How to Preside at the Liturgy

(This is Neil) It should go without saying that a short post can’t tell you everything that you would need to know to preside at a liturgy, whether you happen to be a priest preparing to preside at the Liturgy of the Eucharist or a layperson set to preside at the Liturgy of the Hours. Here, I would just like to make two small points about liturgical presiding.  They all come from a recent article in Liturgy by Thomas Scirghi, SJ, of the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.


But first, Fr Scirghi gives all would-be presiders a “simple rule”: “[I]f the congregation notices you more than the One to whom they are praying then you have failed. Likewise, for preachers, if the congregation remembers the preacher more than the Gospel message, then something is wrong.”


Would anyone disagree with this rule? Is there any liturgical theologian or liturgist who would speak of the liturgy as a form of self-expression?


Our first point: Fr Scirghi reminds us of the importance of forming a liturgical habitus. (A habitus, he says, is “the predisposition to behave in a certain way; it is a propensity towards a kind of behavior.”) Without such a habitus, the congregation will approach the liturgy as it if were a “cerebral exam” and the prayers will be read as though they were “another set of announcements.” He gives us an example to show the importance of a proper liturgical habitus and hints at the dire consequences of its absence:


When visiting the Camoldoli monastery at Big Sur, California, I was struck by the deliberately slow pace of praying used by the monks in choir. For a visitor, at first it feels uncomfortable, the pacing seems awkward. For example, instead of the usual immediate greeting and response such as “The Lord be with you … And also with you,” here the congregation takes a long pause before responding. The purpose for the pause is to hear the blessing, to drink in its goods news like savoring the first taste of a fine wine. What do we mean when we say, “The Lord be with you?” A rapid-fire response, which leaves no time for reflection, reduces the blessing to a factual statement. No wonder some presiders feel inclined to add all sorts of personal greetings; the prescribed liturgical greeting seems to have lost its meaning. Praying with the monks of Camoldoli allows one to hear the old words in a new way, and to savor the message. The manner in which we speak, not just the content of the speech, communicates much of the message. The manner helps to convey one’s disposition.


It seems to me that we often avoid the question of habitus. Perhaps we convince ourselves, romanticizing the people in the pews, that the liturgical habitus comes to them naturally. (We might here be assuming the dense Catholic social networks that no longer exist.) Or perhaps we think that we don’t have to worry about something as precarious as a “disposition” if we have the right language and gestures.


Our second point: Scirghi says that a “good leader of prayer stands before a congregation like an icon.” He recognizes that an iconographer might perceive “some discrepancy” with his model, which is somewhat undeveloped. The point of his model, though, is that the icon is meant “to draw the viewer into and beyond the painting,” and the presider must similarly serve as a “window onto the divine realm” (my emphasis). Furthermore, the iconographer doesn’t aim to express him or herself in the icon, because “details of interpretation and expression imposed by the artist” are distractions from worship. Likewise, the presider at a liturgy should not call undue attention to him or herself – recall the “simple rule.”


 Scirghi also uses another model:


[W]e could compare the presider to an actor on stage. Take for example the actor Kenneth Branagh, renowned for his portrayal of Shakespearean characters. Mr. Branagh’s name, playing the lead role in Hamlet, will certainly draw people to the theater. Many in the audience will anticipate seeing him on stage. Yet, if the performance goes well, the audience will not notice Mr. Branagh so much as they will follow the story of Hamlet. A good performance by an actor becomes a window on the character he portrays. Branagh’s performance brings the character of Elizabethan culture to life and helps the audience to focus on Hamlet. In this way the presider is like an actor, moving the assembly from one realm to another, mediating the temporal and eternal.


Scirghi’s iconic (or dramatic) model is obviously opposed to a view of communal prayer as self-expression (no “thoughtless improvisation,” he warns). But he doesn’t seem to suggest that the presider somehow disappears, as though possessed by a universalized priestly identity.  Instead, the particular (and inescapable) humanity of the presider – his voice, his gestures – serves to “mediate the way between human and divine.”


Well, what do you think?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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5 Responses to How to Preside at the Liturgy

  1. As one who has had to act as a cantor for Divine Liturgy, and more to the point, as one who has done countless Readers’ Services (Vespers, Matins, etc.), I think that I may have something to say on the matter.

    I have but one word for you: mimesis.

    That is the process whereby an actor submerges him or herself into the part, in order to allow the audience to look at the character, rather than the actor.

    I wish that more modern actors and singers would learn that process.

    But that will only take someone who presides at a liturgical service only half way there. The other half is not only to do all that one can to direct the attention of the congregation to the prayers that are spoken or sung, but to pray them one’s self, and further, to pray for the grace that will allow all of the prayers there (cantor’s and congregation alike) to be fruitful.

    By the bye, the iconological explanation is one which has been much used by Orthodox choir directors and cantors. That was a very good take on your part, Neil.

  2. Katherine says:

    Very helpful reflection, thank you. Could we have a full citation for the article, please?

  3. Neil says:

    Thanks for writing.

    I should note that Fr Scirghi would agree with Bernard’s important point about prayer. In his article, he mentions an unnamed bishop’s advice to a class of seminarians: “He told them that he hoped they would learn how to pray the liturgy and not just to say it.” Likewise, a sermon is only successful if the preacher is perceived to be a “holy person” who has “integrated the sermon” into his life.

    I’ll have to think a bit more about mimesis – perhaps I’ll reread (and post about) Karl Morrison’s 1982 The Mimetic Tradition of Reform in the West. I’d certainly be very interested to read more “iconological explanations” – any suggestions, Bernard, would be greatly appreciated.

    The full citation for the article is Thomas J. Scirghi, “An Iconic View of Communal Worship,” Liturgy 22 (2007), 9-16. If Katherine would like an electronic copy, she can reply to this comment.

    Thanks again to Bernard and Katherine.


  4. Katherine says:

    Yes, please, Neil. Thanks for offering … and I’ll look forward to your thought on Morrison’s _Mimetic Tradition_.


  5. Dear Neil:

    Thank you for your kind words. I’ll see what I can do about looking on the web for some things that the Orthodox have to say about cantors (or psalti/psalomshchiki).

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