A Mass lacking architectural integrity

Let me stipulate from the start that it is not a good idea to go to Sunday Mass and reflect on problems with the liturgy in which one is actively participating. Guilty as charged. In mitigation, I can only plead that it is a hazard of thinking and writing about liturgical worship. Mea maxima culpa.

This was a large and beautiful church in a large and beautiful American city. The Mass was Novus Ordo, labelled by the parish as “solemn”; it followed what was apparently a more family-oriented celebration. There was a choir of men and boys and around a dozen altar servers, all pre- and teen-aged boys. There were readers (male and female, in their 50s I would guess) and, I think, six extraordinary ministers of Communion, also male and female, all at least 50 years old. The priest faced the people throughout. We had incense, torches (lots of them) and bells. We sang a psalm and three or four hymns, all in English. As far as I could tell, everything was done to the letter of the GIRM. There were kneelers and lots of kneeling.

Nothing problematic so far. The problem was that, somehow, the entire liturgy lacked architectural integrity. It didn’t add up.

First, there was a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing throughout the Mass. For example, at the presentation of the gifts, there was a procession of six altar servers who hadn’t formally participated until this point in the proceedings. They marched to the narthex, then turned and led the (lay) bearers of the gifts to the priest. The servers then snapped to face one another in a crisp military maneuver, allowing the gift bearers to walk forward between them.

There was an extra procession of torches and incense at the start of the Sanctus. The thurifer led the procession out of the sanctuary at the final hymn. Getting the extraordinary ministers into and out of the sanctuary was a complicated ballet; somewhat bizarrely, the male EMs stood on one side of the altar and the female on the other. A server stood on a raised platform as though he were conducting the congregational singing, but simply lifted a hand when we were to sing and lowered it when we were to wait for the choir. The choir marched in and out, to and from the loft and back. People in ordinary clothing came onto the sanctuary during the preparation of the altar, then left again. Many things happened. Nothing quite added up.

Second, there was no clear start to the liturgy. While the organ prelude was going on, various people, some in vestments, some in civilian clothes, wandered on and off the sanctuary. The choir started by chanting the introit for the day, quasimodo geniti, but the congregation didn’t seem to recognize this as part of the Mass; they continued to talk quietly, and despite printed admonitions not to make audio or video recordings, a number of people turned and lifted their phones to video the choir. Eventually there was a hymn and we shuffled to our feet. It was an odd mix of informality – inappropriate for a solemn Mass, I think – and excessive formality.

Finally, the language of the Mass was confusing. We veered from English to Latin and back again. This mélange was worst at the Our Father:

Priest (said): At the Savior’s command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say …

Congregation and choir (sung): Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum. Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra. Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie, et dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris. Et ne nos inducas in tentationem, sed libera nos a malo.

Priest (said):  Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Congregation and choir (sung): … quia tuum est regnum, et potestas, et gloria, in saecula.

Yes, I know that “deliver us” is an “embolism”, something interpolated, not part of the Lord’s prayer. But to change languages midstream?

It didn’t help that the sermon also lacked architectural integrity; the priest seemed to be struggling to decide whether we had come through Easter Sunday or were still at Good Friday, contemplating the five wounds of Christ. It didn’t help that he took most of the Canon (EP1) at a rapid clip, then slowed dramatically at the words of institution: “This (long pause) is (long pause) my (long pause) body”, etc.  And of course the language of the current English translation is itself a muddle of formality and informality, with lots of word salad tossed into the mix.

To be sure, I have seen much worse: Masses so informal that they were almost unrecognizable as Catholic liturgy; or celebrations “tradded up” with maniples, Catholic knights with plumed hats and ceremonial swords and almost limitless nodding and bowing and genuflecting and donning and doffing of liturgical hats.

I can’t define architectural integrity in a Mass, but I’m betting that readers can help. For me, it has something to do with a clear beginning to the celebration – there’s nothing wrong with a good loud bell to say, “pay attention, Mass starts now.” There should be a consistent level of solemnity throughout. Perhaps most important, there shouldn’t be anything superfluous; ceremonial actions need to contribute to the whole. Beautiful ritual is good; frills and furbelows are not.

