Field Report: Mass with the USCCB

One on the benefits of being a deacon of the Premier See is that you occasionally have the opportunity to serve at one of the Masses celebrated by the bishops of the United States during their November Meeting. It was my turn this morning.

The short version of my report is that it was on the whole exactly what I would hope to find on a weekday at a meeting of Catholic bishops in 2015: the reformed liturgy celebrated in accord with the current liturgical books and the spirit of the reformed liturgy.

Though celebrated in a temporary liturgical space set up in a hotel ballroom, the liturgy did not feel like an improvised affair. Fr. Michael Flynn, executive director of the USCCB’s Office of Divine Worship, was the MC, though in this case this did not mean (as it all too often does) usurping the deacon as the celebrant’s chief liturgical minister, but rather working unobtrusively behind the scenes to make sure things went smoothly and that the ministers of the Mass, who had all of three minutes to run through things beforehand, knew what they were supposed to do.

The Archbishop who was principal celebrant took the time before Mass to quiz me a bit on the Gospel reading, to make sure I had a grasp of the meaning of what I was reading. I suppose I could be insulted that he would think that I didn’t have a grasp of it, but I suspect that he has some experience of inept or ill-prepared readers and I was glad that he took an interest in the quality of the proclamation of the Word. He gave a well-prepared and brief homily (reading from an i-Pad).

There was little evidence of what is sometimes called the “reform of the reform.” The chief celebrant chanted some of the dialogues and led us in chanting the Our Father, but there were no chanted propers, no ad orientem, no bells or birettas or “Benedictine arrangement” of the altar. The Eucharistic Prayer was EPII. Aside from the principal celebrant, the concelebrating bishops simply wore albs and stoles—pretty much what you would expect from a liturgy celebrated in a hotel.

We sang at all the places that one would expect to sing: entrance, preparation, communion, and conclusion as well as the responsorial psalm, gospel acclamation, and eucharistic prayer acclamations (these last in Spanish). Some of the music, accompanied by electronic piano, seemed a bit “lush” for what I would expect on a weekday, and my own preference would have been something more in the chant idiom, but it was absolutely typical of what one would find in most of the parishes in the US. The bishops’ participation in the singing was not exactly robust, but the acoustics of hotel ballrooms do not exactly encourage participation so I’m inclined to be forgiving.

It was a little odd to participate in a liturgy with forty-some concelebrants (there had been a larger group at an earlier Mass), six ministers, and only eight or so lay members of the assembly. But I suppose that comes with the territory at a meeting like this.

On the whole, it was the modern Roman Rite, celebrated with dignity but without any neurotic fussiness. If the bishops are supposed to model for us how the liturgy should be celebrated, I would say that at least on this occasion they did they job.


  1. We would hope the bishops didn’t wear birettas 😉

    Given the paucity of laypersons present, why was the liturgy bi-lingual? Was it due to the makeup of the bishop-concelebrants?

    I sometimes wonder why these temporary worship spaces are set up for separate assemblies instead of e.g. using a parish church nearby. I have even seen a complete set up with tabernacle and everything. Sometimes, I feel that perhaps using a nearby church might say more about the nature/symbol/use of spaces set aside for divine worship, our notions of local Church community and ecclesiology, and so forth….

  2. There were a few priest present, but still no birettas.

    The liturgy was not exactly bilinguial: aside from the Eucharistic acclamations only the prayer before the sign of peace and the final blessing were in Spanish. I suppose the use of Spanish was a reflection of the fact that in many parts of the country Mass is celebrated at least as often in Spanish as it is in English. In other words, Spanish is one of the vernaculars of the American Church.

    As to location, I suspect almost everyone present would prefer to have Mass celebrated in a church, but the nearest parish is a 15+ minute walk from the hotel where the bishops meet, and time is tight enough with various meetings that it simply isn’t practical. They do have their opening Mass at the Basilica of the Assumption.

  3. It’s hard to get a feel for tone, but the way you describe it, it doesn’t sound particularly joyful.

    If it wasn’t radiating joyful encounter with Jesus Christ in a way that those present could subjectively sense, then I’m not sure it’s an ideal “model” per se.

    1. @Colleen Vermeulen:
      I guess I do not think that a subjective sense of joyful encounter with Jesus Christ is really the measure of good liturgy. In the same liturgical celebration one might find the encounter joyful, another agonizing or mournful, and yet another ho-hum. I doubt I’ve ever been at a liturgy where everyone present has the same subjective sense of anything. That sort of the nature of subjective sense.

      1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt:
        I agree, not the only measure. I would think for the majority it should be anything but “ho-hum.” Joyful, agonizing, mournful, transformative, exciting, stirring, etc. for different people in different situations.

