Show, Don’t Tell

It’s a principle of good writing: show the readers what is going on. Don’t tell them.

Overheard in church the other day: “Please stand.”

Very often, the same principle can be applied to good liturgy. Show people what to do; don’t tell them. I’ve never been a big fan of too much chatter in the liturgy. It’s the way I was formed as a liturgist. It’s that Franciscan principle, perhaps: Preach the Gospel; use words when necessary.

In our parish this Lent, we’ll use “Parce Domine” for entrance music with three verses adapted from the entrance antiphon text of the day. My suggestion to music group leaders is to announce the hymnal number twice (for the first two or three weeks) then simply gesture the people to stand. The liturgy requires nothing more, and the lack of a wordy announcement contributes the the ideal atmosphere we want to reinforce.

You may wonder how that turns out in our parish. We’re awash in college students from parishes all over Iowa and beyond. These people experience any number of decent to bad liturgical practices in their church of origin. I watched the silent gesture to stand at our 10PM Mass on Wednesday. It was almost 100% students. Lots of people were whispering before Mass–a sort of hushed murmur in the building. The group leader resisted the urge to “instruct” the inattentive and I was very glad. It took about ten seconds for everybody to stand, and it showed two things. First, that good liturgy is not military formation and that people can take their time. Second, when you’re in church and Mass is close to starting, it’s a good idea to pay attention. Or at least, cultivate a side awareness in one’s conversations or prayers. I noticed people sitting quietly, inwardly attentive, who were standing toward the end of the movement.

I once told a cantor before Mass, “Tell the people to stand silently.”

“Please stand silently,” the instruction came.

Take my own advice, I thought. Show, don’t tell.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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3 Responses to Show, Don’t Tell

  1. Liam says:

    I agree.

    The best way to clue people visually to sing is not to tell them to join singing but simply to hold up with two hands whatever they they will be singing from. Works much better, and does give a head start to people who otherwise would be fumbling for the things during the first verse (I tested that over many years in different congregations). And relying only on the keyboard to announce, as it were, does not yield as good results as doing both.

  2. Deacon Eric says:

    We once had a priest who would routinely say “Please stand” before the preface at each and every Mass. To me it seemed condescending; many in the assembly have been attending Mass for longer than he. They already know what to do.

    At times, there may be a ritual that is infrequent, and people need to be reminded. For example, when using incense and I go to incense the assembly, occasionally I have to lift one hand in their direction. That’s all that’s necessary as a reminder. They stand. They’re not idiots!

  3. Pingback: On Clerical Culture | Catholic Sensibility

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