On Who Celebrates the Liturgy

Note: One donor yesterday wrote, “Uncle!!! I give up! . . . Congratulations on understanding that nothing motivates a devout Catholic like good old fashioned GUILT!”  To which my immediate reaction was: Moi? If you didn’t read the letter we sent out yesterday (and therefore did not get your own personal dose of Catholic guilt) you can still read it here – while there’s still time to contribute to our 10th Anniversary Fund Drive. – Robert Royal

A priest will say: “I celebrated my Mass this morning” or “At my Sunday Mass, I forgot the Creed.” Usually when quizzed, most priests know that the Mass is not their private property. They do not own it, even if they alone are authorized by the Church to say it. They did not put the Mass together in the first place.

What the Mass is was handed down to them at their ordination. The bishops in communion with Rome are responsible for preserving its truth, order, and beauty. The priest is but an obedient servant. The Mass is not an arena in which he is to display his splendid personality.

This same Mass can have many forms. I recently saw a You-tube video of a Mass in Vietnam. Behind the altar was a huge screen on which, at a dramatic moment in the Mass, appeared a simulated sound and light show of the Resurrection. The congregation beholds a re-enactment of the main event.

I have attended a two-hour Mass with drums in Africa. I once concelebrated a Mariachi Mass in San Diego, attended a “Balloon Mass” in the old Oakland Cathedral, as well as a “committee made” Mass in San Francisco. The Russian rite Easter Mass lasted for hours. The Tridentine Solemn High Mass feels and sounds different than the Novus Ordo High Mass. I have never seen a Beyoncé “Mass” or a Mass in Santa Marta.

Mass texts and moods vary according to the language, the time of year, or the feast of the day. A wedding Mass or a funeral Mass bears its own aura. I am still a fan of Belloc who once remarked that the greatest spiritual invention was the twenty-minute low Mass of the Roman Rite.


In The Feast of Faith (1986), Joseph Ratzinger wrote: “Liturgy is genuinely liturgy only if it is not subject to the will of those who celebrate it.” A priest at Mass wears liturgical vestments in part to downplay his own personality and will. He acts in persona Christi. The priest “actor” or the priest “master of ceremonies” only deflects from the main Celebrant at any and every Mass, namely Christ Himself. We do not go to Mass to see or hear Father Smith’s Mass. We go to Mass because it is the “sacrifice of praise,” the un-bloody sacrifice of the Cross that Christ commanded us to keep present in the world “till He comes.”

In world history, only one Mass takes place, that of the Last Supper as it extends into the Lord’s Crucifixion and Resurrection. Each Mass in this sense has but one celebrant, who is Christ, the Lord. I have always liked the Third Canon passage telling us that this sacrifice of praise is to be celebrated each day in this world, from the rising of the Sun to its setting. And while I am in favor of the cosmos, I am rather dubious about the “Cosmic Mass.”

When the liturgy is understood to be subject to the will of those who celebrate it, Ratzinger noted, many strange things follow: “The difference between liturgy and festivity, between liturgy and social event, disappeared gradually and imperceptibly. Thus, some priests to be polite, as they thought, did not receive Communion till after the congregation.” They did not say, “I bless you” to the congregation “thus dissolving the fundamental liturgical relationship between them and their congregation.”

The result of these changes would either be that everyone was an ordained ministerial priest or that no priest was necessary. The Mass was an ordinary meal, a “social event,” not the Pascal sacrifice of the New Law in which the priest celebrant stood in the “person” of Christ, who alone celebrates every Mass from the rising of the Sun to its setting.

If the Mass is not subject to the “will” of those who celebrate it, whose “will” is it subject to? Christ said: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you will not have everlasting life in you.” Most people thought that this could not be quite right. (John 6:53) But in the history of religion, the search for the proper way to worship God through sacrifices or other means seemed a dead end.

It became clear that the only proper source for instruction on the proper way to worship God was God Himself. This “proper way” is what the Mass is about, what it is designed to make clear. The only man who could offer sacrifice to the Father was the Son of Man. This He did on the Cross. Even He, even Christ, understood that the Cross was not “subject to His will,” but to that of His Father. Every Mass that we attend is the event of the one who really celebrates it: the Christ, the Son of Man.

*Image: The Last Supper by Juan de Juanes, c. 1560 [Museo del Prado, Madrid], originally created for the altar at the Church of San Estaban,Valencia.


James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

  • On Hell - Monday, February 25, 2019