My Futile Search for the Perfect Mass

My Futile Search for the Perfect Mass October 30, 2013

Since I’ve been more transient than usual of late, I’ve experienced parish life and worship in a variety of settings within recent weeks and moths.  And since I’ve been endowed with a critical mind that was hard enough to tone down even before seriously studying theology and liturgy, there is always something I end up mentally picking on – all the more so as my preferences fall on different sides of the “liturgy wars” that are hashed out in countless parishes, academic circles, and (of course) websites.

I could never have dreamed of being Catholic without Vatican II and am strongly partial to the Novus Ordo, but in pretty much a color-inside-the-lines kind of way, not in blind deference to rules for their own sake but in recognition of the way ritual speaks.  If this sounds like an odd combination of leanings, what holds it together is the longing for familiarity, both in the sense of accessibility and of ritual environment.  When we participate in the Eucharist, we enter into an inexhaustible mystery that is bigger than we know, and yet we need something recognizable to stand on if we dare approach it.  Liturgy should be both a language we can grasp or at least begin to grasp when we come to it, and a language all its own, reinforced over time by enough repetition to take root and become a holy habit that cultivates other holy habits (namely the Christian virtues).

To illustrate what I have tried to articulate in the abstract, and recognizing the subjectivity of what follows in the concrete, here’s an idea of what my “ideal” Mass would look like if I had all my druthers.

  • I want a sense of sacred space that catches my breath the moment I walk in the door, drawing me in to something bigger than me, in a way that is inviting rather than intimidating, yet nonetheless numinous.
  • The whole Mass should begin and end with the sign of the cross, as a liturgical bracket signaling who we belong to and why we are doing all this.  No blurring the bracket with a tangential mini-homily or a preemptive “good morning” or anything else; the only things that should precede and follow it (besides the dismissal) are the entrance and exit hymns.
  • While I’m on the subject of music, I like the occasional chant proper and the occasional Haas/Haugen/Joncas (preferably the ones that sound more like hymns and less like showtunes), but mainly I hope for liturgically appropriate hymns with sturdy tunes and solid texts of both classic and contemporary authorship.  I know four-part harmony would be asking too much for most Catholic parishes, but it’s nice to at least have a congregation that sings.
  • Variables like the homily and intercessions should ideally reflect, in varying ways, emphases on Christian discipleship, social concerns, and the particular concerns of the parish community, engaging the lectionary readings as well as tying back to anything applicable on the liturgical calendar (such as the saint whose feast it is, although this shouldn’t completely displace the scripture).
  • I’d rather not bother with grammatically awkward tap-dancing around all masculine pronouns.
  • The celebrant should resist temptations to satisfy his theological hangups through liturgical improv.  If you want to make a point, Father, save it for the homily.  (Having said that, I do smile at certain subtle translation fixes, e.g. “for the many.”)
  • Let’s please recite the Creed and the Our Father slowly and deliberately enough to hear what we’re saying, because this is serious stuff.
  • Yes to kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer, because we are the community at prayer.
  • Yes to joining hands during the Our Father, because we are the community at prayer.
  • Wafers are fine, but a loaf is even better.  And please do give us the cup too.
  • And if I happen to hear my favorite dismissal, that will be icing on the cake: “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.”  And then, most importantly, let’s go out and do that.

Needless to say, I probably won’t ever find any one Mass that meets all of the above criteria.  And ultimately I know that’s a good thing – as hard as this is to remember when I’m frowning at something or other that’s not to my liking – because it’s not about me.  I can always make a case for my preferences, and while some of them may be more petty and insignificant than I like to think, much of my rationale would, I believe, be valid.  I especially long for a strong sense of both reverence and community in one place, which underlies many of the particulars I have delineated here.  And yet, however valid my concerns may be, I know I am not entitled to a made-to-order consumer product, because that is not what the Mass is.  A liturgical theology professor of mine once said that being Catholic means living with what makes us uncomfortable, and maybe every liturgy is a reminder of this in one way or another.  As much as I’ve enjoyed indulging in this little liturgical fantasy, in the end I must remember that what I can’t stomach may be someone else’s deep nourishment, and vice-versa; and that each of us must surrender some ego and make room for each other in the pew, as we come together to be what we cannot be by ourselves: the church catholic.