Finally: I don’t think this has anything to do with the Novus Ordo vs. the older form of Mass. I have seen old rite Masses lacking architectural integrity as much as this one did. Contributors to Pray Tell don’t delete comments, but I hope that the moderators will be draconian in cutting comments that call for a return of the old rite. That isn’t the question under debate here.

In your experience, what adds to or destroys architectural integrity in a liturgical celebration?


  1. I am not a fan of the sudden shift in the presidential parts of the Eucharistic prayer from the vernacular to Latin for the Institution Narrative, and from recitation to chanting for the same. It hearkens to a magical view of Latin that lacks architectural integrity.

    I have less of a problem with a Latin Sanctus in an otherwise vernacular anaphora. Similarly with the other principal parts of the Ordo. I find an all or nothing approach in such things to be unpersuasive.

    Artificial solemnity is as odd as an itchy spontaneity. The ministers and their ministrations should have a flow that does not call attention to itself. An arsis and thesis, to use chant terminology. One should not be aware that the the ministers are chafing under the prescribed ritual or that they are doubling down on it, either. It should share with ikons a measure of transparency that draws us into deepest reality. When the ministers are spending a great deal of effort either wrestling with the ritual or overemphasizing it, they get in the way of that. They become the sun, rather than the finger.

  2. I suspect I know the parish and presider in question, Jonathan. If I am correct in my identification, my observation would be that it is the result of some years of ‘layering’ of different styles (in part influenced by the different series of pastors), both liturgical and musical. There are also many different interests that ‘compete’ and which have to be juggled that possibly resulted in some of the things you observed around the Communion and preparation of gifts.

    Other things, like the procession of altar servers and the parting (which used to be even more exaggerated in the past) are long standing customs that can be relegated to quirkiness (the original idea, I suspect, was a full procession of the gifts but the accouterments disappeared over time)

    I think your observation that it didn’t/doesn’t quite work was very spot on. Unfortunately, this is accentuated when the priest himself is not fully in sync with the ‘spirit’ of the liturgy, especially as regards cadence and time – which regrettably IMO have not been strengths of the most recent group.

    Liturgies do need a kind of cohesive vision and style – whether traditional or modern, high or low. The Episcopalian church in the same city has a much more unified approach – I was there fairly recently for a 2-hour service. It was far ‘higher’ than what I was used to, but everything blended in well and it did not seem an agonizingly eternity. The presider there has (IMHO) an exaggerated way of presiding, and the serving can be even more quirky, but it is often masked by the seamlessness and cohesiveness of the rest.

    The question, I suppose, is what to do when people clearly have different conceptions of what liturgy is and what it should look like. Can they really be blended? My private opinion is that more than half the time they cannot – but sacrifices are often made in order to accommodate everyone.

  3. I would only partially agree with your statement: “Perhaps most important, there shouldn’t be anything superfluous; ceremonial actions need to contribute to the whole. Beautiful ritual is good; frills and furbelows are not.” I think even the doffing and the bowing and the small details can be dignified – as long as it doesn’t obscure the ‘lines’ of the rite. Sometimes they are superfluous, but the small things do combine to make a whole and when done properly, do reveal the beauty of the details.

    The example I would put forward here would be a comparison of a Traditional Solemn High Mass and the 1950 Centennial Celebration for the Hierarchy of England and Wales (you can find it on Youtube). For the latter, between the circles of canons and three different attendant groups (Legate, Celebrant, Cardinals) trooping back and forth across the sanctuary, bowing at different times, etc. the lines of the rite are quite obscured. On the other hand, at your garden variety Solemn High Mass, the bowing at the end of the Collect, or doffing at the Epistle, can fit in quite seamlessly with the whole, and does not obscure the nature of the action.

  4. Perhaps most important, there shouldn’t be anything superfluous; ceremonial actions need to contribute to the whole. Beautiful ritual is good; frills and furbelows are not.

    Of course, the problem is that one person’s beautiful ritual is another person’s frills and furbelows (btw, thanks for introducing me to that word). I won’t deny that it is possible to make cogent arguments as to which is which, but those arguments do need to be made.

