Clerical narcissism and Lent

Since the introduction of the new liturgical texts this past November, I’ve attended Mass in Australia, California, New York, Rome, Washington and Phoenix, and in none of these venues have I detected any of the calamities confidently predicted by opponents of the new texts. Not only has there been no visible distress over “consubstantial”; the People of God seem to have rather quickly and painlessly adjusted to the changes, so that, three months into the process, it’s a rare “And also with you” that escapes the lips of an unthinking congregant. In fact, most of the people who’ve spoken to me about the changes have applauded them.

Things are not-quite-the-same with priests.

One implicit purpose of the new translations, with their deliberate recovery of a sacral vocabulary and their adoption of a more formal literary rhythm, was to discipline the tendency of priests to turn the Mass into an expression of the celebrant’s personality. The difficulties some priests have had with adjusting to the changes suggests that this tendency was, in fact, a real problem in implementing the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Prominent Catholic psychologist Paul Vitz once wrote of this as a problem of “clerical narcissism,” and while the phrase undoubtedly stings, there’s something to it—something that needs correcting.

At Mass in the cathedral church of a major American city recently, I ran headlong into the problem in a rather striking way. The celebrant in question seemed not to understand that the invitation to the penitential rite is now prescribed, and not a matter for personal chattiness. Having failed to set up the Missal properly before Mass, he nattered on about his difficulty with “new books” while searching for the Collect of the day. He belted out those parts of the Offertory that the Missal prescribes as being said “quietly.” He rearranged several phrases in Eucharistic Prayer II to his liking. And he prefaced the Prayer after Communion with another voluble commentary on the difficulty of finding the right page.

I’m sure the priest in question is not a wicked or ill-intentioned man; he doubtless imagines that he’s making the Mass more user-friendly by taking liberties with the Missal. But, objectively speaking, he’s a prime example of clerical vanity: a man who imagines that his chirpy personality is the key to what Vatican II called the people’s “full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations.” It was neither the time nor the place to challenge this essentially narcissistic assumption after Mass. But had I the opportunity, I would have told this priest, in as kind a way as I could manage, that what he deemed helpful was in fact distracting; that what he thought user-friendly was silly and offensive (as it seemed based on the notion that a congregation of adults would be amused by such shenanigans); and that what he intended as an aid to prayer was in fact an obstacle to prayer and reflection.

Bad habits built up over decades are as hard to break in liturgy as they are in any other facet of life. So it will take awhile for the nobility of the new Mass texts to elicit a similar nobility of manner from celebrants who have acquired bad habits over the years. But as Lent is an appropriate time for addressing bad habits, here’s a suggestion for all priest-celebrants: make a Lenten resolution—This Lent, I will do the red and read the black. Period.

In the Missal, rubrical instructions are in red; the words to be spoken by the celebrant are in black. Priests who simply “do the red and read the black” for the six weeks of Lent will have gone a long way toward breaking bad habits that have become default positions. They will also, I predict, garner a lot of thanks from their congregants, most of whom are quite uninterested in celebrants acting like talk-show hosts.

The point, as always, is not liturgical prissiness. The point is to celebrate the sacred liturgy so that it’s experienced as the participation in the heavenly liturgy that it is.

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.