Recently, an article addressed to priests who improvise at Mass appeared in America magazine. I agree with a lot of the points the author made, but the article itself didn’t seem to offer much practical advice. The overall point was that sometimes presiders improvise (as an actor might do on stage or in a film) and that improvisation usually detracts from the liturgy.
The problem is not that presiders improvise. All of them do. The author of the article even provides several examples of when it is okay to improvise.
The art and skill of improvisation
Liturgical presiding is an art, and skilled improvisation can enhance a presider’s art. Unfortunately, most presiders have not been trained in how to use dramatic improvisation. Improvisation is not riffing on whatever thought comes to mind. It is a highly-disciplined skill that requires the improviser to deeply listen to and observe the action. It requires intense focus to be consciously present in the moment. It requires complete engagement with the fellow ministers in the liturgy, the liturgical assembly, and the proscribed texts.
When a presider who hasn’t been trained or lacks innate dramatic gifts attempts to improvise during the liturgy, the assembly becomes disengaged and their level of participation is diminished.
Ironically, this is the exact opposite effect most presiders intend when they wander off script. Their joke, off-hand comment, “improved” prayer text, added Hail Mary, or “four-minute catechesis” is done with the intent of drawing people in. What most presiders don’t realize is that their improv usually sets up a barrier to participation.When a presider who hasn’t been trained or lacks innate dramatic gifts attempts to improvise during the liturgy, the assembly becomes disengaged and their level of participation is diminished. Click To Tweet
Have you first “mastered” the liturgy?
When I was learning about liturgy, I had a professor who was pretty famous in the liturgy world. He often taught seminarians who, realizing they were in the midst of greatness, wanted to know the professor’s secrets for making the liturgy more “creative.” (This was in the 1980s when creative liturgy was a thing.) He told them that they first had to master the texts and rubrics of the Mass as given to them before they could even think about doing anything “creative.”
I believe that’s still good advice, no matter how long you have been ordained. While I can name many exceptions, most presiders I encounter do not seem to have mastered the texts and rubrics of the liturgy. And even a master can decline in ability if he doesn’t continually strive for improvement.
16 suggestions for liturgical presiders
So with my professor’s maxim in mind — to first master the liturgy as given to us — I want to offer some suggestions for improving the skill level of liturgical presiders. Don’t try to improve on all of these at once. A simple plan is to pick one or two of the suggestions below and try them out.
Set a goal for improving your skill level by five percent each week or each month.
- Read the complete order of the Mass; read all the rubrics and texts. You probably have done that several times already, and it will serve you well to do it some more. You will discover new insights and aha moments.
- During the week before Sunday Mass, find out what the opening song will be. Read the text lectio divina style as part of your prayer that week.
- Consider chanting the introductory rites. If you don’t think that will be helpful in your parish, refrain from adding extra texts (for example, “Good morning”) to the intro.
- The Roman Missal offers many sample invocations for the Kyrie (see the appendix: “Sample Invocations for the Penitential Act”). Prayerfully choose the set that best fits for the Sunday. Consider having them chanted, either by you or another minister. Even though the rubrics allow it, do not make up your own invocations until you have completely mastered the form and tone of those in the missal.
- The best presiders practice the opening prayer (collect) out loud before Mass. If you have not been doing that, try practicing out loud at least six times. Record yourself and listen to how you sound.
- Likewise, the best gospel readers practice their reading ahead of time. Try practicing out loud at least six times before Mass. Record yourself and listen to how you sound.
- Pope Francis has given practical advice to homilists: “The one who gives the homily has to remember he isn’t doing something of his own. He’s preaching, he’s giving a voice to Jesus, he’s preaching the Word of Jesus. It has to be well-prepared and brief, brief.” By “brief,” the pope means no more than 10 minutes.
- If you will be dismissing catechumens, write out exactly what you intend to say for the dismissal. Use the text at RCIA 67b as a guide.
