How the Liturgy Should Be Impersonal

(This is Neil)

My first conviction is this: Liturgy is never my own possession, or my creation.  It is something we are given, from the Father.  Therefore my own tastes, my own preferences, my own personality, my own view of ecclesiology, are marginal, of little importance, when it comes to the celebration of the Mass.  We don vestments to minimise our personal preferences, not to express or emphasise them.  Liturgy is not ours. It is never to be used as a form of self-expression.  Indeed the opposite is the truth. … I once heard that Blessed Pope John Paul never commented on a Mass he had celebrated.  It’s the Mass.

–         Archbishop Vincent Nichols, Homily, Celebration of Priesthood, Diocese of Westminster, June 7

I suppose that most Catholics will be in broad agreement with the Archbishop’s words. He is espousing what we might call “liturgical impersonality.” Of course, there will be disagreement about just when liturgy descends into mere self-expression. Furthermore, we might want to raise a few questions about the priest’s need to renounce “my own personality” – a need which seems to have shaped seminary formation before the 1970s with its discouragement of particularity, including particular friendships (see here). This renunciation of self can create space for God to act through the priest. Or it might mean that the priest replaces his own personality with an “ecclesiastical self” devoted solely to the church’s power, influence and reputation. It happens.

But, like I said, I think that most Catholics will generally agree with the idea of “liturgical impersonality.” “Liturgical impersonality,” though, isn’t something that many of our Protestant brothers and sisters might immediately recognize. I would argue that it is recognizable during the singing of traditional hymns. Still, when attending – say – a Methodist service, one usually is very aware of the minister’s presence and his or her guiding hand behind the planning of the liturgy. For most of the Methodists, the very thought of the minister facing away or using an “impersonal” chant will sound strange.

So, why might “liturgical impersonality” be a good thing? And, if it is, what might that mean?

I’d like to look at part of an older article (sub. required) on liturgy published by Fergus Kerr, OP, in New Blackfriars in 1971. (The article’s description of liturgical controversy might convince you that nothing ever really changes.) Kerr first quotes from Willa Muir’s study Living with Ballads (my emphasis):

Harry sang his ballad as if sure of understanding and sympathy from his audience. There was no need for personal invitation, emphasis, or deprecation from him. Consequently, he himself faded out of the song as he sang it. The ballad needed only to sing itself.

(In contrast, a singer of a less familiar ballad had to self-consciously “invite people to listen.”)

Now, someone might say, “Fine, the ballad needed only to sing itself. Who cares?” Kerr argues that, when “the ballad needed only to sing itself,” the song had access to a “strata of experience far deeper than the conscious and rational and civilized.” He likens these strata to “chthonic or ancestral memory.”

Later, Kerr quotes F.R. Leavis on tragic drama, which establishes:

[A] kind of profound impersonality in which experience matters, not because it is mine – because it is to me it belongs or happens, or because it subserves or issues in purpose of will, but because it is what it is, the “mine” mattering only in so far as the individual sentience is the indispensable focus on experience.

The broad similarity between Leavis’ “it is what it is” and the Catholic ex opere operato (Nichols’ “It’s the Mass”) is fairly evident. Kerr says that the point of tragic drama is to make us face “something essential about human life.”

Thus, like the ballad which “sings itself,” the tragic drama that “is what it is” has the capacity to move us at levels “deeper than conscious will,” a process that  we can liken to conversion – “a steady re-direction of the personality as a whole.” Presumably, if the liturgy doesn’t “sing itself” or isn’t “what it is” – if it is in part about the priest’s personality –  then it might teach us something or lead us to moments of emotional intensity, but it will be shut out from these deeper levels.

But, practically speaking, what does this mean? I think – and I continue to draw from Kerr – that we can say one thing that will seem “conservative” and two things that will seem “liberal.”

First, liturgy depends on a “feel” or “a whole atmosphere of reverence.” There is a significance – more than conscious and rational – that only comes through proper enactment or performance. This means that liturgy must be celebrated with care and objectivity, that gestures and tone of delivery are really quite important.

Second, “liturgical impersonality,” like the ballad or tragic drama, depends on a “community of feeling.” When this ceases to exist, a liturgy, no matter how traditional or meaningful for a past generation, really no longer works in the same way. “The priest who has to celebrate the Eucharist for people who are for the most part (as he too may be) groping and skeptical in faith cannot leave the rite to speak for itself but must intervene personally to commend it.” “Liturgical impersonality” can’t serve as a thoroughgoing argument for traditionalism.

