and assert that it’s not just catholics, but our society that is being gradually denuded and purged of sacred words and rituals.
    Example: go to a Catholic mixed wedding, where the congregation is reflective of society at large: ie, most attend church rarley…Everything goes along swimmingly until the “let us say together the prayer our Lord taught us”. Total silence. Then dull mumbling.

  10. Fr. Morrill,
    This is my point when I talk with musicians about why they have to play every verse of every hymn. the musicians say “because otherwise they do not receive the whole story, the whole theological understanding of the hymn.” I have always wanted to do a survey to ask people if they know the theological or plain story line of the hymns they sing at Mass. 99% would not be able to articulate it. It would also be interesting to observe and record how many actually pick up the hymnal, how many actually sing, how many sing are men, women, teens, children, elderly, etc. Finally, at my parish, why don’t we have hymns the entire community can sing by heart (ritual music)? Because we have two hymnals adding up to over 1,800 songs; and every Sunday there is one I cannot sing because I never heard it before.

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