"With incense, with a fair amount of chanting, with some Latin?"
"Sure," the seminarians nodded, in the sacristy after Mass.
"I was very, very edified," I told them.
Even though I've been in Rome on and off since early February, this was the first Sunday I participated in Holy Mass at the North American College, where principally U.S. seminarians attend (although some hail from Canada, Australia, and perhaps other locations).
So what was so good?
In addition to what I mentioned, let me include the following:
> The proper chants of the Mass -- at the entrance, the offertory and communion -- were sung. In the case of the entrance chant, it followed a conventional Lenten hymn, sung during the procession. The opening was in Latin, I think the others were English. The Kyrie, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei were all in Gregorian chant.
> The celebrant himself was chanting prayers throughout. He seemed reasonably at ease with it.
> The readers chanted the conclusion to the readings -- which introduces everyone, if they noticed, to one of the lovely subtleties of the Liturgy of the Word. When the first reading, usually from the Old Testament, is concluded, the tone for the concluding "The Word of the Lord"/"Thanks be to God" is in a lower tone. Then comes the psalm -- also chanted. Then the second reading, from an epistle, concludes with a chant in a notably higher tone. Then the Gospel intro and conclusion in a higher, lighter tone. Get the idea? It's subtle, but it's lovely. And it's something added only when there is chanting.
> The celebrant continued his good example by not interlacing the prayers of Holy Mass with his own, intrinsically inferior commentary. This is not a commentary on this good priest. I'm simply pointing out that no matter how eloquent a priest may be, his interjections into the prayers of the Mass are not going to equal the words of the Mass itself. They can't! -- precisely because they are his own, private words, while the words of the Mass are the voice of the Church; and in a true sense (taught by Vatican II!), the words of Holy Mass are the voice of Christ.
So fathers, dear brothers, we should keep our commentary to the barest minimum -- which in most cases, means none at all (some is allowed; but this is much abused).
> The celebrant also set a good example in his ars celebrandi--i.e., his manner of leading the prayer. Of course, this was at work in how all the seminarians conducted themselves. Everyone assisting at the altar was sharp, as they should be. If you are a young guy, one of the few selected to prepare for the priesthood in Rome, wouldn't you want to be sharp? To do it well?
After Holy Mass, the seminary community has a brunch. And over our eggs and roast beef (they also had fried potatoes, pancakes, fruit and sweet rolls, which I believe the Romans call cornetti), I was discussing all this with a seminarian and a faculty member sitting near me. I was asking more questions about how they handled the liturgy, and asked if they had tried ad orientem (not yet), and if they ever have the Mass more--or entirely--in Latin (on occasion). The celebrant had already answered, in the homily, my question about the Extraordinary Form: they have it some of the time (I didn't ask how often); and I learned previously they have training.
One of the points I made as we talked, is that we intuitively (by "we" I mean contemporary Catholics) get the importance of the true and the good--but somehow, we don't have time or money for the beautiful. "This has been a problem with the contemporary Church since before the Council," I said.
The priest nodded, adding, "the battle for the liturgy will be won by emphasizing beauty."
About half-way through brunch I learned the priest wasn't just any faculty member, but the liturgist for the seminary.
Now, you must be wondering: why haven't I mentioned the homily? Wasn't it any good?
On the contrary, the homily was good. The celebrant kept to a fairly direct theme regarding seeing Christ, and ticked off various ways, in the seminary, and in the parish setting where the men -- God willing -- would serve as priests, and in our contemporary social milieu, that it can be hard to find Christ. He gave a fervent, even passionate exhortation to the men to keep turning to Christ, particularly as they faced challenges with faculty, with other seminarians, and their own sinfulness.
Because I was sitting behind the pulpit, I couldn't really see the celebrant's face as he spoke, but it was an engaging homily nonetheless.
But, as we talked over brunch, one of the points I made was that for me at least, it can be a little dismaying when people have told me, after Holy Mass, that the homily was their main focus!
Don't get me wrong: homilies need to be good! And a lot of priests and deacons...well, they're trying.
That said, when the Holy Mass is celebrated with discipline, with dignity, and with beauty, then here's what happens: instead of the homily standing out, the whole liturgy shines.
As my regular readers know, this is a subject about which I am passionate. And you know that one of the frustrations with this whole subject is the grave misunderstanding of what Vatican II intended for the sacred liturgy. For the sake of clarity, let me offer some examples:
> The liturgy now included the added option of using the vernacular; Latin was not banished in any way!
> The form of the Mass was modified, but traditional expressions and forms likewise were not banished. It is not true that the Council created a "whole new" liturgy. In other words, a hermeneutic of continuity rather than rupture.
> The Council did not abolish chant or a sung liturgy; on the contrary, the Council wanted to see more of that. Combining both the Council's exhortation to restore Gregorian chant, and it's call for more Scripture, I would argue that using the proper chants of the Mass is the true "spirit" of Vatican II, rather than the hymns that are so customary (despite being a holdover from those supposedly bad old days).
In short, the men at the NAC are being taught much more accurately a Vatican II understanding of the liturgy.
Now here's what's even more encouraging.
The men who are here, preparing for the priesthood, are from dioceses coast-to-coast. And, may I add that, because they often represent "the cream of the crop," a lot of these men will in leadership positions in their dioceses, in the national conference, and in Rome. Many of them will be bishops; some of them cardinals.
In time, the seeds sown will sprout. Be patient and keep praying.
P.S. Someone will ask about the vestments, particularly as it was Laetare Sunday. The celebrant and deacons wore the traditional Rose (and I am tempted to sneak down and "borrow" one of the deacon's dalmatics, so perfect was the shade, which is hard to get right!); the 20 or so concelebrants wore purple. The chasubles weren't notable in any way, but the dalmatics were in the classic Roman style.