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  • Julia, I love the tag unity among people who disagree. That is a guiding principle in my life, I love that you used it in this way. And in that same spirit, I wrote a long comment, which I just deleted – poof! Gone!

    Why tell you about it then?

    First, please find the story of The Three Hermits by Tolstoy. If you have not read it, I highly recommend this very short read. I find a lot of insight about many things each time I read the story- and I’ve been reading it for 20 years now.

    Trust me, I am deeply involved in the liturgical life of two parishes; one where I work and one where I worship. I love liturgy. I was once a bit more concerned with some of the same things – although not in the same ways, as you are. However, deeply entrenched with the everyday people of God, I see differently. I’m not talking about some rule-free liturgical free for all, replete with liturgical dance and a smoke machine! What I find is how Jesus is made present in the breaking of the bread.

    I don’t know, maybe I am old, maybe I am lazy. Who knows, but I know that my own list of just a few years ago has dissolved largely into dust. What is perfection and why is it about what you want? I have those questions for you. Even if what you want seems to be wrapped in liturgical norms. (BTW, I bow to your knowledge and study, which would appear to be more robust than my own theological education.)

    Julia, I hope that you find some of what you are looking for, but mostly I hope you find God present in God’s people. There is a lot of perfection in Christ in the whole imperfect mess. I’m not assuming that you don’t, but your list does make me wonder.

    Peace and good to you.

    • Julia Smucker

      Fran, I in turn bow to your maturity, which appears to be more robust than mine. Maybe age is indeed a part of it, and I am certain that temperament is too, at least in my case. The list represents my more critical side, but I hope you also notice my conclusion that it is not, after all, about what I want. The juxtaposition is meant to show my wrestling with the knowledge of this even in those moments when all I can think is, “No. This is not how it’s supposed to happen.” Well, maybe it’s not, but if I remember to ask myself what is really important, I usually do find that the other things pale beside meeting Christ in the breaking of the bread. That doesn’t mean the other things have no significance – every part of the Mass is charged with meaning, which is what I came to love about it in the first place and why I can’t help caring about these things – but it does mean that we must all sacrifice some personal comfort for the sake of the Body, and that’s what I keep having to remind myself.

      • Julia, you make so many good points, and for that I am most grateful – and humbled. I thought about my comment today and reflected that my opinion is not needed everywhere.

        I agree, the other parts of the mass have significance, and I am sorry if I implied that they did not matter – they do.

        Thank you!

        • Julia Smucker

          No hard feelings, Fran. My opinion may not be needed everywhere either. 😉

          Seriously, thank you for engaging my post so thoughtfully.

  • Late last winter, our retired bishop died, and several bishop friends of his came to Fort Wayne, Ind., for his funeral. Those bishops included two from Boston. Boston got hit with a snowstorm, and the bishops were forced to stay in Fort Wayne for a few extra days. On the last Sunday before Lent, one of the bishops was at our parish and celebrated Mass. It was a most beautiful Mass. The bishop (not Cardinal Sean, by the way) truly prayed the Eucharistic prayer. The following week, the First Sunday of Lent, I found myself in a neighboring parish, one I hadn’t been to in years. The priest sped read through the Gospel and the Eucharistic prayer. Mass was over in less than 45 minutes. I felt disappointed. Why couldn’t he celebrate Mass the way that bishop from Boston had the previous week, I thought. But I’ve been back to that neighboring parish several times since. Not because the priest speeds through Mass but because his homilies are A+ homilies. And I also realize it’s Mass — the highest form of prayer we have. It may not be perfect in my eyes, but it is perfect. I no longer leave Mass there feeling disappointed but spiritually nourished. Good luck, Julia, in finding that perfect Mass.

    • Mike, I read your comment with relish. I work in a parish and my boss is a beautiful and thoughtful presider and a great homilist. The mass is usually about 1 hour long. One of the most frequent complaints that I hear is that mass is “too long.” *sigh* It makes me a little crazy to hear that, but your comment is well taken by me!

  • You know, someone once said that a great piece of music is greater than all of its possible interpretations. I think the Mass is like that. It’s greater than all of its possible interpretations.

    • Julia Smucker

      That’s an excellent way of putting it! I’m sure this is true of the Mass. I’m going to have to savor this insight for awhile.

  • Chris Sullivan

    From the gospel accounts, one gets the distinct impression that the last supper was not “perfect” in human terms. Judas, Peter, and the rest arguing over who was going to be the leader.

