The Mass in Slow Motion – The Homily

The Homily – So now comes the part of the Mass that is often the most loved and the most hated moment. Preaching consistently well can prove to be a challenge for priests (and deacons) who often live very busy lives and are called to preach all week long at weekday masses, funerals and weddings, in addition to being thoroughly prepared to deliver “a barn-burner” every weekend. No excuses here, just explanations. The homily is obviously a critical moment in the Mass and there are high expectations¬† that the people of God will be edified and instructed. Sadly, Catholic priests do not have the reputation of being great preachers. We often think we are better than our people think we are. ūüôā¬† One of the chief reasons people say they leave the Church is uninspired preaching compared to the relatively inspired and interesting preaching found in many non-Catholic denominations. There is work to do on improving our preaching to be sure but DON’T leave the Blessed Sacrament to go an sit in a “Word Church!” Even if the preaching is entertaining and informative it just isn’t worth the price of leaving behind Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.¬†¬† (Also, good preaching can be over-rated. Paul, according to his own words was not a great preacher (1 Cor. 2:1; 2 Cor. 11:5;¬† Acts 20:7ff) and yet he was the greatest evangelist the Church has known).

So, What is a Homily? Years ago we just called it a “sermon.” Yet, in recent decades the Church has preferred the term “Homily.” This is probably due to the communal nature that the ancient word homily evokes. Homily comes from the Middle English omelie, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin homilia, from Late Greek homilein, and emphasizes a more interpersonal “conversation”, or “discourse” The Greek work homilein means to consort with or to address a kindred or related people. The root word homos meaning “same” is included in the word homily. Hence, this is more than an impersonal address to crowd of people only vaguely known (i.e. a sermon or lecture). Rather, this is a family conversation, a conversation or address to kindred spirits who share much in common (at least we hope!)

History РThis is a pre-Christian element in the Liturgy. It was part of the Jewish synagogue service.  It is recorded in scripture that Jesus Himself preached in the synagogue (cf. Luke 4:16-31) Likewise Paul makes use of the synagogue homily to proclaim Christ (e.g. Acts 13:14ff). The early Christians brought the synagogue service into the Mass and thus the homily was tied to the reading of the scriptures. The preaching of a homily was the particular duty of the Bishop but priests were also allowed to preach. In the fourth century in the east, it was the custom, if several priests were present for all of them to preach in turn and then, finally the Bishop (Whew!).  After the fall of Arius (A third Century priest-heretic who denied the divinity of Christ and widely disseminated his views leading countless others into error) priests were forbidden to preach in Alexandria and North Africa. Likewise, in Rome they were also forbidden. This restriction was variously applied and enforced in different areas. Perhaps it should be stated that  the priests of this time were not always the most learned of men. The seminary system as we know it today did not exist and there would be concerns  about the orthodoxy of the sermon as well as its effective delivery. In general then, preaching at Mass seems to have declined after the problems of the third century but it would not be fair to say that it disappeared entirely. This is especially true when we consider that in many of the well established areas of North Africa and Italy there was a bishop present in even the smaller towns.

By the beginning of the Middle Ages there was a strong return to preaching of the Word of God. However, the character and liturgical role was changing. It was modeled more on sermons outside of Mass. There was the rise of the mendicant preaching orders (eg. Franciscans and Dominicans) at this time and they preached outside of the liturgy in town squares and meetings. This form of preaching began to enter the churches and influenced the nature and content of the Homily which became less and less a textual explanation and applications of the readings and  more and more was replaced by a catechetical format in which and an exposition of the Creed, the Our Father and the Ten Commandments was often the focus. This practiced continued to be the norm as a general rule.

The present Instructions emphasize that the homily is a part of the Mass itself and seems to nod to both traditions above. Namely, the homily is not merely to be an explanation of the readings but also should explain the mysteries of faith related to the readings and the liturgy of the day applying them especially to the norms of Christian life (cf. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy # 52.)


Norms- The homily should develop some point of the readings or of another text from the ordinary or from the proper of the Mass of the day, and take into account the mystery being celebrated and the needs proper to the listeners. The Homily is required on Sundays and holy days of obligation at all Masses that are celebrated with a congregation; it may not be omitted without a serious reason. It is recommended on other days, especially on the weekdays of Advent, Lent, and the Easter season, as well as on other feasts and occasions when the people come to church in large numbers. The homily should ordinarily be given by the priest celebrant.

The homilist must be an ordained member of the clergy. A deacon, a priest, or a bishop may preach. This is not merely a question of being learned, for many members of the laity are quite learned in theological matters. Rather, as Catholics we are convinced that¬† the sacrament of Holy Orders confers a unique charism and grace which empowers the priest to speak for God in a supernatural manner. The Third Instruction On the Correct Implementation of the Constitution on the SacredLiturgy has the following to say: “…the Purpose of the homily is to explain the readings and make them relevant for the present day. This is the task of the priest. and the faithful should not add comments or engage in dialogue or anything similar during the homily.”(Liturgicae instaurationes # 3, 2.)

