Field Report: Canonization Mass of Blessed Junípero Serra

The news media are all-Francis-all-the-time these days, so I see no reason not to add to the feeding frenzy by filing my own report on my impressions of the canonization Mass.

Though I was not among the deacons chosen to distribute communion at the Mass, I did manage to get a ticket for one of the standing sections. Having seen several debates online recently over whether or not pews are needed in churches (which tells you something about the weird places on the internet where I spend my time), I can personally testify that one can stand through a three-hour liturgy (with an hour of walking/line-waiting both before and after) and not expire, even if you’re 54 years old. There seemed to be many Catholic University students around me, judging from the cheers whenever CUA was mentioned, but also a truly “catholic” mix of others. I was actually glad to be among hoi polli, and my brother deacons who distributed communion told me I was actually closer to the altar than they were.

For many of those around me, the highlight of the event was not the rite of canonization or the Eucharist (a number of people left before that point), but the arrival of the Pope in the Popemobile. The crowd went crazy. He was greeting with that most recent of liturgical gestures, the raising of the smartphone, accompanied in some cases by the ritual turning-of-the-back-to-the-Pope-in-order-to-snap-a-selfie.
Popish

The remainder of the liturgy, primarily in Spanish with some Latin and a smattering of other languages, was, by comparison, a pretty low energy affair. In fact, it confirmed my sense that it is difficult to generate what I would call “liturgical energy” in an open space. This might have felt different had I been among those who had actual chairs, who tended to be “professional Catholics” and undoubtedly were more diligent about their liturgical participation. I also noticed that outside what we normally think of as a “sacred space” people engage in all sort of behaviors that they would not if they were in a church, ranging from talking during hymns and prayers to eating potato chips during the Eucharistic prayer (I thought, even with only a one hour fast, I’m pretty sure this doesn’t make the cut).

That being said, most of those around me sought to participate as much as possible. Spoken responses were made, though a bit tentatively since Spanish speakers seemed to be a minority in my section. As in a typical Catholic parish, most people did not sing most of the music. The parts that seemed to get a better level of vocal participation were the Litany of the Saints, the Mode VI Alleluia in the Gospel Acclamation, and at least the first two verses of Holy God We Praise Thy Name (it was the recessional hymn, so people—including me—were leaving by the third verse). The Gloria from the Missa de Angelis also got a surprisingly robust level of participation.

The liturgy itself was solemn in the best sense of the word (after the formula of canonization I whispered to a friend beside me, “So that’s what infallibility looks like”). As most people are aware, the Pope’s style of presiding is very restrained, which to me conveys the sense that he trusts the power of the liturgy itself to communicate its meaning, and the role of the celebrant is to get out of the way. Of course, it is also odd to speak of anyone “presiding” over an assemblage so vast (25,000 tickets were distributed), and from my vantage point the Pope was a tiny figure in the distance (slightly larger on the jumbotron). Pope 2He probably connected best with the crowd in his homily, which was delivered with few rhetorical flourishes but still seemed to connect with its simply and direct message that we need to fight spiritual apathy and engage in the mission given us by Christ, and to make our own the motto of St. Junípero: Siempre adelante! Always forward!

The ministers of the liturgy all carried out their tasks well. The deacon did a beautiful job of singing the Gospel (in Spanish), which seems to be an increasingly common feature of Papal liturgies. The choir and musicians sounded good, though the sound system kept cutting out at various points and those around me would stop singing, underscoring for me the difficulty of sustaining congregational singing in an open space. Some of the musical arrangements struck me as striving for grand but achieving bombast, which again I think might have come from the attempt to generate energy in a vast open space.

Communion was a fairly dignified affair compared to some Papal Masses I’ve attended. My sources tell me that most of the hosts had been consecrated beforehand and the priests and deacons (mostly deacons, from what I could see) were moving to their places as the Our Father was beginning. I suppose this makes the logistics easier, since that many hosts would require an altar of gargantuan proportions and it would take a long time for those giving communion to get from the altar to their communion stations.

At the end of the day, it is hard to judge the effectiveness of a liturgy such as this one. In some ways, I have been far more moved and edified by ordinary Sunday liturgies in my own parish. But it doesn’t really make sense to compare it to a parish Mass, where a part of the whole experience is the familiar rhythm of a particular worshipping community. A Papal Mass of canonization is as much an “event” as it is a “liturgy” and I would have to say that this event was well organized and, most importantly, even managed to include real moments of liturgical prayer.

4 comments

  1. At papal Masses in Rome, the ciboria are not on the altar but held by the Communion ministers who are lined up behind the Pope – at least when I have had the opportunity to minister in this way. (Somewhat intriguingly, at Pope Benedict’s Installation Mass, he reached the institution narrative while some Communion ministers were still collecting their ciboria in St Peter’s vestibule which raises a question from early renewal days about just how fat the “words of consecration carry”.)

  2. I was traveling and have only seen snippets, but my son, who sang in the choir, sent me a link to see the whole Mass, which I have yet to view. His view from where the choir stood was far but unobstructed. He did send a picture so I could see it. The only snippet of the Mass I saw live was the from the Pater Noster till the passing of the peace. At the prayer before the peace, the Holy Father turned from the missal and looked directly down at the Host and said the prayer from memory. It was clear that he was there present with his Lord and addressing the prayer directly to Him. Most moving and reverent.

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