Ars Celebrandi

The art of celebrating is a theme that was constantly on the lips of Pope Benedict XVI and addressed to the priests of the Roman Catholic Church. In our Church of Anglican tradition, the state of the question is different, but there are points of comparison. We usually use the Anglican Missal or one of the approved versions of the Prayer Book, and we have been influenced by the Tractarians and Ritualists of Victorian England.

Nevertheless, celebrating the Eucharist and leading the Office is an art. There are various aspects, as the liturgy is not theatre or something merely aesthetic. The most important dimension is that celebrating the liturgy is truly a prayer and a relationship with God. The priest truly leaves the profane world behind and enters a different world where all mortal flesh keeps silence and with fear and trembling stands. The priest is both a preacher and listener of God’s Word.

Saint Benedict tells his monks to make their minds concord with the words they utter – Mens concordet voci. We all have distractions as we say the Office or Mass, especially when we know the text by heart and have been priests for a number of years. Routine sets in, and I’m just as much a victim of it as anyone else. We find the words in the liturgy, and it is for us to enter into them and become one with the Christ we celebrate and render present through the Priesthood we received from him.

It is important that those studying for the priesthood should not only have practical instruction in the ceremonies, but also understand the structure and rationale of the liturgy – why things are done the way they are done. To interiorise the texts of the Mass and the Office, it is helpful to read through it all the day before, not only to prepare a homily, but also to assimilate the words and their spiritual meaning. In this way, a priest is no longer himself but part of the “we” of the Church, and thus fully in communion with Christ. The liturgy is no longer my property but something “lent” to me for the good of God’s people.

Our priestly spirituality is at the very base of whether the liturgy we celebrate is sensed as something mysterious and sacred by the faithful. They can tell by intuition, a sense that transcends both reason and emotion. Sursum corda – Lift up your hearts! This is truly what happens as we enter the sancta sanctorum of the Eucharistic Prayer.

Thus we are not encouraged to make a show or theatrical performance of the liturgy. We are not actors, but it is our spirituality that makes the liturgy beautiful. We often read the Sacred Scriptures as poetic and dramatic words, but unless we go deeper into our lectio divina, we can never expect truly to hear the voice of God. It is the same thing with the liturgy.

Secondly, when our priorities are in place, the liturgy – especially the English Missal or the old Sarum Use – is quite complex. It is like learning to sail a boat. There is first of all the understanding of the sea and the weather. If we go wrong, we cannot blame nature but our own technique – don’t blame the wind but make sure your sails are properly set. Like sailing, coordinating the rudder and the mainsheet, the trim of the sails, the lateral and longitudinal balance, the liturgy is also something complex that has to be learned. Deacons preparing for the priesthood have their books of ceremonies and know the High Mass inside out. They have functioned as thurifer, acolyte, MC and subdeacon. They accompany the priest at the altar, and if that priest is doing it properly, the deacon will learn. Though I was myself trained in a residential seminary using the Tridentine rite, I have come to favour the “apprenticeship” method of training priests. They get their theology in a good university faculty – and then they learn from a good experienced priest. That’s how lads learned their trades in the old days and had pride in a good job well done. So we aim for excellence and the very best for God. Of course God has no need of liturgy, but he does know when our prayers are sincere and heartfelt.

I also include in the category of the ars celebrandi all the practical aspects around the liturgy. This is a real opportunity for full participation of the laity, both men and women in the liturgy. Of course, men and boys can serve at Mass, there is the organist and choir, the churchwarden and vergers who all have their vital roles. There are also roles outside the actual church services. In particular, someone has to design and furnish our churches. This is something we do ourselves because we haven’t the money to pay someone else to do it. Most men have done a little DIY and perhaps have done woodwork at school. A worthy altar can be made of plywood and commercial mouldings and a slap of paint. I’ll write an article about it, and someone skilled in cabinet making can make something even more beautiful. We also need to have a sense of taste and proportion, avoiding oversized statues or pews designed for large buildings. For the ladies (and many men who know how to sew too), vestments are not difficult to make using suitable curtain fabrics and braid that can be bought from haberdashery or furnishing shops. But, you need patterns and a method. I will try to find methods and share my own experience, so that anyone anywhere can run up a new set of vestments.