Finally we might be end with St. Paul’s Instruction to Timothy regarding the preaching and teaching task of the clergy: Loquare quae decet sanam doctrinam (speak that which befits sound doctrine).

One of our Greatest Catholic Preachers was Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. Here he gives the homily on Matthew 6.


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The Mass in Slow Motion – Other Considerations about the Liturgy of the Word

In the last post in this series we focused on the Responsorial Psalm. This post will consider several matters related to the Liturgy of the Word.

The Place for the proclamation of the readings might seem obvious to you: the pulpit! But actually the place where it was proclaimed has wandered about as we shall see.  The place for the proclamation of the readings in the very earliest days of the Church is not specified. However, by the third and certainly the fourth centuries there is growing mention of an elevated place where the reader stood. Presumably this was so that the reader could more easily be heard and seen. Whether or not there was a desk or book stand upon the platform varied.  Later on however this developed into the common form of an ambo or pulpit as we know it today and as a general rule it was placed in the most convenient and suitable spot between the sanctuary and the nave or body of the church. It was from this spot that the readings were proclaimed for almost a thousand years.

However the practice began to end especially by the 10th century. The exact reason for this is somewhat obscure. However, the following factors seem to have played a role.

  1. The was a long tradition of having the altar face east. Thus the priest, who faced the altar and the people who also faced the altar all faced east. There developed however a notion that the north was the region of the devil. (Some of the imagery evoked here is that the North at the time had a predominance of paganism. Likewise an imagery of the “coldness of unbelief” implied the North…and so forth).¬† Hence the Word of God was directed against the North. This meant that the deacon would face to his left (i.e. to the north) when singing the gospel. In low mass the priest did not leave the altar but moved to the left¬† (i.e. the north side of the altar) and angled a little bit to the left (to the north) and read the scriptures.
  2. There was also the influence of the Low Mass sine populo (without a congregation) which was becoming more common as monasteries proliferated. In these Masses, the celebrant did not leave the altar and thus read the gospel at the altar. This practice eventually seems to have been taken over into masses with a congregation as well.
  3. Nevertheless, all of this meant that the readings were no longer proclaimed by facing the people directly.  Thus the use of the lectern or ambo fades out in the early middle ages. Increasingly, these  were used more and more merely for preaching and so they are seen to move further out in to the nave.
  4. Likewise, Latin became less and less understood by the people. This meant that the proclamation of the readings, still in Latin  was seen less and less as a vital communication and now was more of a ritual. Thus,  the readings were often read again in the vernacular at the beginning of the homily. Since the assembly was no longer vitally involved with the hearing of the proclaimed word in Latin, facing them was not seen as a central concern. Thus the raised pulpit or stand as decreased in importance.
  5. One last factor is the emergence of an “epistle side.” At first both the Gospel and Epistle were read on one side. However, later on it became more common to give the Gospel special dignity and this led to its place of proclamation being considered special. The epistle ended up being proclaimed to other side of the altar or sanctuary (i.e. the right side) out of reverence for the Gospel.

Today the readings are returned to the ambo, or lectern (also called a pulpit. Of this lectern, the General instructions specify the following: “The dignity of the word of God requires that the church have a place that is suitable for the proclamation of the word and toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns during the Liturgy of the Word. It is appropriate that this place be ordinarily a stationary ambo and not simply a movable lectern. The ambo must be located in keeping with the design of each church in such a way that the ordained ministers and lectors may be clearly seen and heard by the faithful. From the ambo only the readings, the responsorial Psalm, and the Easter Proclamation (Exsultet) are to be proclaimed; it may be used also for giving the homily and for announcing the intentions of the Prayer of the Faithful. The dignity of the ambo requires that only a minister of the word should go up to it.” (GIRM 309)

The Lector. According to the Fathers of the Church a special reader was appointed distinct from the celebrant of the Mass. By the second century the position of lector was seen as a special position. It will be recalled the special training that would be necessary for the lector in an age where far fewer were able to read. Further, reading ancient manuscripts was a lot harder since modern punctuation was not yet in use. You’ve got to really know what you’re doing when there are no periods, commas,¬† quotation marks and the like! It is interesting to note that young boys were often used for this office. In many places they lived in special communities or schools and¬† received special training. It was a common sentiment that the innocence of youth was well suited to the proclamation of God’s word.¬† Nevertheless, the Gospel, due to its special prominence was still proclaimed by someone in higher orders. Over time however the reading of the epistle began to fall more and more to the sub-deacon during a high mass. In low mass the Epistle continued to be proclaimed by someone other than the celebrant. Nevertheless, over time this task transferred to the celebrant at low mass although it was still¬† done by the subdeacon at high mass. Today, the readings, except the Gospel have once again been returned to the laity. The General Instruction has the following to say about the reader, By tradition, the function of proclaiming the readings is ministerial, not presidential. The readings, therefore, should be proclaimed by a lector, (and the Gospel by a deacon or, in his absence, a priest other than the celebrant). In the absence of an instituted lector, other laypersons may be commissioned to proclaim the readings from Sacred Scripture. They should be truly suited to perform this function and should receive careful preparation, so that the faithful by listening to the readings from the sacred texts may develop in their hearts a warm and living love for Sacred Scripture (GIRM 59)

