Stop Explaining Rituals!

Wise words on the liturgy from the Römische Korrespondenz in Germany today. Benjamin Leven is introducing the most recent issue of Liturgie und Glaube (“Liturgy and Faith”), an issue focused on liturgy and personal faith convictions. Leven quotes author Christian Rentsch:

The liturgy itself has a persuasive strategy which is by nature complete different from making something plausible. The liturgy sets out to strengthen the faith of believers in that it lets them practice their faith. Here, the primary means of integration of the community into the liturgy and its structure is not argumentative speech to the community, but rather the execution of the liturgy by the community itself.”

Leven also quotes Johann Evangelist Hafner of the University of Potsdam, who has said:

Rituals are emphatically not meant to be explained. Seen from the standpoint of religious studies, rituals are subject to a ‘latency protection.’ This means: something holds true precisely because it is not explained. This is the case with the most important gestures that we employ in entirely fundamental contexts, for example with love. When we desire someone it is totally counter-intentional to say, “Do you also love me?” Whoever does that too often achieves the opposite, namely, that the partner is irritated. Love happens much more by living out intimacy and familiarity, not by constantly talking about it.

These writings, which I heartily affirm, remind us what a challenge it has been to understand and implement Sacrosanctum Concilium no. 34:

The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation.

These are dangerous words, “within the people’s powers of comprehension.” They are easily misunderstood as if everyone should understand everything, as if understanding the liturgy is more rational than it is corporeal or emotional. Perhaps the Council fathers naively thought that the faithful would effortlessly relate to the liturgical rites if the rites were but simplified and made comprehensible.

But this is not the case. Rites “should not require much explanation” because they “make sense” within a larger ecology of personal faith, communal faith, and lifelong familiarity with them. This ecology is all about communal identity. Apart from this larger ecology, our rites are strange, or dull, or meaningless. Within this larger ecology, our rites are free to “be themselves” in all their beauty and seductive allure. When it works, there’s really not that much to talk about.

For rites to be “within the people’s power of comprehension,” we have to think less about how well the rites are seemingly “working” during the celebration, and more about who the people are who come to the rites, and what they bring with them to the rites. Explaining ritual is a warning sign that somebody badly misunderstands the nature of ritual. More importantly, it’s a sign that the real problem is outside and prior to the liturgy, and someone is misusing the liturgy to address that problem.

Sacrosanctum Concilium says this at no. 59:

It is therefore of the highest importance that the faithful should easily understand the sacramental signs.

Fifty-plus years after Vatican II, we’re growing in our sense of what the “easy” part about all this is, and what it isn’t. The easy part is not just simplifying the rites and then – poof! – it all works. Simplified rites will not magically sustain (or reconstitute) the requisite ecology of communal faith.

The hard work of liturgical reform is the hard work of preaching the Gospel, renewing the Church, calling ourselves to repentance, building up the sense among the baptized faithful that they are corporately the Body of Christ, and ever more becoming a missionary people renewing the world along the lines of the Reign of God.

Then, and only then, will the rites be easy to understand. Then, and only then, will the rites be surrounded by the larger ecology which makes unnecessary all the chatter and explanation.

It’s all quite simple. And very hard.



  1. We theologians/liturgists have to work on every detail of the liturgy, analyze, criticize, try and improve it; but the experience of liturgy itself should never need any explanation… Sounds like a mystery, but it is true 🙂

  2. Agreed, Anthony!
    Ritual (and its accompanying words) should allow one to encounter mystery with a sense of awe and wonder but without confusion and bewilderment. Words that seek to reduce confusion but which also reduce awe are not helpful.

  3. It’s better to have people ask why something is done, than to ruin it’s impact by explaining it. And don’t >not< do a particular ritual because it seems archaic or fussy or unnecessary or unfathomable to the layman. We've had too much of that.