These are the first three elements by which I would like to set the spirit of this Church blog, and I am sure this is going to snowball as others come in with new creative ideas. Like my confrère in England and on this blog, I am excited by the prospects of doing something really constructive and new.

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4 Responses to Ars Celebrandi

  1. AFS1970 says:

    Nice article. I will be reading the rest, but this was first up.

    While I agree that clergy are not actors and the liturgy is not a play, there is a certain theatrical quality to the structure of the mass. This is not a bad thing. I am always amazed by the thought that goes into a liturgy, the crafting of how things work and how they fit together. Perhaps it is my brief schooling in theater arts that makes me aware of these things, but when you look at where there are hymns sung and where there are prayers that require responses, a liturgical ceremony is somewhat of a wonder to behold. In a way it really makes you feel sorry for the more free form services at some of the protestant churches.

    Church construction and furnishing is an area of interest to me. I love going to old churches when I travel and just looking around and marveling not only at the beauty and workmanship but also at the love that the architect had for God when he designed a structure for worship. Now in the continuing movement we are often in rented facilities or in storefronts with no vaulted ceilings, and furnishings become that much more vital. However I can still look at a small church and see the love that is inherent in the flower arrangements or the altar linens, or even in the way the seats are set up sometimes moments before the service.

    One quick memory that came back to me when you wrote about making vestments. When I was a kid we had two priests at the parish one was quite a bit shorter than the other. The shorter priest’s wife made a stole for the taller priest as a gift, but used her husband to size it. Beautiful stole, but at least a foot too short on each end.

  2. Dale says:

    Fr Anthony, I think that one of the most important elements in this posting is the understanding that celebrating is in some manner an art-form; that a properly celebrated service seems to flow naturally without exaggeration or personality, it is whole within itself and not because of the personality of the celebrant, and indeed the personality of the individual priest should be submerged and subsumed into the office itself.

    I do agree that at first the learning of the rubrics are sometimes difficult, but one tends to notice that after they are indeed mastered, one can then concentrate on the text and the rubrics simply flow naturally. This may be compared to the learning of the basic elements of grammar, after this has become accomplished, writing becomes easier and the words can then become the main emphasis, but this can only be accomplished after the rules of grammar have been mastered.

    Unfortunately, too often rubrics have been dismissed as something that does not matter and actual destroys the offices by making services appear mechanical and dry, but there is sometimes nothing more distracting than liturgical prayer being interposed by priestly individualism or incompetence, making the liturgy not the work of the whole Church, but the personal opinion and expression of the individual celebrant.

    • Sorry, again I was trying to be didactical and not absolute. Learning the ceremonies of the liturgy is like theatre or any other art form. It isn’t infused. We learn it like playing our part in a theatrical play (our lines and the choreography), sailing a boat, driving a car or speaking a foreign language. A lot of it is rote learning. I just merely wanted to establish the priorities (not necessary chronological) where liturgy is concerned. Spirituality comes first – then learning the job – and creating the environment of the liturgy (being stinking rich and buying a church or fitting out an old building as a chapel).

      Rubrics do matter – and once we have learned the liturgy, we are no longer self-conscious about the rubrics. A good pianist no longer has to look at his hands on the keyboard, but rather to concentrate on interpreting the music.

      At the bottom of it, I don’t think we are saying anything different from each other.

  3. There are a number of approaches to Ars Celebrandi and in conjection the roles of the Deacon and Subdeacon at High Mass and some of the Serving duties. For those of you who are familiar with High Churches in the Melbourne area , I would point at Saint Peter’s Eastern Hill first.

    Mass is celebrated like a puppet show , mechanical , everyone genuflects and moves in total sychronization. Some years ago I attend Mass a few times there, but was disappointed.

    In the early nineties I moved to Christ Church, Brunswick and here everything was done with total reverence and feeling. It was like being a Holy Place. Those learning to officiate would first be invited to robe into a cassock and sit in during Mass . They were given the rubrics prepared by the late and former Subdeacon/sacristan Graeme Robinson, which is was clearly illustrated and then first started off as taperers. Father Graeme Mitchell of the ACCA in Melbourne was very much an exemple to me how to celebrate Mass properly and I have put this into practise after my ordination to the Priesthood some years ago. My Bishop made me make a few changes , but I have always found that if you invoke the Holy Spirit , things flow in such a way to the Glory of God.

    Father Ed Bakker

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