Pastoral Note: Are you listening? We are supposed to listen attentively to the Word of God as it is proclaimed! Our attention spans today are very poor however and it is easy for the mind to wander. Nevertheless, pay attention!. God is speaking when the Word is proclaimed! It is obvious too that Lectors and Deacons require special training and preparation so as to procalim well. After all, God is speaking through them! For those who read: If God is using you to speak, you had better prayerfully prepare. FOr those who listen: Are you listening? God is speaking.

The following Video is from the Byzantine Liturgy, the Epistle is Chanted in Aramaic. In the ancient world, prior to all these microphones, Singing was a way to get the word out. Singing carried better and farther. In the Roman Liturgy it is rare to hear the first two readings chanted thought they can. In the Latin Mass, in the solemn high form it is still directed that the subdeacon should chant the epistle. I couldn’t fine a good video of the epistle being chanted in the Roman rite (old or new) so I post this example from the Byazantine liturgy

The Mass in Slow Motion – Responsorial Psalm

We have already discussed how the Old Testament Reading, the Epistle and Gospel came to be in their place and how the number and variety of those readings varied over the years and even today in the various Rites and Forms of the Liturgy. Now we consider the Responsorial Psalm which has a history of its own.

In a way, if you were to walk into Mass for the first time you might find the presence of a sung psalm a bit odd. Here we are reading the Word of God and suddenly another song breaks out! What is going on here. Is it another reading, is it a prayer. What is its purpose? Well let us read and see.

The responsorial psalm or optional¬† “gradual”¬† comes after the first reading. The psalm is an integral part of the liturgy of the word and is ordinarily taken from the lectionary, since these texts are directly related to and depend upon the respective readings. The cantor of the psalm sings the verse at the lectern or other suitable place, while the people remain seated and listen. Ordinarily the congregation takes part by singing the response, unless the psalm
is sung straight through without response. If sung, the following texts may be chosen:

  1. the psalm in the lectionary,
  2. The Gradual in the Roman Gradual,
  3. or the Antiphon or the psalm in the Simple Gradual

History РIn the early Church there was a pattern to the psalm response much like our own today. That is to say, there was an antiphon or verse sung by all followed by extended verses of a particular psalm chosen for the day with the antiphon intervening every so often by way of a response. Many of the Fathers of the Church make mention of this format. St. Augustine makes explicit mention of the practice in his sermons; likewise, St. John Chrysostom and St. Leo the Great among others. In the early days, the psalm texts were sung in their entirety. This was true even of the lengthier psalms. (Today, there are usually selected  verses of the psalm used. It is rare that a whole psalm be sung unless it be brief in itself). The responsorial psalm was seen as an integral part of the liturgy with its own significance. This is in contrast to some of the other singing we have previously discussed such as the Entrance Antiphon (Introit) which was sung originally to cover a movement or fill a space of time and set a tone. In this way it existed for a purpose beyond itself. Here the chant has an importance in itself and does not exist to cover motion etc.  It was seen as a moment of pious meditation, a lyrical rejoicing after the word of  God had been received into the heart of the believer. Originally the deacon was the singer of this psalm and versicle. Later the task moved to the subdeacon & later still to the schola Cantorum (Choir).

It is interesting to note that when the singer mounted the lectern (or ambo, or pulpit) he did not go all the way to the top of the platform but rather stood on one of the steps just below the platform.This was once again due to the reverence given the proclamation of the Gospel which alone was proclaimed from the top platform. Since the singer stood on a step (“gradus“, in Latin) the psalm came to be known as a “Graduale.”

Over time the responsorial psalm began to shrink in size and lose its responsorial character. This seems to have happened for two reasons.

First the music for these chants began to become more and more elaborate. We saw this tendency with the Entrance Antiphon. The simple forms slowly gave way to other, more elaborate forms.  Thus, the antiphon which was intended for the people became more ornate and difficult and thus slipped from their grasp. Its execution fell more frequently to the schola. Likewise, as the antiphon became more elaborate it began to overshadow the verses of the psalm themselves which were sheered away slowly. Eventually only one verse remained along with the antiphon. This remained its form until the recent changes in the Mass at Vatican II.