    Yet, the community gathered, the scriptures were opened, prayers were offered, the bread and wine were consecrated and consumed, and grace and forgiveness flowed.

    The divine is able to be perfect in the midst of all human imperfection. Every Mass is perfect.

    God Bless

    • Julia Smucker

      Another good reminder. Remembering that the squabbles and other human imperfections in the Church go all the way back to the apostles definitely helps keep things in perspective. The community of fellow disciples can be at the same time the most frustrating thing about belonging to the Church and what keeps us coming back.

  • Pardon the pun…but preach it sister! 🙂

    • Julia Smucker

      Thanks, but how is that a pun?

  • I loved your observation that we’re not entitled to a Mass as a made-to-order consumer product, because that’s not what it is. How true: I don’t tend to get too snarled up by liturgy these days, but I often approach the Church herself as a made-to-order product for this (often disgruntled) consumer.

    I don’t know very many Catholics, but several of the ones I do know get very worked up about liturgy, especially the Extraordinary Form. One of the insights that has really helped me deal with that was from the story of the woman with the alabaster jar. The story is often used, of course, in defence of traditional liturgy/precious vessels etc, since it’s Judas who objects that the money would have been better spent on the poor. Read from a different perspective, the message seems to be that Mass isn’t a zero-sum game. The real wealth is the woman herself, whose body and hair take on the nature of a liturgical vestment/vessel. Certainly, she supplies something that Christ needs, some lack or poverty that characterised his relationships.

    I think the point can be pushed a bit further, and I’ve found that doing this helps not only with participating in liturgies that aren’t to my taste, but in keeping my peace when life more generally isn’t going my way – that is, what does a Mass of me look like?

    • Julia Smucker

      I love your point about the Mass not being a zero-sum game. Your reading of that story is intriguing and must surely be a truer interpretation than one that would dichotomize liturgical and social concerns.

      I also know some Catholics who get very worked up about the existence of the Extraordinary Form, and others who prefer it or at least sympathize with those who do. I personally am grateful that the Ordinary Form is normative, but having at certain times asked some of those with a penchant for the EF to respect my need for, and the Church’s legitimation of, the OF (like here for example), Christian charity would require that I grant those brothers and sisters of mine the same respect that I ask them for.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Julia, Your knowledge of the history of the liturgy is more comprehensive than mine, but based on what I know, the kinds of organic, contextual variation you have witnessed as you have gone from parish to parish are examples of the same kinds of variation that led to the evolution of the liturgy in the first 1500 years of the Church. A word gets changed here, a phrase gets added there and slowly the liturgy evolves. Some branches are rich and fruitful, others have problems and either die out on their own or are pruned away.

    I think that one of the downsides of Trent was that the liturgy had proliferated so much during the medieval period that the Fathers of Trent felt it was necessary to prune very harshly, effectively eliminating all rites except the reconstructed rite that became the Tridentine liturgy. Moreover, they forcefully imposed a uniformity that I think degenerated into rubricism.

    • Julia Smucker

      David, I think you can give yourself more credit on your historical knowledge. Everything I’ve learned about the history of liturgy (which is far from exhaustive) would affirm that you are quite right about the liturgical diversity and organic evolution of the Church’s early centuries, which is perhaps underappreciated among Catholics in general. But I also think the Council of Trent was at least partly right to prune some of the medieval proliferation that may have gotten a little over the top. Whether they might have gone too far is another question, and one can always make that case. And I agree about a kind of rubricism that itself went over the top becoming a negative consequence later on. On the other hand, it’s good to remember that Trent was a much-needed, era-defining council, just as Vatican II was. That’s not to say that any such council is above critique, but just to keep things in perspective.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Julia, your observations about Trent are apropo, and I in retrospect I should not have finished on that note. What I meant to emphasize was that since Vatican II we have seen a return in the organic evolution of the liturgy, both here in the West and in parts of the Third World: e.g. progressive parishes in the US might dabble in liturgical dance as an affectation, but in many Churches in various parts of Africa it is an integral part of worship. I think the discomfort comes from the fact that you (and me too—see my posts about masses in various parts of Europe) are stepping briefly into someone else’s organic evolution, and this is always jarring. Before the modern age, it was the rare traveler who got to see a liturgy celebrated more than a dozen miles from his home; now it is commonplace.

