Five Signs We Get Wrong at Mass


For many contemporary Catholics, the Second Vatican Council is the most important, if not the only, Church Council in the history of the Church. For them, it brought the Church out of a rigorist darkness and enlightened it by its contact with modernity. If you would like to think that, you are wrong, but go ahead. I am not going to stop you.

They claim that the Church made serious progress in its liturgical reforms, which is not something I want to argue with. If, however, progress is so important – which it is when it is ordered toward some higher end than progress itself – then we ought to heed the words of C.S. Lewis. In Mere Christianity, and I am paraphrasing, Lewis writes that if you are traveling down the wrong path, progress is made by the first person to turn back.

I am not suggesting a wholesale rejection of the liturgical reforms. I am not saying that we need to return to the Mass of the early Church. What I am saying is that in order for progress to be made, we need to return to that place where we deviated from the right course.

The liturgical reforms called for a renewed simplicity of the Mass, which is to say the elimination of needless repetition. They called for a fuller and more active participation in the Mass, something I may discuss at some other time. They did not call for a ‘new Mass.’ What we should recognize is that the Mass, the one and only Mass of the Roman Rite, underwent a sort of plastic surgery. It got a nip here and a tuck there, and it learned a few new languages along the way, never intending to forget Her mother-tongue.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) says: If we, as a new generation of ‘progressive’ Catholics are going to make any real progress, we have to stick to the ‘progress’ that was made by Vatican II. Unfortunately, we have veered off the right course and are lost in the woods. Progress can only be made if we return to the norms and rubrics of the Mass that came about from Vatican II’s renewed (not new) liturgy.

42. Attention must therefore be paid to what is determined by this General Instruction and by the traditional practice of the Roman Rite and to what serves the common spiritual good of the People of God, rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice.

So we can put it this way, do what the GIRM says. If the GIRM is silent on a matter, refer to the traditional practice of the the Roman Rite. What we want to do does not matter.

Things we are supposed to do but don’t:

Bowing of the head:

275. A bow signifies reverence and honor shown to the persons themselves or to the signs that represent them.

a) A bow of the head is made when the three Divine Persons are named together and at the names of Jesus, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the Saint in whose honor Mass is being celebrated.

Yes, every time Jesus name is mentioned, at any point during the Mass we are supposed to bow our heads. This also means, that when we sign ourselves with the sign of the Cross (since all three Divine Persons are named together) both at the beginning of Mass and at the end of Mass, we are supposed to bow our heads.

Bowing of the body:

b) A bow of the body, that is to say, a profound bow, is made to the altar… in the Creed at the words et incarnatus est (and by the Holy Spirit . . . and became man).

The only exception to this rule is on two specific feast days, when we do not bow at the waist but genuflect, namely the feasts of the Incarnation – Christmas and the Annunciation. As Christians, the very central doctrine of our faith is the Incarnation. Therefore, we reverence it every Mass at which the Creed is prayed with the bow of the body.

We used to genuflect twice every Mass, in reverence of this great mystery. Vatican II’s reforms attempted to elevate the reverence shown on the feasts of the Incarnation by changing all other days to bows. What happened instead is that people stopped bowing. We need to regain this for the sake of progress.

Striking the breast:

The Order of the Mass calls for us to strike our breast during the Confiteor (I confess to almighty God…):

I confess to almighty God

and to you, my brothers and sisters, that i have greatly sinned,

in my thoughts and in my words,

in what i have done and in what i have failed to do,

and, striking their breast, they say:

through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault;

then they continue:

therefore i ask blessed mary ever-Virgin, all the angels and saints,

and you, my brothers and sisters,

to pray for me to the lord our God.

In the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, this rubric, “and, striking their breast…” reads, “and, striking the breast three times…” In which case, we would invoke GIRM 42 and say that traditional practice is three strikes, and no specific number is given so we should continue the practice of three. With regard to this number, however, clarification was given in 1978:

87. Query: During the recitation of certain formularies, for example, the “Confiteor, Agnus Dei, Domine, non sum dignus,” the accompanying gestures on the part of both priest and people are not always the same: some strike their breast three times; others, once during such formularies. What is the lawful practice to be followed?