        I’m thinking of Aidan Kavanagh’s writing about doing liturgy as standing on the edge of chaos, or an assembly changing noticeably into something it wasn’t when the liturgy began. People catalyzed.

        When I read your description…it came across more as “ho hum,” and I don’t think that should ever be considered “model.” But, it could just be the medium of writing, one may have had to be there to experience how the assembly changed/was catalyzed and sensed it in each other–so I’m not discounting the possibility!

      2. @Colleen Vermeulen:
        Well, I would say that compared to other liturgies I’ve attended that were celebrated in hotel ballrooms, it was pretty good. It’s good to remember that this was not the big opening celebration but a daily Mass, which I generally take to be less like a flood of grace and more like water dripping on rock.

      3. @Colleen Vermeulen:
        This sort of judgement is so dangerous. We now live in the land of the extrovert, and we only value the immediate reactions we perceive. Who’s to say someone wasn’t catalyzed at this liturgy? It’s not for us to notice, but for God. Perhaps through the celebration of this liturgy on this particular day the Holy Spirit worked on one bishop to consider one issue differently, cast a different vote, speak up when something needed to be said that was difficult or unpopular. Sorry, but I really bristle when the worthiness of liturgical celebration is judged by superficial perceptions, things that I think can easily be contrived. It’s not difficult to manipulate a like-minded crowd to attain emotional highs and exuberance. But that’s not liturgy. Personally, I think it’s very dangerous.

  4. I would wish that the homilist spent a moment with me, not so much to quiz me about what I was about to read (or vice versa, though I have wondered at times whether he cared much about it, given the disregard so often shown to the readings of the day). In the pattern of homily preparation sessions, he could let me know what he planned to underline in his homily, and ask me to use my reading skills to remind the assembly of this or that theme. I would rather co-ordinate with his plan than show my personal insights and work at cross purposes with him. For example, in reading Daniel chapter 12 I might pay closer attention to the final victory of God’s people than to the name of Michael, unless I knew that the homilist wanted to recall our own use of that name in official prayers.

    1. @Paul Schlachter:

      As a choir director, I’d love to know the homilist’s themes in advance, allowing me the opportunity to select hymns that echo or amplify. On the occasional Sundays when that happens accidentally, people notice as if there was coordination.

  5. I get Colleen’s comment, in the sense of a liturgy with bishops not exactly being a model for the laity. Model for good liturgy, certainly.

    My sense would be less an extrovert experience, and more: did the Mass convey the person of Jesus to those present? The reality is that in weekday and Sunday Masses in parishes, we are dealing with the widest possible range of faith commitment: from skeptical seeker to advanced disciple. I would assume the range is much narrower at the USCCB.

    Jeff’s comment, “It’s not for us to notice, but for God.” is spot on.

  6. Thank you Deacon Fritz for your report. Some economization is necessary in makeshift situations such as these.

    Even so, I have noticed through televised Masses of the bishops-in-assembly at a cathedral or basilica that the USCCB prefers low liturgy. Use of modern hymns, a cantor, and EP II are par for the course, it appears. High-church Catholics are Catholics also, m’lords! I don’t expect the bishops to attend solemn EF. However, ad orientem or Benedictine arrangement, a schola for the Gregorian propers, and te igitur clementissime Pater would not be a huge stretch for a wealthy-enough foundation. Maybe tradosphere wouldn’t be so skeptical of the bishops if they could show a bit of appreciation for the faithful perched at the top of the candle.

      1. @Sean Whelan:
        Everything that Mr. Zarembo mentioned in his post is permitted in the Novus Ordo Missal and is thus Post-Vatican II. The suppression of these legitimate options in the reformed Mass as if they were forbidden and contrary to Vatican II is both false and shows a lack of charity for those fellow Catholics that are attached to a more traditional and solemn form of worship. Much grief would have been avoided over the years all sides would have accepted and embraced the true diversity in the Novus Ordo rather than forcing a singular interpretation.

        There has been much talk over the years about diversity and inclusion but how much diversity and inclusion have those dedicated to a more reformed liturgy shown to those attached to a more traditional form of worship? Having been allowed a radical transformation of the liturgy why can they not respect and leave in peace those who do not share their vision? The true reformed Vatican II Mass is what is included in the Missal, not just what is advocated by a singular school of liturgists.

      2. @Sean Whelan:

        Actually, I’m much more skeptical of some bishops’ barely-veiled political statements. I’m sure that the eds. don’t want to go there, so I won’t.