  5. This is reminiscent of the worst of the 70’s, only with a different ecclesiology. Lots of good individual ideas, piled on to make a serious and cluttered mélange. Seems like lots of busy work for servers who might be better off singing in the choir, distributing the Eucharist, or just being in the assembly. In context, lobster, waffles, tacos, pancit, shepherd’s pie, chocolate cake, chicken tikka masala, tabouleh, flan, chili dogs with slaw, and petit-fours are all excellent eating. But not at the same meal. Please.

  6. Rita, I guess I am referring to the whole set of choices around a particular liturgy — the physical setting, music, vestments, servers, deportment of the celebrant(s), vessels, incense — all the things that go together to make the celebration quiet or exuberant or triumphant or penitential, etc.

    I’m not getting at practices that are (almost) always desirable or (almost) always wrong — there are many of these listed in books like Kavanagh’s Elements of Rite or Denis Smolarski’s How Not to Say Mass. But choices that are legitimate both in rubric / canon law and in liturgical style also need to form a coherent whole.

    That’s overall structure, the result of the ensemble of legitimate choices, is what I mean by “architecture”. Happy to shift to a better term, if we can find one!

  7. Fritz Bauerschmidt :…the problem is that one person’s beautiful ritual is another person’s frills and furbelows …

    Indeed, and one person’s “noble simplicity” is another’s reductionism.

    I do think there are liturgical elements that are almost always frills — for example, those that reflect distinctions in dignity no longer recognised: various subtle grades of protonotaries apostolic, or of inferior prelates. Fortescue, chapter V, section 3 has a detailed and amusing analysis of these, noting that Pius X abrogated many of the rules. There are liturgical actions and distinctions that seem to have been suppressed in the GIRM; perhaps there is a case for bringing them back, but they sure strike me as frilly.

      1. @Alan Johnson:

        I’m not sure how a priest can possibly masquerade as a deacon; a priest IS, in fact, a deacon. All of them are. It’s a lesson one hopes they never forget, since they are first and foremost a servant of others.

  8. Jonathan, part of what you are describing is a matter of liturgical choreography — a subject routinely ignored in many celebrations, alas. If people never look at what goes on with a fresh (outsider’s) pair of eyes, the results can often be incoherent or even bizarre.

    I would disagree with you that a resounding bell is the only or best way to start a celebration. There are many other ways, including (to give just one example) a gathering chant that merges quasi-seamlessly into an opening processional — no bell needed at all in such a context. The best celebrations are those that tailor the beginning to the liturgical season or day that is being celebrated.

  9. Starting Mass with the ringing of a bell? Welcome back to 1964 when a bell was rung as the priest and servers made the short trek from sacristy to the steps at the foot of the altar. Each Sunday while standing near the doors which lead to the pews, I greet the people and I exchange a simple but warm greeting and then I invite them to stand as we begin the praise of God with the gathering song. No doubt about when the Mass begins.

    The liturgy that Jonathan witnessed struck me as a kind of mishmash of the old and new rites. If two servers with a cross bearer is barely sufficient why not add a phalanx of torch bearers and throw in a thurifer while you’re at it. C’mon. Noble simplicity is ill served, in my view, by gilding the lily.

  10. To Paul and Jack’s point: I certainly don’t think that a bell is always the only or even the best way to signal the start of a celebration. I think it can work well in a very large building, where someone standing at the ambo may struggle to gain the attention of the assembly without coughing into or tapping the microphone.

    But then I like clear signals for the beginnings of events: for instance, the trois coups that traditionally opened a French play; or a vigorous chord at the start of an overture.

    Clearly, much depends on the community, the building, etc. Whether or not a bell is used, some sort of signal is useful.

    In the case of this Mass, for instance, there was a “gathering chant” (the introit) followed by a processional (with hymn), but the congregation was slow to work out what was going on.

  11. At a parish here in Ft worth, when its time to “quiet the crowd down”, a 4 part tubular chime is struck with a mallet that is both beautiful and purposeful: we are ready for public worship. It only takes a few seconds for the church to become silent. The cantor welcomes everyone, reminds folks to silence their cell phones and then announces the opening hymn. Simple. Save the bells for the bell tower!