      So maybe the question to ask is not whether any mass you are visiting is perfect for you, but rather whether it is right for the community at this particular time and place. The answer can be no—as I noted before, communities can wander into dead ends and liturgical abuses. But framed this way, maybe you can see the differences as a gift they have to share with you.

      • Julia Smucker

        Thank you, David. This is exactly the kind of paradigm shift I was trying to get myself into as a corrective to my perfectionism. And when you put it in these terms (“perfect for you” vs. “right for the community”), I have to admit that my perfectionism can become tinged with individualism and consumerism, as much as I like to think myself countercultural with regard to such things.

        Also, your point about stepping into someone else’s organic evolution makes total sense to me. In fact, you’d think I’d be used to that by now. Well, on second thought, I suppose I am. One of the first things I came to love about the Mass – all the more acutely realized in my case as I was learning it within a cross-cultural living situation – was that each culture gives it a certain flavor, around an underlying structure that is universal. But I suppose that, as you say, the transitional stepping-in is always jarring, no matter how many times one has done it.

      • David, my dear OFS brother, you might know that it’s largely due to the spreading of the franciscan movement that liturgical diversity became rare. St. Francis ordered his brothers to celebrate just like the Pontiff, and because they were (and still are) the largest missionary order of the Church, the Tridentine reform picked up something that was already at hand.

    • Ben Dunlap

      David, just a small point on “the reconstructed rite that became the Tridentine liturgy” — my understanding is that the original Tridentine missal of 1570 was largely just the missal of the Roman Curia. I’ve read that one can compare it with an extant manuscript copy of the curial missal from about 80 years earlier and the two are pretty much the same. If that’s right then there wasn’t much reconstruction going on in the original preparation of the Tridentine missal.

      Your larger point remains, though — this missal, which in some respects was not a “people’s liturgy” since it was the rite used by senior clerics in the Vatican — ended up replacing richer and more local rites in some places.

      (I think the OF missal promulgated in 1970 did little to address this problem. It had much more of the character of a reconstruction, or even, in places, a new construction — and it seems to me that 1970 saw a further and more drastic pruning of what remained of medieval diversity in the Latin rites — but maybe that’s a different conversation)

    • I’m afraid that I may be double-posting here inadvertently, but David, I wanted to briefly reply to the last part of your comment. I don’t think the original Tridentine missal of 1570 was a reconstruction as much as a formalization of the rite then used by the Roman Curia. Evidently one can compare the 1570 text with an extant curial missal from the late 1400s and they are largely the same.

      Also I wonder how forcefully the 1570 missal was imposed. Any liturgy that was at least 200 years old was expressly allowed to remain in use and a certain amount of the medieval diversity of Latin liturgies did survive throughout the Tridentine era and into the 20th century, particularly among religious orders.

      That being said, it’s surely right to say that some places experienced a sudden liturgical deprivation in the 16th century. It’s probably too early to tell whether the promulgation of the OF in 1970 fundamentally addressed that problem, but I do appreciate a certain amount of the rubrical flexibility we now have in the OF.

  • Ronald King

    I do not search for a perfect Mass but I am distracted by my negative reaction at times to a word in the liturgy like “consubstantial” and must remind myself why I am really here. The reason why I am really here is to bring to Christ everything which separates me from knowing and loving God and all that God creates. Mass reveals to me what is manmade vs what God has created. It reveals to me what in me needs to be loved and consequently what in others needs to be loved. This does not happen all the time because of me. When it does happen there is a feeling of freedom and love which transcends any human differences and creates a bond which seems to be present for a brief moment within the community. Where it goes afterwards is up to each of us but it seems to fragment into many different areas of expression or repression. The unity of that moment seems lost in the world of demands outside the Mass. Thanks Julia for stimulating a conversation which delves deeper into the meaning of being a Creation of God and how each of us may express and feel the limitations of our relationship to the Mystery of God and Us.

    • Julia Smucker

      If I may allow myself one more flight of fancy, the one word in the creed I still choke on is “I”, because I believe the “we” is so important to our Catholic faith. But I’m usually just trying to keep up with the congregation and gasping for air by the next “I believe” and regretting that we’re going through the creed much too fast to hear what we’re professing. But then, when I let out my breath after getting through it at such breakneck speed, I think of the time I heard someone say that if we really got what’s going on in the Eucharist, we’d go through it wearing crash helmets. That’s the one redeeming image that comes out of that particular reaction.

