What is an “Ordinary” Mass?

I appreciated this weekend’s episode of the CNA Editor’s Desk podcast and their conversation about parish membership and what drives people to choose a parish. I was particularly gratified to hear Ed Condon echo a sentiment (at about 27:16 in the episode) I’ve had over the years — that part of the fragmentation of parish life is the diversification of styles of celebration of the liturgy in parishes:

Almost everywhere I’ve lived there have been a variety of parishes — and styles of liturgy — to choose from: the “liberal” parish, the “traditional” parish, the “social justice” parish, etc. Almost inevitably parishes that are known as a “type” allow this to influence their celebration of the Mass in such a way as to distort or work against what would seem to be the clear rubrics. In the case of so-called liberal parishes this often takes the form of changing the words of prayers or creating extra ministries for laypeople; in the case of traditionalist parishes, of adding back in gestures or prayers from older forms of the Mass that aren’t called for in the Ordinary Form.

Indeed, I can think of only two parishes I have worshiped in regularly in the past that seemed to favor a “vanilla” style of liturgy — that is, simply doing what the Church prescribes in her ritual texts. One was the only parish in a small town (the result of a merger of five parishes some years earlier) and the other was a Midwestern cathedral. (Our current parish is pretty good, too.)

So what would an “ordinary” Catholic Mass look like? Here are four elements I think we should consider: (In case it needs stating: these are my opinions and not necessarily those of my employer.)

  1. Following the words and rubrics of the ritual texts. I’m not a huge fan of the phrase “Say the Black, Do the Red” because it seems overly reductive (especially insofar as it ignores the importance of the ars celebrandi — more on that in a minute) but there is something to be said for following the texts gifted to us by the Church. I’ve been in Masses where the priest blatantly left out phrases from the prayers, interrupted the prayers to make comments, and invented new blessings and rituals whole cloth (“renewal of vows” at wedding anniversary celebrations are a good example of the latter). The people have a right to the proper celebration of the Church’s liturgy; being guided by the Church’s texts seems like a minimal consideration to give them.
  2. A focus on a simple, reverential celebration of the liturgy. Even when the texts are followed exactly it’s possible to celebrate the Mass in a lackadaisical, irreverent fashion. I’ve even seen this in more conservative parishes where the gestures were performed with extreme precision but the words spoken in a casual, almost off-handed manner. Those leading liturgical celebrations should strive to do so in a reverential manner, avoiding the extremes of being too performative, too regimented, or too glib.
  3. Appropriate inculturation. One of Thom Rainer’s principles in his book Autopsy of a Deceased Church is that the congregation should look like the community in which it’s situated. For Catholics, the liturgy should also take into account the community and cultures of the people gathered. If there is a heavy Latino presence, some elements of the all Sunday Masses should be spoken in Spanish — even if there is a dedicated Spanish Mass. If the parish is in a rural community, regular celebration of various blessings for seed and harvest times should occur. In this way the liturgy can more deeply touch the everyday cares and concerns of the faithful.
  4. Hymns the people can sing. Ignoring the rubrical question of antiphons versus hymns, the selection of music is one of the most visual (aural?) ways a parish inculturates the Mass for its local community. While allowing for a variety of styles, liturgists and music coordinators should choose music that is in a range people can sing and that is easy enough to pick up after a verse or two. Too many modern liturgical tunes are neither and wind up becoming performance pieces for the choir.

Consideration of these elements doesn’t depend on location or resources; they can be adopted in the largest basilica or the humblest mission parish. But, as noted in the CNA discussion, having the liturgy celebrated in an “ordinary” way across parishes would help mitigated the felt need for parish shopping and eliminate some of the fragmentation of Catholic communities.