A second factor seems to have been the dropping of the first reading from the Old Testament in the Sixth Century. By this time however the responsorial character of the psalm was well on its way out. Thus this effect may not be direct but may help explain that other factors were at work in the background.

Today the original responsorial format has been reintroduced as an option. This therefore returns to the more ancient practice and also makes the response once again a song or response of the assembly. However, the option still exists to use a Gradual in the from the Graduale Romanum which retains the  format of the Traditional Latin Mass instead of a responsorial format. This would generally have to be sung by a trained schola.

Pastoral Reflections – It is true to say that the Psalm is “another reading” in the sense that the psalm, like the other readings comes from the scriptures, the written Word of God. However, a caution is in order. The psalm should also be seen to enhance the prayer and praise that is integral to the Liturgy of the Word. Thus, it is not merely a “listening event” but also involves prayer and praise in the truest sense of the term.¬† The psalms were (and still are) the prayer book of the Jews and it is our prayer book as well. Hence, the psalm is prayer and not only “another reading.”

The title “responsorial psalm” is not given because there is a response or antiphon for the people to sing. The “response” referred to is the reflection of the assembly on the proclamation of the reading which just took place. The psalm is usually related in some direct way to the theme of the Old Testament reading (and by that very fact to the Gospel which is to come). Thus, the people “respond” to the Word of God, make it their own and proclaim it prayerfully. By its nature, the psalm is a song and should thus be sung if at all possible; especially on Sunday.

The option of using the gradual from the Graduale Romanum should not be forgotten. There is once again the need to remember that a glorious heritage of Gregorian Chants exists which belongs to faithful by their right. It is sad if this heritage is never heard or sampled. However, it will be admitted that these Chants are difficult indeed and require a skilled choir. This and the fact that they are  in Latin can make them less accessible. This usually means that the Graduals are seldom if ever done in the average parish. Again, a sad loss that a little extra training might overcome.

OK, so bottom line is once again the same: YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO PRAY. The Liturgy is not just some ritual to get through, it is a time of prayer. The Psalm response or gradule is meant to invite you into a prayerful response. Are you praying? Next time you’re at Mass, don’t miss the main point here.

The following video is of a Gradual. In the place of the more common “Responsorial Psalm” it is always permited to sing the “Gradual” which is an elaborate antiphon and one verse of the psalm. The one in this video is from the Vigil Mass for Christmas here is the text in Latin and an English Translation:

Hodie scietis, quia veniet Dominus, et salvabit nos: et mane videbitis gloriam eius. Qui regis Israel, intende: qui deducis velut ovem Ioseph: qui sedes super Cherubim, appare coram Ephraim, Beniamin, et Manasse.

Today you will know that the Lord is coming to save us: and tomorrow you shall see his glory. Thou that rulest Israel, hear us: thou that leadest Joseph like a flock, thou that sittest upon the Cherubim – appear Thou to Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasse.

THe Mass in Slow Motion – The Liturgy of the Word

Every now and then it will be claimed that the Catholic Church is not a “Bible Believing Church.” Further, that Catholics do not know the Bible. Both claims register false when we look at the Mass. The Mass is filled with Scripture and Catholics know a lot more Scripture than they think they do. We may not be the sort to quote Chapter and Verse numbers but we know the scriptures. If I start to tell the story of Zaccheaus climbing the tree, or of Lazarus being raised from the dead, or of the woman at the well, or the storm at sea, or begin to quote from the Epistles, Catholics know these passages IF they go to Mass regularly. Over the period of three years the whole of the New Testament is read in the Catholic Liturgy and most of the significant passages of the Old Testament. We read A LOT of Scripture in every Mass and Catholics know more of the Bible than they think they do.

Now that the Congregation is seated, it is time to listen attenively to God’s Word. We do this in a part of the Mass called the Liturgy of the Word which in the current form of the Mass consists of and Old Testament Reading, a Psalm, a reading from a New Testament Epistle, and a reading from the Gospels. Then follows the Homily, the Creed and the prayer repsonse. In effect, readings from scripture and the chants between the readings form the main part of the liturgy of the word. The homily, profession of faith, and general intercessions or prayer of the¬† faithful develop and complete it. In the readings, explained by the homily God speaks to his people of redemption and salvation and nourishes their spirit; Christ is present among the faithful through his word. Through the chants the people make God’s word their own and express their adherence to it through the profession of faith. Finally, moved by this word, they pray in the general intercessions for the needs of the Church and for the world’s salvation.(cf G.I.R.M. # 55)

History of the liturgy of the word. The beginnings of this service go back the synagogue and it therefore pre-christian in origin. The Apostles attended the synagogue and were thus familiar with it. The synagogue was distinct from the Temple. The Temple was in Jerusalem and it was there alone that blood sacrifices were offered. However, after the exile especially The Jews undertook the practice of meeting in their local areas to read scripture and praise the Lord. The gatherings (or synagogues) varied in size but tended to be small groups. In fact, as we know from Scripture, Jesus himself faithfully attended the synagogue and his Apostles continued to follow his example. We read in Acts 2:46, “Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and breaking bread in their homes.