      But to your broader point (and mine too, really), I am too often distracted during Mass by my negative reaction to all kinds of things, and the need to remind myself why I am really there was a big part of my reason for writing this post. And after having written it and seeing the comments that followed, I went to All Saints Day Mass more conscious of my own attitude and of meeting Christ there regardless of whatever internal and external distractions there were.

    • Kimberley

      Too bad about consubstantial as it always brings a smile to my face. My kindergartner has a word of the day in school that sometimes I have to look up when she brings it home. Her favorite so far is indefatigable. Her second favorite is consubstantial and she gives me a big smile every time we say it during the creed.

      • Ronald King

        Well now Kimberly, you have just ruined my negative attitude towards consubstantial by telling me about it being your indefatigable daughter’s second favorite word.

  • Cojuanco

    Look, my preferences are somewhat towards the Extraordinary Form. But to me, either there is no such thing as a “perfect” Mass, or if a “perfect” Mass is a valid Mass, then to some extent when the words of institution are said, whether Father bungled the Prayers of the Faithful or failed to properly ensure the Hosts did not go everywhere, etc. becomes strangely less relevant to me. I mean, after all, we just witnessed a miracle happening in our midst, and people are still bickering? Then there’s the fact there are millions of fellow Catholics who would give their right arm for a Mass, any Mass, but they cannot get to one because of persecution.

    Of course, this is not new. After all, the first Mass, let us remember, witnessed bickering among the bishops present, and one of them conspiring to kill the Main Celebrant.

    • Julia Smucker

      What you and some others here have said is very true, and I like the way you put it: no Mass is perfect, or every Mass is, depending on which way you look at it. That’s essentially what I’m acknowledging more subtly in the title of this post: that despite any wish I might have for my idea of a “perfect” Mass, I know in my heart of hearts that this misses the point, and I see the futility of bouncing around from parish to parish in search of a “product” that meets all my personal specifications (if I were ever to take such an approach – and indeed when I put it that way I find the idea repelling).

      • Kimberley

        I would say and instead of or. Every mass is perfect as it is the perfect sacrifice and no mass is perfect as human beings are involved.

        My perfect mass is every Christmas Eve morning. The walk in darkness to church hopefully with snow crunching beneath my borrowed boots. The church is decorated, yet it is still officially Advent so the colors are purple. It is the quiet contemplation. The gospel is usually the Canticle of Zachariah. Once the power went off the evening before so the church was dark and cold lit only by candles and the breaking dawn. The songs are usually an off key (mostly me) O Come O Come Emmanuel, a too short or too long homily, and a whole church sign of peace, but to me Christmas Eve morning mass will always be perfect.

  • cris

    Cojuanco: the Last Supper wasn’t the First Mass. A Mass requires the death and resurrection of Christ.

    • trellis smith

      I too was surprised at this comment of Cojuanco. as well as a certain “transactional” rather than sacramental expression of the Mass with which I am more familiar.

    • Julia Smucker

      Cris and Trellis, I’m inclined to agree with you here, but I didn’t quibble because I thought it was beside the point in this case. Cojuanco’s point about the bickering going back to the Last Supper is one that I find oddly comforting.

    • Cojuanco

      Point taken, but my point still stands if you have the Last Supper as a necessary precondition for the Mass to be instituted.

      • Julia Smucker

        I would assume we’re all agreed on the Last Supper as a precondition for what we now call Mass. Technicalities aside, I appreciated your point about the bickering and other human imperfections even at the Last Supper.

  • Kurt

    If you are in Manhattan, you can find a very fine Mass at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue at around 84th Street. The music program is superb. Some Latin Gregorian chants by the parish choir and orchestra. This Sunday included :

    Mendelssohn’s Prelude and fugue in G Major
    Blow’s O praise the Lord of heaven
    Weelkes’ Gloria in excelsis Deo
    and J.S. Bach’s Toccata in D minor, BWV 538

    The preaching is equally good and sometimes is by our friend Fr. James Martin SJ. The Mass is dignified and the parish is strongly involved in social justice efforts, lay spirituality and participation, and faith formation.