  4. And yet, see GIRM 105: A liturgical function is also exercised by:

    b) T he commentator, who, if appropriate, provides the faithful briefly with explanations and
    exhortations so as to direct their attention to the celebration and ensure that they are better
    disposed for understanding it. The commentator’s remarks should be thoroughly prepared
    and notable for their restraint. In performing this function the commentator stands in a suitable
    place within sight of the faithful, but not at the ambo.

    I like that the instruction emphasizes commentary that is thorough in its preparation and remarkably restrained. Perhaps “Stop relentlessly explaining rituals” but GIRM makes allowance for it.

    In my years in various aspects of liturgical ministry, the only people I have heard/read griping about the explanation of rituals are liturgical cognoscenti.

    1. My father was a commentator/reader (back then they were one office) when the changes happened up to around 1975. I can still see him standing at the lectern. But I would hardly classifiy someone explaining rites before or while they are happening as a liturgical function. If “the faithful” need their attention directed to the celebration, there is a bigger problem than already exists. Sounds like GIRM 105 needs to go.

      1. At the risk of repeating myself, I can see a role for such in the ritual Mass for the dedication of a new church, which has many unique features. That said, if such explanations could be included within a program for the event, it would be better, as the constraints imposed by the gift of dead trees might serve the GIRM’s goal of restraint.

    2. Re: the commentator:

      When we celebrate baptisms, we don’t provide worship aids. So I interject little instructions like, “Your response to each intercession is ‘Lord hear or our prayer’.” Or, “After the invocation of each saint’s name, your response is, ‘Pray for us'”. I invite them to walk with me to the font at the appropriate time. I suppose I’m acting as my own commentator. I do think it helps with participation.

  5. I’ve certainly heard non-cognoscenti gripe about it. Many times, many years. It’s why I reconsidered my former appreciation for it. I realized it was one of these things that ministers assumed was desired and helpful, whereas it was Not Necessarily So and, if chronic and/or too prolix or gimmicky, very much the contrary.

    Also, I’ve not seen a commenter in many years, let alone explanatory commentary that is both prepared in advance and notable for restraint. More typically, it’s improvised and notable for chattiness. And, at times, perhaps more about the need of the minister to demonstrate cred through proleptic demonstration of empathy than addressing actual pastoral needs.

    1. I’ve heard non-cognoscenti gripe when it’s relentless, and when it’s done more in the spirit of play-by-play at a golf tournament.

      Done as the GIRM sets forth, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard the complaints.

      1. As I alluded to, I’ve not seen it done as envisioned by the GIRM in too many years to count.

        Then again, I don’t participate in any pontifical/prelatial liturgies where a commentator might be employed to explain rare/unusual liturgical aspects (I would think, for example, the ritual Mass for the dedication of a new church would likely be the most suited to such a role).

        Rather, I am talking about recurring ritual moments of the Mass itself or things like baptisms regularly celebrated within Mass, et cet. (I will for the sake of fair argument exclude celebrants improvising glosses within their very proclamation of the Gospel text – as opposed to in a recapitulation within the ensuing homily – as a further illustration of the problem.)

  6. Paraphrased from and Attributed to Lucien Deiss:

    “Never a paragraph when a sentence will do;
    never a sentence when a word will do;
    never a word when a gesture will do.”

    And I would appreciate any citations/correction to that.

    1. I don’t have one, but it could be bookended by the famous bon mot of President Wilson recounted by Josephus Daniels:

      A member of the Cabinet congratulated Wilson on introducing the vogue of short speeches and asked him about the time it took him to prepare his speeches. He said: “It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

      The point being: preparation (rather than improvisation) is normally necessary for distillation (at least among those not truly gifted in the arts of improvisation). The GIRM shares that point on this point.

    2. The original is the Creed for Cantors by Père David Julien, the French priest who pioneered cantoring in France and died only a few years ago at the age of 99. It is quoted by Deiss in several of his books.

