One of the great things about being Catholic is the uniformity of the liturgy. Go to any Latin-rite Catholic Church around the world—or at least any within one’s episcopal conference—and the liturgy will be pretty much the same: while the songs, homily, and people will likely be different from place to place, the readings, prayers, and overall structure of the mass will remain the same. Unlike some other Church traditions, the Catholic liturgy is not dependent on the charisma or creativity of the priest. It is what it is, regardless of the presider.
And yet, experience shows that the opposite is true as well: despite having a fairly strict formula for celebrating the mass as opposed to other traditions, I would argue that the charisma and creativity of the priest has just as much effect on the liturgy in Catholic masses as in other Christian services. The difference between a dynamic, engaging, charismatic priest and one who simply says the words and performs the gestures is enormous. For some, it can even be the difference between a strong and lively faith experience and slipping away from the Church altogether. As much as we don’t want it to be about the priest and as much as we want to it to be about the liturgy itself, we cannot escape the influence the presider has.
What a joy that presents to someone training to be a priest… and what a danger that presents for the people of God. Compare two experiences I’ve had in recent weeks.
The first was a pretty “standard” mass. As a theology student who has studied the rubrics of the liturgy, I can tell you that everything was done absolutely to the letter of the law. The priest “said the black and did the red,” as we would say. When the world around us is in constant flux, it is not only comforting to enter into a controlled, predictable setting, it also allows for greater participation on the part of the laity: not having to wonder what’s going to happen next or trying to keep up with innovations or high energy, we in the congregation are able to move beyond the mechanics and into prayer.
There was only one problem: the priest was dreadfully boring. Although his homily was not the worst I had heard—it was short and had a clear point, which was nice—it was a bit predictable and did not challenge or inspire. Listening to his voice during the prayers was a bit coma-inducing, and really, I felt that the words were being spoken at me or just to empty space in front of the presider. There was no sense of dialogue or relationship, just proper words and actions. The experience, honestly, was fairly forgettable.
Cue the second experience. Beyond everything else, I left thinking about the priest. A dynamic personality, he walked up and down the rows before mass and introduced himself to people he didn’t recognize, even including people’s names and stories in his homily and announcements. His homily was long and moving, filled with memorable stories that were both entertaining and thought-provoking. The way he prayed was comforting, engaging, and inviting, and I felt at times that we was speaking directly to me in an intimate way.
There was only one problem: the mass was all about him. Despite the wonderful music and the active congregation (oh, and, you know, the liturgy itself), everything was touched by the personality and charisma of the priest. While not the worst that I’ve seen—there were definitely some innovations to the mass that the most hardline liturgists would have objected to, but nothing egregious that would have called into question its validity—it was certainly its own mass unlike any other. This was Father’s mass, and at times it felt like “Father’s One Man Show.” As joyful, inspiring, challenging, and enjoyable as it was, the experience was somewhat off-putting to me.
Both masses were absolutely Catholic. Even with the minor innovations and personality of the second priest, both were completely orthodox, valid masses. And yet, they offered completely different faith experiences, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
There, I guess, is where my question lies: do we accept that each strength cancels out its weakness making the two experiences legitimate alternatives to one another based on one’s liturgical preference, or is there something actually flawed about one or the other that makes even its strengths not that strong?
That second Church was packed more than 99% of churches I’ve seen on a Sunday, and a look at their bulletin shows that they are getting out into the world as well; after so many cult-of-personality priests of the past couple of years and crazy innovations to the liturgy, I left the first church at peace, for once not feeling like I had been at the circus. Maybe there is a place for both experiences.
Or maybe not. Even if people like the calmer, more predictable nature of the first priest, it might ultimately be detrimental to their long-term faith to always be casual, disengaged bystanders because they never experience the fullness of the immanent church around them. Or, even if people are full of life, entertained, and look forward to coming to mass as in the case of the second priest, it might ultimately be detrimental to their long-term faith to focus so much attention on one person because they never experience the fullness of the transcendent church in front of them.
I don’t know.
What I do know, though, is that neither expression seems like the complete picture. While it might not be possible to find a perfect middle ground between the two—it might be a situation of trying to balance on a knife’s edge, always ending up falling on one side or the other—I think that we as priests and priests in training have an obligation to try to hold everything together. It is not about me… and yet my life and energy directly affects the faith of others; being engaging is fundamental to worship… but it should always lead beyond to the point of the worship.
For me, all that truly matters is the priest’s ability to better the congregation’s relationship with God and each other. Whatever builds that up—including the priest’s personality—is the work of the kingdom. Whatever gets in the way of that—including the priest’s personality—needs to get out of the way.