The Jewish synagogue service of the First Century may be described as follows. On appointed days, above all on the Sabbath, the community was¬† assembled. The Assembly was opened with the Shema which served as a kind of profession of faith. The Text of the Shema begins as thus: “Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore you shall love the Lord, your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your strength…” (Deuteronomy 6:4) There was next a congregational prayer spoken by one of the members of the group appointed by the leader of the synagogue.¬†¬†¬† Passages from Holy Writ were then sung. There were two readings. The first was from the Law (Torah- the first Five books of the Bible) which was read according to a prescribed cycle of three years. Each days readings were thus prescribed much as they are today in our Lectionary. Thus, in a three-year period the whole of the Torah was read. The Second reading was from the Prophets (Nebiim). This reading was selected at will. At least by New Testament times, there seems to have been a homily also included after the readings. This is indicated in scripture (See Luke 4:16-20; Acts 12:15ff). The whole assembly concluded with the blessing of a priest (Levite) if one was present otherwise with a prayer.

The very early Christians continued to attend the Saturday Synagogue service. They celebrated the Eucharist elsewhere, usually in a home or “house-church” on Sundays. Rather quickly however, there was a falling out with the Jews who came to regard the “Nazarenes” as divisive and hence sought to expel them. Upon “leaving” Judaism, the Christians took the Synagogue service with them and combined it with the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, we have the beginnings of the form of the mass we recognize today.

The Scripture readings in general. In the readings the treasures of the Bible are opened to the people; this is the table of God’s word. Reading the scriptures is traditionally considered a ministerial, not a presidential function. It is desirable that the gospel be read by a deacon or, in his absence, by a priest other than the one presiding; the other readings are proclaimed by a reader from among the laity. In the absence of a deacon or another priest, the celebrant reads the gospel.¬† The reading of the gospel is done with great reverence; it is distinguished from the other readings by special marks of honor. A special minister is appointed to proclaim it, preparing himself by a blessing or prayer. By standing to hear the reading and by their acclamations the people recognize and acknowledge that Christ is present and speaking to them. Marks of reverence are also given to the book of gospels itself. Among these are the kissing of the book, the signing of the page with the sign of the cross, and the use of incense. Likewise,¬† there may also be a special procession to the “Place of the Gospel” as well as the use of torch bearers to stand near the book during its proclamation. Not to be overlooked is the possibility of singing the Gospel where the skill of the priest or deacon permits it.

History of the cycle of readings. In the choice and number of readings in the liturgy a great variety has prevailed and still prevails. The different rites of the Church still have in use different cycles or readings. This is true as well with the revived Traditional Latin Mass which follows its own schedule of readings distinct from the new Lectionary. It is interesting to note however, that many protestant churches have been impressed with the new lectionary of the Catholic Church and make use of its schedule in their own services. One general rule seems to have always been that there be at least two readings one of which would always be from the Gospels. Likewise, the readings were always biblical. The arrangement of the synagogue service, as has been noted was taken into the Christian Church. It was adapted however. Now a Gospel reading was gradually paired with an Old Testament passage. However, at more festive times of the year such as Eastertide there seems to have been an increasing inclination to replace the Old Testament reading with one from the New Testament¬† other than the Gospel. This began to affect masses at other times of the year as well. However, at first there seems to have been merely the addition of a third reading resulting in a schema similar to the one we have today. However, for some reason this number dropped to two leaving the general schema as a reading from a New Testament Epistle and a Gospel reading. This remained the case until the liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council which restored the three-reading schema. According to the testimony of the Fathers of the Church, the service of readings stressed reading the books of Holy Scripture straight through in the form of a “Lectio continua.”(That is to say, the passage this week picks up right where we left off last week.) However, strict adherence to this setup was not exacting. Just as is the case today, this system was often broken into by feast days whose occasion demanded a special and appropriate passage. These feast days tended to multiply and thus break up the continuous reading. Likewise, liturgical seasons played a role in shaping the lectio continua. Thus, through the centuries this strict lectio continua was eroded and became less recognizable although it still existed to some extent. Today, it has been restored to some extent. This is particularly true with regard to the Gospels. However, the first reading is chosen to back the theme of the Gospel and hence its selection is “arbitrary.” The epistles¬† have returned to a rather strict lectio continua both on Sundays and weekdays.

