In the days of the Latin Mass, we went to church and knelt in holy silence, praying quietly from our prayer books – The Treasury of the Sacred Heart, or, The Garden of the Soul – or we said our rosary, while up on the altar, the priest went through the sacred ritual of Mass. We were taking time out from the world and its weekly rush, to come into the presence of the Holy of Holies, to stand at the threshold of heaven, not venturing onto the sanctuary as that was sacred ground.
Half way through the mass, the priest would come down to us in the nave, ascending a pulpit to address us from on high, reading out the gospel once more, this time in our own language, and then proceeding to give us instruction in some element of the creed or doctrines of the church. Then back to the sacred ground and the mysteries. At communion time, in my day –the 1950s – we were encouraged to go up for communion, even though the message from the pulpit constantly impressed upon us that we were unworthy sinners. Knock them down and call them back.
The changes in the way we celebrate mass, which were ushered in with the Vatican Council, have been a very mixed blessing. We all know horrendous tales of trendy priests, guitars and noisy gatherings. The sacred ritual, performed at a distance from the congregation was replaced by a democratic come-all-ye that upset a great many people.
When done well, Mass is wonderful, powerful and inspiring. When done shoddily, it drives hungry people away. I wish to highlight one issue in particular. The way the priest speaks to the people.
In the old days it was hardly an issue. The mass was a closed shop, its ritual self-contained, its responses shared between priest and server. Only at sermon time did the priest talk to the people. Some good, some bad, some indifferent.
In the new mass, some priests did try to be trendy and with it, as if they were entertainers, on stage in front of people. Father Ted hit lots of nails on the head in that regard. People do not want smart alecs. We are not interested in being entertained.
Other priests, not knowing how to speak to people, simply adopt an objective mode of language, speaking like the speaking clock. This is the ultimate form of disconnection.
Priests need to learn how to speak in public to their gathered people. In particular, I think it vital, at weekday mass, to give a short and simple and personally thought out reflection on the readings of the day. If this connection is not made, people feel like robots attending an impersonal mumbo-jumbo.
Public speaking is a vitally important part of the church’s life. How important is it in the training of priests these days? Not just the mechanics of it, but the spiritual manner of it, the way of speaking that draws people in, that respects their hearts and minds, that inspires their prayer.
Our first connection with the church, our primary involvement is when we gather together for Mass. How well do we speak on these occasions?
I used to stand in the pulpit. I used to lead the people off God in prayer. Now I stand in the pew. The privilege of standing and leading Mass is great. Speak up. Speak clearly. Speak well.
• Brian Fahey served as a Redemptorist in the English province