Third, Kerr draws on the Benedictine theologian Sebastian Moore to argue that, if the liturgy is meant to reach us at deep levels, we can’t focus on the “empirical level.” For the liturgy to access the deeper levels, there has to be a degree of “light-heartedness” at the top level. “Holy fuss at the level where all should be ease and decent practicality prevents people from making their own highly personal equation of the bread and win with Christ’s body and his blood.” We can say, then, that “liturgical impersonality” demands rubrics, but dies at the hands of anxiety over rubrics.

So, the claim that liturgy should be “impersonal,” like the ballad that “sings itself” or the tragic drama that “is what it is,” might have rather surprising consequences. What do you think?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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11 Responses to How the Liturgy Should Be Impersonal

  1. Jimmy Mac says:

    Impersonal weddings? Impersonal funerals? Why shouldn’t liturgies be slightly tailored to reflect and reinforce the situations in which they are being presented?

    Impersonality breeds lack of interest which breeds willing absence.

  2. Liam says:


    How personal are Byzantine liturgies?

  3. It is a rare moment that I find myself disagreeing with the esteemed Jimmy Mac, but here it is.

    First of all, when I think of personalization as I think I understand Neil writing about it here – and the examples and quotes used to support what he posted. I think that he is speaking about the style, for lack of a better term of the liturgy and the kind of liturgical “wars” that erupt. I also think it refers to presiders and how they might inject themselves into it in a particular way. Perhaps I am incorrect.

    To that end however, I still disagree regarding what I consider personalization of liturgy for a wedding or funeral. I do not think that a personalization and being impersonal are the same thing.

    I find myself very frustrated with conversations on blogs and Facebook threads about what constitutes “good” and “bad” liturgy. For example, when Father Z goes off about something, (not that I read him all that often) or when other bloggers of prominence write about “liturgical abuses,” I consider that a need to “personalize.” Meaning – liturgy is their way or no way. I may like certain things too, but can’t hold the mass hostage for my way of doing things.

    I feel like I have written such a long comment and not really expressed what I wanted to say…Oh well, I will have to return and I will go ahead and leave this, even if I feel inarticulate.

  4. Neil says:

    Thanks for responding to my post. I don’t think that I was as clear as I would have liked to be.

    1. I don’t think that liturgy should be cold and distant. That isn’t what I meant at all! (In fact, I think that a lot of Roman Catholic liturgies in the US are unnecessarily cold and distant.)

    2. The liturgy can “sing itself” or simply be “what it is,” with the presider as instrument, when there’s a “community of feeling” – a “world” that everyone enters togethers. That “feeling” can be enhanced at a meaningful occasion such as a wedding, or in a particularly beautiful church, etc.

    3. When there isn’t a “community of feeling,” I realize that the presider might have to invite or explain. But this isn’t ideal.

    4. A wedding or funeral can’t be “personal” in the sense of focusing on a message, whether about romantic love or the importance of the virtues shown by the deceased, or achieving emotional intensity. The liturgy still is what it is. The love of the married couple or the life of the deceased person can serve as an additional lens, but that is all.

    If a liturgy has a conscious goal, it can’t properly transform us on a deeper level than conscious will.

    “Liturgical impersonality” doesn’t mean that the priest can’t speak of his friendship with the bride or groom in the wedding homily – that’s not what I mean here.

    5. I do think that some very simple Melkite liturgies that I’ve attended show proper “impersonality.” It is interesting to think about how Orthodox or Eastern Catholic churches handle the liturgical impact of changing languages or incorporating non-ethnic members – how they maintain the “community of feeling.”

    But I have no desire to be exclusive at all. Like I hinted, I imagine that there’s a wonderful “impersonality” when Methodists sings “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”

    6. An unrelenting focus on liturgical abuses is counterproductive. The point of “liturgical impersonality” is for us to reach a deeper level. We can’t reach that level if we’re constantly worried about glass chalices. That’s why Dom Sebastian Moore says that liturgy has to be “relaxed.”

    Thanks again for your responses, which were very generous. And, of course, I’ll be interested to hear what Todd thinks …


  5. Todd says:

    On one level, perhaps the vocabulary falters in some of this discussion.

    “Impersonal” doesn’t quite capture the quality I would seek. That word carries a certain meaning and perhaps some cultural baggage that misses what Archbishop Nichols and others have striven to communicate.