Today, the lectionary today provides for a three year cycle for the Sunday readings and a two year cycle for weekdays. The first reading comes from the Old Testament and is chosen to parallel the Gospel passage. The second reading is taken from the epistles of the New Testament and  sometimes from the book of Revelation. The Third reading of course is
taken from the Gospels. Each cycle relies especially on one of the Gospels. Cycle A relies on Matthew. Cycle B on Mark. Cycle C on Luke. All three of the cycles also draw on St. John’s Gospel. The weekdays draw from all the Gospels and Books of the Bible giving special emphasis to passages not covered on Sundays. The lectionary presents a broad sweep of the Scriptures. The Sundays readings alone present to the Catholic over 7000 verses of scripture over three years. Nearly the whole of the New Testament is covered in the Lectionary as well as the most significant portions of the Old Testament.

In the next post. We’ll talk a little more about the repsonsorial psalm.

This video depicts the Gospel being Chanted. It is rare today in most parishes to hear this but on Solemn Feasts it is appropriate if the Deacon is able to chant well.

The Mass in Slow Motion – The Congregation is Seated

After the opening prayer the congregation is seated for the first time. Sitting is the posture of learning. We have already remarked above on the commentary on the presider’s chair how in the ancient world teachers, including Jesus sat to teach. It is also true that their students also sat to learn.¬† Hence the congregation now sits in order to be instructed in God’s Word. Now the picture at the right shows a mighty strange looking congregation but it’s OK to have a little fun here.

The following video describes not  only the sitting posture but also standing and kneeling.

The Mass in Slow Motion – The Opening Prayer

Now the priest says something odd: “Let us Pray!”¬† Haven’t we already been praying this whole time? Yes perhaps. But as we shall see this prayer was (and still is) traditionally called the “Collect.” It was thus named since its purpose was to collect all these opening prayers (and whatever other personal prayers we brought) ¬†into one summary prayer. So, yes we have been praying and praising but the invitation still stands: “Let us pray!” ….Well? Don’t just stand there!….Pray! It is too common that we Catholics often don’t take the words of our liturgy seriously. They are just ritual words that don’t really register with us any longer. But listen to what the celebrant said: “Let us pray!” So perhaps we ought to actually bow our heads and pray. The celebrant is supposed to wait for a moment or two of silence but go right into the text. This is a shame. The rubrics clearly direct that we actually pause to pray. So pray, actually pray. The text that follows, said or sung by the celebrant serves to summarize or collect our individual prayers as well as to state or summarize a theme either of the season or the liturgy we have begun. Pray along with the celebrant, pray. ūüôā

History. The basic body of the Collects of the Western Church developed and appeared for the first time in Sacramentaries in the time period between the third and sixth Centuries. It was during this time that there was completed the transfer of the Liturgy from Greek to Latin. Prior to this time the formulation of the prayers was left primarily to the celebrant who freely extemporized them usually following a common format. However, this seems to have caused difficulty in many cases especially as the Church spread far and wide. St. Augustine rather humorously remarks that catechumens who might be well educated should not laugh at or mock bishops and priests who might not be so eloquent in the wording of their prayers and might fall into “barbarisms” and “blunders” in their vocal prayers at Mass. Apparently it was not always so clear to the people what they were saying “Amen” to! By the 4th Century there may be found increasing conciliar resolutions that only texts which have been approved should be used at divine services. And so gradually these texts were composed and became increasingly binding upon the celebrant. Feast days, commemoration of the saints, and other celebrations all served as occasions for the composition of new collects. Over the centuries the number of collects within the Mass increased. Sometimes there were three collects to be said. Shortly before the Second Vatican Council the number was once again reduced to only one and this is still the rule today. Thus the opening prayer gains prestige by the fact that there is no second or third round of requests.

The posture of the people during this prayer has changed somewhat over the centuries. Originally they knelt just before the prayer. At the invitation “Let Us Pray” the Deacon or another minister would ask the people to kneel and pause for silent prayer. Presumably however, they stood for the prayer itself. Eventually this kneeling posture was carried into the recitation of the prayer itself. However, by the 4th Century, kneeling for the prayer began to decline. In 325 AD the Council of Nicea directed that this posture was to be replaced by standing during the Easter season out of respect for the risen Lord. This arrangement gradually spread to other Sundays in general, then to feasts, and finally to ordinary days and even to days within penitential seasons. Today the posture of standing for the prayer is maintained.

The term “collect” comes more literally from the Latin word “collecta” which refers to a people gathered or assembled for some purpose (in this case worship). Historically in Roman Church, the term referred especially to groups gathered for penitential processions. However, in time, due especially to Gallican influences, the term came to be understood as referring to the opening prayer which was a “gathering up” or a “summing up” of all the prayers of the people. The very function of summing up the prevents the contents of the prayer from being anything more than general in nature. The important matter here is that the community appears before God and by virtue of the priest, acting as its “mouthpiece” humbly and reverently directs its petitions toward God.