    Or, you can take the Lexington Avenue subway from St. Ignatius all of the way to the Lower East Side. There on Second Avenue, not far from the Catholic Worker House, is Nativity Parish. The church building lacks the visual beauty of St. Ignatius. High School gyms have as much charm. The organist or cantor might show up late for Mass for the rather minimal music ministry. The sound system and HVAC are not always working. The homilies are okay. The rather eccentric woman who serves as Lector is a trip. The congregation includes the homeless, the mentally ill, the undocumented, some interesting Peter Maurin types of low income intellectuals lacking any fashion standards and maybe a drunk or two off the street, but not much more.

    And yet is one of the most wonderful, beautiful spiritual experiences possible. Uptown or downtown, it is all good.

  • Roger


    I like your post but me personally, I’ve given up on finding the perfect Mass. All I can hope for is the one that is closest to what I consider the perfect Mass.

    For me, the perfect mass has hymns sung by a choir (in a choir loft), the hymns were all written long before I was born The celebrant is not high-fiving his way down the aisle during the procession. The homely is well thought out, relevant, instructive and enlightening (not folksy and lame) and all prayers is said with reverence, and not sped through. After the “our father” there is no sign of the peace (we’re not protestants here). Most importantly, there are no Eucharistic ministers – communion is administered only by priests and deacons.

    Also, Latin is always used in what I would consider the perfect Mass. It doesn’t have to dominate the mass but agnus dei and sanctus can be beautiful in Latin.

    I know some here will strongly disagree with me but the above Mass shows reverence to our Lord – after all the Mass we attend is not for us or for the guitar player or the priest – its for HIM.

    • Julia Smucker

      Roger, I would tend to lean your way in everything except the sign of peace and Eucharistic ministers. I experience these things as bringing out a very Catholic sense of community and charity, so I’m curious what you see as un-catholic about the sign of peace.

      I don’t “strongly disagree” with your final statement, but I would nuance it somewhat. The Mass is where our Lord meets us. It is not about us (or at least not about our individual tastes), but at the same time it is not just something we do for God but also (and surely much more so) something God does for us. This is not at all to suggest that an atmosphere of reverence is not important, but I suspect that we need this more than God does.

  • Roger

    I don’t hate the sign of peace but I believe it doesn’t belong at the point where it resides in the Mass. In other words, it would be better served towards the end of it.

    Let’s just say its another misinterpretation of Vatican II by a misguided generation. Oh, and I won’t even get into your comment about holding hands during the “our father.”

    • Julia Smucker

      Well, why not get into it? I am genuinely curious about your reasoning and am trying to understand where you are coming from. Consider this an invitation to make your case. So, why would you prefer that the sign of peace be towards the end? And to go back to my previous question, what about it seems “protestant” to you? As for the Our Father, I have heard occasional references to the practice of joining hands as being representative of bad liturgy but have never heard an explanation why. So I am asking for one.

  • Roger

    Regarding, the sign of peace, it breaks the solemnity of the most important part of the Mass (just before the agnus dei). This is especially true when you have some over zealous clown insisting on shaking hands with some guy 20 feet away.

    As for holding hands, it may not be officially “bad liturgy” buts its lame and its my personal preference to not do it. I suppose if it was up to me, I wouldn’t outlaw it. I’m not that mean : )

    • Julia Smucker

      Thank you for explaining. I guess it depends on how one understands solemnity, because I do not see this as being at all broken by the sign of peace. In my understanding, it is an expression of reverence for the presence of Christ in the assembly, which flows naturally into our reverence for Christ in the Eucharist. It has also been a potent reminder that you can’t be Catholic by yourself; that thought often struck me before I was received into the Catholic Church, when I would strategically seat myself to minimize communion line awkwardness, but not so far away from everybody that there would be nobody to exchange the sign of peace with. I do get a little annoyed when people keep shaking hand after hand after the Agnus Dei has begun, but I am also reminded of a friend whose 7-year-old son really embodies full, conscious and active participation in the Mass, saying all the liturgical responses with gusto and exchanging the sign of peace with as many people as possible, and it’s really very sweet – and very reverent on his part, as is evident to everyone who sees him at Mass.

      For an example of what I think goes a little too far, the parish I am now close to where I’ve been attending for a few weeks always has us stand and greet our neighbors just before Mass begins, which feels redundant to me. And with my introverted aversion to small talk, I would much rather greet my neighbors with a liturgically prescribed “peace be with you” than with an awkward “hi” or “good morning”.