- Refrain from adding additional petitions to the general intercessions. If you want to add a petition, do it before Mass, and have the reader read it. If an introduction and closing prayer are not usually provided to you, write them out ahead of time instead of making them up on the spot. Do not add a Hail Mary.
- Using the Sunday readings as a guide, prayerfully choose which Eucharistic Prayer you will use. If the prayer has a variable preface, choose that as well.
- Find one line within the preface and one line within the Eucharistic Prayer that are particularly meaningful to you right now. Practice those lines out loud several times before Mass.
- During the sign of peace, if you are not already doing so, try following the rubric exactly as given for a few weeks. That is, “It is appropriate that each person, in a sober manner, offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest” (GIRM 82). When the presider extends the time of this rite by sharing the sign of peace with many in the pews, the focus of the liturgy shifts away from the assembly and onto the presider.
- For communion, consecrate enough hosts at each Mass for everyone in the assembly. Do not use hosts from the tabernacle. (See GIRM 85).
- After communion, if you are not already doing so, try extending the silent prayer to a full minute. This is most easily accomplished by having the assembly stand and beginning the Prayer after Communion with, “Let us pray.” Then pray silently for an extended time — up to a full minute. Then continue with the Prayer after Communion.
- For the concluding rites, try to eliminate most announcements and shorten those that cannot be eliminated. Try for a few weeks to strictly observe the rubric: “brief announcements, should they be necessary” (GIRM 90).
- Do not add anything additional to the concluding rites such as an additional reflection or a catechetical teaching session (sometimes called a three-minute or four-minute catechesis). Do not add in thank-yous to the ministers or spontaneous announcements or thoughts that haven’t been scripted ahead of time.
Mastering a skill takes time
As I said, just focus on one or two of these suggestions until you feel like you have mastered them. Then move on to another couple of items.
Aim for a gradual, five percent improvement.
If being super-strict about the rubrics doesn’t work for you, consider trying some of the rubrics, as written, for a few weeks and then evaluating.
I promise you that hewing more closely to the structure and texts of the liturgy will go a long way toward increasing the engagement of your assembly. The reason I have dedicated my life to studying and teaching about liturgy is because I was part of a Mass that changed my life. It was a weekday, Ordinary Time Mass. The presider was the famous professor I mentioned. And he did everything exactly by the book. He presided with such care and such intention that my eyes and heart were opened to the power and splendor of the liturgy.
You cannot accomplish that kind of beauty with improv.
Paul F. Ford
I had similar thoughts when I read the article in America and your response is magnificent. I am sending this to all the priests I have taught and to all of my seminarians, as well as to all the ordained on our faculty. Thank you!
Thanks Paul! That’s high praise, coming from you.
Msgr. Andy Varga
I too have been engaged in the teaching presiding practicums and homiletics from my seminary days when one of my priest-teachers saw something in me and my love for liturgy that he mentored to a deeper level. For over 30 years, I have taught a liturgical-year homiletic practicum to men preparing for the permanent diaconate that also includes much of the wisdom that you have shared. However (e.g.) consider #9: why not add a “Hail Mary”? No reason is offered. Many presiders do not recognize the dynamic of the General Intercessions: addressing God the Father in the introduction, commending the petitions that are about to be offered; the petitions themselves, voiced by a deacon or a lay person; the BRIEF concluding prayer by the priest that sums up and gathers (“collects”) the petitions into one and asks the Father to receive and grant kindly the prayers that have been presented “through Christ, our Lord.” Without recognizing the logic of that structure, it is far too easy/tempting to conclude with a prayer based on the presider’s piety rather than what the Church intends for this component of the liturgy. For all the good suggestions (the “what”) presented, we cannot presume that the reader understands the “why.” Liturgical catechesis, my friends… LITURGICAL CATECHESIS!
Thanks Andy! I appreciate your terrific insight. The seminarians and deacons are blessed to have you as an instructor.