The art of celebration: Coming together as one

The series of articles on the ars celebrandae, the art of celebration – of which this is the first – is intended to help us all in our participation in the Mass, in the Eucharist.

It is intended as a sort of complement to what is provided in the Missal itself, in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the rubrics included in the Order of Mass.

The liturgical books of the Church (for example the Missal, the Rite of Baptism, etc), was revised following the Second Vatican Council. Each now begins with an Introduction or Instruction – a user’s guide which summarises the theology informing the Rite, and offers practical instruction for its proper celebration. Both are invaluable. That said, so far as liturgical practice is concerned they are sparing in their detail: to advantage, probably, otherwise missals might provide impossible to carry! And they do tend to privilege comment on what the clergy does rather than the rest of the congregation. (Only in writing this article did I notice that although there is a rubric in the Order of Mass telling all to sit for the first readings of the Mass there is no corresponding rubric advising that all are invited to stand for the proclamation of the Gospel!).

In this series consideration of the externals of our worship (important as they are) will, I hope, be more than matched by attention to our inner participation – attending not only to what we do but considering also how and why we do it.

We begin at the beginning and look at what the Order of Mass (ie the ‘script’ and ‘stage directions’ for the celebration of Holy Mass) and the relevant sections of the General Instruction say.

The Order of Mass begins

When the people are gathered, the Priest approaches the altar with the ministers while the Entrance Chant is sung.

When he has arrived at the altar, after making a profound bow with the ministers, the Priest venerates the altar with a kiss and, if appropriate, incenses the cross and the altar. Then, with the ministers, he goes to the chair.

When the Entrance Chant is concluded, the Priest and the faithful, standing, sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross, while the Priest, facing the people, says

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

        The people reply:

Amen.

The Order of Mass, 1

The General Instruction (GI) elaborates on this. For example who might the ministers be in the procession and what order they should take in the procession; what they should wear; what might be sung as the Entrance chant, and what to do if there is no entrance chant. All useful stuff.

In the entrance procession we should expect a variety of ministers, because when we gather for Mass it is a community that celebrates. The priest is necessary and presides, but others are also delegated to serve the prayer of the community. GI mentions the thurifer, candle bearers, acolytes (among their role is assisting in the distribution of Holy Communion, so in the absence of acolytes we might expect to see the commissioned ministers of Holy Communion) and a reader. The absence of this variety of ministers may well be a ritual admission that we are a community that is floundering, and is not capable of taking up its responsibilities even for a key activity such as worship.

We all have a role to play in the worthy celebration of Mass. We make a contribution to the dynamics of worship – not only in the way that an audience does in a theatre, but because we – not an audience but a congregation – are participants in the worship. Hopefully we benefit from the ministry of others at Mass, but we are all called to help ‘realise’ worthy worship.

This is highlighted in GI when it talks about the function of the Entrance chant.

Its purpose is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical time or festivity, and accompany the procession of the Priest and ministers.

There is a certain asceticism to our participation in Liturgy. We are to sing not because we like it, and we should sing even if we do not feel like it because our common song manifests the unity that is ours as members of the Body of Christ, assembled in this place to pray as one in him.

Again GI

The Christian faithful who come together as one in expectation of the Lord’s coming are instructed by the Apostle Paul to sing together Psalms, hymns, and spiritual canticles (cf. Col 3: 16). Singing is the sign of the heart’s joy (cf. Acts 2: 46). Thus St. Augustine says rightly, ‘Singing is for one who loves’,  and there is also an ancient proverb: ‘Whoever sings well prays twice over’.

GI 39

And when we sing, we sing not whatever we like, but something which focuses us on what we are doing and why. GI goes into more detail about this. The chant is to be:

suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year, and whose text has been approved by the Conference of Bishops of England and Wales.

GI 48

Why is such approval required? Because the bishop of a diocese has responsibility for ensuring, on the one hand, that faith is not misrepresented or trivialised in the Liturgy, and on the other, that we take full advantage of the resource that music and song offers of leading us into, and engaging us with the Liturgy of the Church

Again a certain ascetism is proposed – we are invited to conform ourselves to the demands of the Liturgy (symbol of Christ and our Catholic faith), rather than adapt it to suit ourselves.

That said the who, where and when of our liturgical assemblies is not a matter of indifference. What is sung at a Mass with 8 year olds is unlikely to be what is appropriate for a congregation of adults, and maybe vice versa too. But in each case what is sung should be equal to its intended function.


I often say to those considering how best to prepare themselves to participate in mass that they/we might have in mind three things to speak with God about during Mass – one thing we want to thank God for; another that we want to say sorry to God for; and a third thing that we want to ask God’s help with. Considering these things gives a particular focus to our personal participation in the Mass.

It is perhaps good to have one further thing in mind also – what might I bring to this celebration with my brothers and sisters in Christ? How I am going to add something to the quality of this celebration? It might be by preparing myself well. It might be by arriving in good time and perhaps saying hello to some of the others who are also there. It might be by singing or responding to the dialogues more clearly, or trying to listen more attentively to the Scriptures. But what am I going to do? How might I contribute?

Reflection questions

  • What helps you best prepare for Mass?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses about how your regular community gathers for Mass?
  • Have you experienced good practice elsewhere? What made it good?
  • What at Mass do you do for principal benefit of others?
  • What at Mass do you appreciate people doing for you?

Acknowledgements

  • The Roman Missal (c) 2010, International Commission on English in the Liturgy Corporation. All rights reserved.
  • Photographs. All (c) Allen Morris. (c) 2016 Glass work by Margaret Rope; (c) 2017, King David and musicians, Stained glass, Lichfield Cathedral; (c) 2017, ‘Bless ye the Lord’, glass work, Lichfield Cathedral.
  • Commentary. (c) 2021, Allen Morris.

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