      When a sentence will do, don’t make a speech
      When a word will do, don’t say a sentence
      When a gesture will do, don’t say a word
      When a look will do, don’t make a gesture

      An obituary I published in the Society of St Gregory journal Music and Liturgy four years ago gives further details:

  7. “The hard work of liturgical reform is the hard work of preaching the Gospel, renewing the Church, calling ourselves to repentance, building up the sense among the baptized faithful that they are corporately the Body of Christ, and ever more becoming a missionary people renewing the world along the lines of the Reign of God. Then, and only then, will the rites be easy to understand.”

    Bravo! I think this is the best thing I’ve ever read on this blog.

  8. I think the most common (and painful) variation of this is the presider announcer who announces:
    “I will now bless the rings. Lord God, bless these rings…”
    “I will now bless our Advent Wreath. Lord God…”
    “I will now bless the ashes. O God…”

    I sometimes wonder if it’s not just a nervous (or unprepared) presider trying to ground himself in what he’s supposed to do next, versus thinking he’s actually providing explanations of the ritual to the assembly. Surely the assembly isn’t that slow to understand!

    And if that’s for simple rituals, it’s easy to see how it happens for complex rituals.

  9. I think it depends on the congregation. We did not get, and did not need, any explanation for the dedication of the new altar in our Cathedral. The rites, the anointing, the clouds of incense, spoke for themselves to those who attended. But our priest always explains (briefly) the Paschal Candle, the incense, and the sprinkling of the coffin at a funeral, since many of those present will not be Catholic nor probably practising members of any church.

  10. Certainly, mystery doesn’t need explanation – yet it does need mystagogy – and some “translation,” especially in a culture where the language of mystery is not well-understood. Without regular and intentional mystagogy, we are, in most parish communities, far from realizing the vision of Sacrosanctum Consilium 11, which enjoined pastors “to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects.”

  11. +1 to Joyce

    There are different styles of “explaining.” In the RCIA, there is inquiry for the uncatechized, catechesis for the catechumens, purification and enlightenment for the elect, and mystagogy after they have been baptized. Each of those is different in some way, adapting the content to the person and their situation.
    While there is sometimes a place for each in an ordinary service, mystagogy is the style that should prevail in most congregations. Guiding into the mystery is an essential role of a priest. As said earlier, the gesture is better than a few words… “Let us kneel as a sign of our repentance” is better than “we kneel to show yadda yadda,” but if the community already knows what kneeling is, just kneel. The point is to lead people into the mystery, not to distract them from it.
    Leaving out all explanation can leave the impression that what we do has no meaning. It won’t happen today or tomorrow, but over a period of time people might forget why they are coming for this repitititious rite. Occasionally evoking the mystery with a few words can help lead ohers into the mystery.

  12. One anecdote. At a First Communion rehearsal some years ago I asked the children to notice when the priest holds his hands over the elements and what he says. Watch for the actions, I suggested, and listen for the words. After Mass the next day, one boy came up to me, “Mr F, I saw what you told us to look for. Father prayed for the Holy Spirit.” Mischief managed.

  13. From personal observation and education (on both sides of the desk) it seems to me that one of the problems is that people around about my age and younger (say under 40) (and perhaps other ages as well) is that we are not “churched” enough. The language of liturgy and of ritual is expressed in the whole variety of the life of the Church and we have, for a bunch of reasons, failed to partake in it. We’re losing (again for a whole bunch of reasons I think) the language to talk about ritual and meaning and that still assumes we can sit still long enough to see it.
    I do think that things are changing and I do think that we as a people are “programed” for ritual and meaning, but I think there is a lot of work to be done. That work might actually involve some real theological education of people my age (ish) but I agree so strongly that the place for that is not in the middle of the Liturgy.
    As an aside before I stop typing-I think its also important that we stop looking for the “right” way to understand the rite. The liturgical actions and theologies are deeper than what we each get and to assume that somehow we know the answer is a folly and one that I think drives people away.
    Here endith my thoughts.

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