  12. A pair of large, room-flattening, factory whistles, a la the original production of Sweeney Todd, comes to mind….

  13. @ Alan Johnson on April 4, 2016 – 1:35 pm
    To which I would add priests masquerading as deacons and laymen dressed up as subdeacons which are now long extinct in any case.

    Such as Pope Francis on Maundy Thursday at the foot-washing?

  14. Thanks for the explanation of your choice of the word architecture, Jonathan. It seems to me a bit “off” but I am at a loss to suggest a better term for the all-embracing category you describe. Ritual structure? Choreography (as per Paul Inwood’s suggestion above)? Sensorium organization? Perhaps a bit of all of the above. The ritual studies people probably have a name for it. 😉

    1. @Rita Ferrone:
      I agree, Rita: both “choreography” and “architecture” suffer from part/whole problems: choreography (to me) immediately implies “motion”; “architecture” (to many) immediately implies “building” — both are parts.

      “Architecture” is used in a broader sense in computing (hardware architecture, software architecture, network architecture, etc.) and in some business and organizational literature — for example, Jack Welch used to write about the “social architecture” of GE.

      Perhaps the winning way is to avoid the terms altogether and go for a word like “coherence”. Coherence of what? It’s a long list, as you suggest. If we omit the list entirely, readers can fill it in on their own.

  15. In some cases the architecture itself lacks integrity. There are churches of modern and post-modern design where a later pastor decides to “church them up a bit” by adding various traditional, often gothic, elements. I know of a church in my area that is a 1980s modern and rather plain building, but they are planning to renovate the sanctuary by adding decorative gothic arches, non-structural pillars wrapped in faux marble, main and side marble altars and reredos, communion rail, and devotional artwork and stenciling on the west wall. I fear the result will be analogous to a theater building with a stage set that resembles a traditional church. The incongruity between the structure and its decor will proclaim to anyone who enters: FAKE!

  16. Architecture is a fine metaphor; it’s just that a Mass takes place over time, and we tend to think of architecture in terms of static space. So perhaps a musical metaphor would be better. We might wish a Mass to unfold with the integrity of, well, a Bach Mass, where the parts are all structured in relation to an overarching whole.

    Easy to say, hard to do.

  17. The church under discussion is St. Paul’s, Cambridge. There aren’t many Catholic boy choirs in the U.S., and other details confirm the ID. Mr. Day has criticized the liturgy at the 11:00 Sunday Mass, which was the heart of my prayer life for 40 years. I mean to defend what I love with vigor, and so I must be specific.

    Mr. Day organizes his criticisms into three areas: processions, the start of Mass, and languages.

    He starts writing about processions with the offertory. It’s comforting to lay folks, who might be self-conscious walking by themselves, to be led and guided by an escort. The escort makes the procession more visible, to a congregation singing a hymn.

    The GIRM permits incense at several points in the Mass. One of them is the elevation of the host and chalice after the consecration. If there’s going to be incense then, the thurifer should get ready at the Sanctus. And if the torchbearers arrange themselves to create a tableau of light and smoke, then I am reminded of Isaiah’s vision of the throne of God, from which the Sanctus quotes.

    The GIRM is mostly silent about the recessional. The most detail is given in # 186, describing the Deacon’s duties, and concludes “withdraws in a manner similar to the Entrance Procession.” Including the thurifer and other ministers is unremarkable.

    Communion is offered under both species. This involves planning and preparation. The sacristan, unvested, brings a large tray of cups from the sacristy to the altar during the Preparation of Gifts. There’s a chart in the sacristy where the EM’s sign up before Mass, like a football play diagram. There are different symbols for those bearing cups and hosts, but none for the sexes. If one is used to watching EM’s bumble around the sanctuary in disorder, then moving according to a plan might look like a ballet. I find disorder more distracting.

    The choristers process with the other ministers at the start and end of Mass. The choir stalls are in the transept on the congregation’s right.

