“In the Mass all that we receive is a gift of the Father. It is never ours to shape as we please.” — Archbishop Vincent Nichols, Diocese of Westminster, June 7, 2011.
In the Adoremus Bulletin for August, 2011, Helen Hitchcock republished the sermon of the English Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols. The Archbishop was speaking to priests of his diocese about the spirit in which they should welcome the new translation of the Mass. Speaking of John 16, Nichols said that “the wonder of our calling, the wonder of the mystery we minister to (is) that we human beings are welcomed into the intimacy and love of the Father and Son, which is the life of the Holy Spirit.” Priests enter “most powerfully” through the celebration of Mass. In the Mass all is “gift of the Father.” These are the key words that Nichols uses to remind us of what Mass means. The Mass that Nichols was celebrating at the time used the new translation.
This new translation, Nichols thought, would suddenly awaken us to new words or to see old ones new again, to be even more alert to what is being said. But what Nichols was primarily concerned with, as was the Vatican Instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum, of 2004, was what we do, how we look on the celebration of Mass. Nichols gives some very excellent advice. “My first conviction is this: Liturgy is never my own possession, or my creation. It is something we are given by the Father.” These are noble, precise words. The Mass, while it is in a human language with human movements, is never simply what this priest makes up. Nichols adds: “We don vestments to minimize our personal preferences, not to express or emphasize them. Liturgy is not ours.” That is a refreshing idea. Vestments are meant to diminish the personality of the priest so that the priesthood of Christ becomes central. Liturgy is not “self-expression.”
Though much can be said for memorization of texts, I have always thought that the priest should largely “read” the Mass as it is set in the Missal so that the faithful, listening to him and watching him, will know that what he says and does is not his, but the action of Christ in the Church. “The Mass is the action of the Church,” as Nichols puts it. At this point, Nichols has an aside memory. As he recalls, he once heard that John Paul II “never commented on a Mass he had celebrated. It’s the Mass. My task is to be faithful.” That is really profound. Blessed John Paul II, as we read in his encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, spells out the whole theology of the Eucharist. But the Mass is not “his.” It is the Sacrifice of the Cross, what Christ told us to do in His memory. We do not say “Schall said a fine Mass.” The Mass is the Mass. It is public. The priest is to be faithful to what the Mass is, not to his views.
Nichols then points out that “the Liturgy forms us, not us the Liturgy.” We do not “use” the Mass as an excuse to get people together. The togetherness at Mass is a result of what it is: an assembly of those who believe that it is the Memorial of the Crucifixion of the Lord. Those present at the Mass who do not believe are mere spectators. With regard to priests who keep changing the wording of the Mass to suit their style, Nichols adds: “The words of the Mass form our faith and our prayer. They are better than my spontaneous creativity. At Mass my place is very clear. I am an instrument in the hands of the Lord.”
Redemptionis Sacramentum repeats what is a long tradition in the Church, namely that each priest should say his own Mass frequently, indeed he is encouraged to say Mass each day (#110). Archbishop Nichols says: “My celebration of the Mass each morning shapes my heart for the day ahead.” The Instruction adds: All priests, to whom the Priesthood and the Eucharist are entrusted for the sake of others, should remember that they are enjoined to provide the faithful with the opportunity to satisfy the obligation of participating at Mass on Sundays” (#163). The “shaping of the heart” by Mass belongs to everyone. Archbishop Nichols puts it well: “Our (priestly) part is to offer the Mass as a service of the people. “
In his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger stated that the priest needs to “decrease,” to use words of John the Baptist. The Mass is not about him. One of the upsetting effects of turning the altar around was its inducement to turn the priest into an actor or a commentator. He too easily sees himself as the center. This is why the Pope has said that there should be a crucifix on every altar that faces the people, just to remind everyone what the real center is. The traditional setting of the altar is when everyone, priest and congregation are all facing the same direction, toward the Lord.
“The fashion of our celebration of the Mass,” Nichols repeated, “should never be dominating or over-powering of those taking part. It should be well judged, respectful of its congregation, sensitive to their spiritual needs.” The Archbishop adds something about the beauty and inner order of the church itself. A church should be beautiful. “A beautiful, cared for church is the best preparation we can provide.” He cites one of his predecessors, Cardinal Hume. Churches are not just other buildings. They are “building with which we worship the Lord.” This is what the great cathedrals are, as well as so many lovely “ordinary” churches.
Archbishop Nicholas has a final, moving point that goes to the very essence of Christianity. Christianity is not a “religion,” which properly means an aspect of the virtue of justice by which all men set aside some sign of acknowledgment of the divine source. The point of view of Christianity is from top down. That is, it is something that has been given to us, unexpectedly, unanticipated. This understanding is what lies behind the emphasis on the fact that the priest is not the one who is the center. He stands in place of something. It is not “his” Mass. “In the Mass all that we receive is a gift of the Father,” the Archbishop tells us. “It is never ours to use and shape as we please. In the Mass all is to the glory of the Son. In this we are no more than instruments, humble and delighted to play our part…. In the Mass we who know Him also know that we are in this world to serve its humanity, in His name, until He comes again.”
Archbishop Nichols, I think, has it just right. We have received a gift that explains ultimately what we are. We will not concoct something better. In the meantime, we are asked to keep the reality, the memory, of what the Last Supper is, with its leading to the Crucifixion and our redemption before us. We do this primarily at Mass when we know what it is, when we, in the end, can say simply, that we are obedient servants. It is our obedience that opens our eyes. Like John Paul II, we do not “comment” on a Mass we have said. “It is the Mass. My task is to be obedient.” The fact is that nothing we change, subtract, or add makes it better (RS #31).
“In the Mass, all that we have is a gift of the Father.” Once we have understood this reality, little more needs to be said.
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age, is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his website.
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