    • Kurt

      I think we particularly need some rite of peace among the members of the assembly when we feel free to call some of our fellow worshippers “clowns”

      • Ronald King

        Kurt, Thanks for addressing the “clowns” comment. That comment is a form of violence.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I have been in a parish where the presiding priest let the sign of peace go on for about 5 minutes, and people were going all over the place to greet one another. It was a bit shocking, and I am not sure I would encourage this on a regular basis. On the other hand, as a visitor I felt truly welcomed to have people come from 20 feet away to share a greeting of peace.

  • Andrew

    Hi Julia. I saw an article somewhere else recently, which seems to display a viewpoint diametrically opposed to the very idea of finding the “perfect” Mass. I’m not saying I necessarily agree with this other article, nor would I say that you are somehow “wrong” to be looking for a perfect Mass, but I thought the article might be a helpful counterpoint for some of the ideas you are exploring:

    • Julia Smucker

      Actually, I was attempting to make the same point that Heather King makes more eloquently in the post you link to: that my desire for a “perfect Mass” is futile and probably misguided, despite there being something in me that tenaciously insists on the validity of my every critique, even when they are born of that misguided desire.

      • Andrew

        I don’t think Heather makes the point more eloquently at all, although perhaps more forcefully. I thought it an interesting counterpoint that you spend most of your article searching for the perfect Mass, and conclude at the end that your desire for it is part of the problem, whereas Heather spends most of her article castigating people who search for the perfect Mass, and concludes at the end that her impatience with said people is part of the problem.

  • Roger

    “a form of violence”
    Seriously? I’m guessing you’re one of those clowns.

  • Julia Smucker

    Peace, brothers.

    The “clown” comments are uncharitable, and calling it “violence” was needlessly provocative. I’m not trying to pretend to be above the fray by saying this, but these exchanges are illustrative of our need to extend our hands, look each other in the eye and say, “Peace be with you.” If only all Catholics who comment on a blog post could attend Mass together.

    • Ronald King

      Julia, I just read the comment responding to my comment about name-calling being a form of violence. In this case calling someone a clown for reaching out to others at Mass indicates an attitude which is unloving and harmful to the community, just as my negative reaction to certain words in the liturgy is a form of violence and is harmful to the community whether I express it or not. I did not make that comment to be provocative. I made the comment because I have had experience helping others who have been hurt by such comments. When I would confront the person initiating the comment in a face to face encounter my intent would be educational in the hope of developing empathy. The reaction of the person to my confrontation would be indicative of an openness or a defensiveness to meaningful interpersonal communication based on developing vulnerability and empathy.
      At some point it might be helpful to have a discussion about the many forms of violence in human relationships.

      • Roger

        Again, I have to ask “violence?” Seriously?

        If you re-read my post it might dawn on you that when I used the word “clown” it specifically referred to individuals who go beyond the usual “peace be with you” to his neighbors (i.e. the walk 10-15 feet to shake hands with another parishioner).

        My point is that the sign of peace should be moved to the end of the Mass (that’s it).

        I hope you don’t find this post “violent.” I’m anything but.

        • Ronald King

          Roger, I get your point. Using the word “clown” to describe someone going beyond the limits of your subjective boundaries to express peace to another member is disrespectful. Name calling is a violent act. If you want to do an in vivo experiment then go to that person and call him/her a clown for expressing peace to someone 20 feet away. What does your conscience tell you about doing that?

  • Jordan

    My belief and faith have entered a period of great turbulence. I have almost completely departed traditionalism, but now find myself alienated from all Christian liturgy and perhaps even Christ. If I don’t believe, can I comment on an “ideal Mass”? Maybe.

    My blood is margarine — my lipid levels are astronomical, and no amount of dieting or exercise pares down the numbers. Perhaps this state of health was useful for my distant ancestors on the Russian steppes, but it is of no benefit before the Sunday pork roast dinner. I once visited a nutritionist to address my lipid issues. She would encourage me to do something by saying something akin to, “What about a salad?” or “What about cashews?” Better then to say, “you’ll have to eat vegetarian almost all the time”. Direction, not mere timid suggestions.