Reply: In this case it is helpful to recall:

1. gestures and words usually complement each other;

2. in this matter as in others the liturgical reform has sought authenticity and simplicity, in keeping with SC art. 34: “The rites should be marked by a noble simplicity.” Whereas in the Roman Missal promulgated by authority of the Council of Trent meticulous gestures usually accompanied the words, the rubrics of the Roman Missal as reformed by authority of Vatican Council II are marked by their restraint with regard to gestures. This being said: a. The words, “Through my own fault” in the “Confiteor” are annotated in the reformed Roman Missal with the rubric: “They strike their breast” (“Ordo Missae” no. 3). In the former Missal at the same place the rubric read this way: “He strikes his breast three times.” Therefore, it seems that the breast is not to be struck three times by anyone in reciting the words, whether in Latin or another language, even if the tripled formulary is said (“mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa”). One striking of the breast is enough. 

(Not 14 (1978) 534-535, no. 10.)

So, regardless of traditional practice and for the sake of noble simplicity, whether we like it or not, the rule is one strike for three “mea culpas.”

Things we are not supposed to do but do:

Making the sign of the Cross:

An almost ubiquitous practice of making the sign of the cross at one particular point in the Mass seems to have cropped up without good reason. Almost all of us do it or have done it. Following the same penitential act, when we fail to strike the breast at all, we make the sign of the cross for no good reason. There is no rubric anywhere nor at anytime that has ever read “making the sign of the cross the priest says… May almighty God have mercy…”

What seems to have happened is that the Extraordinary form, when it was the only form in use had us make the sign of the Cross during the Indulgentium, which is no longer a part of the rite. It has been dropped in its entirety. What remains is the small prayer prior to the Indulgentium, which is called theMisereatur. Uninformed people knew that a sign of the cross was made after the Confiteor but did not know that that same sign was associated with a specific prayer. So, when the new order of the Mass was promulgated, they kept making a sign of the cross after the Confiteor even though theIndulgentium was omitted completely.

If you want to make the sign of the cross more, just go to Mass in the Extraordinary Form. There is simply no reason for it to be made in the Ordinary Form during the Misereatur.

Holding hands or using the Orans posture:

The vast majority of dioceses in the US have adopted one of these two postures during the Lord’s Prayer. It, however, ought not to be done. There is no posture given for us to adopt during the Pater Noster nor is there any traditional practice of any other posture. In the Extraordianry Form of the Mass, in fact, the congregation is silent for the entire prayer until the words, “sed libera nos a malo (but deliver us from evil).”

If you will notice, all those places where the priest prays on behalf of the people are the same places that the priest adopts the Orans posture (hands apart and palms up). The Lord’s Prayer, as I have just said, used to be prayed by the priest alone, and therefore, he used to adopt the Orans posture. It seems more of an accidental holdover then anything that he is still given the directive to adopt this posture, since everyone prays the Pater Noster together.

In 1975, some clarification was given on the practice of holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer. It was said that the holding of hands during the Our Father was not found in the rubrics and was meant as a sign of peace, but that there was another place designated for the sign of peace. Doing this takes away from the sign of peace that immediately follows the Lord’s Prayer, and therefore, it should not be done. Notitiae 11 (1975), 226

Reprinted with permission from Ignitum Today.


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  • At my parish we do #2 and #3, and the pastor always does #1, as do I. #5 drives me crazy, and I will confess, through my most grievous fault, of doing #4.

  • goral

    The people just don’t know and there is no catecheses for them. The parishes are shorthanded and those in the pews, as far as they’re concerned are just attending a “service” where they’re allowed to chew gum.

    The hands down, monstrous contributor to the lack of reverence at Mass, is Communion in the hand.