    I would agree with Jimmy Mac to an extent, but with a further caveat. People, most especially ministers and perhaps the “objects” of funerals and marriages (and other sacraments) should strive for a transparency. A sense of “oblation” (or offering) that embodies the words of John the Baptist that I must decrease so that Christ may increase. That, I think, is the proper approach to liturgy. That approach, I’ve observed, is missed across the board.

    As we saw recently in the funeral rites, the object of a funeral Mass isn’t to celebrate the life of the deceased, but to celebrate that the person lived and died in the risen Christ, which therefore is our great hope and consolation. A personal hope that the person we love and know remains a part of existence, however mysterious that may be. Perhaps also that Christ’s agency in the faith and death of the deceased spurs us on to offer our own lives in faith and hope that the triumph over death is a present and future reality–not only a past one, and not only one for the Son. I suspect there are good and poor ways for the funeral liturgy to communicate this. And people being people, including priests with flaws and errors of thinking, liturgy succeeds and occasionally fails.

    I’d like to devote some thought on this before I put more words to it.

  6. I like your comment Todd and it brings this into focus for me. I’ll look forward to what you will add. What you said about the personal and Jimmy Mac’s comment in the third paragraph is actually more in line with what I think, but failed to express well.

  7. Jimmy Mac says:

    I have planned my own funeral rite. The readings are liturgically appropriate and I worked with a priest on them to be sure that they are.

    The music is personal to me and I have made it very, very clear that is what I want it to be. A lot of what I have chosen reflects my good memories of many years in a nondenominational church before “reverting”:

    CALL TO WORSHIP: Introit of the Latin Mass of the Dead
    GATHERING SONG: “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior” (Fanny J. Crosby)

    COMMUNION: “Panis Angelicus” (Cesar Franck)

    COMMUNION PROCESSION: “Behold/Magnificat” (David Kauffman)

    FINAL COMMENDATION: “You Raise Me Up” (Rolf Løvland & Brian Graham)

    Pie Jesu (Andrew Lloyd Weber version)

    CLOSING HYMN: “I’ll Fly Away” (Alfred E. Brumley)

    That’s what I mean by personalizing in the context of an “impersonal” structure.

    • Liam says:

      Of course, this begs questions, such as:

      1. For whom should the Mass of Christian Burial “personalized” and how? The deceased (the main personalisation for which is the prayer offered for the repose of his or her soul) or the grieving? While one might hope that the grieving are consoled by honoring the preferences of the deceased, in many cases, it doesn’t quite work out that way, in some cases, the opposite is that case.

      2. Of course, none of the living bound by the deceased’s liturgical directions. Wills have no binding effect on them, and are probated long after they happen! I have had to remind many traddies of this when the go on about how they are going to bind their pastors to offer a TLM requiem for their funerals, et cet.

      3. While MHR has musical resources to deal with your requests, many parishes are ill-equipped to deal with the personalizations that are increasingly requested as the deceased more and more assume the role of producer and director of their Final Movie. The infusion of that spirit from our pop culture is to my mind something more to be viewed with a gimlet eye than embraced uncritically.

  8. Liam says:

    PS: I think of a dear friend who is very earnest in insisting that his will require that all of his named friends who have never seen Gone With The Wind watch it, in mourning attire, as part of his obsequies.

    The Church should help liberate people from the tyranny of the movies that run through people’s heads in our culture. It’s so life-dulling rather than life-giving. So many people think movies are more real than reality, and feel their lives reach peak meaning when they most resemble the movies the play in their head (which is not a robust or vibrant form of imagination).

  9. Jimmy Mac says:

    My partner will undoubtedly outlive me and I pity the priest/music director who does not honor my and Greg’s wishes for the music selections!

    These selections pretty much represent what I believe and I will be personal statement of faith on my way out.

    • Liam says:

      Understood, but I know plenty of priests and musicians who are no longer fazed by giving alternatives to people who want college fight songs and Wind Beneath My Wings and Danny Boy what have you. Offering alternatives to people is a skill that comes with practice. Wakes are increasingly the avenue for greater “personalization”; in fact, one of the problems with a de-emphasis on devotions, is that liturgy is now being burdened with weight it cannot readily bear, and does not strike me as fully within the spirit of Vatican II.

      Then there are customs like anniversary Masses, especially the months mind Mass, which even in the 1970s still was a vigorous practice in many quarters. It can be a way to involve other dimensions of the deceased’s network who were not as able to participate in the wake or funeral (because they learned after the fact or were not able to travel, et cet.)

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