    Similarly, I find that many priests try to “sell” congregants on difficult issues, rather than attempt to engage intellects with frank and erudite preaching. Granted, certain moral questions such as post-abortion counseling and NFP are best left to the confessional or private spiritual guidance. Confession, for example, might be a suitable homily topic so long as the opposing perils of “the wages of sin …” and “oh, nobody really commits mortal sin …” are avoided. Rather than “what about Confession?”, I would appreciate a homily which presents Church teaching and then encourages people to consider their doubts and even entertain the possibility that they might not believe.

    Doubt is the crucible of faith. And yet, so many priests are unwilling or unable to encounter doubt forthrightly and work through this doubt in an inclusive journey with the assembly. Being told what one wants to hear merely spackles over the echo chamber again, rather than encourage growth through intellectual struggle.

  • I guess in some ways all of us Catholics are searching for the “perfect Mass.” I have had the delightful blessing to have participated in several “perfect” Masses. But, alas, that was long ago and far away. At my parish during the 1980s and 1990s, we celebrated the Easter Vigil beginning at 3 or 4 am with a fire to light the darkness all around. The Vigil continued in a darkened worship space set up in the gym (where Tenebrae had been celebrated on Friday evening). In the darkness we heard the thrilling readings (all seven of the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures) beginning with Genesis: “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. . . .” Then we processed with candles into the worship space, chanting as we walked, to celebrate the rest of the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of Baptism and the Liturgy of Eucharist. The songs (sung in four part harmony) blended old standards, and traditional chants with new hymns. Such a glorious memory of such a holy time. But, alas, as all good things on earth must, the time passed and the parish was taken over by rule-oriented leaders who determined that since the Vigil must end at “first light” and that the precise time of “first light” could never be determined (having already rejected the idea that NOAA’s calculations as to the time of dawn were liturgically acceptable determinations of “first light”) the Vigil must commence at a suitably early time, say 8 pm, and not the perniciously precarious 3 am that apparently imperiled our souls lest we trip over the “first light” rule. Of course, this decision had nothing to do with convenience for the celebrants. Well, I will have to ask forgiveness for my harsh judgment here, but I do so miss these liturgies that added so much to the parish’s spiritual and liturgical life. I am so grateful for having had these experiences and hold them close to my heart until that beautiful morning when I can join in the heavenly celebration (which, in my mind at least, will be quite a bit like those Easter Vigils).

  • I sometimes think that discussions along these lines tend to focus on an important but ultimately secondary aspect of the liturgy — i.e., its power to form the hearts and minds of the faithful.

    In Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Fathers of Vatican II called this the “pastoral and didactic” nature of the liturgy, as distinct from its “hierarchical and communal” nature, which they placed first in their discussion.

    In a similar vein the very words of the mass remind us that it is first of all offered for the praise and glory of God’s name, and then also for the good of the people present and the good of the whole Church.

    Even the Lord’s Prayer reminds us of this: the first petition is “hallowed be thy name”. The petitions for our good don’t come until the second half.

    It’s really kind of odd, and a bit of a theological conundrum, to note that our tradition of prayer generally directs us to ask God for his own good first, and ours second. One sometimes wonders what exactly that even means?

    I do think, though, that it can cast a helpful light on rubrics. I think you’re absolutely right to say that a certain fidelity to rubrics is essential to preserving the character-forming power of the liturgy… and yet there’s more.

    Look at the end of Exodus — chapter upon chapter of liturgical rubrics, evidently dictated by God himself. I know there are sophisticated theories about the interplay of various Jewish temple traditions and how that affected the text of Exodus, etc., but setting all that aside for a moment, it does seem that we can reasonably conclude from Exodus (and many other places in Scripture) that God cares about the details of our worship — perhaps even a lot more than we might be comfortable admitting.

    So I don’t think that attention to liturgical detail is problematic in and of itself. The problem is when it focuses primarily on my own good: I want X, Y, and Z in the liturgy because that’s what nourishes me. But maybe we need to allow 1, 2, and 3 because that’s what nourishes my neighbor over there.

    Much better to say: I want A, B, and C in the liturgy because that’s how the Church directs us to worship, and Christ gave the Church the authority to direct us in this way so that God could be worshiped fittingly.

    • Cojuanco

      But the Church varies in what their directions are in that case. That’s why there’s more than one form of the Roman Rite and 23 sui iuris Churches.

      What they have in common is that they are a sacrifice to God where God Himself takes the form of the Sacrifice, too (which is to some extent a mystery, but we’re talking about someone who can travel through space and time, so that’s kind of expected).