        I’m not upset about the USCCB liturgical preferences, as if they should change for the sake of change. I fully support bilingualism — this can be supported in a “higher church” liturgy as well (alternating readings, Prayer of the Faithful etc.) The need for bilingualism however grows within and from the heritage of the Church. Vernacularism and the Latin heritage grow harmoniously intertwined, and not in an antagonistic relationship.

        However, the addition of some high church aspects at the bishops’ Masses would tacitly communicate to the high church that we are part of the Body of Christ in the United States. I get the impression that while many bishops allow the EF or ROTR practices in their diocesan parishes, they will not show even a hint of high-church support at pontifical Masses. This is demoralizing. Would it really pain a bishop to sing the incipit to Credo III?

  7. I appreciated Paul Schlachter’s and Chip Stalter’s comments above on coordination among homilist, reader and choir director. I agree that there is a lot to be said for doing more than we do in this respect (as anything at all is greater than nothing :-)).

    At the same time, it would be pretty typical around here to have three or more homilists at any given set of weekend liturgies, and it would be asking a lot of the choir director to try to echo all of those homilies. Then, too, there is a certain enrichening that comes from having a hymn text that explores a different (yet complementary) theme than that which was preached – that’s another kind of happy coincidence. Finally, I’d ask whether it’s really desirable or a liturgical “best practice” that the choice of texts and music be dictated by the homilist’s choices. I’ve noted in the past that three or four compact, image-laden verses in a hymn text are often more insightful and sublime than 8 or 10 or 12 minutes of meandering, stumbling, thundering from a poorly prepared (or poorly suited) homilist.

  8. This is a great conversation of the role of homilist and others to bring together a cohesive liturgy. Thank you.

    For Jeff #8 and Todd #12 I am really confused by what you mean that it is not for us to notice but for God? If I attend Mass to get God’s attention, then I really don’t have to attend Mass do I, because I can get His attention in my own back yard when I sing while weeding. The role of liturgy provides the people of God the communal opportunity to worship God and it is God who gets our attention. Anything that can help God get our attention (without providing a major distraction) moves the liturgy along quite nicely, thank you.

    1. @Ed Nash:
      Agreed, but I was addressing the extreme position of assessing/evaluating liturgy on the theme of “what it did for me,” which I know is an extreme position taken by few. But the question: how do human beings assess good liturgy? How do we do it without leaning too deeply in the realm of reason and outward appearances?

  9. Jordan, they’re not going back. It’s one thing to tolerate the sensibilities of a few trads, but they see no future in encouraging practices that are preferred by such a small segment of the flock.

  10. Jack Feehily : Jordan, they’re not going back. It’s one thing to tolerate the sensibilities of a few trads, but they see no future in encouraging practices that are preferred by such a small segment of the flock.

    Yes, that was an insensitive dismissal. Ironic too, in that HHF is all about the shepherd’s willingness to find and bring the one lost lamb back to the fold. Perhaps HHF should get off the pot and revoke Summorum ASAP for the mere sake of honesty, clarity and consistency. Whomever in the flock constitutes a majority don’t seem to worry about “collateral damage” in their decisions. Poor bishops, can’t win for losin’.

    1. @Charles Culbreth:

      Charles, I say what I mean and mean what I say. Father Jack’s answer is honest. Please respect this.

      I don’t know if you lived the indult period, but we traditionalists were a quite ornery bunch. Many of us gave more than a few bishops sizable peptic ulcers. Yes, Summorum pontificum has given traditionalists stable places to worship. In some dioceses, this includes dedicated churches. Yet I can see why the bishops’ conference would want to celebrate Mass in a very middle-of-the-road Ordinary Form way. Were the bishop conferences’ liturgical planners called for a chanted gradual and that Credo III, they would incite some traditionalists to pressure their bishop to tridentinize all his pontifical Masses. Better, then, to not give any encouragement.

      This is how I read Fr. Jack’s statement. I would say that this is the best policy for the bishops in assembly. Trust me, if someone wants to attend the EF, he or she will find it on their own.

      No more on this, I hope.

  11. Prior to the implementation of SC, Mass was “said” in the same way, everywhere. I meant no offense to Jordan, I was simply stating my understanding of why the bishops celebrate Mass more or less as it is celebrated every Sunday in cathedrals and parish churches around the US.

  12. Apologies to you and Fr. Jack, Jordan. I’m almost 65, so I very much remember the indult period, and acknowledge your synopsis. The only perspective that I can cite is that his comment meant to shed light upon the micro-view, the specific Masses deacon referred, whereas I took Fr. J’s response as macro, or global. My bad. I really wasn’t defending your commentary. So, I didn’t mean to impart a sense of disrespect. From my perch, he seemed to marginalize. I was wrong. The end.

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