  18. Mr. Day makes his second point about the start of Mass. I’m an organist, and I sympathize with anyone who wants quiet during the prelude, organ or choral. I also have doubts about using both the Introit and a processional hymn. Yet I myself, as a music director elsewhere, have failed to convince a pastor to replace the hymn with the Introit–What a great text Quasimodo is!–and so I’ve tacked it onto the beginning as a choral prelude. I’m puzzled, though, why someone who looks askance at maneuvers during the Offertory, and the ballet of the EM’s, wants the congregation to rise crisply. I’m happy that the song leader doesn’t play the host, like an emcee in a Vegas revue. There are hymn boards and a worship aid, and a new hymnal in the pew racks. The organ introduces the hymn unmistakably. An elderly layman, lost in prayer, becomes aware that the hymn has started, fiddles with his glasses and book, and slowly gets to his feet. He has four or five verses to do so.

    Mr. Day’s third point is about language. There is always some chant in Latin at the 11:00. When I started singing in the boy choir there in 1963, the congregation had a slim hymnal called Cantus Populi. It included Gloria VIII and Credo III. The parish sang them then, and never stopped, even when we started adding English versions. We never called it the hermeneutic of continuity. We just took the rubrics seriously, including Sacrosanctum Concilium giving pride of place to Gregorian Chant, and Paul VI publishing Jubilate Deo. GIRM # 41 wants the faithful to sing the Ordinary in Latin, particulary the Creed and the Pater Noster, especially in international gatherings. The parish includes Harvard University. Perhaps there should be even more Latin, such as the embolism, but that would need wider availability and use of bilingual missals.

  19. As an addendum to Mr. Day’s third point, he includes the homily, and the pace of the Canon. I have heard some bad homilies at St. Paul’s, and rushed Canons. But I’ve also heard some of the best preachers ever: Stanley Azaro, O.P., and J. Bryan Hehir. And I’ve heard the Canon sung so beautifully that it made me shiver.

    Mr. Day prefaces his remarks with a mea culpa. He realizes that to criticize may go against the purpose of joining a community at Mass. I share that temptation. Forums like this are needed. And when we hear thought-out criticisms, we listen closely, just as any business manager heeds feedback from customers.

    But Mr. Day’s observations seem incomplete and unbalanced. Did the congregation participate actively? Did they sing the Pater Noster well? Did they do more listening than singing? What does he think about the new hymnal, which came out in December? Did the choir sing well? Were the hymns and anthems suited to the day? Was the organ too loud? Did the worship aid include a translation for the Introit? Instead, he looks at details that I would put in the “When in Rome” category. Details that, in sum, prevent it all from adding up for him.

    It’s as if I took an acquaintance to brunch with my mother. Afterward, I overhear him talking about an elderly lady that he just met, whose shoes didn’t match her purse. That kind of remark won’t change my opinion about my mother.

  20. Thanks for these detailed comments. I didn’t name the church, or even the city (it was indeed St Paul’s, Cambridge) because I was writing about a particular Mass, not offering a critique of the parish, or commenting on celebrants or homilists who hadn’t been there that day. This wasn’t the ecclesiastical equivalent of a restaurant review; for that you have The Mystery Worshipper. I was using the Mass as an example of liturgical choices that, in my view, didn’t form a coherent whole.

    I won’t respond point-by-point to the comments, but I will note that some of my observations apparently weren’t understood. My fault for not communicating them more clearly.

    As to an overall view: I felt that the congregation lacked energy and that the celebration seem to confuse them at times. The homily fell far below the intellectual standard that one would expect in any university parish, let alone Harvard, and it didn’t seem to connect well with the rest of the liturgy. Subjective impressions, of course; but hardly on a par with shoes that don’t match a purse.

    And none of this is meant to imply that other celebrations at this parish aren’t perfectly wonderful.

    The hymnal looked beautiful in many ways — clearly a labor of love.

  21. One weak point in liturgical architecture is the difficulty some pastors experience assigning EMHCs and lectors.

    Not everyone is called to be a lector. Some lectors, who are quite poor at declamation, often speed-pronounce the lectionary in a monotone voice. Nevertheless, poor lectors often serve for years. This is likely due to the reluctance of the pastor to tell the lector that he or she is not talented at this task. Also, because of this phenomenon, I have turned down requests to be a lector. I sense that some lectors, and in particular the poor lectors, refuse to cease given their pride. And yet, at some time in life all people are told that they are not fit for a task. Sometimes “stepping down” is the gateway to a true humility and reflection.