The Character of the opening prayer is one of petition. It can also be an act of adoration and thanksgiving. The prayers of the Roman Church are rather terse: brief and to the point. This shows a Roman preference for conciseness and clarity. This does not mean that they lack beauty. In fact they are widely regarded as masterworks of Latin Literature. However, they get right to the point. It is unfortunate that the beauty, clarity and brilliance of the Latin Collects has not been well represented by the present English translations. Help may be on the way in the new translations soon to come out. There are many qualities of the Roman Collect which could be mentioned but especially worth noting is the Latin love of antithesis. For example the following themes are often played against one another.

  1. Human struggle and divine help.
  2. Passing deeds or realities and eternal truths.
  3. Earthly misery and eternal blessedness.

The People assent to the pray with their “Amen!”

So, when the celebrant says “Let us Pray….” We ought to pray. In the years ahead it is hope the new translations will unlock the hidden beauty of these beautiful collects for the average church-goer. Presently much is lost in the current translation and only available to those who read Latin. Here is an example of a Latin Collect and a rather literal translation of it:

Deus, qui fidelium mentes unius efficis voluntatis, da nobis id amare, quod praecipis, id desiderare, quod promittis, ut inter mundanas varietates,  ibi nostra fixa sint corda, ubi vera sunt gaudia.

O God who make the minds of the faithful to be of one accord, grant to your people to love what you command and to desire what you promise that, among the changes of this world, our hearts may be fixed there where true joys are.

The Mass in Slow Motion – The Gloria

 So we have gathered, acknowledged God’s presence in several ways (hymn of praise, incense, veneration of the altar and the greeting of the celebrant). We have examined our consciences and asked God to give us pure hearts and minds to praise him. At most Sunday Masses what comes next is a kind of outburst of praise called the Gloria (Glory to God in the highest!) Knowing and experiencing God’s presence and mercy brings forth joy and a desire to praise him. And so we sing:

Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth. Lord God, heavenly King,  almighty God and Father, we worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory. Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world:  have mercy on us; you are seated at the right hand of the Father:  receive our prayer. For you alone are the Holy One,  you alone are the Lord, You alone are the Most High,  Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit,  in the glory of God the Father.  Amen.

The Gloria is a very old and venerable hymn sung by which the Church. It is sung by the congregation, or by the congregation alternately with the choir. If it is not sung it is to be recited by all in unison or alternately. It is sung on Sundays outside the Advent and Lenten seasons, as well as on solemnities and feasts and at special, more solemn celebrations. The text of the Gloria echoes the song of the angels at the Nativity. Further it praises and invokes both the Father and Son and concludes with a brief doxology to the Trinity.

History – The Gloria was not created originally for the Mass. It is and heirloom from the treasure of ancient church hymns. Indeed it is a precious remnant of a literature now mostly lost but once certainly very rich. These hymns imitated and borrowed from biblical themes. Indeed they may even be said to take after the tradition established by Mary who proclaimed her Magnificat by borrowing heavily from the biblical themes with which she was so familiar. So too Zacharia in his Benedictus. Few of these early hymns of the Church remain however. One other hymn which does remain is the Te Deum and it, unlike the Gloria has retained its existence apart from the Mass. The roots of the Gloria may be found as early as the 4th Century where a text very close to our present text is found. Likewise another text from the 7th Century is also very close. Again, this hymn was not originally part of the Mass but was probably sung as the Te Deum is today, as a thanksgiving hymn for feasts and celebration. It was sometimes included in the Mass as a hymn as early as the 6th Century and perhaps even earlier by some accounts. But definitely by the 6th Century Pope Symmachus permitted its use on Sundays and feasts of martyrs but only at a mass presided over by a Bishop. Pope Gregory allowed its use at the Easter Mass even if the Celebrant be only a priest. It was not until the 11th Century that the distinction allowing it only for Bishop’s masses was dropped. This was due to continual requests that it be allowed. Today, the Gloria is said at all masses of a festive character outside of penitential seasons.

A full analysis of the hymn could be a course in itself. However suffice it to say that it is understood to be a hymn of praise which is almost ecstatic in quality. This is not as well brought out in the present English translation for use in this country. However, a look at the Latin text (see appendix 2) is helpful. Lastly, it is well that the Gloria be sung if possible. Reciting the Gloria is comes in a very poor second. It is kind of like reciting the National anthem. We just don’t do this because the very festivity and honor of the song requires it be sung. The Gloria is like this. If at all possible it should therefore be sung. However this is not always possible and it ends up being recited. It should at least be recited in a vibrant and pious manner to avoid the possibility of the text becoming wooden and dull.

In the end, these introductory rites of procession, penance and praise all serve to establish the fact that we are in the presence of God. Casting aside our sin and sorrow we enter God’s presence with reverence, confidence and joy. Next we will pause to pray before we sit to attentively listen to God speak to us.

