US bishop sets out clear guidelines on celebrations of the Mass

US bishop sets out clear guidelines on celebrations of the Mass


Bishop Edward Slattery, who was installed as the third bishop of Tulsa in eastern Oklahoma in 1994, issued a letter to his diocese earlier this year concerning faithful adherence to liturgical norms, including the need for suitable sacred music and a deepened appreciation of the sacrificial aspect of the Mass.

In his letter he called for ‘special attention’ to be given to Vatican II's requirements for sacred music by those ‘who share responsibility in a parish for the implementation of the Council's liturgical norms’ so that they ‘might reacquaint themselves with what the Council Fathers actually wrote concerning the requirements of proper liturgical music’.

Gregorian chant

Bishop Slattery drew particular attention to Vatican II's insistence on the primacy of Gregorian chant.

Chant, he explained, ‘allows us a certain sacred space within which that Word which God spoke in ancient times can be heard today with greater clarity and fidelity. I understand that this review of music must lead to changes and that changes will often be irksome and problematic. For this reason I would caution that this gradual, but definite, reintroduction of Gregorian chant into our parishes and communities be done with careful study, deliberate consultation and much prayer.

‘However, as a sign of the seriousness with which I approach this topic, I am asking that pastors move with some dispatch to introduce their congregations to the simpler chants of the Kyriale, including the Gloria, Sanctus, Pater Noster and the Agnus Dei.’

In his travels around the Diocese, he said, he had ‘noted certain communities where the music at Mass has tended more toward entertainment than toward prayer. The choir or cantor consciously draws the attention of the congregation to their performance and really stirring performances are rewarded by the congregation's grateful applause’.

Bishop Slattery commented that ‘the placement of the choir, cantor or musicians in the most visible and prominent part of the sanctuary, not only proves to be a distraction to the congregation, but provides a kind of centre stage for a concert of religious music’.

But such musical entertainment, he added, was ‘not the only thing which can compromise the prayerful integrity of the Mass’ since the Eucharist ‘is just as compromised whenever we use the liturgy to highlight an agenda or cause other than the worship of the Father. This is true no matter how positive or useful the other causes may seem’.

He reminded Tulsa's Catholics that ‘the Mass stands alone as a complete action in itself. It is that perfect sacrifice from which the Church derives her life; thus the liturgy must never be used as an opportunity to teach, as the context for a history or an art lesson, as the background for a concert of sacred music, neither to build community nor to foster parish identity’.

Also to be discouraged were ‘any extraneous comments or commentaries on the readings or the parts of the Mass which might interrupt the sacred action. The proclamation of the readings, for example, ought not to begin with an introductory comment provided by the lector, 'In this morning's first reading, the Prophet Isaiah consoles the Israelites'.’

Such explanations, he said, were ‘properly given by the celebrant or the deacon in the homily when he brings together the day's readings and places their proclamation in the context of that parish's lived experience’.

Bishop Slattery explained that such points were raised ‘for the simple but profound reason that I am concerned lest our people be denied what is their proper inheritance, their birthright as Catholics, that is, the complete and correct understanding of the Mass as a real sacrifice by which they are given access to share in the unique, unrepeatable and all sufficient historic sacrifice of Christ on Calvary’.

Other problem areas included ‘distractions, the loss of silence and various liturgical imbalances’ which were ‘all partly to blame for a whole generation of Catholics who have gradually lost their understanding that the Mass is the true Sacrifice of Christ’.

The widespread loss of a sense of sin was another factor in leading many ‘to see the Eucharist as principally a communal meal and a time of fellowship, which recalls the presence of Christ among us. Both aspects - that is, the fellowship meal and the recalling of Christ's presence - are understood as flowing from the witness and life of that worshipping community as it is already assembled in prayer and established in fellowship’.

Accurate understanding

While it was true, he said, ‘that the Mass is a sacred banquet, it must be clearly stated that this aspect of the Eucharistic sacrifice is available to us only because the Mass is primarily a sacrifice at which Christ Himself is the host, who invites us to feast on His Body and drink His Blood. At this banquet, the Host hands Himself over, giving His own Self as food for eternal life, and it is paramount that we understand that this 'handing over,' this sacrificial element, is the true foundation which makes it possible for us to participate in that meal which establishes fellowship even as it reveals Christ's resurrected presence among us’.

Bishop Slattery concluded that it was ‘critical for us as Catholics who are in the midst of a great struggle to recover our celebration of the Lord's Day to recover first our traditional and accurate understanding that individual holiness, our coming closer to God, depends directly on our appreciation of the sacrifice of the cross and the enormous gap between God's faithful redeeming love for me personally and my indifferent and inconsistent love for Him. The crucifix reveals this stark contrast.’

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