    I also remember reading a parish website’s online chart for EMHCs. It appeared that there were an unmanageable number of participants. A person would serve in this position maybe once a month. This appears to me as both unwieldy and not fair to any EMHC, as each one rarely ministers. Again, I realize that some pastors cannot easily say no to any person who “wants to do something”, so lay participation will remain chaotic and render liturgy confusing.

  22. This parish and its liturgy nurtured me during my college years (1991-1995). At that time, the congregational singing was robust, and the music was a feast. In those days, Ted Marier’s hymnal and music formed the backbone of the program, and the music was under the direction of his successor and protege John Dunn.

    Despite growing up 20 minutes from this parish, I had never experienced liturgy like this. The congregation sang almost the entire time. All the dialogues between celebrant and people were sung, and Marier’s English chant settings of the Psalms and Propers were exquisite. The preaching was superb (well, most of the time), and the liturgy was celebrated reverently and well.

    For all the gregorian chant and English chant sung in the parish, though, there was no rejection of Vatican II or the Novus Ordo liturgy in those days. Instead, the parish embraced the “full, conscious, active participation” of the people. Yes, the choir contributed much to the liturgy, and the organ playing was thrilling, but the primary musical instrument was the voice of the congregation. I have only rarely had such deep experiences of sung prayer in the years since.

    It pains me to hear that “the congregation lacked energy,” and to learn that the new parish hymnal (which I have not examined) has discarded nearly all of Ted Marier’s music. Indeed, from the article above, I suspect there is much about the current practice at this parish that has wandered from the goal of full, conscious, and active participation of the People of God in the liturgy. One can only hope that this pendulum, like so many others, will some day swing back in that direction.

  23. I first heard the prayers of the Novus Ordo at weekday Masses in Lent 1970 at St. Paul’s Cambridge, which had (I believe) special permission to introduce them ahead of Holy Week. The parish, under Theodore Marier’s musical direction, responded to this privilege by producing its very own congregational chant setting of the brand-new rite. I was impressed. It certainly worked well on weekday afternoons, when we could concentrate on the neat new words and music with an organist and a cantor to guide and without the many incense-laden processions that went on at the boys’ choir’s Masses. I reacted to the latter much as Jonathan Day did. Michael Cedrone, I’m sorry to hear that things seem to have slipped at this church just in the last twenty years.

  24. My personal experiences with St. Paul’s are somewhat dated, but it should be noted that – aside from the Catholic students from Harvard, etc. – the congregation has always tended to be somewhat self-selecting, with St. Paul’s as a definite magnet in the liturgically-impoverished Archdiocese of Boston. In general they tended to be better-educated and informed than the average Catholic… One might reasonably assume that if the people in attendance were not properly nourished by the Mass they were attending, they would either go elsewhere or do what some 70% of the Catholics in the AoB do on Sunday: stay home. I suspect that Mr. Day would have found the liturgy at e.g. the Paulist Center in Boston more to his taste.

  25. To be clear, I had not meant the posting as a critique of St Paul’s, or on one “taste” vs another in liturgy.

    At home, in London, my regular Mass is at Farm Street, the Jesuit church there. It is in many ways similar to the one I attended at St Paul’s, and also called “solemn”. As with St Paul’s, there’s a splendid choir, though of men and women. There are incense, bells and altar servers — male and female. It’s the Novus Ordo, done pretty much entirely in conformity with the rubrics and GIRM. And it’s entirely in Latin, except for the readings, prayers of the people and homily.

    But despite the greater Latin component, it’s also much simpler. There are fewer servers and fewer processions. The full ceremony is there, but it’s not nearly as intricate.

    I noted this simplicity from the first day I went to this Mass, many many years ago.

    But I’ll certainly agree that one visit is no basis on which to size up a particular celebration, let alone an entire parish!

    I look forward to revisiting St Paul’s and other Boston parishes — as a worshipper, not a liturgy critic.

    1. @Jonathan Day:
      Be aware that your experience at St Paul’s of congregational singing would have been enormously different several years ago. There was a program for that which was systematically and experimentally built from Mediator Dei (1947) onward that became the envy of many. It was discarded. I will leave it at that.

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