The following video shows the opening the movent of Vivaldi’s Gloria in D Major. Church music for the Baroque era became very elaborate with the use of orchestras and large choirs. Sometimes the Gloria and Credo of a Mass could last 20 Minutes or¬†more. Also, the text of the Mass had become so well known and popular that it was not uncommon for settings of the Mass to set by the great composers as concert pieces sung outside of Mass. This was an era when the Church influenced the world much more so than today. Enjoy this festive opening movement of the Gloria in D by Vivaldi, a Catholic priest and composer from the early 18th Century.

The Mass in Slow Motion – The Kyrie (Lord Have Mercy)

Now if I were to ask you if the Kyrie Eleison (Translated “Lord Have Mercy”) were part of the Penitential Rite most likely you’d say “Of course it is.” After all we are asking God’s mercy. But interestingly enough it serves more as an acclamation of praise both historically and liturgically as we shall see.

The History of the Kyrie – the Kyrie is often thought of as a part of the penitential rite but this is not necessarily the case. The General instruction describes it this way: “After the penitential act the Kyrie Eleison is begun unless it has already been used in the penitential act. It is a song in which the faithful acclaim the Lord and ask for his mercy therefore it is usually to be sung by all, that is by the congregation as well as the schola or cantor.” Hence the Kyrie may or may not be a part of the penitential rite. As we shall see in its origins, the Kyrie is historically more a hymn of praise than a penitential act.

The early history may be seen in pagan antiquity. There was the¬† custom of imploring the help of the gods with the phrase “eleison.” Likewise, the phrase was used in reference to the emperor. A singer would announce some praise of the emperor and the people would respond with this or another cry of homage. However, there are also scriptural roots in the Old Testament. For example, in the Greek translation of the O.T. (the Septuagint)¬† there are many phrases particularly in the psalms such as, “eleison me Kyrie.” (Have mercy on me Lord) (Psalm 6:2 inter al.) Also in the New Testament there are many places where the phrase is used: Son of David have mercy on us. This phrase is indeed quite common in the N.T. Nevertheless Kyrie litanies where not common in the Church until after the Age of Constantine (4th century) likely due to their connections with paganism. After the persecutions ended and paganism move to the background it was deemed appropriate to use these forms of courtly honor to honor the Lord.

The entrance of the Kyrie into widespread use in the Church may be described as follows. The practice was first reported in use in¬† Jerusalem wherein the phrase “Kyrie Eleison” was sung in response to a series of petitions sung by a deacon. This practice was noted both within Mass (where it took place after the Gospel) and outside of Mass (for example at Vespers). The practice was brought back to the West probably by returning pilgrims and it was considered widely appealing. Eventually its¬† use came to be quite universal in the Church. In some areas it was located at the beginning of Mass while in other areas it had its place after the Gospel. Eventually it came to be generally located at the beginning of mass. It was specifically introduced into the Mass by Pope Gelasius in the later half of the 5th century.¬† The form of the Kyrie was retained as a litany of praise and supplication before God and these prayers grew in elaborateness. You can see the Kyrie Litany of Gelasius HERE .

In a desire to simplify and shorten the liturgy, Pope Gregory the Great in the early 7th century removed the prayers and kept only responses Kyrie eleison and Christe eleison. First this was done only on ordinary days, leaving the prayers on more solemn feast. Later their use faded completely leaving only the responses. The Kyrie responses were said at first only by the people. But gradually the priest and the people began to alternate, responding back and forth with a nine-fold response (KKK,CCC,KKK). Gradually the singing of these became more elaborate and tended to be done by a choir of trained singers. In the Tridentine mass the Kyrie was recited by the priest alternating with the servers in the ninefold Kyrie. In solemn Mass it was also sung by the Choir or schola. But it was NOT considered part of the penitential rite which had take place at the foot of the Altar and was separated from the penitential rite by several things: the ascent of the altar steps, kissing the altar, possibly incensing it, making the sing of cross to begin Mass, reading the Introit (entrance song) and only then reciting the Kyrie.

Today it is returned to having the priest and people alternate in what is usually a sixfold Kyrie. There is also the option of introducing the Kyrie into the penitential rite in which case it is returned to its older litany-like form with certain petitions and/or praises attached to each Kyrie and Christe.

Complicated enough?? The Kyrie has somewhat of a dual personality. It may serve either as a penitential rite or a hymn of praise. However, even when it is used as a penitential act, we still give glory to God on account of his great mercy. The history of the Kyrie Litany gives rise to an appreciation of¬† the source of our practice today of the intercessory prayers after the Creed (sometimes called the “prayer of the faithful”). In fact, it should be remembered that the response “Kyrie Eleison” may in fact be made instead of “Lord hear our prayer.” More will be said of this later on.

Here is a polyphonic Kyrie, a Kyrie in Gregorian Chant, and a Modern Kyrie litany: